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.

July 5, 2010

Tar balls — but no great balls of fire

before the tar balls hit the beaches in Mississippi, Governor Barbour shows the President around

One of the ways I know I live in Mississippi and not New York or Paris is that the people — not individuals but groups of people — don’t seem inclined to mass demonstrations.  I find the calm of the people of the State of Mississippi astonishing in the wake of a disaster where there is a yachting, snooty British face to make into a mask to put on a doll to hang in effigy.

Why are they not more feisty, more pitchfork-waving?  Why do I not hear the click of the cocking of the myriad guns that they fiercely claim the right to bear?

In 1986, when I lived in Paris and participated in the student strikes of that year with the other students at the Sorbonne, the news came on the radio one early morning that the cops had killed one of the kids demonstrating, beating him to death with billy clubs.  Within a half hour I heard shouting underneath my apartment window.  A hundred thousand people awakened by the news had gathered with signs and were shouting the name of the mayor of Paris — they called him a bastard, and shouted, “Le peuple aura ta peau” — The people will have your hide.

In New York, during the nineties, I worked organizing demonstrations for a human rights organization, and I promise you that New Yorkers, too, have a clamor that comes out relatively quickly from within them whenever the city’s troubles bubble up, like — I don’t know, so much uncappable oil from the Gulf.

Yet here we are a month into a disaster of Biblical proportions which, unlike a hurricane, cannot be blamed on an act of God, but quite simply an act of over-ambitious man, in support of the coffers of a foreign country, to the detriment of Americans, local Americans, Americans who qualify to belong to Sarah Palin’s short list of “true” Americans, Mississippians, no less, and right here, right here in Mississippi — I hear no shouting in the streets.

On the air waves, I hear right-wing radio pundits lamenting the imagined “judicial activism” of Supreme Court Nominee Kagan and the horrors of Brown V. Board of Education admiration in thinly veiled racism and by obtuse arguments like: if the founders didn’t predict the Internet, then the Constitution cannot apply to it.  On the local airwaves, I hear no grand outcry for the head of anyone on a platter regarding British Petroleum.  The silence would make one think that no such spill had affected anyone in the region.

On the local left-wing radio, I hear practical discussions about pragmatic steps that people can take to join wildlife rescue teams, about problems long-term related to the environment.  No cries for the death of a corporate Satan.

The governors of the affected states called (surprisingly late in the game) for a day of prayer.  My church prayed.

Admittedly, the effects of the disaster have not yet been fully felt.  Tourism on the Gulf in Mississippi, a source of income for the cities there, is at an absolute standstill, but  one bad season might not kill off such tourism entirely.  However, no one can say with certainty the long-term consequences to those communities.  Fishing along the coast has been prohibited, but no one knows for how long, nor can anyone say with certainty how long the fishermen will have nothing viable to catch there.

Admittedly, I live inland, hours away from the disaster, and I don’t have an eye-witness account to offer here.  However, this state feels itself as one, unlike New York State, where upstate and downstate are constantly at war.  So why have I yet to see a single sign that demands anything, anything at all, related to this disaster?

I have a few ideas why it may be that they have not responded with the elan I might have expected (or desired).  Possible explanations include:

  1. Everyone — even The New York Times — hails the posture adopted by Governor Haley Barbour in the wake of this catastrophe as a non-partisan promoter of this state’s industry.  Barbour is a Republican with ambitions, and he is habitually criticized by the Left for having his priorities wrong regarding state expenditures, for adopting policies that disenfranchise the poorest Mississippians, but here, in this instance, I hear little criticism locally on the Left of the Governor’s actions.  The people generally think that the state government is on the right side of this question.
  2. The fishing industry on the Gulf had dwindled to a shadow of its former self already for reasons wholly unrelated to this disaster.  Inland operations — cat fish and craw fish farming — are more common and profitable sources of fish these days in Mississippi.
  3. While  I doubt that many people on the Right around here would say so, Obama’s insistence that BP put 20 billion in escrow over time to address claims against the company, coupled with BP’s grudging but voluntary participation in said escrow fund, has put people’s minds at ease regarding the immediate needs of those most affected by the spill.  On right-wing local radio, I heard a whining complaint about Obama demanding this from BP, but the speakers were quick to point out that BP was honoring the government’s request without seizure of their assets.  They apparently like it when corporations volunteer for things.
  4. People around here believe that God is on their side.  They believe that God is going to see them individually and collectively through whatever they have to face.  This is not a posture that generally engenders mass demonstrations in the streets of the capitol.
  5. The capitol itself is not very big.  Unlike Paris or New York, a crowd would hardly pour into any grand town square and overflow.  There are more people living in the Brooklyn than the whole state.  A demonstration would be smaller necessarily than the ones I have seen in the past.
  6. These folks recently survived Katrina.  Whatever BP’s destruction has wrought, it feels less catastrophic than the last disaster.
  7. The people in Mississippi realize that the oil industry is one of the larger employers of people locally.  Even though BP’s practices were negligent, not the norm, many people in the oil industry realize that an accident could conceivably  happen at the company for which they work, too.  Everyone in Mississippi benefits to some degree from the revenue the oil industry generates.  Hence, the posture of the oil-company-demonizing environmentalist feels like something that local people cannot afford.
  8. Among employers in Mississippi, there are a large number of foreign companies.  This state provides some of the cheapest manufacturing labor in the country, and many foreign companies build factories here.  Hence, the foreignness of British Petroleum feels familiar, not like an attack by foreigners off the coast.
  9. People in Mississippi consider shouting bad manners.  They consider complaining bad manners.  They have good manners, on the whole.
  10. The media has been prevented in certain instances, from what I have heard through the grapevine, from going on certain beaches with cameras, from taking certain photographs, and perhaps, despite the non-stop media blitz, they have not seen the image — the girl running while napalm burns her, the firemen, policemen, and EMT workers raising the flag in the rubble — that will provoke a greater outrage.  However, the people have eyes to see for themselves.  This is local news.

Another idea that I have considered but rejected — perhaps the passivity of the people of Mississippi regarding this matter has more to do with the time in which we live, where people are more likely to join groups on Facebook than to march down the street, but then I think that no — that doesn’t make sense.  Martin Luther King, when he was visiting another Gulf state, Alabama, while he sat in Birmingham Jail wrote that the argument that a particular time has come or has not come yet for justice is false, that time itself is neutral, that people make the time do whatever they will make it do.  Hence this quiet, which I do not believe to be some sort of calm before a storm, remains mysterious to me.

Maybe it’s just too hot outside to demonstrate.

June 28, 2010

Southern Food — and my contribution to it

Selling fresh foods in Mississippi, one tomato at a time

In his book of Southern recipes, food writer James Villas (from down South), writes “Such is the sovereignty of Southern cookery to anybody (Reb and outsider alike) who has fully indulged in its many glories that comparisons with other American styles are almost ludicrous.”

To this, I shrug my shoulders and say, “ehh?”

I believe that a good Southern meal cooked just right is remarkable.  I once attended a funeral in North Carolina, and the reception the widow put on afterwards in her modest home was something of a revelation to me.  The dessert table alone, with a full twenty cakes, provided by every female cousin of the deceased, was an astonishment.  Ham — have any other people on the face of the Earth ever come up with so many ways to make a ham sing?  And the addition of bacon or ham to every legume on the planet makes them all palatable (and taste about the same).  I’m even a fan of grits now.  I particularly like the grits I get at a chain restaurant here called Waffle House.

That said, I boldly compare  — despite Villas’ admonition that I will appear almost ludicrous — the richness of the food down here to the food in New York City, where the world’s cuisine is really the city’s cuisine, given its unimaginably diverse immigrant struggle.  Cheap good food is made everywhere.

How I miss the food of my beloved city!

I drive down highway 59 toward Hattiesburg thinking of a chopped liver bagel from The Second Avenue Deli.  When I recently visited New York, and I stopped by the newly reopened Second Avenue Deli, I told the proprietors that I did this, driving in Mississippi, dreaming of their chopped liver on a nice plain bagel, and while my husband and I were waiting for a table, one of the owners of the restaurant offered me, while I was still in line, slices of bagel smeared with that delicious New York gritty mixture.  It was a return home at least as much as listening to the cursing on the street corner or watching the women hobble along in impossibly high heels with impossibly short skirts.

I miss Al Safah restaurant in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, a Lebanese restaurant with food I used to eat at lunch with my friend Nada, a Lebanese woman who is something of an evangelist for her national cuisine.  How I miss their delicious babagounoush, their zatar, their fried onions with lentils and spices.

I miss the tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes and olives from Rocco’s restaurant in Astoria Queens, Trattoria L’Incontro, where absolutely everything on the menu is impossibly delectable.  I met Rocco when he owned a Pizzeria, out of which he served things like wild boar and scarole a la braccia, grilled escarole with white canellini beans.  Now, he owns a restaurant where gangsters, politicians, star atheletes, and anybody with any sense at all, makes a pilgrimage to in the city.

I cook at home with the same gusto as James Villas’ Southern cookery cooks, and I am proud that as a newly-minted Southern wife, my future son in-law (a Cajun) apparently brings  my stepdaughter across state lines to see us in part in case, “Miss Anne,” as he calls me, is going to cook anything.  I cooked some chicken for a church social about two months ago, and while some people’s foods did not get all eaten, mine did.  Around here, that is a mark of distinction.

I don’t cook Southern food, though.  My food is different than the things I see in Mr. Villas’ book.  I wouldn’t fry a green tomato, and while I make ham, it is likely to have a port glaze on it, and the chicken isn’t fried with bread but stewed with white wine and marmalade.  In the midst of the real Southern cooks, I wouldn’t presume to make food that is not in my own idiom.  I would be a poor imitation of them, but cooking as I do on my own, I make food influenced by my upbringing in California, where I cooked the family’s meals for guests since I was an adolescent, my stint at Ecole De Cuisne La Varenne as an intern who translated in exchange for an intermediate certificate, and decades in the glorious mosaic of New  York City, where every tribe’s cooking wafts out the windows of the working class apartment towers.

In this spirit, I decided, while dealing with a serious bout of homesickness, to bake cookies for the farmer’s market of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

I felt I had the blessings of my home town to do so.  After all, The New York Times recently wrote an article with the following beginning: “HOME COOKING FOR SALE — College-educated and unemployed, New York’s young home cooks hope to find a place in the food world.”

While not entirely unemployed — I teach part-time this summer at Belhaven University — I am partially unemployed, and while not that young, I am a home cook, as Julia Child would have said, a servantless cook, from New York.  And after all, the Times is the paper of record, isn’t it?

Despite having an intermediate professional certificate in French cuisine, obtained largely as a method of staying in Paris to remain a club kid in the Parisian club scene of the late 1980s, I had never attempted to sell my food or my cooking skills in any manner, despite certain people telling me I should, usually with their mouths full of something I had made for them.  In New York City, where the best food abounds, there is little room for the amateur.  In all professions, the best of the world have gathered there to compete with one another.

However,  in Vicksburg, the competition is not stiff.  People have a collegiality to them, even with competitors.  Southern manners are generally warm and acomodating.

I showed up several weeks ago at the Vicksburg market, having filled out the requisite paperwork, with a small concern I call Brooklyn Cookies.   Each week, I offer four different kinds of cookies — week one included double-chocolate biscotti, traditional Sicilian anisette cookies, oatmeal cookies snootified with amaretto and dried apricot, and sugar cookies cut in the shape of sea shells and coated with royal icing.  Each packet includes (because I am a better writer than a cook) a lovely story with the ingedient list  about a different neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I did not bring a tent to cover myself — I figured that the market was only from 8 am to 11 am, and how hot could a person really get, especially if she were wearing a baseball cap from the Original Nathan’s hot dogs?  A tent would have sent my profit margin down the drain.  However, the organizers of the market realized the Yankee girl had underestimated the power of a June Mississippi sun, even in the early hours of the morning, and they literally pitched a tent around me to cover me so I would not die of a heat stroke.  I must have thought I was selling cookies in Vermont or something, and they were right, and terribly, terribly kind, to take pity on me.

Now, I rent that tent from the market organization, and I spend several hours turning red — my neck is turning red, despite sunblock — and sell out of my glorious mosaic chocolate chip cookies, my East New York barred window bars with three kinds of jam, my peanut butter cookies with Jamaican spices.  People say they haven’t had these flavors together before.  Uncoached, children between the ages of five and ten pick up small pieces from my free sample plates and shout loudly, “Mommy!  These are great cookies!”

I am making a small profit each week, as if I were teaching an additional class at the university.

Southern cooking is delicious when perfectly rendered (which it is, most of the time), but it is a bit predictable, like a hug from Grandma.  It is love itself, but don’t expect to swoon from it.  I am bringing an embrace from the other woman, the desperate housewife, not the real one from New York, but the surreal one.  It is different, dangerous, naughty, even.  I am the immigrant from elsewhere, bringing my spice rack, my palate of exotic places, and a sense of the edginess of New York — now almost a myth.  I joke with people that if one wants to get mugged on the Coney Island Boardwalk these days, one needs to bring one’s own mugger.  However, these cookies might bring their own mugger. That might be a gun in their pocket, or they might just be, like a Southern gentleman, glad to see you.  In any case, they are selling well, and my culture shock is slightly diminished by them.

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