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

September 13, 2015

Late Southern Night — Stephen Colbert and his Charlestonian Hospitality

Late night comedy on network television has heretofore been dominated by men from above the Mason-Dixon Line, all with acerbic, often cynical humor, greeting guests in a manner that let them know the host thought the guests were lucky to have a seat on the couch.  While Jack Parr and Johnny Carson came from the Midwest and had therefore something like a folksy air about them at moments, at least in their earlier careers, since the 1980s, Late Night Television has been dominated by men from the Northeast.  Conan O’Brien is from Boston, and Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and David Letterman are all from New York City.  This has meant that the tone of The Tonight Show, The Late Show and other shows American viewers watch transmit a sense of a sardonic New York State of mind, a mindset that is by now familiar to Americans as part of staying up to watch Jay Walking, Stupid Human Tricks, or other comedy bits which are as much about laughing at people as laughing with them.  New York City would be an unbearable place to live for so many reasons if New Yorkers did not claim the privilege of laughing at the idiotic and pompous, the grating and the lewd, the lunatic and the confused among their neighbors.  It is a strategy that all New Yorkers without exception employ on a bad day to get through a stressful time; I speak from personal experience of living and working in New York for decades.

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

But publicly and openly laughing at one’s neighbors is not considered good manners in the South, and The Late Show’s new host Stephen Colbert doesn’t do this.  Colbert grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, on James Island, literally at walking distance from the site of the first Civil War battle, Fort Sumter.  In Charleston, even the least well-behaved schoolboy learns not to point and laugh at others in public, and by all accounts Stephen Colbert learned good manners in his devoutly Catholic household, replete with Irish guilt, something I can personally attest to as more damning than any fire-and-brimstone sermon if a school child messes up, because in the Irish concept of propriety, one has the ability to shame one’s ancestors at least four generations back and receive their moral condemnation from their seat in eternity. So Stephen — of the rowdy audience chants, “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” — treats people with more respect than a guy like Dave Letterman.

Understand Stephen Colbert loves to ridicule the rich and powerful, but he does so ironically, usually with a rhetorical strategy that the French call “se foutre de la geule de quelqu’un,” a term untranslatable but demonstrable.  The moment he won my heart as a fan was when on his old show The Colbert Report was when he interviewed a Georgia Congressman who was vehemently opposed to gay marriage.  Stephen told the Representative, “I love your strong stand against gay marriage, but it doesn’t go far enough.”  The Congressman was surprised.  Stephen continued, “Why not oppose not only issuing marriage licenses to gay people, but also drivers licences?  I mean, I don’t want those people gay-ing up Americas highways.”  It was a brilliant way to put the man on the defensive while appearing to agree with him.  The Congressman honestly did not seem to know whether Stephen were kidding.  For the record, he was.

2015-09-09-the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert03-gap

Late night television now has a new, dancing hospitality straight out of the South.

Now, in his new role as the host of a more mainstream entertainment show, Colbert has changed the tone from David Letterman’s old tone, which seemed always to be making fun of the institution of the show itself.  Stephen fully participates in the genre of show he hosts, and he and his band leader, Jonathan Batiste, dance to New Orleans jazz at the beginning of the show (Batiste is from Louisiana, as a one-minute listen to his music attests), and then the mood is cordial.  Stephen’s gentle and personal interview with Joe Biden (whom he clearly wants to run for president) about his son’s death is not the kind of interview Letterman could have conducted.  Shortly after September 11, 2001, Dan Rather came on Letterman’s show and burst into tears talking about the tragedy, and while Letterman was not unkind, dropping the sardonic Alfred E. Newman-like grin long enough to say he understood that Rather was crying because “he was human,” Letterman didn’t have a tender bone in his interviewer’s body, not on camera.  Stephen Colbert seems rather incapable of treating a guest as anything other than human.  In fact, his show’s band’s name is “Stay Human,” which he seems to be trying to do.

Apart from the manners and compassion that Stephen Colbert brings from the South to late night television, one sees Charleston in his and Jonathan Batiste’s polished manner of dressing.  Charleston men are often elegant, and while Stephen doesn’t have the navy nautical blazer over a pair of immaculately pressed khakis that one associates with Charleston gentility, he lacks the slouchy air that Letterman gave in every one of his suits, however well-tailored.  We see, too, an honest effort to welcome his guests and to make them feel at ease.  While his encounters with food on the show thus far have only been to stuff his mouth with Oreos while making fun of Donald Trump’s stand against the cookie, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Colbert serving sweet tea to guests.

Of course, The Late Show is a New York institution and will remain one.  The credits roll with a claymation view of the city emblazoned with guests’ names.  The Ed Sullivan Theater is on Broadway, not Meeting Street in Charleston.  But lots of humorists and figures of American theater moved from the South to make it in New York ,and New York is as glad to see Southerners as they are glad to see anybody, which means only that they grudgingly scoot down the subway bench to make room for them, too.

Having Stephen Colbert as a curator of American culture from his seat on Broadway offers the possibility that late night comedy might become a bit more conciliatory.  His first show ended with a group singalong of “I am Everyday People” with Southern singer Mavis Staples, and perhaps we might be entering an era of American singalong again, with different strokes for different folks.  If that’s true, allow me to be the first to agree, “Ooh, sha sha!  We got to live together!”

Advertisements

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.