Atlanta remembers the Cultural Olympiad: 20 years later, cultural misconceptions of the South remain off base

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This story is part of WABE and ArtsATL’s Cultural Olympiad coverage. 


My husband regards The New Yorker the way many people heed the bible. He reads it daily and carries it with him wherever he goes — except running, because it would get wet. He quotes or refers to The New Yorker more than any other printed source. While I do not practice his daily devotion to the magazine, I understand his reverence. After all, this is among the most respected literary publications in the United States, and its contributors could comprise the list of Who’s Who in American Letters.

Imagine then the shock and disappointment when the July 22, 1996 issue of The New Yorker arrived at our house.

The cover illustration featured a farmer in overalls with a pig under one arm and the other arm holding a torch. Roosters were at his feet as he stood ready to light the cauldron beneath a display of the Olympic rings. Across his chest a banner read, “Howdy.”

We looked at that cover in stunned disbelief.  This issue of The New Yorker coincided with the opening of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The excitement and pride among residents was palpable beyond the sports venues. Here was an opportunity to showcase our city for its many achievements, a shining example of the New South. The birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and cradle of the civil rights movement. A city with a world-class symphony orchestra and outstanding regional theater. We had a Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Games that included such events as a gathering of many of the Nobel literature laureates alive at the time. The Cultural Olympiad became the Olympic Arts Festival once the games began. International opera star Jessye Norman was among the headliners, performing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The Arts Festival was diverse and inclusive of many different forms of creative expression, showcasing the South as well as presenting international artists from countries represented in the Games.   

How could The New Yorker display ignorance? Not only was that depiction of Atlanta insulting, it was entirely wrong. Was the editorial staff unaware that Atlanta was urban, not rural? I’d lived in Atlanta for 19 years prior to the ’96 Olympics. Not once did I ever encounter a farmer in overalls on the streets of the metro area. Nor were there pigs outside of petting zoos. Not many Atlantans greet each other with “Howdy,” so far as I know. Isn’t that a cowboy expression? Maybe in aiming for what it perceived as the backward white stereotype in that cartoon, The New Yorker thought the statement was from a liberal point of view, distancing itself from what they perceived as bigoted. But progressive thinking should reject all stereotypes.

After my anger subsided, I felt sad. The New Yorker let us down. I had a friend in college who once said he thought New Yorkers were the most provincial of all Americans. Many of them just dismiss what’s beyond their borders as inconsequential, if they even bother to acknowledge what’s beyond their immediate environment.

While “provincial” seemed an odd choice to describe New Yorkers, I realized he was not referring to refinement or urban sophistication. And then I recalled another New Yorker illustration, an iconic image that shows a map of the country beginning with New York, and after getting as far west as Chicago, the rest of the country is just green grass until California. So, I guess the Atlanta farmer on the cover shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.

Though The New Yorker went to press before the opening ceremonies, it’s worth noting that the person who ultimately lit the Olympic torch was Muhammad Ali. No overalls. No pig under his arm. As one of the world’s greatest athletes, his presence was a symbol of dignity and triumph over adversity.

With that July 22, 1996 cover illustration, The New Yorker was flaunting its provincial snobbery. More seriously, however, it missed an opportunity to inform and enlighten. An illustration that might have pictured Dr. King at the top, with Jesse Owens looking proud, perhaps including Ambassador Andrew Young and Mayor Maynard Jackson beneath a banner of the Olympic Rings. I’m not a visual artist, but how welcome would have been a theme acknowledging the achievements in race relations that led to Atlanta hosting the Games? That legacy involved overcoming hurdles far more dangerous than those in the track and field events. How powerful a message that could have conveyed. Not only would it have been an accurate portrayal of Atlanta in 1996, it would have been worthy of The New Yorker readership.  

Twenty years later, this regional misperception persists. From the recent New York Times dining feature, which took a patronizing tone in its seeming surprise at Atlanta’s “new” dining scene (and even included a snarky Gone With the Wind reference) to Hollywood’s perception of Southerners as stuck in some kind of seersuckered time warp (The Mindy Project comes to mind, despite its brilliance in depicting outsiders of other stripes), non-Southerners continue to read us wrong, and in painting a misguided picture for the rest of the world, continue to perpetuate tired stereotypes of who we are and how we live. As Atlantans, we must let it be known that we’re more than a cartoon. We are part of a wonderfully diverse city with a proud and complicated history. In a continuously divided country, the conversations Atlantans are having — around dinner tables, in schools, at arts functions, in protests and in religious institutions — are ones the rest of the nation needs to hear. In expressing these lines of dialogue through politics, art and letters, we may add nuance to the picture, and enlighten the provincial minds among us.


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