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

October 13, 2010

The Land of Cotton — and other mythical landscapes

 

Old times here, apparently, are not forgotten

 

When European writers imagined the Orient — a distant place, vaguely understood, rarely visited — they invented a landscape in their minds, invented customs and people unlike the  real residents of the lands to the  East of Europe, and what they invented said a lot more about their own feelings than the reality of the lands to the East of them.

I am reading a great deal about problems of orientalism in literature, am writing about imaginary versions of Japan concocted by Anglo writers.

As I drove this Monday through landscapes of rolled haystacks bound with wire and cotton — fields and fields of it, stretching with loden green and tufts of white everywhere — I wondered if there might not be a similar mystical landscape version of the South popularized in the North.

And so there is:  Dixie.

Dixie the song was written by a Yankee from Ohio — Daniel Decatur Emmett in 1859.

The song was first publicly sung in a minstrel show in  New York City that year.  White men from the North pretending to be black men from the South sang these words:

Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton!

Old times there are not forgotten!

Look away, Look away, Look away Dixie Land.

I have not written it in the offensive imitation of ebonics that was the original language of the minstrel show because it makes me unhappy to do so.

Within a few years, this song about happy ex-slaves nostalgic for a life of slavery in the South became part of the mythology, fully adopted, mind you, by rebel troops as their fight song in the Civil War.

There was an imagined South — one where slaves happily sang as they picked cotton.  There were happy women in hoop skirts.  There were white men with suits and string bow ties and goatees.  There were, in this imaginary South, no real poor white people suffering as the  real poor white people did as subsistence farmers.  The imaginary South was a fun Broadway show South.

Here I stand in the real South, overlooking real and quite lovely cotton fields with a greyish tinge and gritty dirt clods.   I am glad I have no picking to do  of these tufts.  I much prefer this South, the one with the real people who are not always happy but are usually smiling anyway.

In Orientalist fantasies, there are often despots.  Despotism, according to a scholar named Grosrichard, is an important part of the fantasy.  In the fantasy of the South, there are despots, too.  The reality of a history of despotism cannot be ignored.  The South did hold slaves longer than the Northern states, and there have  been many incidents of violence against people of color.  However, in the North, the image that the Klan is pandemic in the Bible Belt — that is a fantasy that absolves the North to some degree of its present hate crimes.  Earlier this month, a horrible hate crime was committed in the Bronx against a man who was assumed by his  attackers to be homosexual.  New Yorkers understand this horrible crime within the context of a much larger community where not everyone is filled with hate, not by a longshot.  However, the idea persists in New York City that hatred is more universal here in Mississippi.

Standing here near a cotton field — admittedly being white, being blonde with blue eyes, hence not as easily a target of such forms of hatred as if I were an African-American woman — I’m not sure that this is so.  I tend to think that while there are still some people who are hateful, the vast majority of people behave more like their neighbor’s keeper in a way that New Yorkers do not, can not, given the vast number of neighbors New Yorkers have.  People say hello to strangers all the time.  Churches feed people and visit the sick (something they also do in New York, when they know who is sick in the community).   There are haters here, to be sure, but in New York, I think some of that is just more suppressed, not extinguished.  Look at the awful things the Republican candidate for governor of New York said this week.   New York is not hate-free.  Neither is the South.  However, the despotism is muzzled at least down here to some degree in the real contemporary South, at least compared to the imagined South of the song Dixie.

In his book Orientalism Edward Said talks about Gustave Flaubert‘s  interaction with a courtesan in Egypt — Flaubert had a few imaginary ideas about the way women were different in Egypt than in France.  To be fair to Flaubert, in strictly external and superficial ways, the women did look different and sound different.  That said, his ideas about Egyptian women were crude and reductive.

The ideas that Northerners have about women of the South are a bit silly.  They imagine Scarlett O’Hara saying, “Why fiddle dee dee!”  They certainly imagine every Miss America contestant from below the  Mason Dixon line.  There are women who cultivate the pageant and the belle images, to be sure, but it would be crude and reductive to imagine there are no feminists down here, no thinkers among women, no hilarious, goofy interesting and individualistic women.  I do think it is harder to be that way down here than up North, as I see a greater pressure to conform to the artificial standards of the cult of Southern womanhood.

So as I look at the field in the land of cotton — are old times forgotten here?  Look away — no, but perhaps they will be overcome yet.  Look away — no, but the South is reinventing itself.  Look away — but why would you look away?  These fields are beautiful, aren’t they? — Dixie Land.

September 19, 2010

Don’t MAKE me come up there, New York City!

So here I am, New York, one of your expatriates,  now living in Mississippi, forever assuming that  I had left the place of ultimate tolerance for a place still wrestling with civil rights issues.  While I’m off minding my business down here, I find out from Farah Akbar of The Gotham Gazette and others — the sweet elderly couple down the street at CNN, those crazy neighbors of ours at Fox News, and basically everybody else — that you’ve gone and pulled a switcheroo on me, New York City.  Down here, I’ve yet to witness a hate crime or hear about one recently committed in my environs, but up there, you’ve gone all Klannish on me!

Farah Akbar wrote the following:

“A 37-year-old Queens resident, who does not want his name used, thinks that he may have been the victim of a hate crime. On a warm August evening, he was taking the routine four-block walk home from the Jamaica Muslim Center after completing his prayers. He was wearing a traditional outfit from his native Bangladesh, which consists of a long overflowing shirt that reaches the knees and baggy pants. Two blocks shy of his home, five men surrounded him began punching him.

‘I kept saying, ‘Don’t hit me. Take what you want, but don’t hit me,’ he said. The men did not ask for money or for his watch. In fact, they did not say a word to him throughout the entire ordeal. The victim, an information technology professional, had to take two days off from work to recover from his injuries.

Officials from the Jamaica Muslim Center believe that this was a hate crime. ‘He was wearing Muslim garb, he was not robbed and he was only two blocks away from the mosque,” said Junnun Choudhury, general secretary of the center.'” — The Gotham Gazette, September 2010

And then there’s the guy who drunkenly took a whizz on prayer rugs in a mosque in a different part of Queens, a part of Queens where I organized a pro-diversity literary reading within a year of 9/11 that was well attended!

Why are the people of Astoria, Queens, in what must be the most diverse portion of the most diverse county in the whole world, seemingly more angry at Islam today than  they were in January, 2002?

Is this what you do, New York, when I leave you alone in the house like a grown-up?  If I had discovered you had thrown a wild party with a lot of friends over who broke stuff, that would have just been business as usual for you, and we wouldn’t be having this talk right now.  This is a sad surprise, to say the least.

And then, let’s take a look at this winner, who celebrated September 11th by protesting the Islamic center they want to build at Park 51:

Wait -- I'm in Mississippi and THIS GUY is in New York?

When I was contemplating my move down here, New York City, didn’t you warn me that if I went to Mississippi, I would run into a pack of half-wit racist scumbags with horrible taste in men’s hats?

Is this your idea of a joke, New York?

New York, it’s not just the ninth anniversary of September 11th when this guy was walking around like this — it was during FASHION WEEK that he was looking like this, too. Have you no shame?

New York, my Irish great-great-great-grandmother would have said the following to you:

  1. You’ve gone “beyond the beyonds” — which means pack your bags, no Carmelite nun’s prayer can save you — this is the kind of behavior that lands you straight in Hell.
  2. She would remind you of the controversy that existed during her lifetime about the building of  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, as one wouldn’t want to encourage all that anti-American papist hooliganism supposedly inherent in the worship practices of that upstart immigrant group, the Irish Catholics.  I refer you to Martin Scorcese’s film, The Gangs of New York, for a reenactment of another jingoist protest against an immigrant group’s house of worship being built.
  3. You have abandoned your wonderful principles.
  4. Osama Bin Laden wins if we become hateful or even distrust our own ideal of a diverse society.
  5. Given that this man has “Guinness” written on his tacky cap, there’s a pretty good chance the guy in the photo is Irish-American.  What would  his Irish great-great-great grandmother have to say to him?  Irish eyes would not be smiling.

New York, what’s going on  up there?  Are you just acting out because you miss me so much?  Have I really  moved to a place of greater tolerance for difference and individual choice than your overcrowded streets?

Don’t make me come up there, New York City!  If I come up there, and I don’t see things back the way they were when I left — a reasonable attitude between all groups of people, a total rejection of the attitudes that inspire hate crimes, and — don’t forget — the best-dressed men in North America, you will have to answer to me.  I remind you of the many demonstrations I organized when I lived there.  I remind you of the several makeovers I performed.  You don’t want to get me started again, do you?  Don’t make me come up there.

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