Burnaway > Feature > Scalawag x Burnaway: Art, Labor, and Struggle in the South

Scalawag x Burnaway: Art, Labor, and Struggle in the South

Still from the 1977 documentary Harlan County USA, directed by Barbara Kopple, which records the tension surrounding a coal-mining strike in rural Kentucky.

We need to theorize the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness, talking through the issues: how we acquire and spend money, how we feel about beauty, what the place of beauty is in our lives when we lack material privilege and even basic resources for living, the meaning and significance of luxury, and the politics of envy.

— bell hooks, Art on My Mind 

Forget it! I’m stayin’ right where I am. It’s gonna take you and the police department and the fire department and the National Guard to get me outta here!

— Norma Rae

The South, like all regions in the U.S., has always been home to fraught contradiction. The past few years alone have seen historic wildcat strikes led by teachers in states like West Virginia—where walking off the job is still technically illegal—and union density nationally is at a precipitously low point. While young workers enter an economy characterized by inadequate wages, irregular scheduling, and increasingly atomized labor, according to the pro-union think tank Economic Policy Institute, young people under the age of 35 also account for 76% of the growth in union memberships, and one in four newly created jobs in America are union. 

Even as the “gig” economy grows, workers across sectors are responding by organizing to demand better contracts, transparency and equity around salaries, and more. Massive funding increases for the arts in rapidly growing Southern cities are also taking place alongside gentrification, evictions, and displacement of long-time residents, especially residents of color. Sifting through all of these contradictions is part of the process of fighting for more, fighting to tell another kind of story: a story of the future in which all workers are paid what they are worth, families can move or stay wherever they call home, and resources are distributed with equity, with the dignity of our communities in mind. 

Atlanta resident William Jenkins stands in front of a sign erected by State Senator Hildred Shumake soliciting donations to repair Jenkins’s home. (Photo by JoEllen Black, originally printed in The Atlanta Journal-Consitution on August 15, 1987. Courtesy Georgia State University Library Digital Collections.)

As publications dedicated to telling a fuller story of the U.S. South, we wanted to create space to emphasize the role and intersections of art and labor in this critical historic moment. As arts workers raise consciousness and examine their roles in movements for better labor conditions, local and global fights for land, housing, and safety outside of and away from war and policing, we wanted to take a special focus on the arts and the organizing happening inside of the South.

Our first pieces examining art and labor in the South will be published later in August, beginning with a survey of radical Southern labor films by Madeleine Seidel to be published by Scalawag on Monday, August 5 and a video essay analyzing Atlanta’s slogan “The City Too Busy To Hate” by filmmaker Talia Moscovitz to be published by Burnaway on Monday, August 19. 

Burnaway is an Atlanta-based digital magazine of contemporary art and criticism from the American South. Since 2008, Burnaway has become a vital resource for dialogue and critique among artists and arts workers in the region. Scalawag magazine aims to spark critical conversations about the many Souths where we live, love, and struggle by uplifting untold stories and marginalized voices. In print, online, and in-person, Scalawag amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers to reckon with Southern realities as they are, rather than as they seem to be. 

Sally Field plays the title character Norma Rae in the 1979 film that follows the efforts of a North Carolina worker to unionize the textile factory where she works.

This collaboration aims to offer a platform for art workers, cultural organizers, and residents on the brink of displacement to share the struggles of navigating the challenges of living and making in states with limited labor protections for all workers, cultural or otherwise, and examining the ways in which art work has aided social and labor movements in visualizing an alternative and just collective future. 


This project is a partnership between Burnaway and Scalawag.

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