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?

December 1, 2010

Searching for Kosher Chicken in Porkchop Country

One of my old neighbors in Brooklyn. Where would he shop around here?

Hospitality is a Southern tradition, but apparently only one that anticipates fellow Christian guests.  When Lylah, my fabulous feminist Muslim friend, came down to Mississippi to be my maid of honor last winter, I went looking for things to cook for her.

You see, Lylah practices Halal, the muslim dietary laws, outlawing pork but also outlawing certain forms of cruelty to animals in butchery.  Observers of Halal are free to eat not only things produced by Muslim butchers but also kosher ones, as the same butchering practices are observed in both Islamic and Jewish traditions.

Near my home in Vicksburg, there is a large Kroger supermarket.  It is stocked with numerous international foods.  I can get cornichons and wasabi there.  However, we went all over the store, to the fresh and frozen meat sections, and the only thing that Lylah could eat that was a dead land animal was found in a Hebrew National hot dog package.  I asked the manager of the store where he kept the Kosher products, certainly thinking that Halal was out of the question in the middle of the deep South but that Kosher products must certainly be available.  He asked me to repeat the question.  I did, and then he told me he had never heard of Kosher meat — what was it?

As a New Yorker, I had never once imagined that Kashrut would not be practiced by somebody in my community.  Here is a picture of a man from my old neighborhood, the Seagate section of Coney Island, standing near a plastic palm tree on the beach.  Brooklyn is a thriving and diverse place, but Jews are particularly numerous in the population.

When I visited Israel, I ended up touring the various sites with a British photographer.  People would stop us and ask us where we were from.  When he said he was from the UK, they nodded politely, but when I said I was from Brooklyn, over and over again, the response was, “Brooklyn!  Maybe you know my cousin!”  Truthfully, maybe I did.  Maybe, even if I didn’t know the individual’s Jewish cousin, I had ridden the same trains, eaten in the same restaurants, bought meat at the same counters. Kosher meat is clean meat.  I often bought Kosher chickens because they are less bloody.

Jews are part of the fabric of New York to the point where the mainstream culture gets a lot of its slang from Yiddish — plotz, schmuck, schlep, kibbutz, shmear, and schmooze are all words used by people from every ethnicity in town.  When I use those words here, I have a fifty-fifty chance of being understood.  Antisemitism, while it exists to some small degree in New York City, is a form of anti-New York self-loathing.  If a New Yorker happens to say he hates Jews, whether he is Jewish or not, he is really saying he hates himself and his whole community, because the town includes most distinctly all that is wonderful about Jewish culture and tradition — a profound commitment to commonweal and social justice for the poor, a raucous sense of humor that defies every hardship, a respect for learning as something sacred and inviolate, a complex system of negotiating shared space between diverse peoples who get along for the most part without any violence, a profound sense of busy and vivacious commerce that is supple and willing to negotiate to fit the needs of the customer — all these New York things are also first and foremost Jewish things, and anybody who doesn’t think so has simply not done his homework.  Likewise, New York foods are often Kosher foods — I spent months when I first arrived here salivating at the memory of a chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli, of their Kasha Varnishkes, of their soul-affirming chicken soup.

When Lylah first arrived here, I honestly thought it would be no problem to find her some meat, especially since I knew that Vicksburg had a history of having a certain number of Jewish residents.  One of the grandest buildings in town where one can host a wedding used to belong to the local B’nai B’rith.  One day, when we were driving through a town that is absolutely lovely and not far from where we live, I saw a synagogue of messianic Jews.  I heard that there was another one in town as well.  I have only recently discovered that these are supersessionist Zionist Christians, most of them people of African-American descent who have converted to a false Judaism layered with an odd, legalistic Christianity.

The Jews have mostly left Vicksburg.  They were there largely before the Civil War, back when Mississippi had more millionaires in it than New York did, and while there is no evidence to suggest that the Jews of Vicksburg numbered among those richest people of the nation, they were often engaged in an international commerce of cotton, one where Vicksburg was a hub.  However, today there are few Jews in town.  Most have moved elsewhere.  To the best of my ability to see it, I find no particular incidents of antisemitic discrimination drove them away, only the same forces of commerce that compelled lots of people to leave the South in the early part of the twentieth century.

That said, the Jews are missing.  Lylah is coming to spend Christmas with us.  I need a Kosher butcher.  According to Superpages.com, there is not one Kosher butcher listed within hundreds of miles from my town.  The Jews are missing.

This makes me sad.  It explains the total lack of Kafkaesque irony in humor around here.  It explains the total lack of haggling.  It explains the work ethic, which is, let us say, moderated by a sense that if one moves too fast one might bust a button of one’s work shirt.  No one would ever say, as one hears fairly frequently in New York in business, “You pay me enough, I’ll finish the job yesterday.”  This is a New York sentiment, one entirely compatible with Jewish business practices.  The Jews are missing, and commerce runs, to borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara, “as slow as molasses in January.”  The Jews are missing, which means that any notion of commonweal is subsumed under what Republicans tout as Christian  family values — one that forgets the Bible’s admonition to care for the stranger in the land, something, according to my reading of the Bible, a nation does at its own peril, for God judges the nations, per my reading of all the prophets, according to the way it treats widows, orphans, strangers, and whoever else is vulnerable.  I am very sorry the Jews left Vicksburg, whatever it was that took them away.

When Lylah comes, I’ll have Kosher meat flown in from Long Island — Kosher.com has a site that will FedEx me some good chicken, lamb sausages, and beef good for stewing.  Then, she’ll go back, and ham will again be on my table.  When I want a certain kind of ironic humor, I’ll watch The Daily Show.  When I want things done more quickly, I’ll have to take a breath and remember that a New York minute is something I left above the Mason-Dixon Line.  When I want justice redolent with mercy, I’ll pray.  I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, just as the Bible instructs us to do — all of us, Jew and gentile alike.  I pray for peace.  Lots of families around here have young people in the military sent overseas to Afghanistan.  I pray for peace.  As for any complex negotiation with other peoples of shared space — not a problem in a black-or-white-divided community where people stick to themselves.  No space needs sharing — we all have room.  My husband and I integrate an otherwise black church.  I pray for peace.  I miss the Jews.

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