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

January 10, 2017

Joan of Arc as Inkblot — What She Symbolizes Today and Where She Symbolizes It

On March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc wrote to the head of English occupying forces in the city of Orleans and told him that God was giving him exactly one chance to surrender the city to her, a fourteen year-old girl dressed in armor, the equivalent of drag king attire at the time, as women were not trained to be soldiers. “Faites raison au Roi du ciel, rendez à la Pucelle qui est envoyée ici par Dieu, le Roi du ciel, les clés de toutes les bonnes villes que vous avez prises et violées en France. Elle est ici venue de par Dieu pour réclamer le sang royal.” — Do right by the King of Heaven. Give back to the Maiden who is sent by God, the keys of all the good cities that you have taken and raped in France. She is come here by God to defend royal blood.. The English general in command laughed at the letter, though she said he would surrender Orleans peacefully to her that day or after bloodshed the next day.

The next day, to his astonishment, he surrendered Orleans to Joan.

joan-of-arc

The real Joan of Arc was a distorted fun-house mirror for the politics of the fifteenth century. She hasn’t changed a bit in that regard today.

For the people of the Late Middle Ages, Joan was either a great saint or a horrible witch, a nasty woman. Though within a generation of her execution Joan was exonerated of all charges and her inquisitor charged with heresy for ever bothering her, at the time of her death, they burned her at the stake for daring to dress like a man. The heresy charges couldn’t stick; Joan’s theology was conventional if eccentric in the extreme. The only policing that could kill her under rule of law was the fashion police. She wore armor, and the sentence for that was death.

Today, I submit to you that she remains a political figure who operates something like an ink blot. What is in the heart of the beholder reflects the interpretation, even the reenactment, of Joan’s unusual story.

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For the people of New Orleans, Joan of Arc is a symbol of French heritage and the traditions of an inclusive and costume-loving city. Her arrival right after epiphany marks the beginning of carnival season.

In New Orleans, rather than old Orleans, Joan remains a powerful symbol.  As the commander of the battle of Orleans and its hero, as well as the patron saint of France, it is easy to understand her potent symbolism for a town named for the place of her victory. She is an old French symbol for what one man I met called the capitol of a nation that never came into being, a new France on the Gulf of Mexico. This past weekend was the annual Joan of Arc parade, a parade to mark the official beginning of carnival season in New Orleans (yes, it’s a whole season down here, not a day, not even a week). People disguised in medieval costumes parade through the French Quarter, where they share a vin d’honneur toast with the head of the French consul, a priest from the Saint Louis cathedral blesses the crowd’s paper machie swords, and a general party in the carnival style. This is odd, really, as Joan of Arc was not what Bakhtin called “carnevalesque.” She was anti-libidinous, a virgin who remained so in order to retain the purity of her angel voices. Then again, she got killed for being in drag, and there are a lot of people in this town who might sympathize.  She was an uppity woman of the first order, and people here like women who know their own minds and aren’t afraid of much. So while she might not have invented Mardi Gras and would never have taken her top off if someone threw her some beads, she fits right in here.

Here, Joan is a symbol of French heritage of the city but not of a fierce French nationalism. While the occasion of a blessing at the cathedral, she is nevertheless ecumenical. The people who put on this annual parade are a social club, not a religious sisterhood. The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc claim their mission includes people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds and attempts to encourage artistry and revelry. They are interested in fun, not fundamentalism, as is in fact all of New Orleans. This is, after all, a city with pirate heritage, not just French heritage, and if a gal shows up in the Vieux Carre with a kind of butch haircut dressed as a guy, one hardly notices. As all of New Orleans revelries, the Joan of Arc parade is inclusive and frolicking. Joan symbolizes the old French ways of the city in the hands of the gender-complicated, a place of liberation from oppression not so much from the English as the Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip.

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For the National Front, the rough equivalent of Trump and the Alt-Right in France, Joan of Arc (depicted here as a gold statue behind party leader Marine le Pen) has been appropriated as a symbol of white nationalism, as Joan fought invading foreigners. Rather than chase away the English, Marine le Pen wants to chase away Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East.

There is another group this year that has embedded Joan into their mission, though they do so with far less revelry and fun, although they are known in France as “le FN.” The menacing alt-right has been growing in France, just as it has been here.  The National Front is the party of Marine Le Pen, whose mission it is with other white people to deport all the immigrants, all of them, particularly those of North African and Middle Eastern descent.In the 1980s, the party was an ugly joke, run by Jean-Marie LePen, Marine’s father, who said disgusting things to scare people like immigrants were bringing AIDS to France and that it could be spread by mosquito bites. Marine LePen is less crude and less confrontational than her father, but the party is capitalizing on France’s recent terrorist attacks to suggest that only white people should be considered French and that all others, regardless of place of birth, ought to be deported.

For the National Front, Joan is the scourge of the foreign incursion, a saint of France, a pure French girl who could be the vessel of a pure French white bloodline. She is a call to return to traditions long since considered too narrow in France by most people. The party is overtly racist, and they see Joan as a purifier of the race, giving that royal blood Joan mentioned in her letter by extension to all those whose families have been in France for centuries. She is often evoked at their rallies, and she is a call for exclusion by any means necessary.  Their Joan says surrender the city, you foreigners, today, or pay for your residency with your own blood tomorrow.

So what are we to do with Joan, a prisoner of our divergent political ideologies? Is she a saint of white nationalism, or is she the patron saint now of a town that values individual expression and racial and gender diversity? Is she a witch or a saint? A better question for us to ask is who we are. Are we a community of a liberated city celebrating its victory over hegemony, or are we a bunch of fascists who so distrust other people’s customs that we would shove them out of our midst? If we are white, is this the source of our purity, or is our purity a purity of heart, of goodwill toward all? Are our swords a costume accessory or a way of life? I submit our parade route has hit a fork in the road.  Either we dance toward a welcoming cathedral that would offer blessings, toward a balcony for a celebratory drink, or we are headed into a battle where either way, win or lose, the things that are really pure in us get burned alive. Who will we be during this carnival season? Who will you be, my reader, in this hour of occupation by those most of us have not chosen? How will you stay pure, my maidens? I say don’t put down your swords. We are going into battle. In all things, do right by the King of Heaven. We are sent by God here for this very hour. Know what is right and do it, whatever it may cost you.

 

July 27, 2016

Breaking Glass and Other Unladylike Activities

Pardon my silence, gentle readers, over the last two weeks. Apart from the horrible shooting of innocent civilians and police officers in Louisiana, about which I will have much more to say later, I have been glued to the television watching a barrier  to women’s progress drop — why others seem to care less, I cannot say.  All I know is that whether you adore or loathe Madam Clinton, that barrier got busted last night, and I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of me that the women in my family have carried for generations.  I suspect the women in your family have been carrying it, too.

window glass

It’s not corny. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s really important.

My family’s women fought for the right to vote.  They have been involved in politics in material ways since then.  One of my grandmothers joined the League of Women Voters pretty much as soon as it was opened and organized for the Democrats.  My other grandmother joined the Communist Party when she was young, attended meetings (really quite possibly) in the same place Arthur Miller did.  The women in my family never devoted much energy to Junior League-approved activities.  Multiple generations of them (before me) were bad cooks. They never did more sewing than the socially acceptable minimum, probably dating back to the reign of Queen Neb in Ireland. They wanted something more public to do, always.more engaged with the world outside, but that world dismissed their efforts.

Survival for these women was always precarious, as they couldn’t run their own lives as much as they ought to have been able to do, and it was always by grit that they pulled themselves out, not ladylike graciousness.  Let me give you some examples from my past:

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My great-grandmother walked out of this mess with a chest of drawers strapped to her back and toddlers clinging to her skirts.

One of my great-grandmothers lived in San Francisco in 1906.  She had a drunk for a husband and several small children. When the quake hit, her house stood, but her husband was trapped under rubble in some bar.  She assumed he must be dead.  As the fire approached her block of the city, she had to flee.  She took a chest of drawers, some of her husband’s belts, filled the chest of drawers with all the valuables she could stuff into it, strapped it shut with one belt, strapped it on her back with two others, and she told her children to cling to her skirts while they walked away from the fire, the billowing smoke close behind them, the sound of windows exploding in the heat shattering, the dust of the rubble in their nostrils. She managed to walk the little family to a patch of land they owned far outside of town.  She managed to get a house up.  She managed to get a job as the post mistress, though this was a novelty at the time, a woman touching others’ letters. She put money aside to build a church in the country town near the house was.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually showed up, temporarily sober, and eventually disappeared again for years and years, to show up periodically. She didn’t legally own the land or the house.  She couldn’t preach or even read a Bible passage in the church.  She couldn’t have risen in the ranks of her profession.  She didn’t own her own life, really, but she had built it out of the ashes of disaster.

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My widowed great-grandmother, saddled with six kids, made it out of this squalor and sent all her children to college.

Another example: Another one of my great-grandmothers was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, married young to a door-to-door salesman at about that time.  They had six kids, one right after the other.  She did work with artificial flowers for a factory at home as she watched them in a tenement apartment. When the youngest child was two and the oldest child was only ten, my great-grandfather stepped on a rusty nail while making his rounds and died of tetanus the next day.  There was no social security back then, and no life insurance.  By the absolutely mammoth grit of that woman, she worked herself harder than a human being ought to work in order to send all six of those children to college.  She made every activity into a lesson.  Counting blocks on the bus was a math lesson.  Family meetings were run by Roberts rules of order as a civics lesson. All six of those children went to college. A couple of them became millionaires. She never lived in anything bigger than an apartment in a city. She poured all her resources into others, except for her truly indomitable strength.  I remember her staring at me when I was a toddler, beaming with pride.  She did not suffer weaklings well.  In the bitterness of her hard life, she could be cruel. In me, she saw a future of strong women.  That, she liked. She needed someone to win the fights she had not been able to win, to carry on a struggle that stemmed class struggle and the double indemnity of being born female and poor.

Nobody tells these stories to children, I think.  They don’t want to frighten them.  Grandmas are supposed to bake things. They are supposed to sing songs with little girls and braid hair. But that’s not the truth, really. The truth is that life is always tough as a mother in one way or another, and the women have to dig deep into the dirt, drill into the concrete, to make sure they can withstand it all.  You probably have no idea of the struggle behind you.  It’s not ladylike to talk about such things.  I’ve had to piece together the real story of my family in tiny scraps. You weren’t told the war stories of your foremothers.  You don’t even bear their family names.  But believe me, this is your story, too.  You probably don’t know half the hell you’ve made it out of, because you were clinging to somebody else’s skirts while you walked along slowly singing the alphabet, unconscious of the disaster you just barely eluded.

So all this I just told you — that’s why I don’t care whether you love Hillary Clinton or you hate her. What happened last night in Philadelphia matters to those rugged women behind you that got the short end of every stick. When they announced her nomination, my lungs filled with new air.  I stood taller. I felt different, a difference that I am certain will be permanent.  If you are a woman, and you don’t love what happened last night, I declare you blind.  I declare you unpatriotic.  I declare you so frigging privileged you have no idea what a spoiled brat you really are.

Gentle readers, I tell you — register to vote. Be brave. Take a deep breath.  The air is different today.  You can breathe deeply today.  You have no idea how much oxygen is left for you to take in.

 

January 15, 2015

Hiring Help — and trying not to be Hilly Holbrook

My husband is not a tidy man.  Few Southern men are tidy men.  There are some.  I had the pleasure of sharing an apartment (platonically) with a Southern man from South Carolina who was as neat as a pin.  I don’t know with any certainty that he ironed his pajamas, but if he had, I would not be surprised.

However, my husband is of the more common variety of mess-amassing masculinity that dominates Southern constructions of manhood.  I have come home to ask questions like the following:

  • Honey, why is the vacuum cleaner covered in mud?
  • Why is our dog drinking water out of my Tiffany cut-glass bowl?
  • Why is the cat box in the kitchen?
  • What was this object under the sofa, and what happened to it to make it smell that way?
  • Why are your sweaty socks on the dining room table?
  • Why is there a pile of trash on the mattress?
  • Is there rotting bacon in here under one of the throw pillows?
  • Why?  God, why would you EVER put THAT there?

Normally, I clean up these messes when I am home, but my husband and I have to be apart some of the time for our respective professional activities, and he has agreed that in order to keep the house something less than a health hazard, we will have a cleaning service come in monthly and repair such damage.  They are making their debut today, shortly before my departure.

The two ladies who have come here in a uniform of jeans and black polo shirts with a company logo are two white women in pony tails.  They are vacuuming the man cave right now.  Still, I find myself, particularly for the purposes of this blog, reflecting on Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which is perhaps well-intended but ultimately essentialist in its views of women of color in Jackson, Mississippi at the time of Medgar Evers’ assassination.  What I will say in great favor of the novel is that Stockett has accurately portrayed the neighborhoods of white people of Belhaven in Jackson in the early 1960s and the outlying town of Richland, now a bit of urban sprawl, but then a farming community.  The person she surely best understood among her characters, perhaps the most memorable among them, was Hilly Holbrook, the nasty, catty, racist Junior Leaguer who is terrified of appearing ridiculous in any way to her peers.  For her, the engaging of a maid is a birthright, the ultimate symbol of white privilege, class privilege (while she is a disgusting human being, no one at her Junior League meetings would suspect her of the slightest trashiness), and one of the limited assertions of power a Southern Lady of the bridge-playing, pearl-wearing set in 1961 could make with impunity.  Without apologizing for one iota of her horrible behavior, her manipulative, demeaning cruelty to characters white and black in the narrative, one can understand her temptation to play the tyrant in a system of power in which she occupies only a middle rung.  She treats her maid horribly — and receives a comeuppance delicious to the reader, though perhaps less so to her.

This woman is my least favorite Southern woman.  I hope I am not at all like her ever.

This woman is my least favorite Southern woman. I hope I am not at all like her ever.

She comes to my mind as one of the cleaning ladies apologizes for spilling something brown on our cream-colored carpet.  She cleans it immaculately.  I am not upset.

Hilly Holbrook is the loosely fictionalized worst of Southern womanhood, surely.  But even a Yankee like me thinks about what this cleaning service’s presence in my home represents in terms of class privilege and racial privilege.  I am sure that Oprah Winfrey hires someone to clean up.  I of course know that there are plenty of white families in America who can’t afford the price tag that accompanies these cleaning women’s perfect streak-free shine of my mirrors, their careful straightening of things on shelves, their dusting in corners.  However, even though every person in my house right now is Caucasian, the mark of employing a maid service is one that has privilege, racial and class privilege, all over it, and no amount of these logo-sporting workers’ scrubbing can rub that out of the surface of this transaction.

I don’t feel guilty.  FOX would call me a “job creator.”  However, I remain conscious, though I grew up in a house with two working parents and cleaning help that came in regularly, that this is my participation in a game that is rigged against some people.  My husband’s job at a large corporation helps us to be in the category of those who don’t have to clean up all their own messes.  Tennessee Williams once castigated himself, after a particularly drunken bout of lost weeks in a New York hotel room that he trashed, in a preface to one of his plays.  He thought, at least abstractly, that nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess.  This was for him an expressed ideal, and he never really got sober or tidy again.

I will not consider anyone who works for me less than me, I hope.  I think, though, about Stockett’s remarkable statements from her character Hilly, who believes that she’s not a racist, that racism lies outside of her household, out of her interactions with her maids.  “Oh, it’s out there,” Hilly declares.  I never want to have that kind of myopia about my own privilege, though I am grateful not to have to clean up disastrous messes for my husband when I get back from my time away.

February 20, 2011

Fiddle-dee-disempowerment — Why every feminist should watch the movie SOUTHERN BELLE

Last week at the Oxford film festival, I saw the scariest film I had seen in a good, long while.  The monster that re-emerged from its crypt was not a slime-covered zombie, exactly.  The thing that made me afraid of things that go bump in the night was not a decaying ghoul.  She was wearing a hoop skirt, a corset, and she was about sixteen years old, very cute, in fact.  My horror was not due to her so much as the people who were using her image to try to take away twenty-first century women’s sense of their own rights and leadership potential.

This girl is beautifully dressed for her disempowerment lessons

Makewright Films, run by two outstanding documentarians, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley, documented without apostrophe, for no comment is really necessary, the 1861 Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again, at least the version of it that a man who is clearly at odds with twenty-first century uppity Yankee women like me, founder and historical revisionist Mark Orman has concocted.

The sad thing is that the actual Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee in the actual year of 1861 (not the undead reenactment version) was a place that was exploring the possibility of conferring empowering educations to young ladies of the South.  The actual place, shut down some time after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, was a four-year college for young women — this at a time when women’s post-secondary education was a very new thing in this country, North and South.  However, Mark Orman, with the conspiracy of several older women, is painting a version of that academy’s past that has no historical foundation.  Rather, he gives a speech where he claims to twenty-first century high school girls that the war was over states rights (a view recently decried yet again by credible historians in The Washington Post as recently as this past week) and not slavery, that a greater percentage of freed negroes who remained South owned slaves than did white people in the South, which even if it proved to be true would in no way justify the institution of slavery.  He even draws on Paul’s epistle’s exhortation, “Slaves, obey your masters,” as a God-sanctification of the institution as it was practiced in Tennessee in 1861.  Let me tell you what I REALLY think, in that offensive Yankee way I have — Mark Orman’s views are repellent, they stem from a clear insecurity about real women’s agency in our current society, and if I were not a Christian (who by the way, would never own slaves or think God wanted me to), I would be out looking for him to kick his ass right now, preferably in front of a bunch of men who would laugh at him later for being beat up by a girl.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I have spent a year in the New South — and believe me, brother and sister Yankees, it is not like a black-and-white film strip with fire hoses plowing down scared African-American students praying on courthouse steps.  It is a place of vibrant questioning and repositioning, not always smoothly, but always toward a better place.  New Southerners are optimistic, progressive, intellectual, curious, and excited about new possibilities in their region and beyond.  Guys like Mark Orman are part of a South that New Southerners reject.

Again, I say don’t misunderstand me.  Look at this blog — you’ll see a hundred references to Gone with the Wind, a seminal document for Southern Culture.  However, at the 1861 Anthaneum Girls’ School, they tell the young women who come there to participate in what can only be loosely called a reenactment that Southern ladies are not allowed in hoop skirts  to behave as Scarlett O’Hara.  Instead, they exhort them to behave like Melanie Wilkes.  Even if I were the most racially and gender-issue insensitive teenage girl bitten by the fashion bug of 1861, I would drop my bustle and get out of the hoop skirt right then — because Scarlett is awesome, and Melanie is mealy-mouthed.

Once they have laid the foundation of  a false construction of racial issues in the South, they then proceed with their primary project — that of teaching twenty-first century girls that being a lady means being self-effacing, having no right to decide to move even from one part of a room to another without a proper escort, that it means never standing up to a bully in any direct manner.

Understand that the girls who attend this so-called school are marvelous young women — one was there poignantly looking for a trace of her deceased mother, whom she had seen in a period costume photo taken at Dollywood.  Another was clearly bitten by the aforementioned fashion bug, and with the complicity of her mother, she had a million outfits that were spectacular — making her the belle of any Edith Head Hollywood production set in the Old South.  Another girl, who won a prize for being the best lady of the term, was bright, lovely, kind to others, beautiful in old-world terms (think not slutty-looking), and mentioned a desire to climb the corporate ladder, but she had decided she wanted to do it — she actually said it — without equal rights.  If I were a relative of  hers, I’d be staging an intervention right now.  The last, and possibly the most disturbing story of the whole film, was a rather geeky girl who had tons of personality, lots of opinions.  The film leaves her looking more poised and grown-up, but she says that she has  learned that a lady is someone who doesn’t stand out — she is a part of the background, only part, as she put it, of the big picture.

That’s why I’d go to Tennessee, but for the love of Jesus, and beat that fat Mark Orman to a pulp if I hadn’t made a promise to God to behave in a manner not more ladylike but more Jesus-like — for that girl, the one whose character he apparently crushed.

Why do I take this so personally?  Because, I, too, received without irony the disempowerment lecture that these girls received.

When I was in eighth grade, I attended a girls’ school — Castilleja School for Girls.  On Founder’s Day, back in the 1980s, the year I was in eighth grade, they made us listen to a lecture from the vice president of the alumni association.  She told us in no uncertain terms that ladies  do not pursue careers and marriages — that the few most spinsterly among us might just need a career, but those of us with the slightest feminine charm should go trolling for a rich husband whose career we would support with our intellectual efforts and whose children we would raise without seeking something that credited us apart from this family unit.  Even in eighth grade, some of the girls there had already begun trolling, with their mothers egging them on.

This vice president of the alumni association was eloquent — I remember most distinctly something she said, even today.  She said that any woman who had ever protested or fought in any indirect way for her rights, including the right to vote was “a wingless valkyrie of questionable sexual orientation.”

What a vivid turn of phrase!  Clearly, she had done well in English before she quit thinking for herself.

I remember, at age 13, sitting there, in the front row (because I had arrived almost late), realizing that I had just seen it all spelled out for me.  On one side of an insuperable barrier — there were the ladies, like the woman with the face lift and the slicked-back bun in front of me, talking, insulting my grandmother and great-grandmother and mother, who were all pioneering heroines for women’s rights.  On the other side of the barrier — there were my ancestresses and women in viking garb, singing  but not flying, Marlene Dietrich, who had already impressed me with her powerful, pan-sexual ethos sizzling on the screen in fishnets in black and white, and other women, complicated, maybe not all happy.  However, at least they were not pretending to be happy like the women on the other side, the ladylike side, of the barrier. These wingless women were apparently talking in loud tones about things they really cared about, not like the Castilleja’s mother’s club, that pretended to like each other but stabbed each other in the back while wiping their vampirically lipsticked mouths with monogrammed napkins when any of  the others of them would leave the lunch table — yes, I had heard them, too.  I knew whose party I wanted to be invited to — it wasn’t the smug supper club.  It was the wingless valkyrie rave.

I thank Castilleja School for Girls for trying unsuccessfully to disempower me for the twenty-first century.  It clarified a bundle of things.

I left the next year and went to public school in no small part because of this speech.

I thank the makers of Makewright films for clarifying things, too.  I have never  been prouder of my ancestors who fought with the Yankees against slavery.  I have never been prouder of myself for speaking loudly, having opinions and demanding that others who may not find  them palatable hear them, for getting arrested for women’s rights and for the end of Apartheid.  I know which side of the barrier between Old South and New South on which I belong, and that Mason-Dixon Line I will never cross unarmed.

Every feminist should watch this film.  The fight isn’t over.  The grapes of wrath are still in the field waiting to be trampled.  If anyone wants to come trample them with me, let me know.

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