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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July 19, 2015

Quit Calling Me a Racist While I Wave My Racist Flag at You! — South Carolina, Oklahoma and Confederate Flag Backlash

My colleague James Travis Rozier noted on Facebook that it was very hot yesterday in Columbia, South Carolina, where members of the KKK were assembling to protest the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the State Capitol.  He said that he was almost feeling sorry for them if they were dressing in those white hoods and robes in that weather.  I remarked that it might be hot in July in the South, but it’s nowhere near a hot as it will be for those Klansmen when they arrive in Hell, where they are surely going.

Just preserving heritage? Who are they kidding?

Just preserving heritage? Who are they kidding?

The people who assembled in South Carolina in favor of the removed flag — and allow me to say briefly how glad I am it was removed — were “just trying to preserve their heritage.”  The problem with that logic, even if I ignore their shouts of “white power,” and the gorilla gestures some made (like the man pictured front and center with his hand held high did) at the many African-American counter-protesters, is that having appropriated the Stars and Bars as its banner, the KKK could only be protesting the removal of its own flag from the capitol.  Of late, the Klan has tried to reframe the way people identify it.  It claims to be a Christian organization — but how many churches burn a cross on an enemy’s lawn?  How many lynch and burn other group’s churches?  They are no more a Christian organization than the Nazis are a quaint youth group designed to promote the outdoors.  They have claimed to be in favor of white heritage the way that other groups in America promote the interests and advancement of people of color, but that’s a sad joke, too.  The NAACP, for instance, doesn’t define its success in any way by the exclusion of others but by the inclusion of people of color in places where they were largely excluded by social standards, and they have never been advocates or perpetrators of violence.  The Klan was founded as a way to terrorize dark-skinned people, Irish immigrants and Jews.  The purpose of the sheets they wore was to protect the perpetrators of crimes from identification in the commission of acts of terrorism.  The only way they have ever tried to advance white people is by killing, burning, maiming, and frightening others.  And the Confederate Battle Flag has been their chosen flag for all they stand for and want to accomplish.

But that flag is supposed to represent Southern pride, right?  Pride in what, pray tell?  I love the South and could rattle off hundreds of things for which I believe Southerners are rightfully proud — but that flag was designed by a man who explained to those who first flew it that its purpose was to represent the white race’s supremacy over enslaved black peoples in Southern States.  Those who chose to fly it understood and accepted this as its message.  A century hence, some Southerners say it only represents North versus South tensions, not racial tensions — but why wave it in Oklahoma as the first Black President of the United States drives by if not for racist expression — particularly since Oklahoma never flew that flag during the Civil War?  What else could that flag possibly communicate to anyone other than the flyers of the flag hate it that President Obama is black?

President Obama has not gotten embroiled in the flag-changing politics surrounding recent responses to racism in the South.  He has never had much to say about  that flag as President.  So what would be the political purpose of flying the flag other than the Klan’s purpose — to somehow say that Obama as a black man should fear white Oklahomans?

Have these people no shame?

I saw something sad that someone posted on Facebook — a photo of a young black man, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts near an open pick-up truck’s flat bed from which flew a Confederate Battle Flag.  The person who posted it did so to demonstrate that the flag wasn’t racist at all.  After all, if one black person is willing to stand next to the flag, that must wipe out centuries of oppressive meaning for black folks, right?  How idiotic!  I feel sorry for that young man by the battle flag and for his momma, too.  He is doing nothing new, in fact.  Franz Fanon, author of Black Skins, White Masks, would call him internally colonized — a young man living (one might likely think) in East Texas among white people who use the n-word to insult him and others.  So why would he adopt the symbol of the white community for himself?  Well, as Fanon says, the oppressed believe the worst about themselves, and, “the colonized [person] is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.”  Fanon, who was himself a black man from a French colony, talks about people internalizing Frenchness and disdaining those things considered African and therefore disdained by the colonists.  Any young man of color who poses next to the Confederate flag (unless he just took it down from where it was flying — like Bree Newsome did — though she had no time to pose before she was arrested) has adopted the oppressive attitudes of racism about black people.  I feel sorry for him and wish he had been at the counter-protest in Columbia with people who knew that the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol both historically and presently of racial oppression.

Fortunately, many white Southerners, the people who run NASCAR, Ole Miss Football Coach Hugh Freeze, and others, are able to see the harm this symbol does to the present-day South and the evils of the past that it preserves in lieu of those many things that the South might rightfully be proud to call its heritage.  They are calling from the removal of the flag as a symbol of official things.  They are aware of its use by violent people to violent ends and its original expression of support of slavery.  Today, many Southerners, like South Carolina State Assemblywoman Jenny Horne, a Republican and a descendant of Jefferson Davis, understand the battle flag symbolizes something absolutely NOT Southern — a lack of hospitality toward all.  As she tearfully argued for the flag to come off the flagpole at the capitol, she talked about how the flag was insulting to her colleagues and her friends.  Southerners as a whole value hospitality and cordiality well above foolish and petty ideas of non-existent racial superiority, well above the Confederate Dead, who are, however tragically, moldering in the grave and won’t be attending any more cotillions.  It’s the present Southerners, Horne and others have argued, who need to be welcomed, one and all, to the important and the impressive things the South does right.  The best way, they argue, to preserve heritage is to continue be who Southerners have always meant to be — kind, strong, resourceful, polite, faithful, dignified, and free — and to do so in a manner that embraces every Southerner’s history, not just the plantation owners’ history, but the history of those whose backs were whipped on those plantations, and those who lost limbs and eyes fighting to keep those plantation owners rich while they returned to poor subsistence farms and tried to make sense of a senseless war, a tattered battle flag in hand, youth destroyed with no sufficient explanation for the madness of the brutality they had faced.  The flag that the Klan clings to is a symbol of dishonor rather than the real honor of people of people not hooded but hoodwinked by a system that made the few rich and oppressed the many.

I will fight to the death for the rights of individuals to wave that flag, however misguidedly, but I am thrilled that the flag has been pulled down and is being pulled down off of government institutions.  As John Oliver said so well, the Confederate flag ought to be a marker for the rest of us to recognize the most horrible people in the world, not a symbol of any state where the descendants of slaves pay taxes.  And the racists are nice to let us know they’re in town so we can cross to the other side of the street if we like to avoid any lightning bolts God might like to throw at them.

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