The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 5, 2016

Seeing with “Vampire Eyes” in New Orleans at Five A.M.

For her extraordinarily popular book Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice imagines a man in colonial Louisiana just outside New Orleans converting from human being into an elegant vampire.  His converter warns him to go outside as he changes but not to “fall so madly with the night that you lose your ways.”

Of course, the new vampire in the book does lose his way to the beauty of the night.  He says, “When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there….Standing among the cottonwood and oaks, I heard the night as if it were a chorus of whispering women, all beckoning me to their breasts.”

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“When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there.” — Anne Rice

I am gradually learning that nothing in New Orleans is entirely what it seems, and yet nothing at all is purely fictional.  Writers here, Anne Rice and others like me, don’t need to make anything up, really, so much as press record like the interviewer in Interview with a Vampire. New Orleans provides enough vivacity to transform us all, not necessarily into vampires but certainly into raconteurs. Our old limitations die in the elevated graveyards, but our new eyes as writers in this nearly mythic town — a place of real magical realism — fall so in love with the night that we indeed risk losing our ways.

So it is with me at five a.m. when I walk my dogs around the block.  I choose this time because I leave for work quite early, and my dogs have fewer people to bark at or to try to sniff. That said, I was astonished when first I walked them around the block about a half hour before sunrise.  It wasn’t Lestat who had given me new eyes.  It was New Orleans.

At that hour, even at that hour, it has been well above eighty degrees outside most mornings, and the town glows despite the lights being off.  Even when I walked around the block during a power outage, the town still glowed.  How? The moon hangs low in the sky, a glass of milk seen from above, and the sky is not so black as it is royal blue with a widow’s veil hanging over it.

The cars are distant as my dogs and I circle the block, but the end of night is noisy.  Before the birds are up, a timpany chorus of insects click and chatter in what perhaps Anne Rice meant when she said her newly minted vampire heard a “metallic laughter” in the air.  It is a cocktail party of bugs held before the curtain of a big show, the chatter of socialites in a treble staccato — and it is intoxicating to hear! Occasionally, we hear the lone voice of an insomniac bird, too early even to catch the worm, but more often than not we hear only the arias of the insects in the trees.

We encounter a few mammals other than ourselves, and they, too, take on mythical qualities. Once, I crossed paths with a woman in yoga pants with a blue tooth in her ear, negotiating an international deal with the Pacific Rim in Vietnamese, but I have not seen her since.  I saw an illicit lover dart out of a door once and hide when he realized the dogs and I saw him. Usually, though, the only mammal we encounter is a single neighborhood cat, gray in the way that the French mean when they say, “La nuit, tous les chat sont gris,” and long-haired.  That long hair stands on end as the creature arches as tall as he can as my bigger dog spots him — I am having trouble convincing that dog that we are not on a hunt and that the neighbor’s cat is not our quarry. Most mornings, though, it is just us, no other creature with hair on its head or body. We are not hunting for prey, neither like a dog nor like a vampire.  We are just walking, losing our ways in the lovely late night.

We walk along the still-unrepaired undulations of the sidewalk caused by Katrina.  After a rainy night, we have to avoid deep puddles still caused by the aftermath of that now-old storm that rippled the roads around here as if they were tresses that might frizz in Category-5 humidity.  Our feet get muddy in certain ruts. The dogs sniff the ground and read the route’s olfactory braille with their wet noses. What they read there, I cannot say, but the ineffable language of the smells of this route excites them, sometimes appearing to cause debate between them. It is a lively hunt for the maker of smells, the walk, the quarrry not so much being the steak as much as the sizzle-sound of the bugs and the smoke of the frying meat they find the trace of in our tracks. We are not vampires on the prowl, but some of us smell blood.

When we return home, the night’s magic dissipates.  We enter the house as a few neighbors begin to stir, switch on lights. When I unhook the leashes of my companions, we are all covered in sweat. The night’s passions are sultry.  We catch our breath in the air conditioning. We have had a close encounter — with what? Not Anne Rice’s vampires, perhaps, but with her vampires’ New Orleans nights, heady and astonishingly beautiful.  Over and over again Anne Rice’s interviewed vampire expresses frustration at his inability to explain an experience to the interviewer.  He laments, “How pathetic it is to describe these things that can’t truly be described.” He is right, Rice is right — a night in New Orleans contains a kind of mystery that only beckons one toward meaning, a seduction not quite achieved, a new vision through a glass darkly, and the aporia is a dark river, perhaps the Mississippi at night, perhaps the Styx, that beckons us deeper but offers us no promise we can ever again pop our heads up into a rational sunlight. We are not vampires, but in this, the night of New Orleans is vampiric.

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July 27, 2016

Breaking Glass and Other Unladylike Activities

Pardon my silence, gentle readers, over the last two weeks. Apart from the horrible shooting of innocent civilians and police officers in Louisiana, about which I will have much more to say later, I have been glued to the television watching a barrier  to women’s progress drop — why others seem to care less, I cannot say.  All I know is that whether you adore or loathe Madam Clinton, that barrier got busted last night, and I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of me that the women in my family have carried for generations.  I suspect the women in your family have been carrying it, too.

window glass

It’s not corny. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s really important.

My family’s women fought for the right to vote.  They have been involved in politics in material ways since then.  One of my grandmothers joined the League of Women Voters pretty much as soon as it was opened and organized for the Democrats.  My other grandmother joined the Communist Party when she was young, attended meetings (really quite possibly) in the same place Arthur Miller did.  The women in my family never devoted much energy to Junior League-approved activities.  Multiple generations of them (before me) were bad cooks. They never did more sewing than the socially acceptable minimum, probably dating back to the reign of Queen Neb in Ireland. They wanted something more public to do, always.more engaged with the world outside, but that world dismissed their efforts.

Survival for these women was always precarious, as they couldn’t run their own lives as much as they ought to have been able to do, and it was always by grit that they pulled themselves out, not ladylike graciousness.  Let me give you some examples from my past:

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My great-grandmother walked out of this mess with a chest of drawers strapped to her back and toddlers clinging to her skirts.

One of my great-grandmothers lived in San Francisco in 1906.  She had a drunk for a husband and several small children. When the quake hit, her house stood, but her husband was trapped under rubble in some bar.  She assumed he must be dead.  As the fire approached her block of the city, she had to flee.  She took a chest of drawers, some of her husband’s belts, filled the chest of drawers with all the valuables she could stuff into it, strapped it shut with one belt, strapped it on her back with two others, and she told her children to cling to her skirts while they walked away from the fire, the billowing smoke close behind them, the sound of windows exploding in the heat shattering, the dust of the rubble in their nostrils. She managed to walk the little family to a patch of land they owned far outside of town.  She managed to get a house up.  She managed to get a job as the post mistress, though this was a novelty at the time, a woman touching others’ letters. She put money aside to build a church in the country town near the house was.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually showed up, temporarily sober, and eventually disappeared again for years and years, to show up periodically. She didn’t legally own the land or the house.  She couldn’t preach or even read a Bible passage in the church.  She couldn’t have risen in the ranks of her profession.  She didn’t own her own life, really, but she had built it out of the ashes of disaster.

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My widowed great-grandmother, saddled with six kids, made it out of this squalor and sent all her children to college.

Another example: Another one of my great-grandmothers was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, married young to a door-to-door salesman at about that time.  They had six kids, one right after the other.  She did work with artificial flowers for a factory at home as she watched them in a tenement apartment. When the youngest child was two and the oldest child was only ten, my great-grandfather stepped on a rusty nail while making his rounds and died of tetanus the next day.  There was no social security back then, and no life insurance.  By the absolutely mammoth grit of that woman, she worked herself harder than a human being ought to work in order to send all six of those children to college.  She made every activity into a lesson.  Counting blocks on the bus was a math lesson.  Family meetings were run by Roberts rules of order as a civics lesson. All six of those children went to college. A couple of them became millionaires. She never lived in anything bigger than an apartment in a city. She poured all her resources into others, except for her truly indomitable strength.  I remember her staring at me when I was a toddler, beaming with pride.  She did not suffer weaklings well.  In the bitterness of her hard life, she could be cruel. In me, she saw a future of strong women.  That, she liked. She needed someone to win the fights she had not been able to win, to carry on a struggle that stemmed class struggle and the double indemnity of being born female and poor.

Nobody tells these stories to children, I think.  They don’t want to frighten them.  Grandmas are supposed to bake things. They are supposed to sing songs with little girls and braid hair. But that’s not the truth, really. The truth is that life is always tough as a mother in one way or another, and the women have to dig deep into the dirt, drill into the concrete, to make sure they can withstand it all.  You probably have no idea of the struggle behind you.  It’s not ladylike to talk about such things.  I’ve had to piece together the real story of my family in tiny scraps. You weren’t told the war stories of your foremothers.  You don’t even bear their family names.  But believe me, this is your story, too.  You probably don’t know half the hell you’ve made it out of, because you were clinging to somebody else’s skirts while you walked along slowly singing the alphabet, unconscious of the disaster you just barely eluded.

So all this I just told you — that’s why I don’t care whether you love Hillary Clinton or you hate her. What happened last night in Philadelphia matters to those rugged women behind you that got the short end of every stick. When they announced her nomination, my lungs filled with new air.  I stood taller. I felt different, a difference that I am certain will be permanent.  If you are a woman, and you don’t love what happened last night, I declare you blind.  I declare you unpatriotic.  I declare you so frigging privileged you have no idea what a spoiled brat you really are.

Gentle readers, I tell you — register to vote. Be brave. Take a deep breath.  The air is different today.  You can breathe deeply today.  You have no idea how much oxygen is left for you to take in.

 

May 23, 2016

The Ninth Ward and 9/11: American Grief Tourism in New Orleans and New York

A few months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, an event that I did not watch on television but out the window at work as it happened, then walked through, then got laid off about, then wrote poetry about (see my short collection Counterterrorist Poems (Pudding House Press, 2002), Americans lost their abject fear of New York City. That fear had been a long-standing terror predating Osama Bin Laden, previously consisting of fear of muggers, rapists, people with punk-rock hair and piercings, and rude men in expensive suits shoving others out of the way  to grab a cab.  They decided for reasons that I fail to comprehend to come in droves to the fenced-in Ground Zero, still slightly smoldering its asbestos cauldron of carcinogens, to gape and to lament.

I understood the Billy Graham Ministries red-vested prayer teams that stood in subway stations praying for the grieving New Yorkers, the fire fighters who, bless them, filled the sudden hundreds of vacancies on a temporary basis that the FDNY experienced when so many brave men were crushed by rubble.  I am grateful to this day to those who came to lend a hand to my hurting city, whether they understood our needs or not.  I am not baffled by the charity of those good people.

ground zero tourists

These people aren’t in New York in early 2002 to help the shell-shocked Manhattanites. They are there to take pictures and gawk at a gaping hole where thousands of people they don’t really care about died.

I am rather baffled by the people who came to see our wounds and stare without offering a hand.  What might motivate them?  Some of them cried.  If they were there because they lost a cousin or childhood friend who moved to the big city from their small town, I understand perfectly, but those who had no body in the  rubble?  Those who had never much cared for New York, except possibly for a couple of shows and shopping, who wanted to see a hermaphrodite or a woman and a donkey, then return to their safe suburbs and decry us?  Why were they there?  Why were they crying?  How DARE they take what happened to us, not them, personally?

I had an estranged step-mother who had the nerve to write me in a note two months after September Eleventh, “Thank God we didn’t lose anybody that day!”  In the same note, she enclosed a book that was supposed to be self-help but which showed a woman on the cover who looked crazier than anybody who could be of assistance to anyone else, and she told me I needed to reconcile with my father, the implication being that I might die at any minute from another terrorist attack, and then how would it be for me to go to  my grave if I hadn’t apologized  to my father for wrongs she perceived I had committed against him?  Indeed, I owed no apology, and she would offer none for the obvious offense.  I sent the book back, told her how unimaginably insensitive it was to send such a note to a New Yorker in November 2001 who had actually been there, and that she needn’t ever contact me again.

I marvel to this day at the temerity and the total lack of human compassion that allows some suburban gum-chewers to consider the tragedy of another as an occasion to pack a suitcase, to board a discounted flight, and to take a tour bus.  I know that Ground Zero was filled with the ashes of thousands, but I fear that Hell awaits the torment of the tens of thousands who did not come to help but only to gawk and to personalize selfishly somebody else’s pain for something like a personal catharsis of no benefit to anybody else.

This didn’t just happen to New York, of course.  The same thing happened to my new city, the Crescent City, New Orleans.  After Katrina, thousands of Americans, many in church groups, came to help clear away debris, offer food and water to those rendered homeless, to comfort, to hold, to hammer, to pour concrete, to roof, to wire, to plumb.  Those people, I imagine, retain the immense gratitude of those who were assisted by them.  But what about the Katrina Tourists?

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A sign in the Ninth Ward, 2006.

I cannot imagine boarding a tour bus to rubberneck at the condemned buildings while frantic people try to reconstruct their lives. I cannot imagine staring and not getting out of the bus (even if had been drunk on Bourbon Street when I had boarded the bus), not running over to hug, to pray, to help, to get my hands dirty, to give out money, to apologize, even though it all was not my fault.  What kind of brain-dead habitual sodomizer of livestock, what kind of certifiable sociopath, can imagine making a family vacation out of a community’s devastation?  This happened.  Americans in particular did this to Americans.  9/11 didn’t just happen on TV. Neither did Katrina. Are Americans indifferent spectators to the sorrows of other Americans?  Has reality TV done this to us?  Or is this the same crowd who used to be in regular attendance at public hangings and the burning of witches?  Are human beings just so very awful?

We are all our brothers’ keeper.  God is watching.  You shouldn’t watch impassively from front row seats the next time a national tragedy happens.  If you must go see it for yourselves, bring blankets and coffee for the freezing, lumber and copper pipes for the homeless, prayers for the hopeless.  Pray for America while you are praying, because some ugly element of our national character shows in this phenomenon.

March 9, 2016

Shouldering the Dangers of the Pentacostal Church

“Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone.” — Job 31:22

Beloved readers of this blog, I write to warn you of hazards you may not have considered in choosing whether or not to attend church.  It’s true that a good church shepherds the lost soul to paradise, but have you considered all the dangers of worship, particularly if the church you attend is loving or expressive?  I have survived a serious, nay, let me call it a medieval danger, and I am barely unraptured enough to have both feet on Earth to tell you about it.

ShoulderSurgery_ORIGINAL_460x261To be fair to the church I attend, I was already in danger when I arrived.  You see, there is a doctor in town who has told me that I could qualify through my insurance to let him cut off my right arm and reattach it with a titanium shoulder joint.  I have been apparently sleepwalking. Moved with unconscious piety,  like Rebekah in Genesis 24, I have been (sleep) walking to the well and filling a large jar of water, balancing it on my shoulder, which has become for NO OTHER discernible reason arthritic.  The doctor is almost gleeful when he tells me he can perform this monstrosity on me, that I will only need half a year to recover from this Frankenshoulder operation, and that after this, the mild chronic pain I have will be gone, gone after half a year of medieval torture pain and immobility.

A couple of weeks ago at church, a young man of Christian character shook my hand vigorously, glad to see me.  He’s strong, stronger than he knows, and when I smiled and took a seat, I realized that for the next hours I would need to pray for healing.  I raised my hands to heaven as we praised the Lord, and I realized I would need that healing now. In Bible study, I could fully recognize the truth of Isaihah 22:22, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  Because I, for one, couldn’t imagine twisting my hand on a door knob that would either open or shut whatever it was that Jesus locked or unlocked with that shoulder key.  I knew I didn’t want to push, or pull, or twist, or mangle anything. If that wasn’t evidence of my faith, I don’t know what is.

crucifixion

Crucifixion can’t be good for one’s shoulders.

The truth is, it’s not just shaking hands at the church door that’s a danger.  It’s not just lifting one’s hands to praise the Lord.  There are all kinds of secret dangers hidden in church, including:

  • Tambourine accidents — Musical enthusiasm could rip a rotator cuff if the believer is not careful.
  • Starbucks-Venti-sized portions at coffee hour — One bucket-sized drink hoisted too high could tear a tendon.
  • Emphatic gestures in theological debate — Zeal is fine in moderation, but no one should slap a pulpit in rebuke if the fire and brimstone get too hot or stinky.
  • Choir robe malfunctions — Tripping on the way to the back row of the choir loft could make an alto bump into the organ.
  • Hugging like a muthah — Someone might love the brethren just a little too much, squeeze like a boa constrictor.
  • Hat accidents, or “haccidents.” — Ladies still wear big hats in some churches, laden with fruit and plumage, netting and holy mysteries.  It just takes one low-flying bird out on the church steps to snag that tower of rattan and turn it into a neck and shoulder disaster.
  • The clap (to the music) — Proclaiming a little too much victory might sprain into defeat.
  • Volunteering — That heavy punch bowl one might carry into the reception hall, that Wreath that needs one to glitter spray  it and add more plastic begonias to it (I did say I was talking about pentacostal churches, didn’t I?) are shoulder tragedies waiting for a women’s fellowship workday to happen.

There are surely other shoulder hazards at church, but because Jesus endured the ultimate shoulder hazard — crucifixion, which is very painful to the shoulders with the rest of the upper body — I attend despite the risk.  The physical therapist is sticking electrified needles in me, not nails, and she is having me shrug Talmudically, releasing certain tense muscles and conveying a resignation that the paradox of faith is that God answers Job’s questions about hardships (like shoulder injury) with other questions.  Why ask why? I give the burden of the ineffable to Christ to shoulder.

 

February 16, 2016

The Genesis of Elvis: What Origins Tell Us About Where We Go

I taught a student at the University of Mississippi who is a cousin of Elvis Presley.  As Ole Miss is less than an hour’s drive away from Tupelo, where the Presley family has long lived, this was not so surprising, really, but as a Carpet Bagger, I was charmed by the

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Elvis was born in this shack during the Great Depression

implications of my encounter with Elvis’ DNA, still responsive — not an Elvis sighting but a confirmed Presley sighting, surely.  This Presley was blond, almost exactly the King’s height and body shape, and he had piercing blue Presley eyes. As he took his final exam in my modern American Literature section, I silently tried to will him to burst into a chorus of “Hound Dog,” but to no avail.  If he had for some odd reason fallen prey to rock n’ roll hypnosis, it would have been the second-most rock-fantasy-fulfilling thing that ever happened to me, second only to the time I danced onstage in Paris for a half hour in a go-go cage with another band leader named Elvis, this one with the last name Costello.  But Elvis of Tupelo’s cousin did not once seem all shook up.  His hands might have been twitching and his knees weak, but that wasn’t because of love or music.  He might have been concentrating on the essay question of the exam. So despite wishing fervently for this young man to jump up on his desk and start throwing scarves off his neck into a screaming female crowd, instead I realized that we could not go on together with suspicious minds, and I gave him his semester grade and said adieu.  He wasn’t Elvis, and no amount of hoping could make him so.

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Seventeen dollars gets you what they call the birthplace experience.

As it turns out, I found myself at a car dealership last week in Tupelo, getting my tires rotated, and I realized I really ought to go visit the birthplace of the American icon.The museum isn’t like the Met, where one donates as one chooses, and then one sees masterpieces. They wanted seventeen bucks to tour a diorama room, the two-room shack in which he was born, the relocated and renovated Assemblies of God church building in which Elvis first sang hymns, another chapel built for those who wish to marry in — let’s admit it — a more authentically Elvine Elvis Chapel than the one they have in Las Vegas — and to watch some films.  They had life-sized cardboard cutout Elvis dolls, they had a multimedia presentation of Elvis’ church services which were almost exactly like the church services I regularly attend, only people dress like it’s the twenty-first century and there are microphones, and they had a film  to let me know what any listener knows — that Elvis was influenced by both African-American blues traditions and Country music.

But the epicenter of the museum was the humble house where Mrs. Presley gave birth to a

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Elvis emerged here.

boy.  There was neither electricity nor plumbing.  Elvis’ father was not a financial success, even by the standards of the Great Depression, and they soon  lost the home and had to move elsewhere.  Looking at the metal bed in which Elvis crowned, I was somehow reminded of my trip years ago to Bethlehem, where I saw the birthplace of Jesus, which monks who had never witnessed an actual birth marked with something that looked like a large gilded dinner plate on the floor. And I realized then that the Elvis  I was seeking in this poorly ventilated shack was no more discernible than the golden Middle Eastern floor platter made Jesus appear in the flesh before worshippers there , alas for the worshippers like me of the King of Kings like Elvis and like me.

After all, what had I come to see? Down the road, there were somewhat updated versions of the same two-room shack’s architectural design, surely home to people of the same class as the Presleys during the 1930s. Today, they have plumbing, electricity, and aluminum siding. Is there rock greatness in those shacks?  At least they contain the living, not the dead. The Elvis I sought in his cousin and in his kitchen is dead — and yet, I say long live the King. The King is gone. And yet he is everywhere. All Americans are heirs to Elvis countrythe kingdom of Elvis — the bad fashion sense, the fatty foods, and yes, the rhythm, if we let our insides shake like a leaf on a tree, as he sang to us. Elvis might have lived in a shack, but he became as prosperous and as lost as any American can. He is the style without the substance, the default position of portions of American life, the gender performance, the hazy-eyed side-burned hunka-hunk of us burning.  We burn like Elvis burns.  There are sightings to this day. Elvis is not a saint but a relic, touch the reliquary, and what a chill I got — we are all shook up.  We are shaken.  We are seeking out a dream of ourselves, of who we have meant to be or who we have accidentally become. The genesis of Elvis, his birthplace, is like the rock at Plymouth, Massachusetts — we visit it to find America but find ourselves instead. The King is dead.  Long live the King.  Don’t look in the platter, look in the mirror for the next Elvis sighting.  If you were born here, right here on this platter, on this gold  record, then you are an American.

February 1, 2016

Beads: What New Orleans Puts its Mojo On

I went to my first actual neighborhood Mardi Gras in my new town of New Orleans this Saturday.  I saw the Algiers Krewe, its many floats, the Langston Hughes High School and Phyllis Wheatley Middle School Marching Bands — two schools named for great poets, and I was thoroughly entertained.

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The False Thunder God’s false king is throwing false (plastic) beads at the crowd.

I saw floats attributed to inscrutable false deities, with plastic-masked kings and queens, standing within the embrace of plaster-of-Paris angels and in floral-bedecked rigs.  I had never liked Mardi Gras beads before, but something about them being thrown at me from a parade float made me want to wear them. Why did they suddenly have value?

 

I am reminded that native Americans traded Manhattan away for glass beads, or so I was told. I realize that this celebration — Fat Tuesday, come on a Saturday — is allegedly Christian but in fact only represents false deities and powerless powers, but the bands play, and we have fun.

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The band leader jumps in the air in front of the gas station in Algiers.

It was delightful to watch teenagers in sequins wave flags and batons, to watch a woman run up and grab a tulle-decked plunger from a clown’s hands off a float.  The beads, the tulle, the sequins added a holy mystery to things as banal as sweaty adolescence, plunging, and clowning around. It is the delightful American habit to put lipstick on a pig and to call it a beauty.  Plastic beads are not a trip to Tiffany and Company, not even breakfast in front of Tiffany’s shop windows, especially not with Audrey Hepburn.  So why do they delight? Is there a link between Mardi Gras beads, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which Truman Capote might have thought about while he lived in New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone?  Is Holly Golightly a Mardi Gras float queen morphed into the guise of a New York party girl?

shoe float

Is this merely a Mardi Gras shoe float, or are we looking at a Louboutin float?

Fashion performs all kinds of acrobatics, I realize, of the plastic bead variety. A pair of black pumps is garden variety, unless its soles are dyed cinnabar red, in which case they are Louboutins.  Plastic beads are tacky, unless they fly off a float into your face, in which case — well — perhaps they do remain tacky, but they mark an occasion. Festivals, pancakes for pancake Tuesdays, boiled eggs for Easter, Twigs wrapped with red ribbon for Christmas — all these things take on an air of occasion because of their timing and placement within a rite.

me at mardi gras

The beads may be cheap and tawdry, but they make me happy, anyway.

I found myself decking myself with plastic beads shamelessly.  I was having a marvelous time, in fact.  I feel that beading myself with these plastic trinkets marks the occasion of my assimilation into the West Bank of New Orleans, a place that seems to value poets, diversity, jazz and tall tales. By the end of the parade, I had eighteen strands of them in all. I looked at them in my room at home and realized they were utterly useless around my neck.  They were no more appropriate for non-Mardi-Gras wear than it would be for me to try to incorporate Christmas tree ornaments into my wardrobe.

 

But I did find a use for the beads, after all.  I am teaching a public speaking course at the University of Mississippi, and we are discussing ways of keeping calm while addressing a crowd.  I decided to imbue each strand of plastic baubles with talismanic power.  I got my students to agree that since fear of public speaking is irrational — unless, of course, someone doing the public speaking is about to face a firing squad — an irrational response might calm the irrational fear.  Without claiming magical powers of any kind on my own, I gave my students each a strand of plastic from the Algiers Krewe parade with a blessing on it that it would give the possessor of it ease while addressing a crowd.  One student said it helped her when she had it on for her presentation later in the class.

See, America, glass beads can get you an island.  Red-soled shoes can make you chic.  Pastry eaten in front of a jewelry shop seems to burn fat cells off of Audrey Hepburn’s waist. Plastic beads, tossed into an American crowd, make a town a tourist attraction, and recycled, they become a tool for orators, the tellers of Louisiana tall tales. We are less the land of Goshen than the land of Barnum.  Kardashians prance on our screens like royal Lipizzaner horses, and we buy false eyelashes to flutter at others. Plastic beads are the family jewels. The king is king of burgers. The queen is queen of the parade. The emperor has no clothes, but in New Orleans, when our neighbors parade around naked, we don’t stand in judgment, as long as it happens before Ash Wednesday.

 

August 3, 2015

How as a Preteen I was Seduced by Margaret Mitchell and Abandoned by American Culture to Her Hegemonic Discourse

I read Gone with the Wind as a required book for my summer reading list between seventh and eighth grade a private girl’s school.  At the time, I was hoping, like almost everyone who is going to turn thirteen years old, for a great romance, proving somehow I was desirable, affirming my blossoming powers of female charm, a romance that would serve my ego.  I had no conscious thought of love by any adult definition, and I had limited information on sex, but I knew this much – the idea of a good-looking boy who would parade around with me in public, letting the other girls at my school know, most of whom I found milquetoast and cruel, that he thought I was awesome, one who would slow dance with me and neck with me at a co-ed party, the kind I was rarely invited to, that appealed to me more than I could say.  Boys often get criticized at that age for only having “one thing on their mind,” but truly, though I did not have a clear picture of that “one thing,” my motives for wanting a boyfriend in the abstract were no less selfish and shallow than any boys at that time of life would have had.  My chief object in this pursuit, one mostly in a state of total fantasy in my sex-segregated life, was to outdo the girls who made fun of me for being nerdy and not obscenely rich the way they were.

Given my summertime agenda, reading about Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks Barbeque, where she stole other girls’ beaux and threw a vase at Rhett Butler while wearing a big, flouncy dress – that was my idea at twelve-and-a-half of a pretty impressive afternoon, if I could get over the Civil War getting declared that day, which I mostly did.  The later descriptions of Rhett Butler’s hot-lipped kisses on Scarlett’s palm sounded pretty good, too.  And as a role model for gumption, Scarlett probably continues to influence me, though her purely self-interested modus operandi is something I hope I have overcome at this less adolescent time of life.

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

I was already literary enough in junior high school to understand, as I read the section of the book that describes the siege of Atlanta, that I was in the presence of a master artist in Margaret Mitchell’s pages.  In rereading the book this summer, decades later, I find myself enchanted by her astonishing narrative structure for this section of the book, the way that certain phrases become refrains.  The scene where the battle is within earshot of the dark city of Atlanta, and in the night, various Southern men knock on Aunt Pitipat’s door, each with different manners of speaking reflective of a diversity of region and class of these Confederate soldiers, where because of the dark, Mitchell confines her evocation of scene to non-visual descriptors only – I actually applauded that scene in my rereading.  I remember at twelve-and-a-half, I was awestruck by the idea of a whole yard filled with wounded soldiers, and with Doctor Meade being forced to alleviate suffering as best he could nearly single-handedly and with limited supplies.  In rereading the scene years later, I still see the mastery of Mitchell.  She was a genius of a writer, clearly influenced by Vanity Fair and the works of Tolstoy.  Let me say we have never had an author in America who was very much better than Mitchell, and perhaps we never will, as far as structuring a complex narrative goes.

But what I learned about my adolescent self, my junior high school, and American culture as a whole while I reread Gone with the Wind horrified me, and I need to share it here.

How is it that in remembering the lush descriptions of Northern Georgia, the hot lips of Captain Butler, the wounded soldiers, the balls and ball gowns, the effete Ashley, the noble Melanie, I nevertheless forgot the horrible, horrible racism of Gone with the Wind as I read it at not-quite-thirteen for my school, a school in Yankee territory?  How did I, who remember vivid details from readings I did years and years ago – how did I not truly grasp and retain the enormity of Mitchell’s racism in reading this book?

Margaret Mitchell’s story tells us that the North attacked the South for more or less no reason – no reason!  For slaves were uniformly happy unless they were of very bad character, according to her.  Masters were benevolent and unabusive, though occasionally an overseer of trashy and Yankee-friendly ways might commit violence entirely independently of slave masters’ knowledge.  For Mitchell, people of color were bug-eyed, lip-jutting children, not merely ignorant by lack of education, but naturally ignorant the way a dog is ignorant of algebra, not because junior high school failed to teach him but because dogs can’t handle problems that solve for X.  For Mitchell, the Klansmen were heroic gentlemen, rather than terrorists.  For Mitchell, people of color shouldn’t vote because they would only be beguiled by slick white Yankee carpetbaggers who didn’t want what was best for the African-Americans, namely slavery.  Why didn’t any of this shock me as a school girl?

Understand that my parents were in the civil rights movement, and they took me to civil rights’ rallies when I was a child, so I absolutely knew that Margaret Mitchell’s understanding of the capacities of people of color was wrong, and if asked, I know I would have said so.  I did not know that the Klan had a present-day existence, and if I had known, I would have been horrified, aware as I was in some measure of what they had done to thwart Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man I considered a hero.  So again, why wasn’t I shocked?

My teacher who assigned the book to me never mentioned the problem of race in relation to the book, not once.  Who would assign this book to adolescents and not discuss racism?  He wasn’t much of a teacher, anyway.  He flirted with me inappropriately, and again – I was twelve going on thirteen.  I don’t think he harbored any proactive racist views, not that I could tell, but as a current teacher of literature, I find his lack of discussion on a topic central to understanding a text wildly irresponsible.  My parents knew I was reading the book and only asked me if I thought Rhett Butler was a better character than Ashley Wilkes for Scarlett to marry, and they reminded me that my great-great-grandfather had been in the Union navy as a navigator, though not in combat in the war, it seems.   They got a video of the movie and let me watch it to help me write the paper for my class, and nobody mentioned the difference to me of how Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel behaved on screen so differently from our family’s actual, real-life friends of color, and while I remember noticing that their on-screen behavior seemed unrealistic, I also noticed that when white people I knew in real life kissed, no violins swelled as the sky turned red, as they did when Clark Gable kissed Vivian Leigh, and I chalked the mawkish acting of those portraying slaves in the film not to a form of institutional racism but the overall absurd melodrama of the film in general. Why didn’t anybody mention this problem of wildly blatant racism to me, and why didn’t I reflect more deeply upon it?  How could I forget it?

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This revelation of past impressions makes me reflect on how deeply ingrained white privilege must have been in the ambient culture of my youth.  Just as few enough people question why models have to be rail-thin in order for designers to think they will help sell clothing, nobody around me, not even my activist pro-civil-rights parents, saw a problem worth discussing with me when I read this book.  I think like anorexia is a tacit expectation of female youth today, my life in late twentieth-century American culture was so steeped in racism that much of it was invisible from notice.  My parents wanted laws to be fair for all people and cared as much about friends of color as they did about anybody else, but I think they thought little about daily acts of racism that were not specifically mandated or forbidden by law.  It wasn’t illegal, after all, for Margaret Mitchell to write her political message into her book.  It was not unfair that she should be allowed to express her point of view.  But the truth was, I must conclude that nobody was really offended by the tone of her fiction, by the implications of diminished humanity  of so many characters in her book, of her book’s justifying a genocide of such a magnitude that it will never likely be wholly documented.

I must admit that young person that I was, I had already absorbed intensely racist ideas through a culture that was Northern, not Southern, and therefore I was not shocked or personally offended, though I would have told anyone who asked that racism was wrong and that I did not think I was better than a person of color.  I hung out with two twelve year-old girls at school who were African-American, Dionne and Rueisha.  I remember one day – my thirteenth birthday – during lunch hour, we turned on some music in the yard of the school and danced, and some white girls turned a hose on us, and we had to run off the lawn not to get wet.  Nobody got in trouble for this, though the next day, other white girls approached me, but not Dionne and Rueisha, and asked me to never dance during lunch hour again, that I was embarrassing them because we were in the same class.  I remember thinking it odd that they thought I was embarrassing for dancing to R & B, which I still love, but that it wasn’t embarrassing to them that my two friends, who were also in our class, did the same.  I remember pondering whether it was that they were black that made it “predictable” that they would dance, or if even my hilarity-filled friendship with these two girls were the source of eighth-grade embarrassment.  But I thought Gone with the Wind’s message of racial dishonor was merely fictional.  The book made me want to be a great writer.  It made me want to own a beautiful home and treasure it like Scarlett did Tara.  It made me want to see the South. I don’t believe it made me want to own slaves or see any group of people as less than fully human.  But it somehow contributed to my discounting outrageous assertions about race in our culture, and largely because I as an adolescent was not compelled by any adult authority to question the assertions in a required reading assignment.  Like Scarlett, I wouldn’t think about that now; tomorrow was another day.

Dionne and Rueisha and I still danced sometimes after this incident, though not on the lawn in front of our classmates.  Dionne and I transferred in ninth grade to a big public high school, and our circles of friends became largely segregated, as the currents of the culture pulled us apart.  I wish we had had the discussion about the book in class, in my living room, that Dionne and I, who had both been required to read the book, had discussed the racism in it.  Instead, like Rhett going off to fight the Yankees in the last battles of the war, Dionne and I were abandoned like Scarlett on a perilous road with dangers and no clear sense of what to do next.

But this is how white privilege takes itself for granted, how cultural oppression is hard to see to the group that benefits from the oppression.  Even if I had had no friends of color at my snooty girls’ school, I would have been robbed by this education without educating, this reading without contextualizing.  The keys to what we need to know about ending the hegemony present in American documents lies in the discourse of the establishmentarian authors as least as much as it does in those in revolt against that hegemony.  We need to raise our political consciousness so that Twelve Oaks burning makes sense, so that Frank Kennedy’s death makes sense, so that Scarlett’s pathological selfishness makes sense, so that America makes sense.  And then we need to change America into a place where the few oppressing the many is a wholly unimaginable occurrence, something only in the pages of historical fiction, not a present-tense struggle of any kind.  And this is how we get there – not just by revolting against the bad idea but examining it on its own terms to expose its fallacies.

One day I will teach Gone with the Wind to  my students next to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacob’s narrative, and Whitman’s poetry about wounded soldiers.  I will hold the long-overdue discussion, and while this will not stop the deaths of people like Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, it will make us ready to shout “no,” to tell those white preppy girls that they are the embarrassment, that black women don’t act like Mammy, nor are they named “Mammy,” nor do they crow smilingly at the idea of some white slave owner asking them to lift up their skirts to show off their red petticoats, and no, just no – we need to unpack it all, admit to it all, and finally be able to renounce it all, truly all of it.

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