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

June 19, 2015

The Beautiful South at its Most Ugly

The South is sweet and gentle, until it is cruel and brutal.  The South is hospitable until it is genocidal.

Northerners know most about the ugly South — the racism, the poverty, its sad legacy of slavery and oppression, the higher rates of obesity, illiteracy and teen pregnancy in certain areas.  And these are certain measures of the South, things one ought to know but that the South as a whole would rather forget.  Before I ever moved South, I knew about the Klan, the dummies with teeth missing, the abundant tackiness of certain Southerners.  But then I traveled to Mississippi and saw beauty that astonished me.  I saw poor people in the Delta, but where they lived was a beautiful landscape.  As a New Yorker, I had never seen poor people living in beautiful places.  I was delighted by the intense courtesy, even of gallantry, shown to me as a white lady.  I was charmed, seduced by the music, the food, the leisure, the heat that takes one breath away in mid-Summer, the magnolias and the honeysuckles, the sounds in the night of bull frogs and crickets, and the depth of the darkness no Manhattanite has seen on that island except during blackouts, and even then, the darkest of dark nights, punctuated by slivers of moon and fireflies clustered like gleaming pearl brooches on a mourner’s taffeta dress.

The South, I discovered, is beautiful, with its Spanish moss hanging like a bridal veil over venerable oaks, the sweeping hills of green crops budding, the long empty roads stretching as far as the eye can see.  What a beautiful place to live — until it suddenly isn’t beautiful at all.  Tornadoes hit.  Locusts eat crops. Neighbors back-stab. Rumors spread. Reputations get ruined. People get shunned.

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

We see in the horrible massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston a contrast in the great, stately beauty of the South and its deepest ugliness.  A room full of accomplished people, contributors to their community in deeply meaningful ways, came together for an evening of peaceful prayer, like many other nights, in a beautiful old Charleston church, white-washed and elegant.  They came to read the Bible and its beautiful verses together in a spirit of love and fellowship.  This wasn’t Sunday, so these weren’t people who were half-committed Christians, back-sliders who might believe or might not — these were the faithful, the dutiful, the deeply committed, who had gathered together.  These were mostly older ladies, the kind with the best advice to give, if the young would but listen.  These were women whose lives already demonstrated virtue and wisdom.  The pastor, Reverend Clem Pinckney, was an elected official, a father of two, an articulate advocate for the community.  These people were beautiful.  They welcomed in warmth the young man who came in, a white man, an unusual visitor to a weeknight bible study at an African Methodist Episcopal church.  He sat with them for an hour, and they were kind to him.

Then, suddenly, like tornadoes hit, like clouds burst, like fires destroy barns, like fortunes change — this man revealed his intentions and murdered people, accusing old ladies of rape, of families that may have been in the United States longer than his own of “taking over America,” and in cold blood, to inspire terror and a new civil war, he killed these saints, these martyrs.  He calmly left, seeming to make no effort to disguise himself, to hide, to run from what he had done, to have no horror at it, to be entirely unrepentant, to believe ugly lies about the humanity of his victims.  He may not have planned this alone.  He assassinated an elected official.  He came to kill black people, he said.  He drove away in a car bearing confederate flag plates, He believes in apartheid, in slavery, in murder, in hatred.  The love he was shown when he walked in did not dissuade him from his premeditated purposes.  He saw no humanity in that room except his own.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming, this storm of murder.  The FOX Network churns like an overloaded washing machine in the background of many households, spewing out perpetual paranoia and false racially-charged claims.  While most of America seems to have accepted the national project of a diverse society, whether they like our current president or not, perhaps one fifth of us, more of us in the South, I think, have become radicalized, and new hate groups spring up regularly, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was inevitable that some people from houses of perpetual propaganda would believe the lies.  It was inevitable that with such easy access to guns, some of the propagandized people would obtain guns. It was inevitable, with such rampant drug use and insidious isolation in our culture, that someone propagandized and armed would tweak his brain enough he would lose his soul to the narcotics and the malevolence. While the Internet allows us to select our own news sources, however uninformative they may be, and to fall into chat rooms with people of shared beliefs, it was inevitable that this tweaked, armed and propagandized one would find a fraternity of evil thought online or in person.  Eventually, one of these people steeped in falsehood, hatred, drugs, and disenchantment would become this monster, a category-five inundation of Southern ugliness.

And he did this in plain sight, this appropriately named Mr. Storm Roof.  Uncles saw him lost, and gave him guns.  Friends saw him pop pills, and they did not stage an intervention.  Everyone heard him say harshly racist things, but they took this as a joke — as if those jokes were ever funny.  But by then, Mr. Storm Roof had identified an enemy, and that enemy wasn’t his joblessness.  It wasn’t a family that misunderstood him.  It wasn’t a lack of education.  It wasn’t an economy where the jobs a man like this could get could not pay his bills.  It was innocent black church-goers.  What did he think would change if there were only white people in America?  What part of his pointless life did he honestly think would improve? Why didn’t he understand that his presence in a purely Caucasian nation would only demonstrate all the more that he was poor, uneducated, drugged out, and shiftless?

He just got arraigned today on nine counts of murder.  In the court room, the family members of the deceased beautiful Christians forgave him because Jesus says to forgive our enemies.  The beautiful South looks beautiful again in light of their total commitment to the principles of their faith.

But then, here’s the truly most deceptive part of the South’s beauty — it covers over scars.  Once the flotsam and jetsam after the hurricane are hauled away, and the houses are rebuilt anew, it’s like the storm never happened.  Most days, there’s not a cloud in the sky.  The South forgets, like a woman sobered up after a night of debauchery, who declares with a Southern drawl, “I had so much bourbon last night, I don’t know WHAT-ALL happened!”

The beautiful South forgets and attempts to make us forget.  But if we forget the ugliness, we are doomed to repeat it.  If we never confront the racism in white communities and the propaganda machines that perpetuate it, we are doomed to live with it forever.  Most of us in the South are pursuing beauty.  However, the fifth of folks who aren’t, we need to have ugly confrontations with them, show them the falsity of lies they have believed, and then we must help them understand that a South rising again is a diverse South, an egalitarian South, and a South that actually remembers what really happened in the dark night of its soul.

March 30, 2011

Is This Feminism? I Don’t Know. This is Texas.

Earlier this year, I wrote about young women who are learning at a disturbing antebellum pseudo-reenactment to be Southern belles of a highly disempowering kind.

Check out this photo of my wonderful step-daughter Alissa, and notice that she is not exactly behaving like a hoopskirted and helpless young lady:

There's a time to talk feminism, and then the time for talking ends.

Now, Alissa has not attended a consciousness-raising encounter lamenting the violence against women.  She did witness physical violence in her home — her mom with her step-dad — bad fights.  Her father (my husband) is a wholly non-violent guy, but her mom preferred another man with whom she used to have physical fights regularly.  Alissa learned about violence, and she will have none of it, and she has not chosen any kind of consciousness raising support group that might be the choice of a woman from the Northeast to achieve this clarity of purpose.  Is she a survivor?  You bet.  Could she also shoot to kill?  You bet, without apology, if necessary, to protect herself.

Is this feminism?  I don’t know.  This is Texas.

Alissa is in a relationship where she and  her future husband (they’re engaged) talk like the most traditional of Southern couples.  Toby, her guy, thinks of himself as the man of the house, and she understands herself as a lady.

But just look at her — would you mess with her?  Don’t try breaking into her apartment late at night, because even if Toby isn’t home right then, she will mess you up but good.

A lot of women in the South, particularly in Texas, use the rhetoric of Southern belledom, but what they really mean is never quite what their ancestors meant.  They mean more what Molly Ivins meant.  They mean more what the late governor of Texas Ann Richards meant.

Texan women refer to themselves as ladies, but don’t mess with them.  They are women, too, and as they say down South, they ain’t too saved to whup yer hide.

Alissa has a job where she earns more in salary and benefits than her fiance does at present.  This is a problem for neither of them, at least in the short term.

She intends to wear a  poofy white dress on her wedding day.  All shot guns may be left at the door.

An armed society is a polite society, a male friend of mine from Texas often remarks.  If you get an invitation, you’d better RSVP.  If you RSVP yes, you’d better bring a nice gift.

Here comes the bride.  Go ahead, make her day.

December 6, 2009

Packing

In this picture, note her balletic foot position and her determined expression.

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper…” — Isaiah 54:17

Watch out, New York — I am packing.

I am loading up boxes, I admit, rather than loading my Winchester rifle,  but a woman could do worse for a role model than plucky show-girl-with-a-gun Annie Oakley.  She was a pioneer in her field, if not a true Western pioneer.  She — well, she aimed high.  Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the pun.

Even putting her picture on my blog feels like a delicious rebellion against the values with which I was raised.  My mother is turning over in her grave.

I was not raised with what Jerry Fallwell would have called family values, but my family had values.  My parents were earnest on several topics — they supported civil rights, they opposed, without protesting, the Vietnam War, and they thought guns should not be privately owned.

Although my parents were not hippies, they sent me and my brother to a school run by hippies, to a socially conscious day camp, and there were certain family rules.  My cousin Doug, for instance, could upset his mother by saying loudly he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, because after all cops were all fascists.  My mother would not allow me to own a baton because I was supposed to be in the game, not the sidelines.  And my mother made my brother write a conscientious objection letter when he was in Elementary School so he could get out of any future draft by demonstrating he was against violence and guns.  The idea that I might own a gun ever– even if it was used, say, to free draft dodgers from jail — that would make me a family pariah, in my mother’s way of thinking.

I was always on the edge — one step away from pariah purdah — for things like my spiky leather punk bracelets and spiky hair, for any number of artistic expressions not in keeping with the family party line, for resisting attending yet more Joan Baez concerts — we tended to go to three per year, more often than we saw grandparents, and finally, what made me utterly untouchable — I became a Christian.

Gun ownership would have launched an Amish shunning from the group, but that ship has sailed.

My fiance, concerned for my safety on my new job, which will involve teaching night classes and driving home alone late at night, said, “Hon, when you’re down here, I think we’d better think about getting you a firearm.”

I was at once shocked and utterly tantalized.  A gun is either the final step toward family excommunication or the first step toward my eventual red neck perdition, a perdition about which some of my New York cohort are already taking bets, I’ll warrant.  I think the odds are running in that pool toward my turning Daisy Ducal in less than three years, perhaps, because of my age, with nether-cheeks covered, but nonetheless, with an overly broad smile and derriere, leaning over a table with two long-necks in hand in some honky tonk, a gun rack in my truck.

Not known for my half-measures, I say bring it on.  I’m too intellectual for that picture, and I’m frankly more likely to turn into Eudora Welty than Daisy Duke, but guns — I am curious yellow.  I am pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun control bi-curious about guns.

When I was living as a club kid in Paris (and not yet saved), I once made out in a restaurant hallway with a man I had met earlier that evening.  He was packing.  I discovered mid-kiss the heavy steel handle tucked in the small of his back, and I found myself grabbing him tighter, kissing him harder.  I took him home that evening.  Living in a city as a young woman, not even old enough to order a drink in America, with no family on the entire continent, felt dangerous, and having a guy in my apartment who could shoot at the door if something went down — it didn’t matter that the firearm was illegal and that I had no known enemies — felt like the safest thing I could do.   I did not fall in love with him, this international man of mystery, but I did find myself passionately entangled.  I imagined him enacting all my unladylike rages, personifying the angry part of me.  It never once occurred to me that I should own a gun personally.  My mother had told me that women who own firearms find themselves overpowered by their attackers and find the weapon meant for their protection used against them.  I didn’t mind the overpowered part, not with my sexy, gun-toting man, but the weapon — would it always be pointed the other way?  And I was so angry — angry at unfairness I would later come to understand as feminist issues — I had already been attacked and excluded from things boys took for granted — could I trust myself not to go postal?

I joined the women’s movement, wrote speeches and organized demonstrations for them — I also did stand-up comedy.  I had a whole routine about Thelma and Louise blocking a Senate hearing and demanding an apology at gunpoint from the committee.  I found legitimate outlets for my decidedly unladylike anger — there’s nothing like screaming at the White House and doing what they said we could never do.  I largely forgot about guns until I saw this:

Some mother-daughter time

Understand I don’t agree with Ms. Palin about anything, but here was this marvelous image of a woman doing something we were surely told we could never do, although any honest historian will tell us that women have had to pick up guns and use them since the beginning of this country to defend and to feed their families.  I began to wonder — where are these moose-hunting women congregating?  Not Manhattan, I can  tell you that much.  Could I fill up a flask with some Jack Daniels, find a lonesome mountainside with them, and could we get buzzed, laughing softly as we crouched in the snow, fire off a few, and bag a buck?  Could I in my wildest dreams convince three other city-dwelling amateurs like me — think of it as a bridge party — to rent a SUV in some remote location, borrow some rifles, and try to get some venison?

Understand I’ve never had a problem with the morality of hunting anything one eats or wears, endangered species excepted, of course.  I’m roasting a chicken as I type this blog, and while I’m delighted it wasn’t my responsibility to kill it, I assume that as an eater of meat, I am just as liable for that Chicken’s blood-spattered execution as if I had bitten its neck at some PLO terrorist training camp.  Hence, hunting seems natural and right to me.

My city girlfriends smiled at my request that we form a hunting party, and while they thought it was an awfully good joke, full of spirit, they had no more real interest in going out in the woods with a shotgun than they did in chasing a bat out of an attic.  Besides, coupled with my small-p-pentacostal leanings and my unframed, square-shaped glasses I used to have, I was suspiciously Palinesque and might have caused a stir in certain circles had I not had a leftist literary track record.

I still want to go hunting,  at least for the drinking part of the hunting.

However, my fiance wants to get me a gun to protect me from attackers, not to get dinner.   One of my colleagues asked me if I could ever shoot someone.  In self-defense, I could.  However, I am not convinced — yet — that a gun would really protect me.

One time in Paris, shortly before I met the man who was packing, I was walking home in spindly high heels at 4 am — something I loved to do.  Paris is largely a safe city, and the streets are only really empty then but for the fishmongers pouring ice into their cases and the occasional couple kissing against a wall.  I loved to feel I was alone in all the beautiful architecture, to hear the water lapping against the quais as I crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts.  I loved the smell of bread baking as I passed small bakeries.  However, one night, I was walking home in my clubbing dress, covered in sequins, my absurd heels, my hair sweaty from too much dancing, and a man started to follow me down the Boulevard Saint Michel.  I took note of him, heard him cursing under his breath, and as I turned down narrower and narrower streets toward my apartment, he still followed me more and more closely.  I lived on a block where there were only old people, no cops, and I realized that if I ignored him, he would likely follow me up to my apartment door and hurt me.  He was stammering insults about bitches and whores.  He seemed twitchy, such as I could hear him behind me.

I decided that I would risk confronting him before he cornered me.

I turned and walked forcefully up to him, shouting, “You!  Stop following me!  Why are you bothering me?”

The guy, who was even more twitchy to the view than I had imagined while listening to him, pulled out a knife.

“You looked at me funny!”  He mumbled as he unbuttoned his clothes.

He clearly had intended to corner me and rape me, possibly to slit my throat.

I took two steps back, and even though my heart was pounding, I changed my tone to a conversational and utterly calm one.

“You know,” I said with an actual smile on my face, “a girl could get the wrong impression from you.  I mean, here you are following me, and I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

How would I hurt him — with a heel to the eye?  with a spiky bracelet to the nuts?  I had no game.

“I don’t want to have to hurt you,” I repeated authoritatively — where this air of confidence came from, I had no idea, “but you need to leave me alone.”

Twitchy man looked confused.  He had counted on my fear — maybe that was the thrill.

“You shouldn’t look at people funny like that!” He shouted, sounding frightened himself, “do you need me to cut you up to teach you a lesson?”

As calmly as a mother talking to a baby in a crib, although my eyeballs were pulsating from the adrenaline, I intoned, “No.  I don’t need to be taught a lesson.  Here’s what’s going to happen.  I am going to walk that way, and you are going to turn around in the opposite direction and leave me alone, because I don’t want to have to hurt you, because if I have to hurt you, I will.”

I started down a steep cobblestone street backwards in stillettos.

“Here I go.  Don’t make me hurt you.  I’m going now.”

I walked about twenty yards backwards downhill, and then I turned around walking calmly but more quickly.   I did not hear footsteps, but I wanted to know if he had followed me.   I turned to see where he was.

“What did I tell you?  Do I need to cut you up?”

“No,” I repeated calmly, “I’m going now.”

When I turned the corner, I ran home.

Horrified as I was, I realized that if I held a hairbrush with enough attitude in a shadowy place, an attacker would think it was a nuclear weapon.

So do I need a gun?  I haven’t decided.  I like the idea of shooting a tin can, of being competent with a piece of cold steel, of defying yet another stereotype.  I am of two minds on the subject, and anyway, I don’t have to decide today.  Today I’m only packing one way, the way with the cardboard boxes, the way that might include chasing a bat out of my attic apartment, although that’s more the cat’s job than mine.  I have so much to pack, so much baggage from the past, I am tempted to blow it away.

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