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

September 13, 2015

Late Southern Night — Stephen Colbert and his Charlestonian Hospitality

Late night comedy on network television has heretofore been dominated by men from above the Mason-Dixon Line, all with acerbic, often cynical humor, greeting guests in a manner that let them know the host thought the guests were lucky to have a seat on the couch.  While Jack Parr and Johnny Carson came from the Midwest and had therefore something like a folksy air about them at moments, at least in their earlier careers, since the 1980s, Late Night Television has been dominated by men from the Northeast.  Conan O’Brien is from Boston, and Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and David Letterman are all from New York City.  This has meant that the tone of The Tonight Show, The Late Show and other shows American viewers watch transmit a sense of a sardonic New York State of mind, a mindset that is by now familiar to Americans as part of staying up to watch Jay Walking, Stupid Human Tricks, or other comedy bits which are as much about laughing at people as laughing with them.  New York City would be an unbearable place to live for so many reasons if New Yorkers did not claim the privilege of laughing at the idiotic and pompous, the grating and the lewd, the lunatic and the confused among their neighbors.  It is a strategy that all New Yorkers without exception employ on a bad day to get through a stressful time; I speak from personal experience of living and working in New York for decades.

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

But publicly and openly laughing at one’s neighbors is not considered good manners in the South, and The Late Show’s new host Stephen Colbert doesn’t do this.  Colbert grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, on James Island, literally at walking distance from the site of the first Civil War battle, Fort Sumter.  In Charleston, even the least well-behaved schoolboy learns not to point and laugh at others in public, and by all accounts Stephen Colbert learned good manners in his devoutly Catholic household, replete with Irish guilt, something I can personally attest to as more damning than any fire-and-brimstone sermon if a school child messes up, because in the Irish concept of propriety, one has the ability to shame one’s ancestors at least four generations back and receive their moral condemnation from their seat in eternity. So Stephen — of the rowdy audience chants, “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” — treats people with more respect than a guy like Dave Letterman.

Understand Stephen Colbert loves to ridicule the rich and powerful, but he does so ironically, usually with a rhetorical strategy that the French call “se foutre de la geule de quelqu’un,” a term untranslatable but demonstrable.  The moment he won my heart as a fan was when on his old show The Colbert Report was when he interviewed a Georgia Congressman who was vehemently opposed to gay marriage.  Stephen told the Representative, “I love your strong stand against gay marriage, but it doesn’t go far enough.”  The Congressman was surprised.  Stephen continued, “Why not oppose not only issuing marriage licenses to gay people, but also drivers licences?  I mean, I don’t want those people gay-ing up Americas highways.”  It was a brilliant way to put the man on the defensive while appearing to agree with him.  The Congressman honestly did not seem to know whether Stephen were kidding.  For the record, he was.

2015-09-09-the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert03-gap

Late night television now has a new, dancing hospitality straight out of the South.

Now, in his new role as the host of a more mainstream entertainment show, Colbert has changed the tone from David Letterman’s old tone, which seemed always to be making fun of the institution of the show itself.  Stephen fully participates in the genre of show he hosts, and he and his band leader, Jonathan Batiste, dance to New Orleans jazz at the beginning of the show (Batiste is from Louisiana, as a one-minute listen to his music attests), and then the mood is cordial.  Stephen’s gentle and personal interview with Joe Biden (whom he clearly wants to run for president) about his son’s death is not the kind of interview Letterman could have conducted.  Shortly after September 11, 2001, Dan Rather came on Letterman’s show and burst into tears talking about the tragedy, and while Letterman was not unkind, dropping the sardonic Alfred E. Newman-like grin long enough to say he understood that Rather was crying because “he was human,” Letterman didn’t have a tender bone in his interviewer’s body, not on camera.  Stephen Colbert seems rather incapable of treating a guest as anything other than human.  In fact, his show’s band’s name is “Stay Human,” which he seems to be trying to do.

Apart from the manners and compassion that Stephen Colbert brings from the South to late night television, one sees Charleston in his and Jonathan Batiste’s polished manner of dressing.  Charleston men are often elegant, and while Stephen doesn’t have the navy nautical blazer over a pair of immaculately pressed khakis that one associates with Charleston gentility, he lacks the slouchy air that Letterman gave in every one of his suits, however well-tailored.  We see, too, an honest effort to welcome his guests and to make them feel at ease.  While his encounters with food on the show thus far have only been to stuff his mouth with Oreos while making fun of Donald Trump’s stand against the cookie, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Colbert serving sweet tea to guests.

Of course, The Late Show is a New York institution and will remain one.  The credits roll with a claymation view of the city emblazoned with guests’ names.  The Ed Sullivan Theater is on Broadway, not Meeting Street in Charleston.  But lots of humorists and figures of American theater moved from the South to make it in New York ,and New York is as glad to see Southerners as they are glad to see anybody, which means only that they grudgingly scoot down the subway bench to make room for them, too.

Having Stephen Colbert as a curator of American culture from his seat on Broadway offers the possibility that late night comedy might become a bit more conciliatory.  His first show ended with a group singalong of “I am Everyday People” with Southern singer Mavis Staples, and perhaps we might be entering an era of American singalong again, with different strokes for different folks.  If that’s true, allow me to be the first to agree, “Ooh, sha sha!  We got to live together!”

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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.

October 13, 2010

The Land of Cotton — and other mythical landscapes

 

Old times here, apparently, are not forgotten

 

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

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

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

And so there is:  Dixie.

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

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

Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton!

Old times there are not forgotten!

Look away, Look away, Look away Dixie Land.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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