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

May 9, 2017

Taking Down Confederate Idols to Raise Up Southerners of Today

To my blog followers, it must feel like I woke up after a three-month Mardi Gras Bender, a Rip Van Winkle to a cocktail they serve down on the French Quarter called the Grenade, and now instead of a walk of bead-bespangled post-Mardi-Gras shame, I am crawling back to work trying to act nonchalant, saying, like a good Southern belle might say after a lost weekend, “I don’t remember WHAT-all happened last night!”

Indeed, I am back after a hiatus inspired less by alcohol than post-election malaise and an onslaught of other responsibilities.  I am awake, no longer beaded like a burlesque dancer on a Bourbon Street stripper pole, not that I’ve ever SEEN a stripper pole on Bourbon Street — I just can’t remember a thing from last night!  I must have fallen asleep without any shenanigans or hoo-haw — I am a lady, not so much Southern as Belle, not so much Belle as baller, not so much baller as beatified. I am back to talk more about the South through the eyes of a Yankee invading the Confederate ruins, much like my ancestor did, only instead of a gun, I bring a book, a blog, and I blow kisses. Hi again!

mardi gras

I am waking up a bit dazed behind Confederate Hall off of Lee Circle. I have a vague memory of Mardi Gras.

What happened to Mardi Gras, you ask? Like a good Southern Belle post-bender, I secretly remember EVERYTHING that happened last night, even though I pretend not to. Nevertheless Mardi Gras is a mirage, a Brigadoon community that emerges from the mist every year.  Here are things I remember:

  • I was not twenty feet from Harry Connick, Jr., truly, who was gorgeous in a tuxedo, ageless like a Brigadoon brigand.
  • I saw a woman dressed as a water lily riding her bicycle which she had papier-mache-ed into the shape of a hippo.
  • I saw men dressed like harlequins carrying flambeaux.
  • I saw a semi-truck transformed into a giant tsunami on which rode Poseidon and a crew of Greek oarsmen.
  • I saw a mermaid sprout legs and dance to a Louis Armstrong song.
  • I saw a famous chef riding a street car covered in disco balls.
  • I saw trinkets flying in the air, tossed out in largesse to strangers.
  • I saw men dressed as skeletons brandishing signs that said, “Make America Great Again.”
  • I saw men dressed as Zulu warriors marching with spears brandished under a pedastaled statue of Robert E. Lee.

And therein lies my subject, gentle reader, as I begin again in my post-Ash-Wednesday tone. After the Brigadoon mirage of Mardi Gras receded, the Zulus turned to ordinary neighbors, mostly of color, and the Statue of Robert E. Lee remained looming above them, an enduring menace in a town where police brutality can still occur killing people of color, a symbol that says to every person of color, “know your place — it hasn’t changed since before the Yankees took back the town, even if y’all invented Jazz and whatnot.”

lee circle

Sunday the White Supremacists from out of town came to tell the people of New Orleans that they had to keep a statue standing that they don’t want any more.

The people of New Orleans do NOT want to keep General Lee standing above them in a present-tense vigil.  New Orleans is entirely comfortable with a historical context for General Lee, General Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, champions of the plantation system, willing to pour out the blood of poor white men to defend it to keep black folks legally nothing more than agricultural equipment.  They have a museum that wrestles with Confederate memories — We don’t know WHAT-all happened on the grounds of Oak Alley plantation!  We just woke up here! Such statues are welcome in an examination of that history.  But the people of New Orleans, under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have decided to make the past the past, whatever William Faulkner said about the past. They are taking down statues that glorify these men, as today, they do not represent the values of my wonderful adopted home town.

The Take it Down NOLA movement held a parade to celebrate the taking down of these monuments two days ago, and they were met by protesters carrying white nationalist symbols who almost all came from out of town. An hour north of here, The Advocate reports, white supremacists hand out flyers in Mandeville. David Duke lives in Metairie, about as far as Newark is from NYC. Lots of KKK recruitment goes on across the Bonnet Carre Spillway in northern Louisiana parishes, but this is New Orleans, a blue dot in a red state.  Thanks to the vigilance of a very cool-headed police team, little violence took place, but a heated argument between those who treasure those dead white men and those who refuse to kiss the dust between their toes ensued.

I may be foggy-headed from the haze of a Mardi Gras honeymoon with my new home town, but don’t these battle reenacters know that the principal of any home is that you need to remove the junk of the past in order to redecorate and reorganize?

There is plenty of room in the South for a new definition of whiteness, of Southernness.  We see this embodied in people like Sally Yates of Georgia, like James Carville, like Emeril Lagasse, like Harry Connick, who really ought to reappear in this blog entry in his tux and sing a song for me — but I shake my head clear of that mist again. The new South is filled with interesting, inventive, progressive, generous white people. It’s the heavy burden of these old dead white men who were advocates for a perpetual genocide of black people that makes the South less glorious than it ought to be now.  With its many beauties, its amazing wealth of natural resources, its many musical idioms, its great writers, its gallantry, its faith — the South could actually be the richest, most wonderful part of the country if it would stop trying to hang onto an old hierarchy as if it represented anything other than a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. If the Southern Belle, awake from her bourbon bender, actually told the truth about who was with who doing what last night, the chiffarobe could get dusted out and converted into an office organizer to get new work done.

To my Southern neighbors, beloved all, I urge you to embrace your best present-tense selves.  I am a carpetbagger, still misty-eyed from Mardi Gras, but when I look at y’all, all y’all, I see a region brimming with potential, with a better nature upon which I call now.  Be the sons and daughters of a South that refuses to define itself in terms of color lines. Be the South that makes great gumbo, that grabs huge cat fish out of the swamp for dinner, that plays the best dance music in the history of the world, that knows how to sweet talk a lady and make her forget herself, that brews the best bourbon, that knows like New Orleans knows, that less is never more. More is more, and still more is still more, and more amity is more amity, more peace is more peace, more hope is more hope, and more justice is more justice.

Now that I’m awake again, or perhaps I mean woke, it’s time we take down these old men and stick them in the museum where they belong. Let’s make room for new heroes, ones whom all the South can celebrate without pain.

 

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June 3, 2016

The Official Guidebook to Whoredom — New Orleans’ Storyville Blue Book and the Women it Commodified

New Orleans has plenty of prostitutes today, but about a hundred years ago, sex work in this city was legal, zoned, taxed, sponsored and cataloged.  Yes, I said “cataloged,” by which I mean approximately what Land’s End and Fingerhut mean when they say “catalog,” only it’s not snow boots that are for sale but the bodies of women, complete with Zagat-like ratings for the services of each.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New Orleans planned Storyville, a community of whore houses, segregated officially between octoroon “cribs,” where women of color or of mixed racial background sold their bodies, and all-white Maisons de Joie, perhaps the most famous of which was Mahogany Hall, memorialized by Louis Armstrong’s “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Storyville was named for the legislator who suggested its legal codification, reform-minded Alderman Sidney Story.  Women of ill repute were supposed to be confined to a sixteen-block ghetto in the Treme section of town, and the implication of their zoning was not only to restrict the work of prostitutes but also their lives, as women who worked there were supposed to stay within the boundaries set up by the city government for almost any imaginable activity.  It was as if they were under house arrest, only they were expected to continue to work as whores to the benefit of the madams, pimps, and Tom Anderson, mobbed-up cabaret owner and the putative “mayor of Storyville,” who seems to have taken a cut of everybody else’s ill-gotten gains in this district.

storyville whorehouse bedroom

This is where clients could expect to have sex for money, — no visible sign of venereal diseases on those throw pillows.

The city itself of course turned a profit, as it could tax these very lucrative businesses that were kept under a watchful eye.  As one government official remarked about sex-for-hire in New Orleans — “You can make prostitution illegal in New Orleans, but you can’t make it unpopular.”  The city, too, was reaping benefits from the legalized trafficking of women’s bodies, and some men’s bodies, too (there are some references to “fairies” in Storyville, though they are not cataloged like women are), it seems. The only initial concern expressed about Storyville by many city officials was that it should not encourage men of color to sleep with white women, though white men were free to roam the district and purchase anybody’s body at will.

Before the establishment of an official tourist bureau, New Orleans businesses compiled something it called Blue Book, too racy to mail according to federal law, but the City of New Orleans determined could be given out to tourists and thrill-seekers of any kind.  In it, potential whorehouse customers could see a list of women for sale in Storyville, divided between white and black women, and inside, one could see photos and read about the various charms and talents of the women for sale, like they were seat cushions on display at Pottery Barn.

The purported purpose of the sixteen-block ghetto designated for whores was, according to the prose of Blue Book, was first, “to put the stranger on the proper and safe path … free from ‘hold-ups’ and other games,” and perhaps more atrociously, “it regulates the women,” keeping the rest of the city free from women who make a living selling their bodies. The purported purpose was therefore to pen in and legalize the transaction of the prostitute and Jon for the Jon, especially if he were white, but it made the woman a prisoner of a mobbed-up prostitution district.  If the sex worker entered Storyville freely to start work there as a prostitute, the law henceforth could hold her hostage even if she wanted to quit the oldest profession for something new.  It made her subject to pimps like Tom Anderson, madams who might tolerate brutality or cheat women of their wages, and with a smile in Blue Book, she was trapped night after night, day after day, in a Mahogany prison.

blue book prostitute mademoiselle rita walker

Mademoiselle Rita Walker’s Blue Book listing exoticizes her, and the combination of her barefoot dancing and expensive wardrobe make her a spicy commodity.

I do not assume for a minute that all the women in Storyville were there against their will.  Surely some of them, whom men at least called by names of royalty or aristocracy — there was “Queen Gertie” and “Countess Willie” — might have found work in a brothel preferable to other forms of menial labor open to working-class women, and perhaps the work itself was less exploitative than some “legitimate” jobs.  In a world where sexual harassment was frequent and legal, maybe getting paid for sex was better than being used for sex while officially being a washerwoman, nanny, or store clerk.  But the fact that these women couldn’t leave if the city didn’t let them slip by, if the mayor of Storyville did not wink — that made Storyville into a gilded form of convict prostitution.  It was not unlike the situation of sharecroppers just outside of town who might have been menaced by the Klan if they threatened to board a train for New York City in the middle of the sugar cane harvest.  In Storyville and the plantation, just like at the Hotel California, you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

And the idea that women were for sale like stoves at Sears — how American a way to hurt people! Capitalism is often subtly ugly when it sells clothes made in factories where workers do not make a living wage, but the clothing itself is lovely.  This, though, was not subtle.  The commerce of the female body is here, and adding insult to injury,  the women in this trade were expected to smile for a photo that advertised them like washboards or shoes.  They were reduced to things, rides at the carnival, adventures — not fully human at all.  I wonder if we remain inured to this kind of commodification of women as pornographic websites speak of parts, not people.  What is voluntary in our day troubles me less than the thousands of underage girls advertised for “outcall massage” in legal classified ads, girls kidnapped, brutalized, and peddled for profit by the mob.

I wonder if we continue to live in a society that could sanction the selling of female flesh while male flesh is mercifully off the auction block these days. Joe Francis has made a wholly disreputable bucket of cash from his disgusting Girls Gone Wild series that convinces women to flash their breasts for his profit.  Women in New Orleans, at least some of them, lift shirts for plastic beads once a year.  Again, I am less troubled by girls lifting shirts than I am boys filming and making bank off of it.  I am not really against whores, ghettoed or not, but I am uncharitable in my views toward Jons and am really totally ready to cut a pimp.  New Orleans places no stigma on what the French call louche.  I particularly take exception to bohemian proclivities expressed by one person that others leech and exploit.

Storyville did not end because of any moral sentiment from the city government of New Orleans.  Rather, the United States military insisted, under the aegis of Woodrow Wilson, who was no whoremonger, that it would be morally and physically unhealthy for soldiers and sailors to catch a boat to World War I through a port town where hookers operated legally.  One may be pretty certain that the president did not consult the soldiers in question about this, but he was adamant.  As a result, Storyville’s interests were less lucrative to New Orleans business and government than a military port contract.  The Mahogany Hall and its neighboring buildings were shuttered, but unsurprisingly, the hooking has continued on the DL to this day. It’s not hard to find a prostitute for sale in New Orleans in the twenty-first century, but it is hard to find a published catalog of them, and the city has ceased to sanction anything they do officially.  There are no doubt plenty of cops on the take, plenty of pimps, and plenty of frightened girls who never went wild, who just fell into the hands of abusers. Storyville might be closed, but it is still open in spirit all day and all night in the city that zoned it.

April 30, 2016

Queen Bey’s New Orleans of the Mind

In January 2016, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, her husband and collaborator, moved the discourse of their art from New York down South.  In “Formation,” Beyoncé sets her video in New Orleans, on porticoed porches, in tough neighborhoods with post-Katrina housing, and in the cuisine, even, of the town — she tells us she carries hot sauce in her bag, a particularly Cajun/creole gesture. Her new release, the remarkable and deeply poignant Lemonade, is set in a place ill identified, a Gothic Southern space, at some moments surrealistic — like a night bus filled with women dancing while painted like West African ghosts, while Bey  sings about how her man isn’t on her mind — and we do not believe her in this haunted vehicle. Other houses catch fire, and they look like they are from the Garden district. Bey gyrates in the flames. She exits a public building with a flood following her in her saffron dress as she smashes car window after car window with a baseball bat. A group of smiling young African-American marching band members and pep squad members march down a street still damaged from storms — an image typical of my neighborhood in the Algiers section of town. We aren’t in New York, the New York Jay-Z has rapped about for decades, where the famous couple has held court for quite some time.  We are not quite in a New Orleans that we know by a skyline or a landmark — some songs are sung in basement parking garages, others in private rooms.  We are sitting with the aristocrats of American culture in  a New Orleans of the mind.

spanish moss nightThe psychology of New York is gritty, but it is never so permanently bleak that one cannot find a boat ride, even the Staten Island Ferry for free, to get a little perspective, a breath of fresh air, a breeze off the Atlantic, a panoply of sky scrapers.  One’s problems seem insignificant in the aspirational spikes of concrete that make shadowy canyons.  One believes in New York City that opportunity is around the corner, even if one circles the block for hours like a cab waiting for a fare.  New Orleans, unlike New York City, is permanently haunted.  The dead cannot quite get buried there — they abide above ground, boxed in just barely by cement and marble. The legacy of slavery is palpable; it is a town that never entered the mainstream of America, much like New York, which is situated on islands off the coast of the mainland.  No melting pot, it is a town where cultures do not so much intersect and blend than they remain distinct and dynamically intermingled.  New Orleans is as African a town as it is European in many ways. The coexistent diversity of cultures in that town, one which might alarm some people in a place like Mississippi, is the strength of the odd survival of the place. One doesn’t overcome one’s problems in New Orleans.  They do not vanish into the mud, six feet under.  One stuffs and mounts one’s problems.  One repurposes one’s griefs into useful household objects.  One doesn’t get over.  One lives with despite.

In Lemonade, the film, New Orleans serves as a backdrop to this kind of thinking about betrayal and loss.  No group has been more repeatedly and unapologetically betrayed in this country than women of color, and how are they to bear all of it — all the dishonor thrust upon them? Forgetting seems in this film not to be a real option, any more than it is for New Orleans to make evidence of the dead to disappear. One must live with the evidence, the scars, the memories, the voids, and one must find a way to remain hopeful. One must live with the past despite its ongoing bitterness and overcome despite all rational calls to lie down and die.

This is the abiding mood of Lemonade, and it is perhaps a cogent cue to the entire American culture about how we might deal with the tragedies of our day.  The betrayal within one marriage is not a national tragedy, but the killing of Trayvon Martin is. Trayvon’s mother is in the film Lemonade, and she, too, must abide in the bitter memory of a dead son and an acquitted Zimmerman. She, too, must survive despite all. We are anxious in white America to forget past injustices committed by people who look like us.  We feel uncomfortable by association,  don’t want to take responsibility for what we did not personally do.  But it is unreasonable of us to expect people chanting “black lives matter” to pause and acknowledge that all lives matter, which of course they do.  We must do as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have done with their enduring marriage — acknowledge all the ugly hurts, seek reconciliation that honors the total experience of that pain, and move forward with that knowledge still present but not explosive.  A truth untold is explosive.  A city dishonored erupts into riots. New Orleans has found a distinctly American wisdom that makes room for a syncopation of now with then, of group with group, that gives space for multiple potentially dissonant experiences rendered a space for solo, then folded into the jazz that ultimately finds  a harmony.

America needs such a strategy.  We cannot pretend the past did not happen. That would be a form of lunacy and a continued dishonoring of the dead. We cannot pretend we are not all implicated in a culture where brutality exists against the politically and economically vulnerable. We cannot bury the dead, because until we fully acknowledge the enormity of the problem, the dead cannot die but haunt us. We can move past, perhaps trailed in the shadows by an ugly legacy, but we can improve, if we allow each trumpet its solo, each sax its wail. We need a New Orleans of the American mind, an imperfect landscape ravaged but rebuilding, a diversity that includes all of us and might just get along. The cultural conversation has moved South, as have I.  Will you start driving South on the Interstate until you can see the Spanish moss hanging from the trees?

April 19, 2016

A Candlelight Vigil for the Slaves at Ole Miss

Governor Phil Bryant, as he resists the inevitable wave of change in his own state by legalizing cake discrimination, defending the inclusion of the stars and bars in the Mississippi flag, and general attempts at revisionism, declared this month Confederate History Month in Mississippi.  The Confederate dead have long be mourned in greater pomp than the dead of any other war in this state, but the story told about the South at reenactments and here, on  the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi, where a costumed annual wreath-laying takes place in the Confederate cemetery behind the old basketball stadium, is generally false.  It’s not that people fought without gallantry in grey uniforms, they did.  It’s not that they were mean to family members or small puppy dogs.  But there still abides a myth that says, 1) The Civil War was not a war fought primarily over slavery (the statements of Confederates as they declared war belie this idea), 2) Those who were slaves were generally happy, and 3) The Yankees ruined a really good thing by ending slavery and thereby effectively ending Plantation culture as it had previously existed down South.  To all this, the University of Mississippi chapter of the NAACP chants, “Hell you talmbout.”

candlelight vigil 2Though not a particularly politically minded campus, compared to, say, UC Berkeley, Ole Miss has a Black Lives Matter movement, and happily, there are white people on campus who agree that black lives do indeed matter, and all people deserve respect.  Last year, despite Phil Bryant’s advocacy for a Confederate-ish state flag, the student body of Ole Miss overwhelmingly voted to remove the state flag from the campus until such time as the image changes to something less offensive to African-American students, whose families were terrorized under that symbol.  The white students are generally unwilling to be chained to the ugliness of past genocide, generally unwilling to manufacture or perpetuate myth in order to cover up ugliness that they do not claim as their own present-tense sentiments toward people of color.  It’s not a perfect campus — the statue of James Meredith got lynched by one student, who was expelled and charged with vandalism, and his conspiring fraternity was unhoused from the campus by the governing body of that frat’s national Greek organization.  But it is not a campus like the one James Meredith walked onto when first he desegregated this institution with its Grecian columns and shuttered colonnades.  Then, he got shot at and shouted at.  Today, most students just want to get to class before they get marked absent.

candlelight vigil 3People of multiple races participated in a candlelight vigil to remember during this so-called Confederate History month the lives ruined by slavery on this very campus, individuals who built buildings on the campus and were owned by the plantation scions who did things in some instances like rape or put out cigars on the skin of these slaves.  We cannot walk into the Lyceum, the administrative building, without seeing the work of their hands.  They did not come to learn.  They came only to survive, but the students of color who have followed James Meredith here and those of us who are fortunate enough to study with them have a moral obligation to commemorate them.  If we are going to remember the Confederacy, then let us really remember it.  Not just the wasted young lives shot up at Shiloh, hospitalized here, then buried, but those who had no choice in their comings or goings and who suffered under the oppression of the wealthiest families of the Confederacy, whose sons attended this school with an entourage of slaves. Let us remember how we who are free and of multiple classes and genders, the rich white boys who came here would have scoffed at all of us who aspire to live a life of the mind alien to their own idea of world order.  Let us remember, really remember all of it.

candlelight vigil 1We gathered, held candles in plastic cups, and sang spirituals sung by slaves in order to remain hopeful of freedom in this life of the next, recited their names, where we even have their names.  Mostly we do not have their names, not even their names.

Here, though, I write the names of the ones who ended up in court records, bequests, arrests, seizures — recorded as livestock might have been recorded, not the way citizens were ever discussed, but this is all we have to witness them — these kinds of records, no parentage, no address, no testimony of likes or dislikes, no images, no words that quote them at all — just these names or fragments of names.  Here they are:

Jane

Alford

Collins

E.M. Farill

Lou Farill

Ann Thompson

Ema Jones

Frank Watson

Tom Brown

Seth Brown

Clarecy Brown

Phillip Brown

Frank O’Brian

Tom Goodey

Jeff Profit

John Thompson

James Kerr

Peter Kenshaw

Callie Pillar

A. Nelson

Mary Nelson

S. Williams

And the others, the many whose names are lost to history, Confederate or Union.

Say their names and remember.  Don’t lay a wreath for them wearing a hoop skirt.  Rather, come as you are, free as you are. Sing about freedom.  Carry a light. Bless them.

October 24, 2015

The South Comes North, Conquers and Desegregates: Anne Babson and Caroline Randall Williams read tonight in Pittsburgh

Oh, readers of this blog,whom I adore — please come revel with me tonight.  I am not inviting you to meet me in a wheat field under the full moon with a blanket.  I am not inviting you to look for me hiding in a cave on the edge of Hannibal, Missouri, so we can sneak in the church balcony and watch our own funeral.  I am not inviting you to slip out of the governor’s ball so we can elope in my mother’s buggy.  No, none of these.  I am asking you to escape with me North.

Come see me tonight at 7 pm at East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh

Come see me tonight at 7 pm at East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh

I am reading tonight (October 24) in Pittsburgh at East End Book Exchange, 4754 Liberty Avenue, in the Little Italy section of town known as Bloomfield, at 7 pm.  The reading is called “Iambic Drawl.” With me will be the brilliant and lovely Caroline Randall Williams.  Caroline Randall Williams is a poet from Tennessee who has done something really radical — she has written a book of poetry, Lucy Negro Redux, in which she reclaims (and repurposes) Shakespeare for African-American Southern women, who have often had complicated and rather painful relationships with older white men. She talks about it, really talks about it in her very clever book, a book so clever it hurts my feelings that I have never thought of anything so clever to write myself.

I will read selections and delicatessen cuts from my collection The White Trash Pantheon, which resets the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South. In it, as many of you know, I write about white privilege, although I do so with a lot of humor, as this allows white folks like me to examine our pretensions and reject them.  I also write about idolatry, as myths about white people in the South have engendered false gods that some have actually revered.

Together, Miz Caroline and I are busting a few myths, including, but not limited to:

  1. White people have a unified and illustrious heritage.
  2. Black people do not.
  3. White people have some kind of a corner on the market for heroism.
  4. Black people are merely victims in society, not participants, not contributors.
  5. White women are the only women who are really beautiful and elegant.
  6. Black women are the only women who are really drudges.
  7. Old books have nothing fresh to say to new people.
  8. New people have nothing fresh to say to old books.

We are going to tear down these walls and others and dance around linguistically.You should come out and hear us!

In high-falluting literary and scholarly circles, there is an abiding tendency to see African-American writers as operating in some sort of a cloister wholly separate in their influences and their production of poetry, and if white folks should read that poetry, it is because we are committed to being somehow politically correct.  Paris Review poetry editor Richard Howard once remarked that black poets would only be great writers when they stopped writing about race all the time.  What Mr. Howard failed to realize was that he was writing about his own race all the time, too, the presumptuous

 privilege of belonging to a dominant racial group that has believed that its culture was THE culture and that African-American culture was merely multiculture.  The work of Caroline Randall-Williams belies this notion, as I hope does my own.  Mr. Howard’s idea is wrong, and it ought to be obvious to all — African-American culture is at the center of all cultural achievements in America, not a parenthetical influence at all.  We should not read African-American poets’ work because we are being democratic.  We should read African-American poets’ work because much of it is good, some of it great.

This woman is on her way toward greatness!

This woman is on her way to greatness!

I am reading, then, with Caroline Randall-Williams because I actually get to — she is a good poet on her way very possibly to being a great poet.  If you meet her tonight, which I hope you will, you will almost instantly realize she is ten times smarter than the rest of us.  She is also delightful and gorgeous. Her career is a freight train barreling down the track, and we can get out of the way or get on board, because she is part of the next big thing, as I hope to be right with her.  She likes what I do to old books in my writing, because she likes to mess with old books, too. Call it quilting or decoupage if you like, but we have been calling it post-post modernism.  We deride the Derridian idea that text has no inherent meaning.  We just think that we get to couple authorial intentions of old to our own; we write back.  We also write around.  We write beneath and above.  We believe in capital-T-truths, but you’ll have to ask us nicely if you want to hear which ones.

So come out to East End Book Exchange tonight at 7 pm.  We are going to be post-post.  We are going to be the Confederacy’s worst nightmare.  The South rises again tonight and wins Pennsylvania, only it’s not as General Lee imagined it, not at all.

October 21, 2015

The New Magnolia State in Bloom — Mississippi Wakes Up a Little Freer Today

It is with great delight that I declare a symbolic victory in this blog space, a victory for the New South over the Old.  Symbolic victories are not the same as sea shifts.  Rather, symbolic victories signal a long-fomenting sea shift, one that may have gone unnoticed.  It’s a bit like the blooming of magnolias.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Let me explain.  My Vicksburg home was mid-century, not one of those antebellum mansions (alas) for which the city is so rightly famous.  But we had one venerable piece of Mississippi heritage right in our front yard — a large magnolia tree. That tree had probably stood there while non-reenacting Civil War-era beseigers and defenders of Vicksburg sniped at one another through bull rushes and barley fields.  It had probably stood there when Native American tribes trudged through the marshes to gaze over the Mississippi River over the bluff, on the lookout for good places to camp for the night.  It had stood there before North was North and South was South, before slaves arrived in shackles and before cotton got picked in nearby areas.  That tree was a kind of deep-rooted truth about the region even before it was a State, a Mesozoic veracity, something subtle but undeniable.

During winter in Mississippi, things freeze over.  Often farmers burn the cotton plants, already harvested, into cinders so that the crops can get rotated next year.  The earth is partly scorched.  The trees are mostly bare.  The Earth is grey and brown.  Then, as the first harbinger of thaw, one sees buds forming on all the dusty-green-leaved trees, buds that grow the size of outrageous mangoes, already tropical before they even open.  Then one morning, people wake up and find that the entire state’s magnolias have exploded open.  They preen like debutantes making a fine entrance in white ballgowns into an exclusive cotillion.  They waft in the ruffles of their petals a vaguely citrus-y and honeyed smell, gentle except for the enormity and large number of the flowers; one magnolia smells like almost nothing, but an avenue of magnolias? It is a time machine back into our prehistoric selves, the waking of pterodactyls and dragonflies to buzz overhead, the invitation to even volcanic things to return to life and to thrive.  The season has changed, even though the week before it seemed like nothing was going on, nothing, that the dead things were always there, it seemed, and nothing was ever going to change. It turns out, every year, that this is a myth we told ourselves in our gloom. The renewal of the magnolia — this is the true thing we forgot.

Blooms like this are heady.

Blooms like this are heady.

Magnolias announce the start of a new season of growth.  The tree grows slowly but surely.  When the blooms appear, everything starts to buzz.

The University of Mississippi campus has an avenue of magnolia trees planted decades ago by women alumnae. When it blooms, it is heady.  It is a fair walk from the Confederate cemetery on campus, where the only blooms that one sees are in the form of wreaths left to remember very dead soldiers who died defeated.  The magnolias, on the other hand, they win every year, which is (alas) more than the football team of the university can say, despite its fans’ adoration.

The ASB (that’s student council, for you Yankees) of Ole Miss voted last night overwhelmingly to take down the Mississippi State Flag from the campus until there is no trace in that flag of a Confederate symbol, and they urged the state’s legislature (among whom are counted many Ole Miss alumni) to hurry the process by which they alter the flag to reflect the dignity of all Mississippians, black and white.  The pretty young Southerners blooming on that campus today have decided overwhelmingly that they don’t stand with the boy who got expelled for lynching the James Meredith statue a couple of years ago, with the Klan protesters, with old messages of hatred, the dead and killing things that made the South decay for years after the Civil War.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

But those dead things, those decaying things, it turns out — those things constituted a myth people told themselves.  The truth of Mississippi is that it is The Magnolia State, a venerable thing that thrives indiscriminately when it blooms.  The truth of Mississippi today is that young Mississippians plan to live an integrated and dignified life.  They respect their ancestors but intend to live together hospitably and equitably in the present, not the past.  They intend to be polite to others, those who share their ethnicity, and those who don’t.  It doesn’t mean they have figured it all out — racism (alas) did not die last night on the Ole Miss campus.  However, a sea shift many did not see happening was happening slowly and surely, like the growth of the magnolia tree, and now we see the blooming, inhale the fragrance of it, and it is heady and invigorating.

I congratulate my colleagues and students at the University of Mississippi for being harbingers of meaningful change.

October 17, 2015

Blood, bodies and Flags on the Ole Miss Campus

At a recent rally to take down the Confederate-emblematic-Mississippi-State-Flag from the University of Mississippi’s campus, the student newspaper The Daily Mississippian quoted a counter-protester Shaun Winkler, who came with swastika tattoos and a Stars-And-Bars banner to say, “Black lives don’t matter.  We are the blood of conquerors.”

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

Conquerors?  Really?  That’s funny.  I recall my Yankee ancestors conquering yours in the battles where that flag in your hands was waved unanachronistically.

And Black lives do matter.  So do the protests of  black students, who have every right, while trodding on ground where men like Mr. Winkler threatened to shed James Meredith’s blood fifty years ago for having the audacity to enroll there, to feel that the last contemporary bastion of institutional racism’s symbolism is embodied in the Mississippi State Flag, the last flag in the Union still emblazoned with the Confederate symbol.

Mr. Winkler gave the impression in his interview and in his choice of tattoo of not having a college education.  He and the counter-protesters came from other places, no doubt from under Tallahatchie river rocks next to newts and insects, to protest the removal of a flag from a place that wouldn’t have let his conquering blood matriculate because of low test scores.  Certainly Mr. Winkler flunked history, at least.

But Mr. Winkler needn’t have protested if his objective in doing so was to keep a Confederate heritage alive at The University of  Mississippi.  Indeed, the history of the college is such that it can hardly be doubted that it will retain its past symbols of conquered Confederates.  And while I abhor the politics of racism, I think the Left enters dangerous and anti-intellectual territory where it wishes to deface monuments longstanding to racist regimes, for if we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it.  It is the contemporary symbols, like the contemporary flag, which must go — but it would be nearly impossible to imagine that the University of Mississippi could divide itself from the Confederacy in history, even if it wanted to.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

When one enters the campus of Ole Miss from University Avenue, headed toward the administration building, one passes a monument to the Confederate dead.  Indeed, if seen in a vacuum, the story of the deaths of students at Ole Miss at the Battle of Shiloh and elsewhere are tragic — entire graduating classes perished in grey uniforms under fire from the Union army.  Next to the Confederate monument is a building that was used as a hospital for the dying Confederacy.  In it, one sees a stained-glass monument of the high-melodramatic style of the late Victorian era.  If one enters the campus from Highway 6, and one looks for parking away from the football stadium, which is often restricted, one may park behind the basketball stadium, where a cemetery for those soldiers who died in the hospital building on campus got buried.  On Confederacy memorial days, women of this era show up in hoop skirts, and men in grey reenactment uniforms arrive, and they place wreaths here for unknown soldiers of their conquered cause.

Mississippi ought to stop insulting the African-American descendants of slaves with the symbol that was used to oppress them during the war, then terrify them in the hands of Klan terrorists after the Civil War was over and the Yankees had packed up and moved back North.  Nobody deserves to go to school in an environment where some ignorant idiot would actually tell them that their lives didn’t matter.

The truth of those monuments — that the boys who enrolled in 1861, white and privileged, arrogant and swaggering, the sons of slave-owners, who all got Gatling-gunned down and got buried here and there where swamp animals didn’t devour their corpses — the truth of the sad melodrama of a society that knew it had been conquered, those things ought not be removed.  I wouldn’t mind, though, seeing a monument somewhere on campus to the people who died in Mississippi from the rigors of plantation life in dirty shacks, with insufficient food, backs scarred from whippings.  My instinct would be to put it right next to that Confederate soldier statue, though it would ruin the symmetry of the rotunda.  My instinct would be to make it at least as large as the nineteenth-century monument, and why?  Because black lives do matter.  Confederates did not conquer. And those privileged white boys, their lives were extinguished to defend an indefensible institution, one that brutalized the many for the pleasures of a few.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

But I would tear nothing down.  The ghosts of Confederate soldiers will continue to haunt Ole Miss, especially on nights like the night of November 6, 2012, where a young man got filmed for Youtube, naked all but for an American flag diapering his frat-boy bottom, drunk in the flatbed of a friend’s trunk, angry because Obama won again, shouting “F#ck the N%ggers!” over and over again, just yards away from that Confederate Soldier statue, the true son in the political spirit and overbloated privilege of a small class of white men in Mississippi over the hardworking aspirations of people of color who did him no wrong and over even Mr. Winkler, who needs a real history lesson, as he assumes the cause of that spoiled rich boy somehow reflects his own interests, when in fact it does not.  If he were not so defined by his hatred, literally scarred with swastikas of his own selection, I would call him a victim here.  I think he has been horribly conned.  I would tell him he should clamor for something that acknowledges the total and wasteful loss of white lives in the service of an elitist Confederacy which held the lives of  his ancestors at an even lower price than the lives of the slaves they owned and might exploit in peace time.

There is blood on the campus  of Ole Miss, but it is not the blood of conquerors.  There is dried blood of wasted lives.  And there is new blood of hopeful members of the New South, and they want to take down a flag that insults the humanity of many students there and the intelligence of absolutely anyone.  We don’t believe in myths any more.  We want to explore the truth in greater clarity. We want our lives, all our lives, to matter, to be spent in pursuit of worthy causes, ones that serve our interests collectively and individually. Take that accursed flag down!

October 10, 2015

Southern Food Curated — the Food Museum at Miss Mary BoBo’s Boarding House

America is a strange place to eat.  More than one third of us are obese, and nearly one seventh of us go hungry at least part of the time.  We have plenty of food, but we don’t share it equitably.  We overspend on processed foods that contribute to the diseases that kill us — heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and we underspend on the foods that would benefit us most — greens, beans, and fish.  We value convenience, and with some reason.  In order for families to economically survive, most households have both parents working outside the home, so the days of a cook making dinner over a slow flame over hours where the pot was periodically stirred, those days are over for most of us.  Therefore, McDonald’s serving us McMuffins all day sounds like a mighty benefit, as lots of us don’t quite get around to breakfast before dinner time.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

At odds with this culture of convenience is a strange cult of food, one that creates an audience for cooking as a form of entertainment. We have all-day networks devoted to watching other people cook, and the people who watch are not all watching to imitate.  The tradition of American food preparation is that anonymous women did most of the work.  Wives prepare Thanksgiving, and the thanks for two days’ cooking goes to God mostly, rarely to the women who burned their wrists taking the turkey out of the oven.  Where households could afford to do so, servants were relegated to the kitchen, as kitchens before air-conditioning were miserable places to spend a day during the summer.  Big Southern households built kitchens  in separate buildings from the big house because the heat was unbearable and with kitchens being the most likely source of a house fire, it made sense to put the kitchen in a free-standing structure that could burn to the ground without burning the home as a whole. The people who sweated, and kneaded, who plucked feathers and gutted fish, those people were not celebrated.  In the traditions of the South, they went unpaid, as they were slaves or wives.  While wives were not slaves (exactly), they were not free, enfranchised, or able to choose other occupations than that of home maker for the majority of the history of this country and for the entirety of the history of the Confederacy.  So why are we watching now the cooks on television who make food into a spectator sport?

"all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. " -- John Updike

“all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. ” — John Updike

We seem to have begun the celebration and idealization of cooking as a thing to watch with the industrialization of our food production.  After the Second World War, women who had worked for a few years in factory jobs were corralled back into the kitchen to prepare elaborate meals for G.I. husbands who would take their place as industry captains.  Meals went from something to grab on the fly to a proof of good housekeeping and feminine skill. Companies selling industrial food products — margarine, corn syrup, and cheese in a can — started having contests for housewives to compete like athletes, and this to promote the factory of food they ran.  County fairs had pie contests before, but national contests with television spots for winners — that was a 1950s idea and part of the myth of the happy housewife that would be rendered joyful by soap called Joy, by soup in a can, by floor wax that made a shine in which she could see her happy face reflected.  Suddenly, it became possible to make cooking aspirational, part of the American dream. A perfect pie, with meringue peaks just browned lightly — this was now a national source of comfort.

With the exit of women from the kitchen and into the workplace, food changed again.We became increasingly dependent on prepackaged goods, on restaurants that mass-produce food, and we became less healthy than before.  We stuffed ourselves mindlessly in front of the television with our potato chips rather than consider eating a discrete episode where family members looked each other in the eye, where fresh ingredients comprised the whole of the meal, where the meal ended, and we did not eat again until the next meal.  We became a nation of lonely snackers overly engaged in video games and sports events where we neither lifted a ball nor even donned a jacket to venture out of our living rooms to sit on a bleacher and cheer. We became spectators instead of participants in the leisure of our own lives.

So why do so many of us slouch on couches watching the cooking shows and then drive to eat Big Macs?  I attribute it to a longing for authenticity.  When the unsung women used to cook us meals the slow way, we took them for granted, but we felt loved.  The food smelled like something.  Our lives felt like we needed to be awake for them. We talked like connected people to one another around the table. The food nourished us. We were fed.  We don’t know when dinner is any more.  Nobody has the time to make dinner, not a real dinner.  Thirty-minute meals are possible, but they require somebody to invest time in a premeditated trip to the supermarket. No distractions had better arise, no pets had better run away not to be found until the next day  No family arguments had better explode, and no demands for additional overtime from overbearing bosses had better get voiced for all of us to make it to the table, for the family cook to get to her post chopping the carrots an hour before meal time.

This problem of authentic food and family time is particularly poignant to Southerners.  Momma’s biscuits are a source of nourishment as important as mother’s milk.  To eat grandma’s tea cakes is a partial living out of Southern identity. Food served at Southern funerals is a reason for the bereaved to stay alive. The home-cooking of Southern tradition is a way of Southerners knowing precisely who they are.  But mothers in Atlanta have no more time than mothers in Chicago to cook a four-course meal by sundown. Women in the South are working just like women in the North. Men in the South have not learned to cook any better (with the exception of the honing of seasonal barbecue skills) than men in the North have. Daughters no longer learn with the same frequency the skills requisite in the heirloom recipes of their family heritage.  Those foods are usually all advised too fatty by the doctors, anyway, and who has the time?

One of my friends in the South has a traditional recipe of a thin-layered cake of multiple tiers, and it takes a good day to make it.  She is a neurobiologist.  She can either concentrate on cake-baking, or she can try to find the root of a cure for ALS.  To her, the cake is a pleasure, but it is a distraction.  She feeds her experiments’ fruit flies, rather than the initiates at any Junior League.  That she can make the family cake, which includes home-made fondant (!) is impressive, but it is hardly the most impressive thing she does — she can clone insect brain cells, something her grandmomma never did.  Authenticity and tradition often get trumped in today’s South by forward-thinking and long work hours in double-income homes.

So today, if one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the makers of Jack Daniels — and in typing these words, I feel compelled to salute sour mash whiskey and its salutory benefits to those who  are ailing from heart-ache and underexposure to tear-jerk Country music ballads — I sigh deeply and try to remember what I was saying.  What was it? Oh!  If one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, one can visit a historically preserved boarding house, something which used to be a fixture in the Southern Landscape before the advent of post-war motel chains.  Miss Mary Bo Bo’s boarding house in Lynchburg was particularly known for its good food.  She received guests, it seems mostly traveling salesmen (and during the Twenties, bootleg distributors), and she served old-school Southern fare — baked apples, creamy macaroni and cheese, turnip greens wilted in pork fat, fried chicken of the kind that rarely gets made in private homes any more, and a delightful variety of pies.  A visit to Mary BoBo’s boarding house means one’s small family sits at a big table with others, and at each table for each meal, a hostess explains like a museum curator the significance of each dish within Southern cooking.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Today, the house (which is run by the Jack Daniels corporation in conjunction with its distillery tours) attracts many people from outside the South, and the strategy of this table d’hote is essentially to stage a reenactment of the Southern meal, not unlike a historic reenactment of the Siege of Vicksburg.  Nobody down South eats a Mary BoBo-sized meal more than once or twice a month, and even then, nobody cooks all the dishes for such a meal except on the rarest of occasions.  The Mary BoBo meal is still eaten after funerals and at church socials, and those events are potluck — each cook does a fraction of the work.  Perhaps on an occasion as grand as a family engagement one might see such a meal served.  Alas, today’s Southern eaters can neither produce nor consume this level of Southern authenticity alone.  Paul Prudhomme is gone to his celestial spice rack. Paula Deen, bless her heart (and I mean that in the most Southern of ways), is on a low-carb diabetic diet if she doesn’t want to risk foot amputation and blindness (apart from blindness to her own racism). The rest of the South is hurrying to get home, but when we get there, the kids are playing Minecraft and whine if you ask them to set the table, even though they will be punished for it.  The husband got home and fed the dogs, gave the kids each a bag of raisins and a juice box, and he is on Facebook.  The wife lugged in the bag of groceries, set a slab of margarine to bubble in the pan, and she is flouring up the pork chops as fast as she can.  She wants to catch her breath — work was hard today, but now the baby has started to cry, and she runs, yells at her husband to watch that nothing burns, and picks up the littlest one to see if he has shoved one of his brother’s toys up his nose again.

Who has time to cook?  Who can look a loved one in the eye without wanting to cry?  Where is grandmomma’s multi-layered cake, momma’s biscuit, daddy’s barbecued ribs?  Is this our current tear-jerk ballad, and do we sing the lyrics of the song together?  Or do we sing it in rooms with closed doors, pretending it’s all fine?  Where is Miss Mary Bobo, the uncurated one who fed smiling bootleggers and excluded black visitors from her table?  We miss her, not for her personality or her moral compass, but for her roasts, the kind that comforted the diner, that said that all was well whether it really was or not. We are sentimental and crave comfort food.  Kardashians are tramping around on television.  The Internet announces apocalypses, scriptural and zombie.  We feel empty inside.

What’s for dinner?  What should we really eat for dinner? What will really satisfy us, North and South?

September 21, 2015

The Texan Tale of Ahmed Mohammed and Who Southerners Think is a Bad Guy

Last week, America looked at a situation in a high school that worked like an ink blot on our culture, and our divergent perceptions reveal the central problem of American culture today.

We’ve all heard the story of Ahmed Mohammed, the fourteen year-old who was perhaps a bit nerdy and excited about building a clock, which he took to school.  I think none of us would have been surprised if any nerd had brought a clock to school, showed it to everyone, and then ended up getting beat up by the junior varsity football squad in the parking lot after lunch for being a massive nerd.  We would have been able to sympathize that the student in question had underestimated the social consequences of proud nerdiness among the Spartan youth that gets favored in American high schools, perhaps particularly in Texas, over the people who might have ended up working at Texas Instruments back in the 1970s. Such a story could have happened to any American nerd, and we would not have been so engaged with that narrative as a nation.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

Instead, it wasn’t the footballers that beat up Ahmed. The administration and faculty of the high school, the very people ostensibly in charge of encouraging him to pursue his nerdiness for the good of humanity despite football squad pressures to conform, who crushed his spirit.  We need people like Ahmed to become inventors.  I am rooting for today’s Ahmeds to become the future inventors of at-home liposuction kits, high heels that don’t hurt your feet, and automatic dog-walkers for snowy days.  Instead, if our President had not Tweeted as he did, we might not have seen Ahmed inventing anything after last week.  Why would he ever want to express his gifts if they get him arrested?  I have confidence that Ahmed Mohammed will explore his abilities to the fullest now, and he must rest assured that the majority of us are not inclined to discourage his success.

But here’s where I think we have a huge problem.  It’s worse than I thought it was.  Nobody who accused Ahmed feels inclined to apologize to him, and members of the Right are actually fabricating bizarre and apocryphal versions of the well-documented incidents of Mac Arthur High School’s day of infamy.

First, the Principal of the school sent out a completely offensive letter to parents congratulating himself for having taken appropriate measures to protect the school from danger.  He wrote this after he knew full well that Ahmed’s clock was not a bomb.  He then condescendingly told parents they ought to speak to their kids about bringing suspicious objects to school.  Are clocks suspicious objects?  Would they have been suspicious in the hands of a blond nerd named Tyler?

Then the mayor of Irving, Texas said she stood by the principal. She had made local news earlier this year by complaining about non-existent problems of Sharia law in her town.  Then, Sarah Palin, who hates a lot of people for a professed Christian, including the entire Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, whom she claimed when running for VP was not really American, said about Ahmed’s clock that if it was indeed a clock, she was the queen of England.  As a real Queen of England is supposed to have said, We are not amused. There is nothing amusing about calling someone guilty who is clearly, with a Texan law enforcement thumbs-up, entirely innocent of all wrong-doing.

Then, after Ms. Palin’s — let’s call them cultural contributions — a barrage of conspiracy theories hit the lunatic Right-wing Internet and were instantly believed by the already-converted, including:

  • The clock was ticking backwards like a bomb clock when the English teacher spotted it.  It wasn’t.
  • The little white packet pictured by the clock was plastic explosives. I shake my head.
  • That Ahmed didn’t invent a new clock, he just used parts he got from other devices, and this is cheating.  It’s not cheating.  There was no assignment to cheat on, and it’s really not in dispute.  Of course at age fourteen he didn’t invent his own digital interface! He participated in the time-honored tradition of American nerds of going to junk shops and Radio Shack for tools with which to create one’s first works.  There is nothing cheating in this.  And his work was mighty impressive for a fourteen year-old.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated this false arrest himself to cover up a real conspiracy to blow things up.  I ask if this idea is a product of a meth-addicted paranoia.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated with his family his false arrest so that he could sue the city of Irving.  They are suing now, and since they have received no apology for an outrageous error of judgment, I hope they walk away with the deed to City Hall, because the officials should be ashamed of themselves but aren’t.

It has gotten to the point where a certain portion of white people in this country look at an incident like this where, I repeat, there WAS NO BOMB and see a bomb, and a terrorist,  and a conspiracy.  If the facts don’t support them, it’s only because all of us — the President, the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, the MIT professors, and the supportive members of the intelligentsia are lying to the good folks of the American heartland.  We must be in favor of bombs in schools.  We must want Sharia law since we hate Christianity so much, all of us — except we don’t.  We embrace empirical evidence as a source of information about world events.  Where a boy’s clock is investigated by a bomb squad and found just to be a clock, just like he said it was over and over again, we believe the boy and the clock.  The clock is ticking forward.  It’s the increasingly ugly racist Right that wants it to tick backward to prove that their views are not backward.

The rest of us, when we look at Ahmed Mohammed, see a smart nerd and a science project. It’s like we can barely discuss events in front of us because one smaller group sees a world of dangerous, swarthy hordes with Paladins defending a narrow front line, and the rest of us see a relatively harmonious multicultural coexistence disturbed by a few fascists.  When we see videos of white cops hurting people of color, we don’t assume we have just missed a segment where the ghost of Nat Turner swooped in and killed a cop after the African-American police brutality victims summoned him.  We don’t blame the victims of government violence and institutional racism.  We don’t understand how those RIght-Wingers don’t see what we see.

How do we get past this? I want America to value American values again, including diversity, tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, and for Ahmed’s sake — I want us to embrace invention instead of treating it like a threat.  We used to do that very well.  How do we get the clock to move forward on that once more?

August 16, 2015

From Homecoming Court Member to ISIS Member — How One Young Woman Responded to Mississippi

How does a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi, not raised Muslim, a woman, decide to join ISIS? Jaelyn Deshaun Young recently graduated from Warren County High School on the edge of Vicksburg.  She was in the homecoming court, meaning that she was no loner; people at school liked her and thought she was pretty, which she is. She got good grades, went to Mississippi State with an eye toward becoming a doctor.  Her father was  police officer in the Vicksburg police department; he had served in Afghanistan prior to that, where he fought Al Qaeda.  He took his family to church on Sundays.  How does a young woman raised in that atmosphere decide her destiny is to join a terrorist, Christian-persecuting, woman-raping organization that beheads other Muslims and destroys precious works of ancient art?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

It would be easy to blame her young husband, Muhammad Dakhlalla.  His father was a leader at a local mosque in Starkville, Mississippi, near the university campus.  He must have radicalized her. Except this is not what the FBI says happened. They say that it was Jaelyn who led the charge toward ISIS, according to their investigation.  Muhammad, known to most as “Mo,” was not a radical. His father’s Islam manifested itself publicly in feeding the poor.  He ran a restaurant in Starkville until he had to close it down; he was giving away more food than he was selling. This kind of religious practice is not likely to lead to beheadings. Jaelyn certainly converted to Islam while she was getting to know Mo, but he wasn’t pushing the couple into a life of terrorism.  Mo told the FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters that he was willing to fight and die for the Islamic state, but their most impassioned correspondent, itching to get to Syria to fight, was Jaelyn.

So how does a pretty, smart, charismatic girl who grew up in Mississippi in a Christian home decide not just to convert to an Islam guided by acts of charity but to an Islam guided by acts of terror?

She must have first grown disenchanted.  Teenagers are champions of disenchantment. I know I was. When I was in high school, I wrote an angry chapbook of poetry, which I dedicated to “high school students and other inmates of society.”  I had spiky, red hair for a time.  I sneaked out to parties with lots of people wearing brightly-striped Mohawks in places like abandoned warehouses, parties with punk bands that got shut down by the cops, parties where I had to run out the back door because of a raid. I thought high school was a cruel farce. Instead of going to senior prom, I sneaked out to meet a neon abstract sculptor whom I was dating (after meeting him in a cutting-edge art gallery where he was exhibiting his work) for a night of transgression. I refused to attend graduation. Jaelyn must have felt something like this – only there are no Mohawk-punk-band-warehouse-parties in Vicksburg. She would have had to channel her feelings of discontent elsewhere.

I imagine her father, a police officer and a veteran, must be a fairly conservative, pro-establishment kind of a man. He must have told his daughter that education was the path to success.  She certainly did well in school. She surely made more friends than I did at my high school; new wave art girls do not tend to get elected to homecoming court. The social establishment was not, it seemed, particularly rejecting of her. Her revolt could not have been because of a prom scene like the one out of Carrie.

That said, Jaelyn is a woman of color, and Vicksburg is a town where there are racists.  I know because I lived there.   They talked to me about people of color in disparaging ways sometimes. Though her father is a police officer, it would be hard to watch the national pattern of police brutality against people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the tanks and tear gas thrown at peaceful protesters in Ferguson, and not get disgusted, to feel as if America were terrorizing black folks.  It is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Black lives matter, and it does not seem that police forces across the country acknowledge this. How could this problem NOT strike home for a young woman of color whose father was on the police force?

But rage and disenchantment are not enough to explain the embracing of a radical form of Islam that rapes, beheads, and destroys. How could a smart young woman conclude that these were her allies? She, like so many who choose to join ISIS, must have been ignorant of what real Islamic Caliphates looked like a thousand years ago.  There, women had more freedom than they did in the Christian nations.  Medicine, science, and the arts flourished.  Religions of every stripe were tolerated. While it was dangerous to cross a caliph, the caliphs were not known for kidnapping, torturing, and brutalizing people under their power.  Nothing about ISIS suggests they are trying to build such a caliphate.  They destroy art.  They oppress and enslave women.  They kill Christians, crucifying them, killing their babies before their eyes, even desecrating ancient Christian cemeteries.  They used mustard gas on a town last week – a chemical weapon so brutal and horrid that it was banned after World War I by the Geneva Convention, that thought it ought not be used against enemy soldiers.  ISIS used it on children a few days ago.  This is not an Islamic caliphate of old.  This is a demonic holocaust.  How does a daughter of a man who fought Al Qaeda decide to join such a group?

I look into the face of this pretty girl, taken from her high school yearbook, and like her parents, I don’t understand.  The FBI agents claim that when that Islamic gunman shot a bunch of Marines recently at a recruiting office, she rejoiced that the numbers of people who agreed with her were growing. I see the pretty, demure smile on the face of this young lady, and I am baffled.  I want to ask her what could have ever made her so angry at the sleepy town of Vicksburg that she would want not just Islam instead of Christianity but this brutal form of it.  I want to ask her who hurt her so badly she thinks she needs to join a group of monsters for protection from them. I would take her to the NAACP Jackson headquarter to sign up to register voters, something I did when I lived in Vicksburg.  I want to take her to a party of free thinkers, rare as they may be in a place like Vicksburg.

I want to give her a book of Rumi’s peaceful poetry. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is perhaps the greatest poet from Islam who ever lived.  He lived in an Islamic caliphate that encouraged his work.

He wrote:

“’Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jaelyn, I would meet you there.  Let me urge you, with an Islamic mystical poet, not to throw away your life to become cannon fodder for a pack of fascists, or now, where you are in America, a jail bird.  There are so many other ways to reject Mississippi culture, if you feel you need to.  Meet me there, and you, Rumi, and I will talk.

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