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

April 30, 2016

Queen Bey’s New Orleans of the Mind

In January 2016, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, her husband and collaborator, moved the discourse of their art from New York down South.  In “Formation,” Beyoncé sets her video in New Orleans, on porticoed porches, in tough neighborhoods with post-Katrina housing, and in the cuisine, even, of the town — she tells us she carries hot sauce in her bag, a particularly Cajun/creole gesture. Her new release, the remarkable and deeply poignant Lemonade, is set in a place ill identified, a Gothic Southern space, at some moments surrealistic — like a night bus filled with women dancing while painted like West African ghosts, while Bey  sings about how her man isn’t on her mind — and we do not believe her in this haunted vehicle. Other houses catch fire, and they look like they are from the Garden district. Bey gyrates in the flames. She exits a public building with a flood following her in her saffron dress as she smashes car window after car window with a baseball bat. A group of smiling young African-American marching band members and pep squad members march down a street still damaged from storms — an image typical of my neighborhood in the Algiers section of town. We aren’t in New York, the New York Jay-Z has rapped about for decades, where the famous couple has held court for quite some time.  We are not quite in a New Orleans that we know by a skyline or a landmark — some songs are sung in basement parking garages, others in private rooms.  We are sitting with the aristocrats of American culture in  a New Orleans of the mind.

spanish moss nightThe psychology of New York is gritty, but it is never so permanently bleak that one cannot find a boat ride, even the Staten Island Ferry for free, to get a little perspective, a breath of fresh air, a breeze off the Atlantic, a panoply of sky scrapers.  One’s problems seem insignificant in the aspirational spikes of concrete that make shadowy canyons.  One believes in New York City that opportunity is around the corner, even if one circles the block for hours like a cab waiting for a fare.  New Orleans, unlike New York City, is permanently haunted.  The dead cannot quite get buried there — they abide above ground, boxed in just barely by cement and marble. The legacy of slavery is palpable; it is a town that never entered the mainstream of America, much like New York, which is situated on islands off the coast of the mainland.  No melting pot, it is a town where cultures do not so much intersect and blend than they remain distinct and dynamically intermingled.  New Orleans is as African a town as it is European in many ways. The coexistent diversity of cultures in that town, one which might alarm some people in a place like Mississippi, is the strength of the odd survival of the place. One doesn’t overcome one’s problems in New Orleans.  They do not vanish into the mud, six feet under.  One stuffs and mounts one’s problems.  One repurposes one’s griefs into useful household objects.  One doesn’t get over.  One lives with despite.

In Lemonade, the film, New Orleans serves as a backdrop to this kind of thinking about betrayal and loss.  No group has been more repeatedly and unapologetically betrayed in this country than women of color, and how are they to bear all of it — all the dishonor thrust upon them? Forgetting seems in this film not to be a real option, any more than it is for New Orleans to make evidence of the dead to disappear. One must live with the evidence, the scars, the memories, the voids, and one must find a way to remain hopeful. One must live with the past despite its ongoing bitterness and overcome despite all rational calls to lie down and die.

This is the abiding mood of Lemonade, and it is perhaps a cogent cue to the entire American culture about how we might deal with the tragedies of our day.  The betrayal within one marriage is not a national tragedy, but the killing of Trayvon Martin is. Trayvon’s mother is in the film Lemonade, and she, too, must abide in the bitter memory of a dead son and an acquitted Zimmerman. She, too, must survive despite all. We are anxious in white America to forget past injustices committed by people who look like us.  We feel uncomfortable by association,  don’t want to take responsibility for what we did not personally do.  But it is unreasonable of us to expect people chanting “black lives matter” to pause and acknowledge that all lives matter, which of course they do.  We must do as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have done with their enduring marriage — acknowledge all the ugly hurts, seek reconciliation that honors the total experience of that pain, and move forward with that knowledge still present but not explosive.  A truth untold is explosive.  A city dishonored erupts into riots. New Orleans has found a distinctly American wisdom that makes room for a syncopation of now with then, of group with group, that gives space for multiple potentially dissonant experiences rendered a space for solo, then folded into the jazz that ultimately finds  a harmony.

America needs such a strategy.  We cannot pretend the past did not happen. That would be a form of lunacy and a continued dishonoring of the dead. We cannot pretend we are not all implicated in a culture where brutality exists against the politically and economically vulnerable. We cannot bury the dead, because until we fully acknowledge the enormity of the problem, the dead cannot die but haunt us. We can move past, perhaps trailed in the shadows by an ugly legacy, but we can improve, if we allow each trumpet its solo, each sax its wail. We need a New Orleans of the American mind, an imperfect landscape ravaged but rebuilding, a diversity that includes all of us and might just get along. The cultural conversation has moved South, as have I.  Will you start driving South on the Interstate until you can see the Spanish moss hanging from the trees?

October 1, 2010

Southern Rituals That Mystify Me

Looking at Southern Culture is a little like looking at a UFO for me — I squint at it; should I declare it a sign of intelligent life or a weather balloon?  I am wandering among strangers, hospitable strangers, but strangers nonetheless.

Consider this my X-File reportage, then.  Here’s what I saw about a week ago:

Not little green men, but a little green sorority

The colonnaded antebellum building is called the Lyceum.  It is the administration building of Ole Miss.  When the first African-American students arrived at Ole Miss, apparently violence broke out, and there are, legend would have it, still bullet holes in the facade of this building.  I have yet to see the bullet holes.

The young women in green t-shirts are a sorority.  I’m not sure which one.  I can’t tell the sororities apart, even when they wear t-shirts of different hues to distinguish themselves one from another, which they did this day.

These young women gathered in a cluster.  Near them, a cluster of yellow-t-shirted women gathered as well, near them, a cluster of periwinkle blue-t-shirted women stood.  Near those, a group of young women in salmon-pink t-shirts.  Almost every single one of these women,  like the women in this picture, were white.

There were some clusters also in front of the Lyceum of African-American students as well.  They did not all wear the same t-shirt.  Some of them were in t-shirts, but a few of them were in prom dresses, with hair and make-up done.  These young women belonged to all African-American sororities.

Sororities and fraternities are still largely segregated in Mississippi.  Last year, on the day we got engaged, my husband and I attended a wedding of two African-American friends of his.  They were both out of school well above a decade, but at their wedding,  they had fraternity brothers and sorority sisters sing a song related to said sorority and fraternity.  They still gave each other handshakes related to this custom.  When I saw Spike Lee’s film School Daze about this phenomenon, I did not realize that when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first living breath to your last dying day — well, it’s not Jets and Sharks.  It’s an incomprehensible, even to sorority and fraternity members, series of Greek letters and a complex series of rituals that accompany them.

In this crowd of Ole Miss students, with very few exceptions, blacks and whites stood apart.  So did salmon-pinks, yellows, periwinkles, and greens.  They looked like a large flower bed, one where the gardener had separated the peonies from the pansies and the impatiens.  They were standing in impatiens, or rather, impatience, waiting twitchily.

There were some men scattered throughout the crowd as well, white and black.  They wore stickers on their caps or their back packs, some of them, with the names of certain of the sorority girls.

All these students had gathered to hear the election results of the homecoming vote. Apparently, only people in the Greek community on campus have anything like a shot of winning a title in this election — and by Greek community, I’m not talking about people who say, “Epharistoh para kala” to thank each other or who have a keen appreciation for Spanikopita.  I lived in such a Greek community in Queens for years and felt less like a Xena — foreign woman — than I do in this Greek community.

The young men, some of them, were waiting to hear which of them had won the “honor” of playing Colonel Reb, a white Confederate slaveholder old man — think Colonel Sanders in a tacky bright red suit with a cane.  The college is doing away with the mascot, but apparently, he gets trotted out for the odd ritual of homecoming.

The young women were waiting to hear if one or more of their sorority sisters had won the honor of homecoming queen, homecoming princess, and a dubiously-named, but apparently deeply esteemed title — Miss Ole Miss — which sounds like, “Miss Old Maid” to me.  There were other homecoming honors to be won, titles and distinctions inferior to the ones mentioned above, but their roles mystify me.  I’m not sure what one does at a homecoming game.  Where I went to school as an undergrad, Sarah Lawrence College, we didn’t have homecoming.  We didn’t have much in the way of teams.  We didn’t , at the time, even have a gym, just an “athletics room” not large enough to hold a proper basketball game in.  At The City College of New York, where I got my Masters Degree. there was a football team, but no one knew when they played or whether they won or lost.  Most students were too busy with their complex city lives to have time for a game.

Here, though, in Oxford, Mississippi, I saw several hundred people gather in protest near this colonnaded building, and my first thought was that this must be some kind of a protest.  We had protests in front of buildings on my campus when I was an undergrad.  I participated in one to urge the trustees to divest from holdings in South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed.  As this was the administrative building, I thought it might be a plea for something like that.

No — they just really, really cared who won Miss Ole Miss and the other titles.

I saw two girls near me look at each other as if it was Christmas morning, tears brimming in their eyes.  As the administrators came out on the steps with the official count, they clasped hands, and one gasped, “Oh, my God!  This is actually happening!”

As each of the Homecoming court and princesses was announced, as a name of a particular sorority sister was called, the whole sorority jumped up and down and gave — not a whoop, but a lady-like hoot.  I’ve only heard this hoot once before, and it was in the movie Gone With the Wind.  When it was announced that there would be an auction to dance with the ladies, the ladies let out this noise.  Is it a lady rebel yell?  I think so.  The teams of Ole Miss are called the rebels.  So they let out that sigh-hoot, high pitched, not in ululation, but something just as exotic and particular to them.

Many of these women hugged each other with real tears running down their faces.  The ones doing the crying did not seem to be the losers, only those who had campaigned for these titles for friends.

Hysteria broke out in one of the colored t-shirt clusters when Miss Ole Miss was announced.  Apparently, that was the loveliest title to have, better, perhaps than Homecoming Queen, but I have no idea why.  Apparently, the next day, someone accused the winner of cheating and demanded a recount.  Again, I have no idea why.

What is this place, and why do they care about the things they care about?  Why don’t  they care about the things I cared about at their age?  Why do they all want to conform to an exclusive group’s standards?  I was desperate to be an individual when I was their age.  Why don’t these sororities integrate more?  Everyone, black and white, is smart and pretty here.

And what am I doing down here among them?  How did this happen?  When I teach my students that Immanuel Kant said that the slogan of the Enlightenment should be, “Don’t be afraid to use your own reason,” do they feel afraid to use it anyway, in case they might offend sorority sisters or fraternity brothers?  Have I entered a culture, like in certain Asian cultures, where the needs of the group are traditionally paramount, valued well above the needs of the individual, and my rugged individualism feels like a fundamental rejection of their values?  Is it odd that these conformists call themselves “The Rebels” and elect a Colonel Rebel?

I left a little confused.  I heard one sorority, the one that had Miss Ole Miss in it, chanting something in unison.  I could not make out the words, quite.  I am Xena in this Greek world.  I am a Goth (perhaps former Goth) invading Rome.  I don’t speak the language, not quite.  Despite careful study of the grammar, something is lost to me in the area of idiom.

Who are these people?  Who am I among them?

I am squinting at them.  It might just be a weather balloon.  I don’t know.  I know it seems to follow a direction other than the wind.  This might be my close encounter of the third kind.

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