The problem with masks is that it’s very hard to see out of them.Anjali Enjeti, Southbound
I met Anjeli Enjeti during my residency when I was a graduate student getting my MFA in creative writing at Reinhardt University where Enjeti is an instructor for the MFA program. Anjali was exotic to me, not because of her brown skin, her mixed race, or her ancestry that she speaks about in Southbound, not even because she has such an amazing background, attorney turned activist turned journalist and author, but because she’s a non-fiction writer and to fiction writers these folks are captivating but also intimidating. My God! They tell the truth! From that experience, my biggest regret was not mentoring with her, not taking her workshops in non-fiction, but I was quite frankly scared. Then I listened to the graduate student readers, those who she mentored, and I regretted that my fear got in my own way. She taught these students to not only find their voices but to articulate them in a powerful way that still resonates with me today. With all that, I knew what I was getting into when I began to read Southbound. It wasn’t going to be easy. There would be no hiding behind fiction.
At the beginning of this post, I quoted Enjeti’s words: “The problem with masks is that it’s very hard to see out of them.” I clung to these words while reading Southbound. The human mind attempts to find connections and for myself these particular words connected the entire collection thematically. Enjeit was referring the mask of silence here, specifically hiding behind a mask as a child who laughed off racist comments directed at her—a defense mechanism. Yet, those masks appear over and over in Southbound. What I believe Enjeti to be saying is that you don’t have to put on a literal mask like the white hoods the Ku Klux Klan members who shot five Black women in Chattanooga in 1980 wore in her essay, “Treatment.” There are all types of masks. In that same essay the mask assumes Southern Christian morality and righteousness hiding behind religion, preaching against homosexuality and calling AIDS a plague on gays. But the mask probably most familiar to us is the mask of silence. Simply ignoring injustice or remaining silent because I didn’t do it, or it doesn’t affect me personally is a single silence that multiply into another silence until there are thousands of little silences. That’s what resonated with me personally with Southbound because that’s the mask I have worn myself.
Some of Enjeti’s individual experiences really hit home for me. Enejti moved from the Midwest to Chattanooga, TN a few years before I moved from Missouri to Georgia. In her essay “Southbound,” she relates her experience of visiting Confederama, a tourist trap that featured dioramas of miniature Union and Confederate soldiers fighting at key battle sites for the Battle of Chattanooga. A young Enjeti comments on the weirdness of this place to her parents. I was instantly transported to my first experience of Southern weirdness the summer my family moved to Georgia and we visited Stone Mountain. This was the late 1980s. That night my family and I watched a laser show celebrating the big dogs of the Confederacy—Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis—chiseled into the mountain and coming to life. Amongst fireworks, rebel yells, and adults waving Confederate flags screaming, “The South will rise again!” I had a similar experience to what Enjeti wrote about in her essay. I wondered if the laws were different here than the rest of the country. Was there a different government? And if they were rising again, now that I lived here would I have to be part of it? Enjeti states Confederama was “jarring for me as a young child” because of how “unapologetic, misinformed, and prevalent this celebration felt. It was if the South had won the Civil War, and the War had ended only yesterday.” I wanted to know more about this Confederama place that reminded me of Stone Mountain, so I searched for images and in the process, I discovered a 2015 post made by an individual who stated that, “Confederama, unfortunately, fell victim to political correctness and now exists farther up Lookout Mountain, I hear, in an altered and watered-down form…as I recall, there was a distinct Confederate bias. I remember thrilling to the tiny red flashes of guns being fired as a somber recording gave the history lesson.” Isn’t that weird? The terms “political correctness,” “watered down,” and “distinct Confederate bias” struck me now as an adult as not just being weird, but as being racist. I didn’t know this place with massive Confederate flags on the front of the building existed, but does it matter? While these places are less abundant in the South of 2021, I still see Confederate flags waving in the air in parts of Georgia and certainly the ideology is widespread, which is really the point of some of these essays.
This is a book for everyone, and everyone should be reading it. In response to the protests of 2020, daily tragedies of Black Americans being killed by law enforcement, and the Black Lives Matter Movement, many corporations and businesses saw the need for dialogue and have created diversity groups who engage employees of different ethnicities to discuss their experiences. They also have readings and book discussions. Enjeti’s essays would be an excellent starting point for companies to launch conversations between these groups. For future and current activists wishing someone would impart wisdom or give voice to the experience of volunteering, protesting, and campaigning for equality and social change, Southbound is waiting for you. There’s a great essay called ““Armchair Activism” In the Real World” that addresses activism in the time of a pandemic for those saying I can’t. These essays are for teachers seeking diverse voices to educate and engage their students. For non-fiction writers, essayists, and memoirists contemplating structure and voice, Southbound acts as pseudo-guidebook in writing; it’s certainly a memoir on how Enjeti found her voice. For white readers wanting to understand otherness, racism, perspectives from people of color, these essays are a wonderful starting point. As a white person, you may find the essays to be an uncomfortable read. That’s okay. I can’t say I have all the same beliefs and political views as Enjeti, but that’s fine too. If you do feel discomfort, ask yourself why. It’s not a bad thing. You can still respect, value, and learn from Enjeti’s experiences.
I could go on and on about who would benefit from reading Southbound. Why not a few more? It’s for mothers, outsiders, immigrants, anyone who has been bullied, experienced chronic pain, has been discriminated against, or have felt a complete and utter sense of rage. “Anger Like Fire” is probably one of my favorite essays because no one has ever told me to be okay with my rage until now.
Southbound will upset you. It’ll enrage you. It’ll hurt. It also educates. It also speaks. If it doesn’t, please check for a pulse. It’s not necessary to read the essays in order, but if I hadn’t, it may not have been as clear to me how Enjeti’s early beginnings led to where she is now. Enjeti compellingly weaves personal accounts in with current events, statistics, research, and history. For me, it wasn’t the type of book I could read in one setting, or even two, three, or four settings. I decided on reading one essay in the morning and one in the evening to avoid imploding. That’s not to say I couldn’t stomach what Enejti was telling me, but I could only process the emotional rollercoaster Enjeti took me on in spells. With Southbound, Enjeti has seemingly left no stone unturned, no topic is off the table; her personal essays are powerhouses with a purpose.
Southbound is available for preorder: Southbound: Essays – Anjali Enjeti
More about Anjali Enjeti: Anjali Enjeti is a former attorney, organizer, and award-winning journalist based near Atlanta. She is the author of the essay collection Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and the novel, The Parted Earth. Her writing about politics, social justice, and books has appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR, ZORA, Courier Newsroom, Mic, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Nation, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University and is the co-founder of They See Blue Georgia, an organization for South Asian Democrats.