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

June 25, 2015

Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful — and Why Taking Down the Confederate Flag Constitutes Substantive Change

Southerners have so much about which they might be proud.  I adore the South, truly, and I appreciate Southerners.

I started this blog having moved from Brooklyn to marry my husband in Mississippi.  We consummated our marriage on a bed that was slept in by Ulysses S. Grant in his antebellum mansion headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  That means our wedding night was practically a historical reenactment of a Confederate surge against Yankee defenses.  So with a sense of Southern heritage, my sojourn here began, and with respect for Southern traditions, my sojourn continues.

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

But what Southern traditions do today’s Southerners really want to embrace?  Is the average Southerner thinking that slave auctions ought to be brought back?  Do today’s Southerners believe in lynchings?  No!  The vast majority of Southerners are against what William T. Thompson, the creator of the Confederate Battle Flag, said about his stars and bars, namely, that his flag represents the struggle to “maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”  The majority of Southerners have intellectually accepted the idea of equality for all races under the law, and as for heaven, I am fond of the words that one Southern preacher, Kenneth Copeland, said: “If someone says he loves the Lord but hates another race, question his salvation, as the Word says he who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”  Southerners are capable of prejudice and of racial bias, but intellectually, the vast majority of Southerners don’t want institutionalized racism and violence.  They want things to be fair, though i wonder how clearly they imagine an equitable South.

When I talk to many white people here in the South, I sense they are hesitant to talk about race because it feels like a topic off-limits, though the racists in their midst are not at all timid.  Most white people I meet are not ugly racists, though their contact with people of color is limited by a de facto system of segregation that persists in many parts of America, even though the de jure system is officially abolished.  However, they all have at least one racist relative.  They often love that racist relative.  And in the South, it is considered very, very rude to contradict someone over the Thanksgiving turkey, especially if that someone is older than you are.

That said, it needs to be done. White Northerners are more likely, I think, to tell that racist relative that his or her comments are offensive.  I am definitely going to open my mouth when such a thing happens.  In fact, here’s a story of how I did one afternoon, and it will demonstrate how I have come to certain views about the quiet beliefs of Southern white people on the whole:

****

I had backed my car into a pole in the Ole Miss stadium parking lot, and I needed a new bumper.  I found myself an exceedingly honest auto body shop, Kenny’s auto body shop on University Avenue on the outskirts of Oxford, Mississippi.  Kenny told me I could wait while the work on my car was done by him and his several junior mechanics.  His is the kind of shop that attracts a number of middle-aged or older men who hang around and comment on the work being done, give unsolicited advice, or on the day I was there, stare at a Yankee woman’s chest and try to flirt with her in unctuous and illiterate ways.

The older man kept staring at my chest as he told me about how big his car was, and I ignored him as best I could until he told me in some manner I only half remember that he was better than those “n” -s (not using the word he used because it is so offensive.)

That’s when I turned to him and asked him how he knew I wasn’t an “N.”  He looked a little surprised.  He said, “With yer blonde hair and blue eyes, you caint be one.”

I told him I was a white “n,” and so was my husband — he, too, is a white “n,” and I told him that we liked souped up cadillacs, watermelon and fried chicken, and he’d better stop using that “n” word to stereotype us and insult us.

“Hey!” He protested, “I didn’t say all that!”

“Sure you did,” I said, “What else could you have meant by using a disgusting word like the N-word?  You brought it up, so let’s talk about it!”

He felt challenged in a way he was clearly unused to, and he left in a huff.

As the door shut behind him, I realized that all work by the men in this body shop had stopped some time ago.  All these guys were white, looking more than a little like Larry the Cable Guy, the kind of guys who chew tobacco and hunt on weekends, all Southerners, all white — and I admit I wasn’t sure what would happen next.  Would they send me away?  How would I get back to campus without my car?  Was I potentially in danger?

After a moment where you could have heard a Teitlist cap fall to the ground out of a blue jumpsuit back pocket, they came up one by one and shook my hand, congratulating me on finally serving up what this creepy man had been dishing out in their presence for many years, while they had stood silently and put up with what they, too, found offensive language.

“Why didn’t anybody say anything to this guy before, if everybody seems to feel the same way about him?” I asked.

They didn’t have a clear answer.  The man wasn’t a customer in their shop, just a guy who came to hang around and talk like that, they said, so it wasn’t exactly about customer service.

One finally offered, “Well, it’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody else, and nobody wants to be rude, because it will stick around as a story forever.”

This may be so, but the story that wasn’t sticking around forever was that this guy was a massive racist creep who deserved to be shunned.

Southern manners seems to allow the few truly rude Southerners to stay rude.  Southerners might live happier lives if they decided to stand up to jerks more often.

*****

So finally, Governor Bentley of Alabama decided to quietly take down the flag without a debate, and everybody is still who they were before — or are they?  Is this a cosmetic change?  Or is this a change that materially changes the discourse of the South?

The reasoning behind the decision to take down the flag is perhaps best expressed by AL.com writer Kyle Whitmire, who writes, explaining to other Southerners, “For the South, the Confederate flag has been what a face tattoo in a job interview is for everybody else. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what it meant for us if it scared the hell out of everybody else.”

A lot of people in the South will tell Northerners and each other that the Confederate flag only represents pride in one’s heritage — but this symbol got hung over State capitols again during the period of the inception of the civil rights movement, some time shortly after Brown v. Board of Education in most instances. The pride expressed was in a segregated South.  The symbol has been used as recently as last year in the lynching of the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  Meredith, who was the first African-American admitted to the university, whose presence caused a race riot at the time instigated by white supremacists, had his image defaced last year by some racist frat boys who left a noose around his neck with a Stars-and-Bars-emblazoned flag hanging from it.  What was the nature of the pride expressed there?  And more importantly, do most Southern white people want a share of that pride?

While writers like Nicholas Kristof of The New York TImes are right to exhort the South to make material changes, it is easy for outsiders to the South and its manners to miss the enormity of this change.  Maybe the Southerners haven’t told their racist grandmothers to stop insulting people of other races at Christmas dinner yet, but this gesture is a step in that direction.  It says that Southerners realize that wrongs have been done recently using a symbol of the past, and the South most Southerners want to live in isn’t violent toward people of color, and it’s fair, though the parameters of that fairness have yet to be defined by most people.

So I rejoice at this news.  When I heard that Governor Bentley had taken down that hate flag, I turned on the Lynard Skynard and danced, thinking about where the skies are blue, singing songs about the Southland — and does your conscience bother you?  If you are from Alabama, your state has taken a weight off its collective conscience.  Congratulations, Alabama!  I agree with your sign — Alabama is the beautiful, and your banner is one of United States, not divided states and divided people.

March 19, 2010

Gallantry Against Gall — on Southern Chivalry

Chivalry is not dead, not in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the ghosts of Civil War Soldiers are still occasionally spotted, where reenactments of the siege take place annually, where some of  the houses, alas, not mine, are straight out of a  Margaret Mitchell antebellum fantasy.

Chivalry is not dead.  It is not even really wounded.  It is not even stunned, the way a bug gets slightly stunned  by a pesticide it has already survived, by the poisonous culture of today.  However, chivalry is not alone in the South today.  Chivalry lives next to unimaginably bad manners, and perhaps it always has.

Chivalry is not dead in the historic town of Vicksburg

On one hand, the one that is getting kissed, perhaps, in this photo, men are still gallant.  Yes, I said gallant, not just because hand-kissing still exists once in a blue moon.

For some reason, I have always been the kind of woman who gets her hand kissed, even on the beach.  It started when I was twelve.  Throughout my young years, young adulthood, and then, now, in my — ahem — prime,  men have chosen that gesture to express their feelings about me, or maybe they thought since conventional methods to get me alone wouldn’t work, perhaps old-fashioned ones would work better.  Maybe I have nice hands.  Maybe I’m just too tall to kiss on the lips.  Whatever the reason, men kiss my hand.  Here, my husband kisses my hand.  I don’t know that he has ever performed that gesture with another woman — he doesn’t strike me as the hand-kissing type altogether, too modern, but with me, it feels natural to him to do so.

However, as I said, I am not just talking about hand-kissing.  I’m talking about real, unimaginably old-fashioned reenacted gallantry.

For instance, we had our electrical contractors, from a company called without a whisper of irony Joe Gay Electric, in the house installing new lights and making slight repairs.  I was in the house making sure my wishes were carried out.

One of the Joe Gay men, a sweet-faced guy named Pete, asked me very politely if I might not have a needle.  At that point, I had unpacked nothing, so I apologized that no, I did not have one.   The foreman asked him why he needed a needle.

“To drain the blood out of this thing.”

He held up  a thumb that had received some kind of significant trauma under the nail.  It wasn’t quite bad enough to go to the emergency room,  but almost, and he looked like he was suffering.

“You sure did bang up your thumb, Pete!” Said the foreman, examining it under a light, “I’m surprised I didn’t hear you scream none.  That must have hurt!”

“Well,” Pete said sheepishly, leaning his head in my direction, “I couldn’t cuss with a lady present.”

Because I was there, he felt he couldn’t trust himself not to curse  in pain, so he held it in — a wounded rebel soldier who would not offend his hoop-skirted hostess as the minie hit him.  I found myself uttering words I thought I would never say, not in the twenty-first century, not out of this Brooklyn mouth where such a construct does not linguistically exist:

“I thank you,  sir, for your gallantry.”

Such a phrase was surely uttered by Melanie Wilkes between the barbeque at Twelve Oaks and Sherman’s takeover of Atlanta.  Such a phrase would not have been uttered even by Scarlet O’Hara, who would have found it too mealy-mouthed, unless  she was trying to charm something out of someone.  Yet, it came out of my mouth, here in Vicksburg, in my own home.

Other men open doors, walk me to the place I am going  where I am lost, carry my  packages when I  am overburdened, this without expectation of any return but of perhaps some word of thanks.  Since moving South, I have been the recipient of some chivalry, and I’m not pregnant, not elderly, not infirm,  and not so luscious as I might inspire men to do anything at all to speak to me.  There are plenty of chivalrous men.  No, Southern chivalry is  breathing, walking around, and ordering grits for breakfast at Waffle House.

However, chivalry co-exists with some of the worst manners I have ever even heard of.

The flip side of the Confederate coin.

Remember that I come from Brooklyn,  a place where the signs welcoming one to the Borough say “fuggetaboutit,” instead of , “welcome, gentle visitors, to our humble abode.”

Men shove women out of the way in an effort to get a cab in a rain storm in New York City.  They bump into each other and don’t say, “excuse me.”   They complain about each other within earshot of each other.  At best it’s frank, but at other times, New Yorkers can be downright rude.

That said, I have come to understand that certain Southerners, the kind that end up on Jerry Springer throwing chairs, have worse manners than any I encountered in New York, and that’s saying something.

To the right of this text is a political illustration of a Southern representative in Congress in 1856 caning a Yankee congressman during a session.  Without going into what turned into a war between the states, that’s just bad manners, shocking, horrible bad manners.

A young man of my acquaintance down here recently lost his father.  An older man he knew and who did not like him took that particular moment as the time to tell this young man, while his father was dying, that his father was a no-good %&*%# who deserved to die.  If someone in New York tried being mean like that in a place where he could be overheard, even by strangers, he would find himself surrounded by people demanding an apology for the young man, even threatening him with violence if he didn’t apologize.  That didn’t happen in this case.

I remember reading in a short story by Allan Gurganus, the Southern writer, the following phrase, “Now there’s mean, and then there’s country mean.”

We’re talking country mean.

A woman I have some contact with had every reason to thank me.  I had done a large number of very nice things for her daughters, purchased them presents, treated them honorably, and generally showed them kindness.  Far from being grateful, she subsequently went out of her way to insult me in front of her daughters and my husband.

I was kind enough to get a young woman down here a designer purse from New York, precisely the kind she said she dreamed  of owning.  Not only did she not thank me, she insulted Yankees the next time she saw me.  Then she had the nerve to ask for another designer purse.

I can hear all  the Brooklyn girls wagging their heads, shouting, “Oh no she di-nt!”  Oh, yes, she did.  No one in NYC would ever expect a second act of kindness after a display like that of bad, bad manners.

So why do chivalry and Jerry Springer manners cohabit this region of the country in quite this way?  I have been pondering this.  Perhaps the people with really good manners are just too polite to tell the people with really bad manners where they can go.

Me, I’m from Brooklyn.  I’m a lady.  People kiss my hand, even on Coney Island Beach — seriously!  I think that the best of manners must be tempered with a measure of frank  confrontation.  No one should countenance bullies.  Bitchiness followed by the words, “bless her heart” is still bitchiness.  In Brooklyn, we tell people who are rude they are being rude.  Occasionally, it may come to blows, but not with me — I’m six feet tall, and I look like I know a good lawyer if my mere physicality doesn’t intimidate someone rude.  Most of the time, we don’t invite the rude people back, the way they do around here.  My husband was surprised that I would not invite the rude girl who insulted Yankees and wanted new purses from the Yankees she insulted to our wedding.  People down here, the chivalrous ones, they just keep the wheels turning, never confronting the ones who abuse the social system.  In Brooklyn, we call people out.  Then we either fight, or — we just fuggetaboutit.

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