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

November 11, 2015

My Yankee Blood at Vicksburg

Living in Vicksburg, Mississippi for three years, I was not particularly welcomed by all in town.  I drove up with New York plates on my car, and even though I baked all my neighbors cookies, only one very sweet woman across the street stopped by to thank me.  The rest seemed to sneer about me half behind my back but with enough scorn for me to catch their disdain for me.

I made a few friends, but they were the exceptional people in town — an African-American woman chemist, a pioneer in her field, a white woman attorney for the ACLU and her historian husband, a retired nurse, and a few others — but while making friends for me has never been hard, in Vicksburg it was like trying to crack a joke at a non-Irish funeral.  My efforts fell flat. The second my Yankee accent poured out of my mouth, I was less than perfectly welcome.  I used to joke that since the neighborhood was so cold to me, I ought to show them how little I cared by getting four big German Shepherds and naming them after Yankee Civil War Generals.  That way at sundown, I could call them inside every day — “Come on, Tecumseh!  Come on Ulysses!  Time to eat!”

Sometimes, historic doesn't involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

Sometimes, historic doesn’t involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

I thought that if they were going to treat me like an occupying invader, why not act like one?  After all, what had I ever done to them?

It’s true that Vicksburg is filled with the evidence of a siege to this day.  My wedding was celebrated in the antebellum mansion occupied as Yankee headquarters during the War Between the States.  There are still holes in the floor from Confederate cannon ball fire.  We consummated that marriage in a bed where General Grant slept, though they had changed the mattress since his departure.  Annual reenactments take place on the battlegrounds of the Battle of Vicksburg, and there is a huge Civil War cemetery and park in town.  While many tourists come to Vicksburg for the casinos, some come to remember that battle and to pretend to be in it.

I never thought that the battle had a thing to do with me personally, until my cousin Marcia did a little research on one of our great-great grandfathers, Andrew Gast.  Apparently, as an eighteen year-old farmer in Indiana, he decided to join the Grand Army of the Republic.  He marched through Tennessee, Alabama, and he eventually ended up in Vicksburg.  He was honorably discharged in Vicksburg, possibly by Grant, possibly as he signed papers in the room where I consummated my marriage.  He lived to be old.  His corpse was not left on a Civil War battlefield.

Our family, like so many Yankee families, has never had much reason to reflect on the Civil War, unlike so many Southern families, who either gained their freedom or lost their primacy over others, maybe lost limbs or lives, maybe lost pride, during the conflict.  For my great-great grandfather, it seems to have been a momentary adventure, neither tragedy nor trauma.  The fact that he walked away in one piece from the siege of Vicksburg implies he probably took down a Confederate or two, that he at least fired a few volleys in their direction.

I suddenly imagine my great-great grandfather, then a teenager, striding vigilantly through the marshy reeds near our house, stepping carefully around the places where he might make noise.  I imagine him waiting for orders, getting bored between commands the way my college freshmen students do in my class.  I wonder if he slept a night in the big house where my wedding was — Yankee soldiers slept there if they were sick or wounded, and he took sick while he was there, a severe fever, one which he survived.

I see my Vicksburg neighbors’ dislike of me in a slightly different light. I was an invader after all.  My arrival in Vicksburg was a reenactment of my great-great grandfather’s invasion, only without uniforms and guns.  I was once there, or my blood was, to kill them. It wasn’t history.  It was me.  I was the enemy.  I remain the enemy of the Confederacy, though not of the South or contemporary Southerners, which I still love.

I cannot know my great-great grandfather Gast’s motives for joining the army, but given the subsequent politics of my family, I can imagine easily that he was against slavery.  I, too, would wade through a marsh vigilantly to help end it, were that necessary.  Where Vicksburg remains any kind of bastion of bigotry, I remain an enemy invader.  Where it is a free city, one where there are many highly educated people, a thriving black middle class, and a place of new ideas, I am a friend, not marching but frolicking.  My marriage South, it respects the traditions that do not oppress.  After all, I may have sojourned in the very house my ancestor sojourned in Vicksburg.  I certainly came there with peaceful intentions, but I occupied just like he did.

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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.

July 19, 2015

Quit Calling Me a Racist While I Wave My Racist Flag at You! — South Carolina, Oklahoma and Confederate Flag Backlash

My colleague James Travis Rozier noted on Facebook that it was very hot yesterday in Columbia, South Carolina, where members of the KKK were assembling to protest the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the State Capitol.  He said that he was almost feeling sorry for them if they were dressing in those white hoods and robes in that weather.  I remarked that it might be hot in July in the South, but it’s nowhere near a hot as it will be for those Klansmen when they arrive in Hell, where they are surely going.

Just preserving heritage? Who are they kidding?

Just preserving heritage? Who are they kidding?

The people who assembled in South Carolina in favor of the removed flag — and allow me to say briefly how glad I am it was removed — were “just trying to preserve their heritage.”  The problem with that logic, even if I ignore their shouts of “white power,” and the gorilla gestures some made (like the man pictured front and center with his hand held high did) at the many African-American counter-protesters, is that having appropriated the Stars and Bars as its banner, the KKK could only be protesting the removal of its own flag from the capitol.  Of late, the Klan has tried to reframe the way people identify it.  It claims to be a Christian organization — but how many churches burn a cross on an enemy’s lawn?  How many lynch and burn other group’s churches?  They are no more a Christian organization than the Nazis are a quaint youth group designed to promote the outdoors.  They have claimed to be in favor of white heritage the way that other groups in America promote the interests and advancement of people of color, but that’s a sad joke, too.  The NAACP, for instance, doesn’t define its success in any way by the exclusion of others but by the inclusion of people of color in places where they were largely excluded by social standards, and they have never been advocates or perpetrators of violence.  The Klan was founded as a way to terrorize dark-skinned people, Irish immigrants and Jews.  The purpose of the sheets they wore was to protect the perpetrators of crimes from identification in the commission of acts of terrorism.  The only way they have ever tried to advance white people is by killing, burning, maiming, and frightening others.  And the Confederate Battle Flag has been their chosen flag for all they stand for and want to accomplish.

But that flag is supposed to represent Southern pride, right?  Pride in what, pray tell?  I love the South and could rattle off hundreds of things for which I believe Southerners are rightfully proud — but that flag was designed by a man who explained to those who first flew it that its purpose was to represent the white race’s supremacy over enslaved black peoples in Southern States.  Those who chose to fly it understood and accepted this as its message.  A century hence, some Southerners say it only represents North versus South tensions, not racial tensions — but why wave it in Oklahoma as the first Black President of the United States drives by if not for racist expression — particularly since Oklahoma never flew that flag during the Civil War?  What else could that flag possibly communicate to anyone other than the flyers of the flag hate it that President Obama is black?

President Obama has not gotten embroiled in the flag-changing politics surrounding recent responses to racism in the South.  He has never had much to say about  that flag as President.  So what would be the political purpose of flying the flag other than the Klan’s purpose — to somehow say that Obama as a black man should fear white Oklahomans?

Have these people no shame?

I saw something sad that someone posted on Facebook — a photo of a young black man, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts near an open pick-up truck’s flat bed from which flew a Confederate Battle Flag.  The person who posted it did so to demonstrate that the flag wasn’t racist at all.  After all, if one black person is willing to stand next to the flag, that must wipe out centuries of oppressive meaning for black folks, right?  How idiotic!  I feel sorry for that young man by the battle flag and for his momma, too.  He is doing nothing new, in fact.  Franz Fanon, author of Black Skins, White Masks, would call him internally colonized — a young man living (one might likely think) in East Texas among white people who use the n-word to insult him and others.  So why would he adopt the symbol of the white community for himself?  Well, as Fanon says, the oppressed believe the worst about themselves, and, “the colonized [person] is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.”  Fanon, who was himself a black man from a French colony, talks about people internalizing Frenchness and disdaining those things considered African and therefore disdained by the colonists.  Any young man of color who poses next to the Confederate flag (unless he just took it down from where it was flying — like Bree Newsome did — though she had no time to pose before she was arrested) has adopted the oppressive attitudes of racism about black people.  I feel sorry for him and wish he had been at the counter-protest in Columbia with people who knew that the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol both historically and presently of racial oppression.

Fortunately, many white Southerners, the people who run NASCAR, Ole Miss Football Coach Hugh Freeze, and others, are able to see the harm this symbol does to the present-day South and the evils of the past that it preserves in lieu of those many things that the South might rightfully be proud to call its heritage.  They are calling from the removal of the flag as a symbol of official things.  They are aware of its use by violent people to violent ends and its original expression of support of slavery.  Today, many Southerners, like South Carolina State Assemblywoman Jenny Horne, a Republican and a descendant of Jefferson Davis, understand the battle flag symbolizes something absolutely NOT Southern — a lack of hospitality toward all.  As she tearfully argued for the flag to come off the flagpole at the capitol, she talked about how the flag was insulting to her colleagues and her friends.  Southerners as a whole value hospitality and cordiality well above foolish and petty ideas of non-existent racial superiority, well above the Confederate Dead, who are, however tragically, moldering in the grave and won’t be attending any more cotillions.  It’s the present Southerners, Horne and others have argued, who need to be welcomed, one and all, to the important and the impressive things the South does right.  The best way, they argue, to preserve heritage is to continue be who Southerners have always meant to be — kind, strong, resourceful, polite, faithful, dignified, and free — and to do so in a manner that embraces every Southerner’s history, not just the plantation owners’ history, but the history of those whose backs were whipped on those plantations, and those who lost limbs and eyes fighting to keep those plantation owners rich while they returned to poor subsistence farms and tried to make sense of a senseless war, a tattered battle flag in hand, youth destroyed with no sufficient explanation for the madness of the brutality they had faced.  The flag that the Klan clings to is a symbol of dishonor rather than the real honor of people of people not hooded but hoodwinked by a system that made the few rich and oppressed the many.

I will fight to the death for the rights of individuals to wave that flag, however misguidedly, but I am thrilled that the flag has been pulled down and is being pulled down off of government institutions.  As John Oliver said so well, the Confederate flag ought to be a marker for the rest of us to recognize the most horrible people in the world, not a symbol of any state where the descendants of slaves pay taxes.  And the racists are nice to let us know they’re in town so we can cross to the other side of the street if we like to avoid any lightning bolts God might like to throw at them.

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.

April 11, 2015

Y’All Are Cordially Invited, All Y’All!

Calling all fans of this blog,of cultural assonance and dissonance between North and South — Monday, April 20, 7 pm, at the Powerhouse Theater in Oxford, Mississippi, on the corner of University Avenue and Fourteenth Street, I am inviting you all to a word party.

My book, The White Trash Pantheon, which sets the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South, decries  idolatry and excesses of white privilege, and is above all, filled with fun and humor, with prosody and twang, is being released by Vox Press.

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm!  Come on down!

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm! Come on down!

The party is being called “A Moonshine Cotillion.”  I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of actual moonshine, but the moon will be shining, I can guarantee that.

If you attend, there will be refreshments, bonhomie, and a dash of ribaldry.  There will be reasons to laugh, hopefully not at me but with me.  I have written these poems with a heart for the heartland.  I promise that my intention is to enjoy the South, to slap the snooty off classical literature while retaining its edifying qualities, and to uplift an American vernacular, all in the tradition of Mark Twain, who like me, had an existence both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line.  His Huckleberry Finn is an edifying book, but it also found light-handed ways of telling the truth about people’s hypocrisies, about injustice, about Southern paradox.

I hope The White Trash Pantheon approaches Southern living in a parallel way.  There are times where I am making fun of somebody’s momma, but it isn’t your momma.  It is Oedipus’ momma, though she talks with a drawl when she interrupts her own funeral like Tom Sawyer did.

I promise to bring the funny.  I promise to bring the delight I take in this magnolia-strewn landscape.  I hold the people I have met down South in high esteem, I promise you.  I have listened to — well, to be completely honest, I have eaves-dropped on — salient conversations down here, and I have found in them the cadence of Tennessee Williams divas in the church hall kitchen, the gritty twang of Faulknerian figures in the garages on the county roads.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

I have seen what Ulysses S. Grant saw in Port Gibson, Mississippi, a town between Vicksburg and the bayoux, a town he encountered on his march to conquer the Confederacy, but in the midst of his scorched Earth policy, destroying all sorts of settlements in his army’s wake, he came upon this sleepy, white-boarded, colonnaded oasis between cornfields and cotton, and when his colonels asked him if they should torch the place, he looked at the church steeple — the one in the photo here, with a golden hand atop it pointing an index finger heavenward, and he declared, “No, don’t burn it.  It’s too beautiful to burn.”

I, the Carpetbagger de tutti Carpetbaggers, I, too, declare that the South is too beautiful to burn.  I am in this world of twang and Tabasco, but I am not of it.  That said, when I look at the springtime trees in bloom, at the gilded glove pointed heavenward, I, too, may stand to admire this landscape.  I would change injustice.  I would open eyes.  But I am not a practitioner of scorched Earth.  I have gone native, as native as a non-native can in the New South.

I am not of the South, but I am in the South.  I am making my official debut Monday, April 20th, as a Southern writer, not of Mark Twain, but after Mark Twain.

Come have a slice of corn bread and some bacon-wrapped sugar sausages. Come have a glass of a substance I will neither confirm nor deny.  All y’all, y’all are cordially invited.  The inestimable honour of your presence is requested.

December 7, 2014

Becoming a Southern Writer

Simone de Beauvoir wrote “On ne nait pas femme; on le devient.” — one is not born a woman; one becomes one.  What DeBeauvoir thinks is true for women is not what Southerners generally think about Southerness.  One is born a Southerner.  “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” some used to say.  I wasn’t even born in South Brooklyn — so how can I become Southern, much less that paragon of the intellectual Southerner, post-Jefferson — a Southern writer?

This blog surely began about my total and devastating culture shock moving South.  I was already a writer, already publishing a great deal about New York and particularly about the immigrant experience.  I wrote a chapbook of poetry that was about 9/11 and its aftermath, its roots in a cultural tension between Islam and Western values, Counterterrorist Poems, which received some notoriety.  I was a New York writer.white trash pantheon cover2

I decided that the beauty of being a writer is that one has the right, even the duty, to make stuff up.  I am not really a journalist.  I have written non-fiction.  This is creative non-fiction.  But that trend, so prevalent these days, to believe that the modern (or post-modern) writer in America is supposed to be confessing some memoir of his or her experience, I buck that.  Like a New Yorker, I said, “Buck the buck out of you, you bucking buck,” or something like that.  I decided if Mark Twain could move to Connecticut and be a Southern Writer, I could, despite being quite the Yankee, move South and write what I observed and heard and be some kind of a Southern writer.  I have no desire to pretend to be more Southern than I am, but I am interested in all kinds of people.  I do indeed pretend that I can observe people and things in a Southern landscape and respond artistically to them.  Try and stop me if you can.  If I am breathing, I am writing about the South as long as I spend time there.

So what did I do? I moved South as planned when my Southern husband proposed to me, and I listened.  I listened to everyone and everything, observed (as evidenced in earlier posts of this blog) the differences between the way Southerners do things and the way I was used to doing things.

I wrote a bunch of poems inspired in part by the simple fact that Southern towns are so often named with classical Greek names — part New Testament, part ancient democracy.  In the South, one finds Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Troy,Thebes, Sparta, and so many other places that testify aspirationally to either a time of early church revelation or noble Hellenic origins of philosophy and golden age.

But if one looks at the towns with these names, there is more Waffle House than Pauline Epistle, more Piggly Wiggly than Socrates under a tree with his young minions dropping knowledge.

Then, there is the Lost Cause Mythology of the South, the belief that (white) Southerners belong to a noble confederacy that lost its way only when Sherman burned Atlanta, that they were sucked into a Yankee capitalist Babylon only after they surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, leaving behind a halcyon nobility for the grasping, prosaic greed of an industrial economy.  In truth, the South did only begin to seriously industrialize after the war, but as for grasping greed, it is hard to imagine anything more greedy than the captivity and forced labor of many people for the benefit of a very few.  The poor white farmer in the South was surely trampled underfoot during the Civil War, made into cannon fodder for the interests of slave-holding millionaires, but halcyon?  Nobility?  No — it was hard to live in the South for the majority of its residents before the Civil War, both white and black, and it was hard afterwards.  The cause that was lost was neither noble nor mythic.

And lastly, there was all that ancient literature from the older places named Athens and Corinth that I taught my students.  I kept telling them, “The Greek Gods don’t behave like law-giving paragons of virtue.  They are like Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power.”

After explaining this enough, a lightbulb went on above my head — what if the Greek gods were ACTUALLY Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power?  What if this reported nobility evoked by both lost cause mythos and Grecian names were a way to unlock the South?

The light bulb above my head attracted bugs.  I was in the South on a sultry night, after all, I swatted them away and started writing.

I started a series of poems, all dramatic monologues, writing back to classical literature.  My Dionysus was a moonshiner.  My Helen of Troy was a beauty contest winner who ran off with the wrong guy.  My Artemis liked to hunt with Annie Oakley’s gun at night.  The Southern pictures I painted were both based on composite observations, careful, careful listening to Southern voices, and a writing back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  They were at once noble and perverse, simultaneously dignified and slatternly.  I called the collection The White Trash Pantheon.

When I read them aloud for the first time for a Southern audience, as so many of them had been published by Southern literary journals, I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t be tarred and feathered.  The Southerners who heard them recognized these people and laughed with me.  It turns out that in the South, “White Trash” is a cultural category that everyone believes exists, and nobody believes they belong to, whether others think they are trashy or not.  In declaring my pantheon of contemporary classical figures white trash, I insulted nobody personally.

A Southern Press, Vox Press, is publishing this collection next year.  At this year’s Southern Writers Southern Writing conference in Oxford Mississippi, I won a prize for selections from the collection, a prize given for not only the best writing, but also for the writing that is judged to be the most Southern.  I have become a Southern writer.

Mark Twain, I may not have worked on a riverboat on the Mississippi.  I may not have been born in Hannibal (another Southern town name with classical world aspirations), but if Tom Sawyer can fake his own death and resurrect, if he can get the whole neighborhood of boys to participate in his games, I feel I have learned from you the recipe for being a Southern writer, anyway.  i have listened carefully.  I have responded to a cultural need to feel attached to legend.  I have, like someone wading out into a river in a white choir robe, allowed myself to be ceremonially buried and resurrected, not in this instance as a new creature in Christ Jesus, which bless the Lord, I already am, but as a new creature in Huckleberry O’Hara, in Rhett Singer, in Blanche Christmas, a newly baptized Southern writer, a witness to things below the Mason-Dixon line, not uncritical — for who among the great Southern writers offers no criticism — but ever lyrical, ever hoping that the great ancients actually start to inform vernacular life, ever watching for the rapture, ever believing, not that South will rise again but that it may actually get up and stretch a bit, walk around and look out in all directions for the very first time, a distinct cultural entity, self-aware and genuinely penitent, and love its neighbor as itself the way I have grown to love the South as my neighbor.

May 17, 2011

Apres Moi le Deluge — why the news coverage of the flooding of Vicksburg is an exaggeration

See that hill that the Yankees are taking? That's where I live -- Vicksburg. Go Yanks!

I don’t mean to demean the troubles of the small number of families in the Vicksburg who have been flooded out of  their homes.  However, the national news coverage of my post-New-York home town of Vicksburg of late has worried a number of people I know.  They imagine me wading through muck trying to salvage my DVD player.    But the reason why Vicksburg was a crucial part of the Civil War was that it was placed on a high bluff ABOVE the Mississippi River.

If I watched Fox News, and I don’t, I might think I was gathering the animals two by two to repopulate the Earth after the water recedes.  CNN has filmed the train depot more than half underwater — and it is indeed more than half underwater right now.  However, what the news doesn’t show you is that the entire town is up a very tall,  steep hill from this place.  The illustration from the Civil War to the left shows the geography of  the town.  Where most of us live is where the flag is planted in the distance.  The casinos are at the riverbank — so is a defunct railway station that the town has been planning to make into a museum.  So are some vacant lots and a very few houses.

But the news media is making it look like the Johnstown Flood.  In fact, it is nothing of the kind.  Things are far worse in Memphis, in Louisiana, and in other places outside of town.  Not only are the Army Corps of Engineers working to keep the water back from the  casinos — the Army Corps of Engineers lives here — the Waterways Center of the Army Corps of Engineers is up here, and these engineers are defending their own houses from the deluge.  They couldn’t be more personally motivated to get it right, and they are truly doing their very best work despite very difficult circumstances.

We in Vicksburg are mostly doing alright.  My husband volunteered to help move the four families at our church that might have their houses flooded, but he has not been called off the bench because they have not been victims of any high waters.

Ironically, parts of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? were filmed in Vicksburg, and that film climaxes with a large flood.  Admittedly, this narrative is not yet ended, but the water is supposed to crest in three days.   There are no rain storms in the forecast.  The media should cover the people who are really suffering.  Most of  them don’t live in this town.

October 22, 2010

The Dental War of Northern Aggression

My smile is a Yankee/Confederate battleground

The first shot was fired by the South — I’m not talking about Fort Sumter; I’m talking about my mouth.  Normally, I’m the one that shoots my own mouth off, but I specifically blame the South for firing the first shot in what has become a dental battle, perhaps the first dental battle between the states.  However, as this blog entry will attest, it was a war of Northern Aggression from that point onward.

My tooth fell out when I was chewing on something fried.  I refuse to blame a history of poor dental hygiene for my tooth’s demise.  I blame the hash browns and the mysterious atmosphere that makes people have buck teeth or gap teeth in hick towns in the American heartland.

It didn’t happen at Waffle House, but it might have — Kathy Griffin called Waffle House a “tooth-optional restaurant” in one of her stand-up routines.  I love Waffle House, and I must say, one does see a few grins with gaps in them there.

My friend, Lauretta Hannon, author of The Cracker Queen told me, “The initiation is complete: you are now officially a Cracker Queen.”

What is it about the gravitational pull below the Mason-Dixon Line that makes women’s teeth fall out with more frequency?  Why was the Earth demanding I return my teeth to her?  Won’t my bones be powdered in a grave some day?  Can’t the Earth wait until then?

I found my way to Dr. Steve Wooten, DDS, of Oxford Mississippi.  His website included a variety of scary grimace “before” pictures and movie-star smile “after” pictures, and nothing about him in his photo looked truly menacing, even if I squinted and imagined him armed with a tiny pick and a mirrored rod.  Although, because of the photo’s background — a bunch of trees, I wondered if Mississippi dental work was generally performed outside:

He looks harmless, but look at the photo background -- is his dental practice outside?

Dr. Wooten and his staff — Sam, a very pretty receptionist with a sweet, high voice, and Valerie, his dental hygienist, who is also quite sweet and gracious, in fact, work indoors, not outdoors, in a brightly lit office not far from the University of Missisippi.  Everyone there is sweet as pie, except that pie might cause cavities, which they, of course, try to prevent.   Dr. Wooten managed to successfully reattach my tooth to itself using a technique rather more sophisticated than the one that I used in second grade when I glued macaroni bits onto a piece of construction paper.  I would recommend him and his practice to anyone.

Even though I am a big scaredy cat when it comes to dentistry — I’m always afraid of getting hurt, and I’m like my dog Oscar, who never likes it when somebody sticks a finger in his mouth that he can’t bite on with impunity — Sam, Valerie, and Dr. Wooten were kind, gentle, patient, and many of the other things that it says to do in 1 Corinthians 13 when someone has a dental appointment.

Very reasonably, as Dr. Wooten is, in fact, a reasonable man, he wanted to see my old X-rays, which were taken in a dental practice in Brooklyn.

The people there, as I did indeed remember, were nowhere as sweet as Valerie and Sam.  If I imagine Valerie and Sam wearing other clothes than scrubs, I imagine them wearing dresses, headed off to church with family members.  The receptionist and the hygienist of my Brooklyn dental office, if I imagine them out of scrubs, they were more like a pair of tag-team wrestlers — “Lady Destruction” and “The Scowler,” perhaps, wearing studded masks.

I remember fear walking into the office of my dentist in Brooklyn.  She herself was nice enough, but perhaps I found her more so in contrast to her support staff, who poked me with sharp tools and told me to bite down on things that cut my gums while I wore a lead apron.  I remember drooling and bleeding, but other details are foggy.

Sam, back in Mississippi, who does not look like she makes anybody bleed, very appropriately called my dental office in Brooklyn, where she said to me, very politely and respectfully about my homeland, that she just “wasn’t quite sure” she had understood them or that they could understand her Southern drawl.

In the end, they told her they weren’t going to send my x-rays and slammed the phone down on her.  The Scowler could hear, surely, the meekness and deference in Sam’s voice, and in Brooklyn, nobody gets my x-rays, apparently, unless they are willing to attempt several holds in the ring.  If the Scowler slaps the mat, then another office can see my bicuspids from the inside out.

Everything, in fact, in Brooklyn, is more like tag-team wrestling than it is here.  People and their stuff get shuffled around, and while many people are lovely in Brooklyn, they rarely feel they have the time to acknowledge the humanity of a stranger or stop to smell the roses.  Smelling the coffee is more like it, and the stronger the better, because the pace is break-neck.  “The break-neck,” as I recall, was one of the holds my Brooklyn dentist used on me to get to my back molars.

Dr. Wooten looked at my current X-rays, the ones he took.  He pointed on the screen in his office to a back molar of mine and shook his head.  I asked him if I had been the victim of dimestore dentistry.  He told me that he could think of a word to call what he saw, but he didn’t know me well enough to say it to me, not to mention I’m a lady, and not Lady Destruction, either.

Was I the victim of dental abuse?

The good news:  I know the boss of Lady Destruction and The Scowler, and because they fear the wrath of upper management, I’m sure Dr. Wooten will get to look at my teeth from back in the day, for what it’s worth to him.

The bad news: Clearly, The War Between the States is still ongoing.  The University of Mississippi ordered a giant telescope from up North right before hostilities broke out, and so it was never delivered, and they have an observatory without a tool for observation to this day on campus.  Down the street, my new dentist, Dr. Wooten, is waiting for delivery of diagnostic imaging — and today, no train car is required, only a digital image and an e-mail click, and yet I sit here, mouth agape, not drooling, but ready to spit.

 

The Carpet Bagger’s Store is now open!  — http://www.cafepress.com/TheCarpetBaggersShop

October 13, 2010

The Land of Cotton — and other mythical landscapes

 

Old times here, apparently, are not forgotten

 

When European writers imagined the Orient — a distant place, vaguely understood, rarely visited — they invented a landscape in their minds, invented customs and people unlike the  real residents of the lands to the  East of Europe, and what they invented said a lot more about their own feelings than the reality of the lands to the East of them.

I am reading a great deal about problems of orientalism in literature, am writing about imaginary versions of Japan concocted by Anglo writers.

As I drove this Monday through landscapes of rolled haystacks bound with wire and cotton — fields and fields of it, stretching with loden green and tufts of white everywhere — I wondered if there might not be a similar mystical landscape version of the South popularized in the North.

And so there is:  Dixie.

Dixie the song was written by a Yankee from Ohio — Daniel Decatur Emmett in 1859.

The song was first publicly sung in a minstrel show in  New York City that year.  White men from the North pretending to be black men from the South sang these words:

Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton!

Old times there are not forgotten!

Look away, Look away, Look away Dixie Land.

I have not written it in the offensive imitation of ebonics that was the original language of the minstrel show because it makes me unhappy to do so.

Within a few years, this song about happy ex-slaves nostalgic for a life of slavery in the South became part of the mythology, fully adopted, mind you, by rebel troops as their fight song in the Civil War.

There was an imagined South — one where slaves happily sang as they picked cotton.  There were happy women in hoop skirts.  There were white men with suits and string bow ties and goatees.  There were, in this imaginary South, no real poor white people suffering as the  real poor white people did as subsistence farmers.  The imaginary South was a fun Broadway show South.

Here I stand in the real South, overlooking real and quite lovely cotton fields with a greyish tinge and gritty dirt clods.   I am glad I have no picking to do  of these tufts.  I much prefer this South, the one with the real people who are not always happy but are usually smiling anyway.

In Orientalist fantasies, there are often despots.  Despotism, according to a scholar named Grosrichard, is an important part of the fantasy.  In the fantasy of the South, there are despots, too.  The reality of a history of despotism cannot be ignored.  The South did hold slaves longer than the Northern states, and there have  been many incidents of violence against people of color.  However, in the North, the image that the Klan is pandemic in the Bible Belt — that is a fantasy that absolves the North to some degree of its present hate crimes.  Earlier this month, a horrible hate crime was committed in the Bronx against a man who was assumed by his  attackers to be homosexual.  New Yorkers understand this horrible crime within the context of a much larger community where not everyone is filled with hate, not by a longshot.  However, the idea persists in New York City that hatred is more universal here in Mississippi.

Standing here near a cotton field — admittedly being white, being blonde with blue eyes, hence not as easily a target of such forms of hatred as if I were an African-American woman — I’m not sure that this is so.  I tend to think that while there are still some people who are hateful, the vast majority of people behave more like their neighbor’s keeper in a way that New Yorkers do not, can not, given the vast number of neighbors New Yorkers have.  People say hello to strangers all the time.  Churches feed people and visit the sick (something they also do in New York, when they know who is sick in the community).   There are haters here, to be sure, but in New York, I think some of that is just more suppressed, not extinguished.  Look at the awful things the Republican candidate for governor of New York said this week.   New York is not hate-free.  Neither is the South.  However, the despotism is muzzled at least down here to some degree in the real contemporary South, at least compared to the imagined South of the song Dixie.

In his book Orientalism Edward Said talks about Gustave Flaubert‘s  interaction with a courtesan in Egypt — Flaubert had a few imaginary ideas about the way women were different in Egypt than in France.  To be fair to Flaubert, in strictly external and superficial ways, the women did look different and sound different.  That said, his ideas about Egyptian women were crude and reductive.

The ideas that Northerners have about women of the South are a bit silly.  They imagine Scarlett O’Hara saying, “Why fiddle dee dee!”  They certainly imagine every Miss America contestant from below the  Mason Dixon line.  There are women who cultivate the pageant and the belle images, to be sure, but it would be crude and reductive to imagine there are no feminists down here, no thinkers among women, no hilarious, goofy interesting and individualistic women.  I do think it is harder to be that way down here than up North, as I see a greater pressure to conform to the artificial standards of the cult of Southern womanhood.

So as I look at the field in the land of cotton — are old times forgotten here?  Look away — no, but perhaps they will be overcome yet.  Look away — no, but the South is reinventing itself.  Look away — but why would you look away?  These fields are beautiful, aren’t they? — Dixie Land.

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