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

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.

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May 6, 2015

Let Them Eat Cake: Why, with God and Scarlett O’Hara as My Witness, I’ll Never Go Hungry Again

My pastor in Oxford, Brother Williams, told me that at our church here in Mississippi, we spell fellowship F-O-O-D.  I write this as a witness.  I have tasted, and I have seen that the LORD is good, and his mercies, as well as his appetizers, endureth forever.

I love the people at Christ the Rock.  They are kind and unpretentious.  If you look earlier in this blog, you can see my previous post about them.  Whenever we get together, with the slightest of excuses, there is a buffet laden with home-made macaroni and cheese, biscuits out of the oven, cole slaw, sandwiches, muffins, cookies, and desserts — oh, the desserts!  Isaiah 61:8 says that the Lord loves justice, and I have received my just desserts at Christ the Rock, thanks be to God.  My cup runneth over with unsweet tea they make especially for me, out of pity for my Yankee proclivities, for no natural-born Southerner would willingly drink iced tea that hasn’t been sweetened.  They have handed me a napkin.  As it says in Psalm 81:10 — I have opened my mouth wide, and fellowship at Christ the Rock has filled it.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake.  Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake. Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

But this past Tuesday really took the cake, or rather it gave it.  I have been volunteering to teach high school English for the teenagers at Christ the Rock’s Church School, a part of Oxford Christian Academy.  We are writing poetry, fiction and essays together.  We have been reading the play Measure for Measure and contemplating whether Shakespeare felt that the State could legislate morality — an interesting question for young Christians to ponder.

Meanwhile, I had been getting ready for my prospectus defense.  I had been very stressed out about it, too.  I asked the church for prayer on Sunday, and pray they did.  Then, on Thursday last week, the morning before my defense, my students, seven lovely and well-behaved teenagers (yes, they still make some of those), asked Brother Williams to lead them all in prayer for my successful defense.  I was very moved by how personally they took my fortunes at this defense.  They seemed to feel if I succeeded, then they, too, had some share in that success.  If I failed — perish the thought — God, our merciful and mighty God, would surely not let that happen.  They prayed individually for me to persuade the room of committee members.  They prayed in earnest.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

My defense turned out (by the skin of its academic teeth) to be a success.  I told the church this on Sunday, and on Tuesday, the next time my class met, they shouted “surprise!” when I opened the door.  They had gotten me, in the spirit of fellowship, a cake.  Above is a picture of it.  Brother Williams told me, “What we cannot pay you in money,” (The school keeps its costs very affordable for people without two nickels to rub together) “we can show you in appreciation and hospitality.”

I would rather teach the children of the church than the children of Babylon, even if Babylon is gilded.  At the Lycee Francais in New York City, were I to teach high school there, I would barely make a living wage, anyway, while only the richest of the rich could afford to attend.  Here, I help young people in my spare time, as I pursue writing and my doctorate, find their own unique voices without apology.  I help them discern Shakespeare’s skepticism about government-mandated morality, with hopes that future voting will reflect this discussion’s debate later on.  I help them understand that our God creates with words, potent words.  Their words contain potency as well.

And it is a blessing to belong to a fellowship that spells itself F-O-O-D, that celebrates with those who advance, and considers itself set apart from the mean spirit of much of the world, even as it draws those who have been downtrodden by the vicissitudes of its cruelty to its table.

So pull up a chair.  Don’t be shy.  Let me slice you off a piece with extra piped-on gooey goodness.

January 11, 2011

The Mysteries of Messy Mu

A Messy Mu Mixer circa 1939

I have learned that down South, fraternities generally have arcane and odd rituals related to them.

A year and a half ago, my husband Chuck and I were at a wedding of a friend of his.  The man belonged  to a fraternity that had a series of rituals that they enacted at the reception, including the singing of a lovely song to the bride that doubtless dates back to around the 1930s.

My husband hasn’t fully admitted this — think Skull and Bones — but he surely has every sign of belonging to a secret Southern fraternity — I am convinced he’s a member of the venerable order of Messy Mu Delta.

How do I know?  All his activities point to the initiation rites of the group, as they have been exposed in the media by people who live to tell the tale.

For instance, I go outside in the morning, and I see that Chuck has turned the cushions on our lawn furniture upside down, and on the ground, I find beer cans strewn — were they positioned to spell out an ancient Greek message?  Perhaps, “Clean me up?”

I think so.

Often, he shouts from the next room, “Honey, where’s my other shoe?”

But he knows where it is.  Surely one of his fraternity brothers has taken it as a pledge for him to attend a clandestine meeting where the men swap shoes as a sign of everlasting fidelity to the group.

One day last summer, I saw a heap of clothes near the back door of our house.  I reached down to get them into the laundry, wondering what they were doing there.  A frog hopped out, making me scream in surprise, then laugh hysterically.  Don’t you see?  This is the Messy Mu Delta form of courtship.

I mean my husband is ALWAYS showing me he loves me — he leaves his underwear within three feet of a hamper without picking it up.  That says, “I’m your hunkahunkaburning love” in Messy Mu speak.  I find his smelly socks waiting for me on the kitchen table.  That’s Messy Mu for, “not only do I want you to smell my feet at breakfast — I also want to wake up every morning to your pretty face on the other pillow.”

Isn’t he sweet?

I come home and find the vacuum cleaner is spattered in mud.  When I ask Chuck how that happened, he claims he has no clue.  Surely, this is a sign that he has been promoted in the Messy Mu ranks to grand master mess.  I know he can’t tell me, but I’m so proud of him.

Perhaps your husband is a Messy Mu Delta member, too.

Here are some signs:

  • He loses his shoes, his belt, his pants, and can’t remember where they are even when they were on him only moments ago.
  • He thinks it appropriate to wear nothing but his underwear to the dinner table when a sporting event involving his alma mater is on television.
  • He leaves sweet nothings for you — torn up envelopes, crumpled Kleenex, and peanut shells — everywhere.
  • He uses things for purposes that any non Messy Mu would never use them for — feeding the dog in your wedding china but feeding himself out of his lap, Using your Wusthoffer knife as a screwdriver,  Using his t-shirt as a napkin.
  • And the number one sign your husband is a member of Messy Mu — he is entirely unable to account for his actions, or he offers wholly implausible reasons (e.g.  “I had to use the cat as a car chamois cloth because the gas station is closed.”) for whatever he has done that points to the secret fraternity.

We ought to start a support group for women who know their husbands are part of the secret fraternity but cannot get a confession from them.  Perhaps we could sit around like the female characters in Gone With the Wind while the Yankees wait for our husbands to come home — reading David Copperfield from the beginning as we knit and try not to look nervous.  Perhaps we could find something less ladylike to do — let me know when I can come over.  That way, our husbands can leave us sweet nothings, spell out Greek words in beer cans on the lawn, and engage in acts of brotherly fidelity while we find ways to amuse ourselves.

October 27, 2010

Freedom of the Pressure — on being pushy down South

Confederates don’t haggle.  They rarely wag their fingers.  They walk demurely toward the end of the line, rather than trying to find their way around it to the secret back entrance.

In New York, I was never the pushiest woman I knew.  I was always somewhere toward the sixtieth percentile in pushiness — not a wimp, not Ophelia drowning, but neither boorish nor crass.  I was tenacious but not a bulldog.

a graphic for my 10.0 on the Richter Pushometer down here in Mississippi

Down here, I’m so darn pushy in comparison to others that I might as well be belting out, “I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Rose!”

An example — I went to my local Home Depot.  The website of the franchise was offering free delivery for yard furniture last spring, and I wanted to buy some.  My local Home Depot had a policy of charging an $80 delivery fee.  I talked to three managers, was never rude, but I insisted that the policy didn’t make sense, that they should waive the fee so that the store could get credit for the sale locally, keep everyone employed in town by having such sales, just give me the discount.

As I said before, people down South don’t haggle. They think it’s impolite, pushy, to ask for any kind of a discount.  Never mind that they are underpaid in comparison to their professional equals up North, never mind that capitalism is always, always the art of the deal, and they believe in capitalism.  Never mind that in New York, people just know that only chumps pay retail, that asking, re-asking, and re-re-asking for a bargain doesn’t cost a penny.

Solemnly and reluctantly, the head manager finally gave me the nod after two hours of tense negotiation — tense on their part, not mine, because for me, this was just business as usual.

Whenever I come in there, store clerks still, almost a year later, tell me, rather in awe, “I remember you! You’re the lady who got free delivery!”

They don’t say it admiringly.  They say it respectfully, fearful I’ll ask for something new once more.

I ask for jobs.  I learned this in New York.  I walk up to people who have the power to give me work and just plain ask, whether there has been an advertisement or not.  If they say no, I’m surely no worse off.

Down South, this is rare.  And yet — let’s look at their absolute all-time favorite archetypal heroine:

"As God as My Witness, I'll Never Go Hungry Again," (and I don't mind being pushy wherever it suits my purposes.)

Katie Scarlett O’Hara Wilkes Kennedy Butler is the most pushy woman in American fiction, barring no Yankees.

Here are some pushy things that, just off the top of my head, I recall Scarlett doing:

  • She demands Rhett Butler take her out of a besieged Atlanta and slaps him when he tries to kiss her.
  • She shoots a Yankee renegade.
  • She throws dirt on Emily Slattery and her Carpetbagger husband (I forgive you, Scarlett, and I would have done the same).
  • She steals her sister’s beau (and a bunch of other girls’ beaux as well).
  • She starts a lumber mill and beats the male competition by starting a rumor mill about them as well.
  • She gets convict laborers to make her business more profitable, because the overseers of the convicts can legally push them to work harder. (not nice, but incredibly pushy.)

That’s just off the top of my head.  I’m sure if I re-read the novel, I’d find out another dozen examples worth mentioning. Scarlett seemed to believe the axiom “Nice girls go to heaven; pushy girls go everywhere.”

So why — if this is the idealized and celebrated picture of a Southern belle, are all the people around here not pushy, often even push-overs?

Older people say around here, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

The New York Yiddish diction in me comes out and I say, “What?  You want I should catch flies?”

Flies are attracted to garbage.  Forget flies.  Give me a job.  Give me a discount. Pay attention to me.  Take me to your leader.

I am honestly trying to adapt here, but if there are people in the South who think that it is better to be forever Miss Congeniality rather than Miss I-Got-Exactly-What -I-Wanted, I’d like them to explain to me why.

I see people down here who are surely better liked than I might be –although I think honestly that most people think I’m an interesting character and are very, very kind to me — who are never insistent or aggressive in going after particular rewards or restitution.  Honestly, they remind me of the Reconstruction-era dowagers depicted in Margaret Mitchell‘s novel in contrast to Scarlett — the women who starved in gentility, who lost everything but their demure penury, trying to make a lady-like living by hand-painting china.  And yet, perhaps I am more like Scarlett O’Hara than any of the ladies I meet in that I insist, I demand, I just won’t take no for an answer.

If this is wrong, I hope someone writes a comment here and explains to me what I’m missing.  If someone can explain to me why pushiness isn’t Southern but Scarlett O’Hara is so celebrated, I want to know that, too.  It is my general observation that those who ask not receive not.  Why don’t Southerners generally go after things the way New Yorkers do?  The motto of the State of New York is Excelsior — “Forever higher,” where we want our profits and hopes to go.  In Mississippi, it is Virtute et Armis — “By valor and arms,” but what by valor and arms?  Which victory? I don’t think passivity is very valorous, and arms can be borne, but what are you shooting at?

Wasn’t it a Southern Civil Rights worker who said, “If they’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right?”

I exhort you, Mississippi.  I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Scarlett!

October 1, 2010

Southern Rituals That Mystify Me

Looking at Southern Culture is a little like looking at a UFO for me — I squint at it; should I declare it a sign of intelligent life or a weather balloon?  I am wandering among strangers, hospitable strangers, but strangers nonetheless.

Consider this my X-File reportage, then.  Here’s what I saw about a week ago:

Not little green men, but a little green sorority

The colonnaded antebellum building is called the Lyceum.  It is the administration building of Ole Miss.  When the first African-American students arrived at Ole Miss, apparently violence broke out, and there are, legend would have it, still bullet holes in the facade of this building.  I have yet to see the bullet holes.

The young women in green t-shirts are a sorority.  I’m not sure which one.  I can’t tell the sororities apart, even when they wear t-shirts of different hues to distinguish themselves one from another, which they did this day.

These young women gathered in a cluster.  Near them, a cluster of yellow-t-shirted women gathered as well, near them, a cluster of periwinkle blue-t-shirted women stood.  Near those, a group of young women in salmon-pink t-shirts.  Almost every single one of these women,  like the women in this picture, were white.

There were some clusters also in front of the Lyceum of African-American students as well.  They did not all wear the same t-shirt.  Some of them were in t-shirts, but a few of them were in prom dresses, with hair and make-up done.  These young women belonged to all African-American sororities.

Sororities and fraternities are still largely segregated in Mississippi.  Last year, on the day we got engaged, my husband and I attended a wedding of two African-American friends of his.  They were both out of school well above a decade, but at their wedding,  they had fraternity brothers and sorority sisters sing a song related to said sorority and fraternity.  They still gave each other handshakes related to this custom.  When I saw Spike Lee’s film School Daze about this phenomenon, I did not realize that when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first living breath to your last dying day — well, it’s not Jets and Sharks.  It’s an incomprehensible, even to sorority and fraternity members, series of Greek letters and a complex series of rituals that accompany them.

In this crowd of Ole Miss students, with very few exceptions, blacks and whites stood apart.  So did salmon-pinks, yellows, periwinkles, and greens.  They looked like a large flower bed, one where the gardener had separated the peonies from the pansies and the impatiens.  They were standing in impatiens, or rather, impatience, waiting twitchily.

There were some men scattered throughout the crowd as well, white and black.  They wore stickers on their caps or their back packs, some of them, with the names of certain of the sorority girls.

All these students had gathered to hear the election results of the homecoming vote. Apparently, only people in the Greek community on campus have anything like a shot of winning a title in this election — and by Greek community, I’m not talking about people who say, “Epharistoh para kala” to thank each other or who have a keen appreciation for Spanikopita.  I lived in such a Greek community in Queens for years and felt less like a Xena — foreign woman — than I do in this Greek community.

The young men, some of them, were waiting to hear which of them had won the “honor” of playing Colonel Reb, a white Confederate slaveholder old man — think Colonel Sanders in a tacky bright red suit with a cane.  The college is doing away with the mascot, but apparently, he gets trotted out for the odd ritual of homecoming.

The young women were waiting to hear if one or more of their sorority sisters had won the honor of homecoming queen, homecoming princess, and a dubiously-named, but apparently deeply esteemed title — Miss Ole Miss — which sounds like, “Miss Old Maid” to me.  There were other homecoming honors to be won, titles and distinctions inferior to the ones mentioned above, but their roles mystify me.  I’m not sure what one does at a homecoming game.  Where I went to school as an undergrad, Sarah Lawrence College, we didn’t have homecoming.  We didn’t have much in the way of teams.  We didn’t , at the time, even have a gym, just an “athletics room” not large enough to hold a proper basketball game in.  At The City College of New York, where I got my Masters Degree. there was a football team, but no one knew when they played or whether they won or lost.  Most students were too busy with their complex city lives to have time for a game.

Here, though, in Oxford, Mississippi, I saw several hundred people gather in protest near this colonnaded building, and my first thought was that this must be some kind of a protest.  We had protests in front of buildings on my campus when I was an undergrad.  I participated in one to urge the trustees to divest from holdings in South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed.  As this was the administrative building, I thought it might be a plea for something like that.

No — they just really, really cared who won Miss Ole Miss and the other titles.

I saw two girls near me look at each other as if it was Christmas morning, tears brimming in their eyes.  As the administrators came out on the steps with the official count, they clasped hands, and one gasped, “Oh, my God!  This is actually happening!”

As each of the Homecoming court and princesses was announced, as a name of a particular sorority sister was called, the whole sorority jumped up and down and gave — not a whoop, but a lady-like hoot.  I’ve only heard this hoot once before, and it was in the movie Gone With the Wind.  When it was announced that there would be an auction to dance with the ladies, the ladies let out this noise.  Is it a lady rebel yell?  I think so.  The teams of Ole Miss are called the rebels.  So they let out that sigh-hoot, high pitched, not in ululation, but something just as exotic and particular to them.

Many of these women hugged each other with real tears running down their faces.  The ones doing the crying did not seem to be the losers, only those who had campaigned for these titles for friends.

Hysteria broke out in one of the colored t-shirt clusters when Miss Ole Miss was announced.  Apparently, that was the loveliest title to have, better, perhaps than Homecoming Queen, but I have no idea why.  Apparently, the next day, someone accused the winner of cheating and demanded a recount.  Again, I have no idea why.

What is this place, and why do they care about the things they care about?  Why don’t  they care about the things I cared about at their age?  Why do they all want to conform to an exclusive group’s standards?  I was desperate to be an individual when I was their age.  Why don’t these sororities integrate more?  Everyone, black and white, is smart and pretty here.

And what am I doing down here among them?  How did this happen?  When I teach my students that Immanuel Kant said that the slogan of the Enlightenment should be, “Don’t be afraid to use your own reason,” do they feel afraid to use it anyway, in case they might offend sorority sisters or fraternity brothers?  Have I entered a culture, like in certain Asian cultures, where the needs of the group are traditionally paramount, valued well above the needs of the individual, and my rugged individualism feels like a fundamental rejection of their values?  Is it odd that these conformists call themselves “The Rebels” and elect a Colonel Rebel?

I left a little confused.  I heard one sorority, the one that had Miss Ole Miss in it, chanting something in unison.  I could not make out the words, quite.  I am Xena in this Greek world.  I am a Goth (perhaps former Goth) invading Rome.  I don’t speak the language, not quite.  Despite careful study of the grammar, something is lost to me in the area of idiom.

Who are these people?  Who am I among them?

I am squinting at them.  It might just be a weather balloon.  I don’t know.  I know it seems to follow a direction other than the wind.  This might be my close encounter of the third kind.

March 19, 2010

Gallantry Against Gall — on Southern Chivalry

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

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

Chivalry is not dead in the historic town of Vicksburg

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

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

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

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

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

“To drain the blood out of this thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flip side of the Confederate coin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re talking country mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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