Wanda Rushing is the recipient of the 2018 College of Arts and Sciences Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award, an honor that speaks to her prestigious achievements and contributions across her career. As a graduate student in sociology at UT, Rushing developed her research interests in social and racial inequality in the American South. She worked with John Gaventa on the Rural Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community Project sponsored by the USDA. With her dissertation chair, Professor Asafa Jalata, she took courses on race, globalization, and development, and served as associate editor for the Journal of Oromo Studies. Theories about place and globalization inform her work, including her book Memphis and the Paradox of Place (UNC Press). Living in Memphis opened up new experiences for Rushing and new ways of seeing place. A majority African American city, Memphis is a product of migrating rural southerners who created a unique urban place. Rushing argues, “Memphians often say they have a love-hate relationship with their city and many outsiders view Memphis and the Mid-South as a problem. My goal was to explain tensions between global and local processes, and the human struggles that created this unique place.”
Her work continues to question popular assumptions about the South. In recent research on feminism and intersectionality, Rushing argues, “Many journalists, scholars, and observers seem to think that feminism is rare or nonexistent in the South and that all southerners, particularly women, suffer from a plantation or hillbilly mentality. These preconceived notions affect their work. For example, a recent publication by a sociologist achieved acclaim and wide readership for its explanation of southern conservatism in 2016. Oddly, it relied heavily on W.J. Cash’s Mind of the South (1941) to confirm the behavior of white southerners in 2016 who supposedly voted against their self-interest. I want serious readers and scholars to question these facile assumptions about southerners, and southern women. Historically, southern women, including white women and women of color, have worked outside the home, struggled for the right to vote, and mobilized against social injustice while caring for children, parents, and communities.” Rushing encourages scholars and activists to broaden their concept of intersectionality to include place, region, and locale as well as gender, race, and sexuality in an effort to explain the existence and persistence of social inequality better.
Rushing has also written about confederate monuments in Memphis and the Paradox of Place and more recently in Contexts, the American Sociological Association’s public magazine. Much has changed since the 2005 decision by Memphis City Council to leave the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in place, and the 2017 City Council decision to remove it. Rushing’s work questions the historical significance of these monuments and tries to set the record straight about the “invention of tradition” regarding the Lost Cause and backlash. She points to the fact that most confederate monuments appeared 40 to 50 years after the Civil War ended. They memorialized a mythical and divisive confederacy during a time when African Americans lost many of the civil rights gained during the Civil War and Reconstruction. These memorials elide memories of the inhumanity, brutality, and devastation of slavery and the war fought to end it. Now, more than 150 years since the Civil War, and more than 100 years since most of these memorials appeared in public spaces, she sees long-overdue opportunities for understanding and contesting historically embedded institutional processes facing all Americans. The removal of old confederate monuments in cities such as Memphis and New Orleans, and the arrival of new monuments such as the Legacy Museum and national lynching memorial in Montgomery, spawn new discussions and challenge old narratives about the history of racial inequality and the treatment of marginalized people.
For Rushing, the South is not a place defined by the presence of southern belles, cotton plantations, tobacco road, beauty pageants, racial animus, poverty, and ignorance. Best-selling books, both scholarly and popular, often confirm negative stereotypes about the region. She worries these pervasive stereotypes often convince sociologists they do not want to live and work in the south; moreover, these pervasive stereotypes convince some southerners there is no place for them in academia. Instead, she questions assumptions that the South is a problem place, or there is no place for southerners in academia. As a southerner and an academic, she adds, “I have complicated feelings about southern history and identity based on my own life experience and education. For that matter, as an American, I also have complicated ideas about American history and identity. So my advice to a sociologist teaching and doing research in the South is to be a skeptical contrarian. Look for unexpected turns of events and multi-layered explanations. You might find that the contradictions and realities of place are far more intriguing than the stereotypes.”