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.

February 6, 2010

The questionable etymology of “Who Dat”

I write this as someone who could not care less who wins the Superbowl. The Superbowl is an instance of American culture at its most commercial, shallow, and it only partially sublimates its violence.  Superbowl Sunday is the number one day of the year where American women call domestic violence hotlines.  Men get drunk, beat up their women after the game,  so excuse me if I don’t feel particularly like celebrating.

That said, living as I do on the very border of Mississippi and Louisiana, you may well imagine that I have heard a few exclamations of “Who Dat Dere Gonna Beat Dem Saints?”

The phrase comes from a song recorded by an African-American New Orleans Jazz band and singer.  The phraseology, one of African-American diction particular to the black working class of New Orleans, caught on.  No one but Chicago Cubs fans can understand the devotion of certain New Orleans Saints fans throughout multiple seasons of defeat.  They have never won a Superbowl before, but the song, “Who dat” was sung over and over again, season after season, by certain die-hard fans — black and white.

For a person from the Northeast, the first listen to “Who Dat” might potentially appear to be part of the Aunt-Jemima-and-Sambo-style charictures demeaning to people of color that the deep south has tolerated for generations, often seeming oblivious to their symbolism and negative messages.  This is, after all, a region that keeps debating the proper place of the Confederate flag as a symbol within state flags.  To a Northeasterner, it seems like debating where the swastika belongs on the current German flag as a sign of its heritage.  I remember an article I read in the early 1990s in The Village Voice where a reporter attending an event hosted by the Christian Coalition involved the singing of the “Who Dat” song — in reference to Christian sainthood — and one of the coalition’s PR people rushed over to her to tell her that “Who Dat”‘s diction was racially neutral.  She wrote something in her article like, “Yeah, right!”  According to Wikipedia, “Who Dat” songs — songs with lyrics that start with “Who Dat?” and have a response like, “Who dat who say who dat?” originated in minstrel shows, notorious spectacles of American racism played by white men in black face.  How could “Who Dat” in the Saints fight song have no racial implications?

However, “Who Dat” seems to have what recording executives call crossover appeal.  It is true that I occasionally here white people sounding something, not exactly, like that when they speak.  I see signs around me, a four-hour drive to New Orleans, with the words, “Who Dat” painted on them by hand.  People around here are excited about the game tomorrow.  They have needed a reason to be excited for some time.  While Vicksburg was not devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the whole region has felt the aftermath of the storm’s terrible havoc.   In numerous towns in Mississippi, historical landmarks were decimated, to say nothing of the horrible devastation of people’s homes.  Lots of refugees from the storm moved inland and slightly north — meaning not far from here.  After having driven through New Orleans less than a year ago, and having seen whole neighborhoods still standing but condemned — a red “X” painted on each of the houses to indicate that it was still not safe even to climb the front steps — I dare say that people have a right to get excited about a pointless and commercialized ritual where they might have something to brag about.

For the last three Sundays, our pastor has brought a football with him to the pulpit.  He uses football metaphors to describe things like, “how to receive from God,” where the football is the blessing and God is the quarterback.  No one around here has ever thought, it seems, that football metaphors smacked even subtly of impiety, as football is important stuff to the people of Mississippi  — native son Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre is probably the most celebrated celebrity in the whole state, equivalent to J-Lo and Derek Jeter combined for the Bronx.  Yet  I look from pew to pew and see how happy people are, and I recognize that some people smiling haven’t had much to smile about for a while.  Unlike New Yorkers, I note that people suffer around here in silence.  New Yorkers like to mouth off.  Here, they just wait for an excuse — like a football game — to scream.

The propagation of “Who Dat” as a fight song in no way challenged preconceived notions about intellectual capacity of African-Amerricans.   “Who Dat” is not a Barak Obama speech.  That said, football is not an exercise in intellectual capacity.  Americans distrust egg-heads, even though eggs are shaped a bit  like footballs.  In the Northeast, these days, we have examples of white people adopting the songs of the urban working class and underclass African-Americans.  Any teenage white boy in high school chanting back the rap of Fifty Cent is doing that, largely oblivious to the racial implications of what he’s doing.  I have heard white boys in Brooklyn call each other the N-word.  To them, it means “friend” in a street-friendly manner.

So with a black Harvard-educated president and a bunch of white street thugs calling themselves the “N” word, perhaps the nation is ready for a chorus of  “Who Dat.”  Perhaps the people of the gulf states have had enough trouble without  a carpet bagger like me questioning their intentions here.  People are happy around me, even though the ritual that excites them baffles me.  We all need all the reasons to celebrate that we can find.  There is even a new hybrid “Who Dat” Saints fight song that seems to be a hybrid of African-American and Cajun dialect.  It’s called, “In Da Supabeauxl” by Misty and the Moonpie Kings.  A complex and hybridized view would be all inclusive, making fun of no group, except, possibly, the Colts, who are, I am told, going down.   So long live the strange gumbo of this song and its questionable etymology.   Who dat?  Apparently all of us, all of us are we dat say who dat.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.