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

November 11, 2015

My Yankee Blood at Vicksburg

Living in Vicksburg, Mississippi for three years, I was not particularly welcomed by all in town.  I drove up with New York plates on my car, and even though I baked all my neighbors cookies, only one very sweet woman across the street stopped by to thank me.  The rest seemed to sneer about me half behind my back but with enough scorn for me to catch their disdain for me.

I made a few friends, but they were the exceptional people in town — an African-American woman chemist, a pioneer in her field, a white woman attorney for the ACLU and her historian husband, a retired nurse, and a few others — but while making friends for me has never been hard, in Vicksburg it was like trying to crack a joke at a non-Irish funeral.  My efforts fell flat. The second my Yankee accent poured out of my mouth, I was less than perfectly welcome.  I used to joke that since the neighborhood was so cold to me, I ought to show them how little I cared by getting four big German Shepherds and naming them after Yankee Civil War Generals.  That way at sundown, I could call them inside every day — “Come on, Tecumseh!  Come on Ulysses!  Time to eat!”

Sometimes, historic doesn't involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

Sometimes, historic doesn’t involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

I thought that if they were going to treat me like an occupying invader, why not act like one?  After all, what had I ever done to them?

It’s true that Vicksburg is filled with the evidence of a siege to this day.  My wedding was celebrated in the antebellum mansion occupied as Yankee headquarters during the War Between the States.  There are still holes in the floor from Confederate cannon ball fire.  We consummated that marriage in a bed where General Grant slept, though they had changed the mattress since his departure.  Annual reenactments take place on the battlegrounds of the Battle of Vicksburg, and there is a huge Civil War cemetery and park in town.  While many tourists come to Vicksburg for the casinos, some come to remember that battle and to pretend to be in it.

I never thought that the battle had a thing to do with me personally, until my cousin Marcia did a little research on one of our great-great grandfathers, Andrew Gast.  Apparently, as an eighteen year-old farmer in Indiana, he decided to join the Grand Army of the Republic.  He marched through Tennessee, Alabama, and he eventually ended up in Vicksburg.  He was honorably discharged in Vicksburg, possibly by Grant, possibly as he signed papers in the room where I consummated my marriage.  He lived to be old.  His corpse was not left on a Civil War battlefield.

Our family, like so many Yankee families, has never had much reason to reflect on the Civil War, unlike so many Southern families, who either gained their freedom or lost their primacy over others, maybe lost limbs or lives, maybe lost pride, during the conflict.  For my great-great grandfather, it seems to have been a momentary adventure, neither tragedy nor trauma.  The fact that he walked away in one piece from the siege of Vicksburg implies he probably took down a Confederate or two, that he at least fired a few volleys in their direction.

I suddenly imagine my great-great grandfather, then a teenager, striding vigilantly through the marshy reeds near our house, stepping carefully around the places where he might make noise.  I imagine him waiting for orders, getting bored between commands the way my college freshmen students do in my class.  I wonder if he slept a night in the big house where my wedding was — Yankee soldiers slept there if they were sick or wounded, and he took sick while he was there, a severe fever, one which he survived.

I see my Vicksburg neighbors’ dislike of me in a slightly different light. I was an invader after all.  My arrival in Vicksburg was a reenactment of my great-great grandfather’s invasion, only without uniforms and guns.  I was once there, or my blood was, to kill them. It wasn’t history.  It was me.  I was the enemy.  I remain the enemy of the Confederacy, though not of the South or contemporary Southerners, which I still love.

I cannot know my great-great grandfather Gast’s motives for joining the army, but given the subsequent politics of my family, I can imagine easily that he was against slavery.  I, too, would wade through a marsh vigilantly to help end it, were that necessary.  Where Vicksburg remains any kind of bastion of bigotry, I remain an enemy invader.  Where it is a free city, one where there are many highly educated people, a thriving black middle class, and a place of new ideas, I am a friend, not marching but frolicking.  My marriage South, it respects the traditions that do not oppress.  After all, I may have sojourned in the very house my ancestor sojourned in Vicksburg.  I certainly came there with peaceful intentions, but I occupied just like he did.

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.

April 11, 2015

Y’All Are Cordially Invited, All Y’All!

Calling all fans of this blog,of cultural assonance and dissonance between North and South — Monday, April 20, 7 pm, at the Powerhouse Theater in Oxford, Mississippi, on the corner of University Avenue and Fourteenth Street, I am inviting you all to a word party.

My book, The White Trash Pantheon, which sets the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South, decries  idolatry and excesses of white privilege, and is above all, filled with fun and humor, with prosody and twang, is being released by Vox Press.

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm!  Come on down!

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm! Come on down!

The party is being called “A Moonshine Cotillion.”  I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of actual moonshine, but the moon will be shining, I can guarantee that.

If you attend, there will be refreshments, bonhomie, and a dash of ribaldry.  There will be reasons to laugh, hopefully not at me but with me.  I have written these poems with a heart for the heartland.  I promise that my intention is to enjoy the South, to slap the snooty off classical literature while retaining its edifying qualities, and to uplift an American vernacular, all in the tradition of Mark Twain, who like me, had an existence both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line.  His Huckleberry Finn is an edifying book, but it also found light-handed ways of telling the truth about people’s hypocrisies, about injustice, about Southern paradox.

I hope The White Trash Pantheon approaches Southern living in a parallel way.  There are times where I am making fun of somebody’s momma, but it isn’t your momma.  It is Oedipus’ momma, though she talks with a drawl when she interrupts her own funeral like Tom Sawyer did.

I promise to bring the funny.  I promise to bring the delight I take in this magnolia-strewn landscape.  I hold the people I have met down South in high esteem, I promise you.  I have listened to — well, to be completely honest, I have eaves-dropped on — salient conversations down here, and I have found in them the cadence of Tennessee Williams divas in the church hall kitchen, the gritty twang of Faulknerian figures in the garages on the county roads.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

I have seen what Ulysses S. Grant saw in Port Gibson, Mississippi, a town between Vicksburg and the bayoux, a town he encountered on his march to conquer the Confederacy, but in the midst of his scorched Earth policy, destroying all sorts of settlements in his army’s wake, he came upon this sleepy, white-boarded, colonnaded oasis between cornfields and cotton, and when his colonels asked him if they should torch the place, he looked at the church steeple — the one in the photo here, with a golden hand atop it pointing an index finger heavenward, and he declared, “No, don’t burn it.  It’s too beautiful to burn.”

I, the Carpetbagger de tutti Carpetbaggers, I, too, declare that the South is too beautiful to burn.  I am in this world of twang and Tabasco, but I am not of it.  That said, when I look at the springtime trees in bloom, at the gilded glove pointed heavenward, I, too, may stand to admire this landscape.  I would change injustice.  I would open eyes.  But I am not a practitioner of scorched Earth.  I have gone native, as native as a non-native can in the New South.

I am not of the South, but I am in the South.  I am making my official debut Monday, April 20th, as a Southern writer, not of Mark Twain, but after Mark Twain.

Come have a slice of corn bread and some bacon-wrapped sugar sausages. Come have a glass of a substance I will neither confirm nor deny.  All y’all, y’all are cordially invited.  The inestimable honour of your presence is requested.

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