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

June 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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December 15, 2010

Doing Shots at Faulkner’s Grave

My participation in a Southern Tradition

The PhD students in English and American literature at Ole Miss have a tradition of drinking at William Faulkner‘s grave — a stone’s throw away from  the campus.  It is germane to everything that department does — the specter of Faulkner, though he dropped out of the school and  went his own way — haunts the halls.  Who is the next immortal among us, he seems to ask.

However, despite the lovely, rich prose, Faulkner, were he in fact a king-maker, would never point his scepter at a woman or a person of color to indicate that we were smart or interesting in any way  but perhaps sexually.  I’m sure I would have scared the crap out of Faulkner, so in going to his  grave at Saint Peter‘s cemetery, I had no problem trying to spook him.  I am the kind of woman who would have wanted  to scare the crap out of him, anyway,when he was living — a Yankee feminist who worked as  a speechwriter and pamphleteer to end apartheid.  To Mister Faulkner, whose worst nightmare I am, I say “Boo!”

One does not drink alone at Faulkner’s tombstone.  Apart from the shade  of the author himself, his longsuffering wife is buried next to him, his parents across from him.  One wonders who chose the inscription “Go with God,” which must be read ironically, if one has ever read the guy’s work.  Not only  did I drink with the former Faulkners, I  also  drank with my pals in the PhD program Victoria, Thomas, and Ebony, who are all  very cool.  Thomas provided the booze (see the Maker’s Mark in my hand).  Victoria provided much of the prose from Faulkner and the photos.  Ebony brought the fabulousness.  I just brought the bad attitude.

We had trouble finding the grave.  Saint Peter’s cemetery is not next to Saint Peter’s church, and it was cold and dark outside.  We wandered the streets of Oxford, Mississippi, following the confused navigator function of Victoria’s phone.  I think we were bamboozled by it because of the magnetic waves emanating from the tombstone.  The waves are a transmission from the next dimension, which declares in a garbled text message:

OMFG — you will never have immortality as writers.  Post-modern criticism  has killed the cult of the author.  Give it up.  I am more fabulous than you will ever  be.  Even Satan bows to me in Hell.

I knew it was a lie from the pit itself.  We  disregarded it.  We climbed into Ebony’s car for warmth and listened to Ella Fitzgerald  and Frank Sinatra.  Whatever is true about the so-called cult of the author, the cult of the diva is alive and well, as evidenced by Ebony’s i-Pod play list, as evidenced by Ebony and her fabulous diva self.

I care about the Pulitzer.  I  care about the Nobel.  I care about the National Book Award.  I care about authors.  I care about Divas.  No tombstone can talk me out of this.  All it can do is lend perspective on the notion of  authorial immortality.

I once saw a graffito that went like this:

“God is dead”  — Neitzche

“Neitzche is dead” — God

Shakespeare  is an immortal writer.  His bones are turning to powder as  we speak.  It is not good enough to be an immortal writer.  One must actually go with God, not just have relatives, who would burn every copy of one’s heretical books if they could, inscribe such a thing on a tombstone that they never meant to be ironic.  There is truly only one  kind of immortality — the resurrection kind.  That said, without the other kind, how will I  explain to future generations why I thought the giraffe-print furry hat and  giraffe-print furry bag  I had with me the night I did shots at Faulkner’s grave were really cool?  I intend to be an immortal writer who is immortal indeed, not like the godless, misogynist, racist genius at whose grave I poured libations a few days ago.

Here’s a picture of  me with  Ebony, wandering around looking for the grave:

Hunting for Faulkner's grave; finding the fabulous

Ebony is a brilliant woman who is funny, hilarious, and — despite all Mississippi siren calls that might have drawn her away from this — always impeccably dressed.

If Faulkner were living and breathing, he wouldn’t like either of the women in this picture — one  he would utterly dismiss, and the other he would just loathe.  Faulk him and his  genius, I say.  We’re fantastic.

Finally, the four  of us found our way to the grave.  We all took a shot, and Victoria read a lovely passage of prose from the man in the grave about the enduring quality of words.

As the moon stood in a sliver against the black of the night, and the wind rustled in the breeze, I couldn’t allow myself to make this a worshipful experience.  I don’t believe in ancestor worship, even of really fantastic ancestors, but while Faulkner was fantastic as a writer, he wasn’t such a great antecedent.

After Victoria finished reading, I took what was left in my glass and splashed it on the grave.

“Bitch, give  me your talent!” I shouted.

Ebony, Victoria and Thomas are used to such outbursts from me —  not so much the cursing  as the incongruity — and they just took it in  stride.

Thomas read a passage from “A Rose for Emily,” one which involved the repetition of the n-word over and over again.  I took the bottle and poured out  half of it  on the engraved name beneath us, interrupting Thomas to say, “That’s what you get for saying ‘n*gger’ so many  times.  You’re just lucky it’s not my urine.”

We went afterward to a reading of living writers. It was time to go.  Let the dead bury the dead.   We were out of booze, anyway.

Insulting Faulkner while taking note of his talent seemed appropriate — not worship, just acknowledgment.  The cult of the author, per Derrida and his sychophants, is dead.  Perhaps it should be.  Instead, long live the diva, I say.  Long live Ebony.  Long live you, whoever you are.  Go with God.

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