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

June 25, 2015

Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful — and Why Taking Down the Confederate Flag Constitutes Substantive Change

Southerners have so much about which they might be proud.  I adore the South, truly, and I appreciate Southerners.

I started this blog having moved from Brooklyn to marry my husband in Mississippi.  We consummated our marriage on a bed that was slept in by Ulysses S. Grant in his antebellum mansion headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  That means our wedding night was practically a historical reenactment of a Confederate surge against Yankee defenses.  So with a sense of Southern heritage, my sojourn here began, and with respect for Southern traditions, my sojourn continues.

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

But what Southern traditions do today’s Southerners really want to embrace?  Is the average Southerner thinking that slave auctions ought to be brought back?  Do today’s Southerners believe in lynchings?  No!  The vast majority of Southerners are against what William T. Thompson, the creator of the Confederate Battle Flag, said about his stars and bars, namely, that his flag represents the struggle to “maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”  The majority of Southerners have intellectually accepted the idea of equality for all races under the law, and as for heaven, I am fond of the words that one Southern preacher, Kenneth Copeland, said: “If someone says he loves the Lord but hates another race, question his salvation, as the Word says he who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”  Southerners are capable of prejudice and of racial bias, but intellectually, the vast majority of Southerners don’t want institutionalized racism and violence.  They want things to be fair, though i wonder how clearly they imagine an equitable South.

When I talk to many white people here in the South, I sense they are hesitant to talk about race because it feels like a topic off-limits, though the racists in their midst are not at all timid.  Most white people I meet are not ugly racists, though their contact with people of color is limited by a de facto system of segregation that persists in many parts of America, even though the de jure system is officially abolished.  However, they all have at least one racist relative.  They often love that racist relative.  And in the South, it is considered very, very rude to contradict someone over the Thanksgiving turkey, especially if that someone is older than you are.

That said, it needs to be done. White Northerners are more likely, I think, to tell that racist relative that his or her comments are offensive.  I am definitely going to open my mouth when such a thing happens.  In fact, here’s a story of how I did one afternoon, and it will demonstrate how I have come to certain views about the quiet beliefs of Southern white people on the whole:

****

I had backed my car into a pole in the Ole Miss stadium parking lot, and I needed a new bumper.  I found myself an exceedingly honest auto body shop, Kenny’s auto body shop on University Avenue on the outskirts of Oxford, Mississippi.  Kenny told me I could wait while the work on my car was done by him and his several junior mechanics.  His is the kind of shop that attracts a number of middle-aged or older men who hang around and comment on the work being done, give unsolicited advice, or on the day I was there, stare at a Yankee woman’s chest and try to flirt with her in unctuous and illiterate ways.

The older man kept staring at my chest as he told me about how big his car was, and I ignored him as best I could until he told me in some manner I only half remember that he was better than those “n” -s (not using the word he used because it is so offensive.)

That’s when I turned to him and asked him how he knew I wasn’t an “N.”  He looked a little surprised.  He said, “With yer blonde hair and blue eyes, you caint be one.”

I told him I was a white “n,” and so was my husband — he, too, is a white “n,” and I told him that we liked souped up cadillacs, watermelon and fried chicken, and he’d better stop using that “n” word to stereotype us and insult us.

“Hey!” He protested, “I didn’t say all that!”

“Sure you did,” I said, “What else could you have meant by using a disgusting word like the N-word?  You brought it up, so let’s talk about it!”

He felt challenged in a way he was clearly unused to, and he left in a huff.

As the door shut behind him, I realized that all work by the men in this body shop had stopped some time ago.  All these guys were white, looking more than a little like Larry the Cable Guy, the kind of guys who chew tobacco and hunt on weekends, all Southerners, all white — and I admit I wasn’t sure what would happen next.  Would they send me away?  How would I get back to campus without my car?  Was I potentially in danger?

After a moment where you could have heard a Teitlist cap fall to the ground out of a blue jumpsuit back pocket, they came up one by one and shook my hand, congratulating me on finally serving up what this creepy man had been dishing out in their presence for many years, while they had stood silently and put up with what they, too, found offensive language.

“Why didn’t anybody say anything to this guy before, if everybody seems to feel the same way about him?” I asked.

They didn’t have a clear answer.  The man wasn’t a customer in their shop, just a guy who came to hang around and talk like that, they said, so it wasn’t exactly about customer service.

One finally offered, “Well, it’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody else, and nobody wants to be rude, because it will stick around as a story forever.”

This may be so, but the story that wasn’t sticking around forever was that this guy was a massive racist creep who deserved to be shunned.

Southern manners seems to allow the few truly rude Southerners to stay rude.  Southerners might live happier lives if they decided to stand up to jerks more often.

*****

So finally, Governor Bentley of Alabama decided to quietly take down the flag without a debate, and everybody is still who they were before — or are they?  Is this a cosmetic change?  Or is this a change that materially changes the discourse of the South?

The reasoning behind the decision to take down the flag is perhaps best expressed by AL.com writer Kyle Whitmire, who writes, explaining to other Southerners, “For the South, the Confederate flag has been what a face tattoo in a job interview is for everybody else. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what it meant for us if it scared the hell out of everybody else.”

A lot of people in the South will tell Northerners and each other that the Confederate flag only represents pride in one’s heritage — but this symbol got hung over State capitols again during the period of the inception of the civil rights movement, some time shortly after Brown v. Board of Education in most instances. The pride expressed was in a segregated South.  The symbol has been used as recently as last year in the lynching of the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  Meredith, who was the first African-American admitted to the university, whose presence caused a race riot at the time instigated by white supremacists, had his image defaced last year by some racist frat boys who left a noose around his neck with a Stars-and-Bars-emblazoned flag hanging from it.  What was the nature of the pride expressed there?  And more importantly, do most Southern white people want a share of that pride?

While writers like Nicholas Kristof of The New York TImes are right to exhort the South to make material changes, it is easy for outsiders to the South and its manners to miss the enormity of this change.  Maybe the Southerners haven’t told their racist grandmothers to stop insulting people of other races at Christmas dinner yet, but this gesture is a step in that direction.  It says that Southerners realize that wrongs have been done recently using a symbol of the past, and the South most Southerners want to live in isn’t violent toward people of color, and it’s fair, though the parameters of that fairness have yet to be defined by most people.

So I rejoice at this news.  When I heard that Governor Bentley had taken down that hate flag, I turned on the Lynard Skynard and danced, thinking about where the skies are blue, singing songs about the Southland — and does your conscience bother you?  If you are from Alabama, your state has taken a weight off its collective conscience.  Congratulations, Alabama!  I agree with your sign — Alabama is the beautiful, and your banner is one of United States, not divided states and divided people.

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.

June 4, 2010

Sex and the City in the Country

Yes, that movie, the second one, bombed.  Yes, the characters, so compelling in the series, became sad caricatures instead of  women who had learned something valuable from the variety of hard knocks they had had over the years.

So what?  Women where I come from, New York City, still identify with them, perhaps more than we should.

The girls with whom the country girls don't identify

When I worked in publishing years ago, there was an editorial assistant there who squealed, after I delivered some diatribe in New York irony regarding cocktails, my shoes, and women’s priorities in New York, “Omigod!  You are so Carrie Bradshaw!”

I did not understand.  Who was Carrie Bradshaw?

She made me, absolutely  forced me, to watch season one of  the show, which I had never watched — I wasn’t slutty, and why would I want to watch a show called Sex and the City?  I wasn’t looking for sex in the city — I was married, so I wasn’t stalking men, and what could possibly make me identify with women in such a show?

I sat and watched episode one.  I was sufficiently entertained to watch episode two.  In the middle of episode two, I jumped off the couch and screamed.

Someone had been spying on me.  I really was Carrie Bradshaw, I mean I was not just like her, I WAS her, at least for a few moments on the screen.

Carrie is talking to Charlotte in that episode, and Charlotte says these words:

“Anal sex?  That can’t be!  I went to Smith College!”

A year earlier, I had had tea at the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court with a girlfriend, and that girl, who really WAS Charlotte for fifteen seconds of episode two, had uttered those words precisely to me.  She had said them loudly enough to be overheard by somebody else.  Writers in New York keep notebooks to jot down what others say to use  such phrases later in other creations.  It most definitely was overheard by one of  those notebook-toting writers.

What’s more, I had a  lot of clothes, too many for my apartment closet.  I had shoes, and in that moment, before 9/11, at the tail end of the dot com bubble, I kept buying them, nice ones.  I had cocktails with girlfriends regularly and networked even more regularly in the art world over cocktails.  I had a friend who was an astonishing nymphomaniac, another friend who was pampered and aristocratic, a number of friends with powerful careers that made them fearful  and cynical — in short, I was, whether I liked it or not, one of the city’s many  Carrie Bradshaws.

My friends and I never discussed the series together.  We apparently all got privately hooked, however, because when the first movie came out, we went to see it together, along with the crowds and crowds of us who had gotten privately hooked.  The theater rang with that breathless recognition, when one’s life was splayed out on the wide screen.  We knew these girls.  We were, all of  us, these girls, whether  we liked it or not.

And it’s not just my generation in New York that has experienced this phenomenon — the one that follows us is more convinced that these women are who they should become, not just who they are but who they are truly meant to be.  Note  the continued paucity of real female role models, even today, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice notwithstanding.  I was interviewing interns a year ago, and a young woman told  me it was her goal to become Samantha Jones.

She qualified it when my eyebrows rose: “Not that I want to sleep with so many guys, just that I want to own my own PR firm and be in charge of my life.”

Oh.  They are seeing other things about the forty-year-old, fifty-year-old girls than the girls, that is, we who are them despite ourselves, than we generally see, like Samantha’s emotional immaturity and self-centered outlook.  They see independence and strength.  Are we independent and strong?

Other young women in the city love every episode, see it as an Emily Post for a complex world of male-female relationships which is off-road at best and a survivalist nightmare at worst. 

I’m sorry, younger women. To the extent that I am Carrie Bradshaw, I apologize.  We should have been stronger, more moral, more nurturing of  you.  The shoes weren’t as important as your school books.  Big is nobody’s perfect match, and neither is any other man who has that many issues  regarding commitment.  We didn’t teach you  this.  I, as a spokesperson for the generation of Carrie Bradshaws that somehow emerged on the island of Manhattan, I apologize to you.  I wish we had given you something more admirable to admire.  If you think we have it figured out, we  don’t.  If we look confident, we’re not.  We’re boxing shadows everywhere, and while we look marvelous, much better than our own mothers at this age, and we have had many brilliant experiences, do not assume for a minute we know what we are  doing.  We are piloting this plane without training.  It may crash into those looming towers any second.  We have not meant to be terrorists in your lives.  I fear we may be nonetheless.  Please forgive  us.

Because I am to some extent Carrie Bradshaw, I went to see the movie number two, right here in Vicksburg.  The theater, this on the weekend it opened, was entirely empty when  I arrived a few minutes  before show time.  I wandered  down the aisle toward the front.  I was astonished by the cool emptiness.  I parked myself in the sixth row, where I like to sit, where the screen overwhelms one, and I heard a few others behind me shuffle quietly in over the next few minutes.  I nibbled popcorn and could hear myself  chewing.  I heard neither  gasps nor  laughter of recognition.  I know the second movie wasn’t very good.  However, the girls in New York know they are still Carrie Bradshaw, even on a bad trip to Abu Dhabi.

On September 11th, I escorted that editorial assistant down the fire stairs of the building where we worked and had watched in horror as the largest buildings in New York melted down like  fast-burning cigarettes.  I miraculously got a cell phone signal to call her near-hysterical mother,  who  had been sure that her taking a job in Manhattan was a death sentence before the attack.  We walked by the tents in Bryant Park.  They  had canceled fashion  week.  Eventually, I got her to a subway, finally working, and she took the long trip home to the end of the line.

The next day, I lost my job.

This week, after the weekend debut, I got a text message from one of my cocktail-mixing Manhattanite friends.  She wrote: “Am about to see Sex and the City.  Wish you were here.”

I make no more sense  in Mississippi on some days than Samantha  did in Abu Dhabi.  I am alien to this  landscape.  Slowly, I am  making a few friends.  But who am I kidding?  I don’t have designer shoe money as I get my PhD.  I have a home where it is sometimes lovely, but then the air conditioner breaks, my husband breaks the window and thinks that  duct tape  is a perfectly good solution, the dog poops in every room, my hair frizzes past the point of recognition.

Who am I kidding?  I am alien.  Yet, I belong here.  A PhD will be valuable in my career.  Despite the duct tape and the pretzels he  left all over  the carpet last night, I love my husband.  Somehow, this has got to be my  home.

After September 11th, New Yorkers cleaned up and got on with work.  I got a new job, finished my Master’s Degree.  A wonderful cop told Osama Bin Laden at Madison Square Garden, after losing hundreds of colleagues and no sleep, that he could kiss his royal Irish ass.

My ass is Irish.  I’m not sure who to tell to kiss it.  However, I think it is time for me to shout such a thing.  Who is the enemy here?  Where are my towers?  Where are my shoes?

Mississippi?  That can’t be!  I went to Sarah Lawrence College.

Tomorrow I’ll be glad of the beauty that surrounds me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad for  the time I have to write.  Tomorrow, I’ll be thrilled again at my big kitchen where I bake and cook whatever pleases me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad at the unpretentious way things are done around here.  Tomorrow, I will be thrilled again that this is a place where my  Christian worldview is welcome.

Today, I miss Samantha. and Charlotte. and Miranda.  They are fictional characters, and I am not in fact Carrie Bradshaw, and yet, I met them everywhere.  I mourn for us, we fictional characters, become caricatures of our  former selves.

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