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

May 14, 2016

Rebuilding the American Imagination in New Orleans

It’s the end of the school term at the University of Mississippi, and on his way out of town, I ran into one of my former students, a young man determined to become a movie star one day.  I asked him now that he had graduated whether he intended to take off for New York or Los Angeles to kick-start his career.

new orleans construction

It’s not just a shotgun house on the East Bank that’s getting restored here; it’s the life of the mind.

“No,” He told me, “New York and LA are not where it’s all happening in film. If you want to break into movies, the place to do it right now is New Orleans.”

He expects to run into me at spoken word readings, maybe in the Treme, maybe at independent bookstores on the East Bank, maybe on Magazine Street while he’s filming something for HBO or a small-company film headed for Sundance.

New Orleans has always been a town of piratical thinkers, of renegades, moral reprobates, and drama queens. Writers like Truman Capote and Anne Rice have parked themselves in town to invent themselves and expand the American imagination in words.  In music, the greatest genius of the art form for at least a hundred years, Louis Armstrong, might not have single-handedly invented jazz out of whole cloth, but he took the antecedent rhythms out of Congo Square that came to this continent in shackles but rattled chains into a liberatory syncopation and paired them with European instruments and am American sense of whimsy and delight to make arguably the best thing America has ever invented.  Yes, the light bulb was an astonishment.  True, the Gattling gun presaged our imperialism, yes, I am very, very fond of the iPad and the moon landing, but I can’t dance to either of them without somebody cranking up the volume and giving me a beat and a yowling horn to curl my spine.  That came out of New Orleans, that and some awfully good food that mixes African and French sensibilities, a kind of architecture, with a vernacular as unashamed as a Bourbon Street sex worker leaning over a wrought-iron balcony in something lacy, a cultural patois of sin and penitence gumbo-mixed together into a bitter and intoxicating stew.  All that predates the current surge in American culture.

After Katrina cleared away the poorest people of the town, already decaying under the weight of perpetual corruption prior to global warming events, many questioned if the City of New Orleans would become a sort of a tourist park version of its former self, as New York’s bohemian and dangerous identity got gentrified into the Atlantic Ocean and washed up the Hudson, a trend that predated Hurricane Sandy but certainly culminated in that storm’s washing away of much of Coney Island and the Lower East Side.  Some even wondered, as the first episode of the cable drama Treme does, whether New Orleans, poised as it is on land below sea level, was worth saving at all. John Goodman’s character in Treme declared that New Orleans was a city that had captured the world’s imagination and threw the fictitious British journalist and his camera into the Mississippi River like so much British tea in Boston on the eve of another American revolution of ideas.

Instead of becoming a place that operates like a Disney version of its former self, a beacon to apple-cheeked, conservative Midwesterners who want the same kind of fun they get in Branson, Missouri, only maybe a little bit more Tabasco-flavored, New Orleans retained its personality.  As it turns out, creative thinkers of all the art forms recently gentrified out of neighborhoods in California and New York began to seek welcoming ports, and no town could offer so many rent-to-own residences than a town half washed-away by a category-five deluge.

Indeed, there is something about wreckage and urban decay that permits the expansion of avant-garde thought. After the wall was built, West Berlin became a place for David Bowie to reinvent his next musical self, for Wim Wenders to reimagine the divine comedy in black trench coat and male ponytail.  After the Bronx burnt, hip-hop started in neighborhoods too dangerous to walk in broad daylight in New York and punk rock found, if not its birthplace, then its homecoming court in the East Village. Now, in New Orleans, where writers have typed and horn-players have blown, there is a new explosion, a green growth fertilized by the ashes of the past, sprouting branches because the space to grow exists.

And no — we are not about to stop experimenting because the rent for our cultural laboratories went up in New York and San Francisco so very high that not even the superstars of our art forms could afford them. The best crops grow in muck.  Now that the black mold has been Hazmatted away, we find gutted shot guns and reclaimed gothic ornaments to embellish our new ideas.  That beat from Congo Square is still tom-tomming, still tom-tom, tom-tom, blood and tom-tom like a patient on whom the paddles worked.  We have sinus rhythm.  The avant garde has left Soho to the bankers. Haight-Ashbury belongs to Google executives now.  Want to be a star?  Have something to say? The American cultural experiment is beginning a new series of  tests on streets named for dead French royalists. It’s like that invitation the Sufi mystical poet Rumi extended to all of us about a thousand years ago:

Out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing

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

That’s where the artists go to imagine new things, the mystics seek the face of God beyond human agency and Pharisee-like self-righteousness. That field, this year and for at least a few more, is possibly near Elysian Fields Avenue .  Like Tennessee Williams told us, you take the streetcar over there.  After that, don’t put a paper lantern on the lamps like Williams’ Blanche DuBois did to hide the ugly truth.  The creative possibilities are often in the ugliness.  Take the ashes and make your beauty.  Meet Rumi there.  Meet America there.  Meet New Orleans, the city of the world’s imagination, there.

 

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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.

February 16, 2016

The Genesis of Elvis: What Origins Tell Us About Where We Go

I taught a student at the University of Mississippi who is a cousin of Elvis Presley.  As Ole Miss is less than an hour’s drive away from Tupelo, where the Presley family has long lived, this was not so surprising, really, but as a Carpet Bagger, I was charmed by the

Elvis birthplace 2

Elvis was born in this shack during the Great Depression

implications of my encounter with Elvis’ DNA, still responsive — not an Elvis sighting but a confirmed Presley sighting, surely.  This Presley was blond, almost exactly the King’s height and body shape, and he had piercing blue Presley eyes. As he took his final exam in my modern American Literature section, I silently tried to will him to burst into a chorus of “Hound Dog,” but to no avail.  If he had for some odd reason fallen prey to rock n’ roll hypnosis, it would have been the second-most rock-fantasy-fulfilling thing that ever happened to me, second only to the time I danced onstage in Paris for a half hour in a go-go cage with another band leader named Elvis, this one with the last name Costello.  But Elvis of Tupelo’s cousin did not once seem all shook up.  His hands might have been twitching and his knees weak, but that wasn’t because of love or music.  He might have been concentrating on the essay question of the exam. So despite wishing fervently for this young man to jump up on his desk and start throwing scarves off his neck into a screaming female crowd, instead I realized that we could not go on together with suspicious minds, and I gave him his semester grade and said adieu.  He wasn’t Elvis, and no amount of hoping could make him so.

elvis birthplace 1

Seventeen dollars gets you what they call the birthplace experience.

As it turns out, I found myself at a car dealership last week in Tupelo, getting my tires rotated, and I realized I really ought to go visit the birthplace of the American icon.The museum isn’t like the Met, where one donates as one chooses, and then one sees masterpieces. They wanted seventeen bucks to tour a diorama room, the two-room shack in which he was born, the relocated and renovated Assemblies of God church building in which Elvis first sang hymns, another chapel built for those who wish to marry in — let’s admit it — a more authentically Elvine Elvis Chapel than the one they have in Las Vegas — and to watch some films.  They had life-sized cardboard cutout Elvis dolls, they had a multimedia presentation of Elvis’ church services which were almost exactly like the church services I regularly attend, only people dress like it’s the twenty-first century and there are microphones, and they had a film  to let me know what any listener knows — that Elvis was influenced by both African-American blues traditions and Country music.

But the epicenter of the museum was the humble house where Mrs. Presley gave birth to a

Elvis birthplace 3

Elvis emerged here.

boy.  There was neither electricity nor plumbing.  Elvis’ father was not a financial success, even by the standards of the Great Depression, and they soon  lost the home and had to move elsewhere.  Looking at the metal bed in which Elvis crowned, I was somehow reminded of my trip years ago to Bethlehem, where I saw the birthplace of Jesus, which monks who had never witnessed an actual birth marked with something that looked like a large gilded dinner plate on the floor. And I realized then that the Elvis  I was seeking in this poorly ventilated shack was no more discernible than the golden Middle Eastern floor platter made Jesus appear in the flesh before worshippers there , alas for the worshippers like me of the King of Kings like Elvis and like me.

After all, what had I come to see? Down the road, there were somewhat updated versions of the same two-room shack’s architectural design, surely home to people of the same class as the Presleys during the 1930s. Today, they have plumbing, electricity, and aluminum siding. Is there rock greatness in those shacks?  At least they contain the living, not the dead. The Elvis I sought in his cousin and in his kitchen is dead — and yet, I say long live the King. The King is gone. And yet he is everywhere. All Americans are heirs to Elvis countrythe kingdom of Elvis — the bad fashion sense, the fatty foods, and yes, the rhythm, if we let our insides shake like a leaf on a tree, as he sang to us. Elvis might have lived in a shack, but he became as prosperous and as lost as any American can. He is the style without the substance, the default position of portions of American life, the gender performance, the hazy-eyed side-burned hunka-hunk of us burning.  We burn like Elvis burns.  There are sightings to this day. Elvis is not a saint but a relic, touch the reliquary, and what a chill I got — we are all shook up.  We are shaken.  We are seeking out a dream of ourselves, of who we have meant to be or who we have accidentally become. The genesis of Elvis, his birthplace, is like the rock at Plymouth, Massachusetts — we visit it to find America but find ourselves instead. The King is dead.  Long live the King.  Don’t look in the platter, look in the mirror for the next Elvis sighting.  If you were born here, right here on this platter, on this gold  record, then you are an American.

February 1, 2016

Beads: What New Orleans Puts its Mojo On

I went to my first actual neighborhood Mardi Gras in my new town of New Orleans this Saturday.  I saw the Algiers Krewe, its many floats, the Langston Hughes High School and Phyllis Wheatley Middle School Marching Bands — two schools named for great poets, and I was thoroughly entertained.

zeus float

The False Thunder God’s false king is throwing false (plastic) beads at the crowd.

I saw floats attributed to inscrutable false deities, with plastic-masked kings and queens, standing within the embrace of plaster-of-Paris angels and in floral-bedecked rigs.  I had never liked Mardi Gras beads before, but something about them being thrown at me from a parade float made me want to wear them. Why did they suddenly have value?

 

I am reminded that native Americans traded Manhattan away for glass beads, or so I was told. I realize that this celebration — Fat Tuesday, come on a Saturday — is allegedly Christian but in fact only represents false deities and powerless powers, but the bands play, and we have fun.

marching band 2

The band leader jumps in the air in front of the gas station in Algiers.

It was delightful to watch teenagers in sequins wave flags and batons, to watch a woman run up and grab a tulle-decked plunger from a clown’s hands off a float.  The beads, the tulle, the sequins added a holy mystery to things as banal as sweaty adolescence, plunging, and clowning around. It is the delightful American habit to put lipstick on a pig and to call it a beauty.  Plastic beads are not a trip to Tiffany and Company, not even breakfast in front of Tiffany’s shop windows, especially not with Audrey Hepburn.  So why do they delight? Is there a link between Mardi Gras beads, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which Truman Capote might have thought about while he lived in New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone?  Is Holly Golightly a Mardi Gras float queen morphed into the guise of a New York party girl?

shoe float

Is this merely a Mardi Gras shoe float, or are we looking at a Louboutin float?

Fashion performs all kinds of acrobatics, I realize, of the plastic bead variety. A pair of black pumps is garden variety, unless its soles are dyed cinnabar red, in which case they are Louboutins.  Plastic beads are tacky, unless they fly off a float into your face, in which case — well — perhaps they do remain tacky, but they mark an occasion. Festivals, pancakes for pancake Tuesdays, boiled eggs for Easter, Twigs wrapped with red ribbon for Christmas — all these things take on an air of occasion because of their timing and placement within a rite.

me at mardi gras

The beads may be cheap and tawdry, but they make me happy, anyway.

I found myself decking myself with plastic beads shamelessly.  I was having a marvelous time, in fact.  I feel that beading myself with these plastic trinkets marks the occasion of my assimilation into the West Bank of New Orleans, a place that seems to value poets, diversity, jazz and tall tales. By the end of the parade, I had eighteen strands of them in all. I looked at them in my room at home and realized they were utterly useless around my neck.  They were no more appropriate for non-Mardi-Gras wear than it would be for me to try to incorporate Christmas tree ornaments into my wardrobe.

 

But I did find a use for the beads, after all.  I am teaching a public speaking course at the University of Mississippi, and we are discussing ways of keeping calm while addressing a crowd.  I decided to imbue each strand of plastic baubles with talismanic power.  I got my students to agree that since fear of public speaking is irrational — unless, of course, someone doing the public speaking is about to face a firing squad — an irrational response might calm the irrational fear.  Without claiming magical powers of any kind on my own, I gave my students each a strand of plastic from the Algiers Krewe parade with a blessing on it that it would give the possessor of it ease while addressing a crowd.  One student said it helped her when she had it on for her presentation later in the class.

See, America, glass beads can get you an island.  Red-soled shoes can make you chic.  Pastry eaten in front of a jewelry shop seems to burn fat cells off of Audrey Hepburn’s waist. Plastic beads, tossed into an American crowd, make a town a tourist attraction, and recycled, they become a tool for orators, the tellers of Louisiana tall tales. We are less the land of Goshen than the land of Barnum.  Kardashians prance on our screens like royal Lipizzaner horses, and we buy false eyelashes to flutter at others. Plastic beads are the family jewels. The king is king of burgers. The queen is queen of the parade. The emperor has no clothes, but in New Orleans, when our neighbors parade around naked, we don’t stand in judgment, as long as it happens before Ash Wednesday.

 

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!

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.

March 17, 2015

And all of a sudden, Mississippi happens

I traveled North in ice a week ago yesterday.  I came back to green hills, birds in trees, daffodils, new blossoms.  It’s not too hot.  It’s not too cold.  The air is not infested with mosquitoes, not yet at least.  It smells vaguely of chamomile and vanilla.

Birds all sing as if they knew.

Birds all sing as if they knew.

Spring has sprung, momma.  Spring has sprung.  The campus of Ole Miss is gently warm.  Students have exchanged parkas for shorts.  Walking around is a stroll, not a dash to avoid frigid pellets.

For those who haven’t already done so, it’s a good time to fall in love.

As Tennessee Williams more or less remarked, young people love as if they were inventing love.  The students here, all toned, fresh-faced, and tentatively swaggering, hair-flipping, giggling, are out in due season like the blossoms.  They are all so very pretty.  Even the nervous ones are pretty.

The Greeks would have told you that Persephone had emerged from the depths of Hades once more.  The country singers tell you that a girl in tight jeans is swinging her hips as she walks slowly by their truck, looking back with a longing gaze.  I tell you something in the middle of these two declarations of what is going on here.

Here is a poem from my forthcoming collection, out this April — The White Trash Pantheon — about this time of life and time of year.  It originally appeared in Connecticut Review.

PERSEPHONE’S CONFESSION

Momma, I lied to you.

I wasn’t kidnapped.  He was driving around town

For weeks in his silver flat-bed with his buddy Chiron

And that old, ugly hunting dog with the funny name.

He was giving me what you call the evil eye – but it’s not evil, Momma!

It’s just got that new math in it –

Me minus you equals negative me, baby,

You minus clothes equals me on my knees, sugar,

Me plus you equals you plus me equals me plus you plus me plus you –

And then one day, Chiron and his dog were gone, and he opened

The door.  I hopped in.

One true thing I told you – the Earth split open, and he floored it.

Momma, I know it was wrong, but you wouldn’t understand –

He’s a mountain man, and winter is friendly to him.  I come and go

As I please.  The thing about the pomegranate seeds, I made it up.

I get plenty to eat when I’m there –  Can he ever cook!

I help him at his cat fish fry shack – you know the saying:

Out of the frying pan into the – but I don’t mind.  I like it.

The oil spatters, and my arms burn a little, and I shiver.

He feeds me his funnel cake, which is thick and buttery.

His heavy fingers on me, with their rough skin – why do

You think the new buds are so pink and perky this year?

Why do you think the shallow lake is writhing with

New schools of golden guppies? Spring has sprung, Momma.

Momma, the netherworld, it’s only that way because

He doesn’t know divinity – that’s why the walls are bare.

He thinks it’s all a plot to confuse the game season tourists,

All a myth, especially what they say about him.  He

Growls at me, “Try me, baby!  I like religious arguments!

I believe in math and science.  I believe in my arms for

Heavy lifting, honey.”  Then he just grabs me, and

The talking stops.  What’s the point of blah-blah with

Catfish sizzling and the sailor’s salt-mouth suddenly

stopping its cursing to nibble instead?  I don’t even

Mind washing the grease off everything afterwards.

My hands are always busy, and then he looks at me

With the new math eyes – you bent over the sink times

Three equals me over you over and over again, baby,

Me over you equals never times infinity, beautiful  –

Momma, he wants to meet you.  He wants to come over

After he closes his kitchen after dinner.  Oh, please!

Maybe you can convince him about the God thing.

Momma, I’m sorry I lied.  It’s just that you think

Spring is all lilies, but it’s really about the mating.

________

This is why Mississippi is so lovely this time of year.  Love is being reinvented, often transgressively.

The air is filling with bird cries.  The warm air has brought out the frogs.  The South awakes from her long slumber and shakes her long hair.  She is looking back at me as I drive by like she wants a ride in my vehicle down some back road.  I am opening the door like a singer at the Opry, just for her.

August 6, 2011

Dixie Death — The Local Mom-and-Pop Cemetery and the Omnipresent Southern Dead

On the day of the primary elections, I met a man who was sitting under an umbrella, holding up a campaign sign.  He told me that Vicksburg, Mississippi‘s population has stayed stagnant since he moved here in the 1960s.

“It’s a dead town,” he said.

Meet the neighbors.

We were in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge, where my polling place was, and across from the parking lot was a warped metal fence with a rusty sign above the gate to enter the plot of land near us.  It said, “Zoellinger’s Cemetery.”  Even though the cemetery was unkempt, with grass growing like a head of hair on a hungover hooker,  with piles of dead branches in the corner, the community was using Zoellinger’s Cemetery, it seemed, to this day, with fresh graves next to ones so old the engraving on the tombstones was worn off.  The names of the dead were varied — not all kin to Zoellinger.

In the North, we think that death is something apart from us — we pay money to give it pomp.  In Manhattan, they cross a bridge to bury the dead in Queens — no new graves nearby.  Death is rendered hygienic.  It is given something a corrupt politician might call plausible deniability.

Not so down South.  Death is the next-door neighbor, an inevitability closer in fact than taxes, which might be evaded, a shadow stretched in gothic proportions over every aspect of the quotidian.

Zoellinger’s Cemetery is a mom-and-pop operation, no connection to any church.  It is century-old business at least, judging by the tombstones, but I suspect that the worn stones I mentioned before are an indication that the place has been used as a graveyard since before the Battle of Vicksburg, which changed everything here.

Of course, the churches around here have cemeteries, too, often enough — but it is not considered strange to bury the dead in the back yard, to use one’s neighbor’s home-overgrown cemetery instead of the church.

Elvis is out back by the pool.

That archetypical Southern man, Elvis Presley, is buried at home — exhumed, in fact, to place him at Graceland.  He’s out back by the kidney-shaped swimming pool.  You can see him if you stand on the diving board.  If you want to wave — go ahead.   Around  here, that wouldn’t be considered more than a minor eccentricity,  the cracking of a knuckle, the humming of a tune.  Death is like daily bread.  Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.  We’re all trespassers down here, walking on the land of the historically departed, the familial and the familiar wraiths who haunt both battlefield and supermarket.

There is no surprise at a new sighting of a ghost in Vicksburg and the surrounding area.  In fact, if you go to the old courthouse, now defunct, on at least one night a week, you can take a ghost tour of the old city.  Ghosts are part of the community at least as much as the living are.

Even events associated with the renewal of life — with the ceremonies of youth — have the vestiges of this death pall upon them.  When local couples get married, they often go to a mansion that burned down years ago and stand in the ruins between the columns for wedding pictures.  No one sees the irony or the malediction in this.  There are several memorials to the Confederate dead on the campus of Ole Miss, who were indeed numerous among those who had attended the institution in the 1850s and 1860s.  And yes, at the City College of New York, there is a memorial plaque to those students who went off and fought Franco during the Spanish Civil War (a more noble lost cause, to be sure), but students are not forever tapped on the shoulder by these phantoms in the way that the young are here.  It is not that they are consciously courting the dead.  Rather, it is that the dead are always there, like a quiet elderly relative at a family reunion, parked in front of the television in dementia, neither bothered nor bothersome.  The dead are as present to the young  Mississippians as are any distant relatives over the age of 65 — to be respected but largely ignored, except at moments like graduation and wedding days, when one might send a note in the hopes of receiving a gift.

And what gift does a good grandson receive from the Confederate dead and the relatives buried out in the backyard?  I admit this is unclear to me.  I suppose the one valuable gift is a sense of continuity, that the path of the generations remains intact.

There is a hymn that is popular down here about this.  The lyrics written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon are as follows:

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?
CHORUS:

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by?
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
In the joyous days of childhood
Oft they told of wondrous love
Pointed to the dying Saviour;
Now they dwell with Him above.
(Chorus)
You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice.
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?
(Chorus)
You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.
(Chorus)
One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?
This song asks a question that the practice of keeping the dead close by seems to answer.  If the dead are forever at hand, then those seats are never really empty, the family is never really parted.  The circle is already unbroken here, and even as we go to vote at the Elk’s lodge, we know that imminently the ephemera of this election will evaporate into the greater truth of Vicksburg, that the dead outnumber the living — until the rapture raises them without their guns, their sabres, their cigarettes, their broken bottles of Mad Dog 40/40, and the defeats of this world will never again matter to any of us.  Nothing is extinguished, even now.

April 27, 2011

Shakespeare in the basement

It was a dark and stormy night.

New Yorkers are not scared of muggers, really, but they are unprepared for this.

Actually, the dark was punctuated by bolts of lighting filling up the entire field of clouds directly above my head, not sending a bolt downward but rather knitting electric filaments into a spiderweb pattern above my head with loud thunderclaps.

The sirens sounded, wailing so loudly my skin vibrated.  Not a drop of water was hitting the ground yet.

I found my way to the nearest building with a basement, the student union at Ole Miss.

I am from New York — we don’t have tornado watches, warnings, or witches.  We have muggers, we have terrorists, the occasional small whirlwind, but no such thing as a twister that could drop Dorothy’s house in Munchkinland.  I have learned to walk with my keys clenched outward between my knuckles in a fist when I’m in a neighborhood where a mugger might be.  I have learned to call the police if I see a mysterious package left unattended in the subway.

This tornado stuff is new to me, and it freaks me out.

However, I noticed that the young people who come from this area take it more or less in stride.  A group of young women in the basement posed for a group picture, smiling.  Others sat around and told jokes.  I was sitting next to Loy Scott, an Ole Miss freshman from Hickory Flats.  She told me her mother lived in a trailer, hence no basement, but she shrugged, knowing somehow she would be okay.  We were near the basement entrance to the campus bookstore, and she told me if all nature broke loose on us we could loot the Ole Miss memorabilia.

“Coffee tastes better out of a stolen mug, anyway,” she laughed.

The kids are used to this.  I’m the one worrying about the whereabouts of Toto, who leapt out of my basket as I was following the yellow brick campus path.  For these kids, this is not a perilous era.  This is just a slight inconvenience.  Wi-Fi is not always accessible in the basement, and so it’s only intermittently that we can check to see if the howling funnel is right above our heads.

This morning, the alarms went off again during my 8 am Shakespeare discussion section.  We were in a building with a basement there, too.

The students volunteered, without my asking them to, to recite their assigned Shakespeare monologues in the basement.  We heard scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream while the sirens blared through even layers of concrete, where the thunder was still audible above us.

A girl got up and read Shylock‘s question, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

I wanted to respond, “Yes, and if there is yet another tornado warning, with storms all around us, does the chancellor not cancel class?”

The answer to that one was, “No.”

This is just a day at the office.

In New York, the day after 9/11, the city went back to work, except where the buildings had been destroyed.  So it is here, not with terrorists but with twisters — if your classroom is still standing, you teach in it.  If not, the basement has good enough acoustics for dramatic monologues.  Shakespeare matters more than the flooding, the sirens, and the possibility that somebody is losing a house, a car, a life directly above our heads.

I remember reading how many children who grew up during the Second World War kept their sanity in air raid shelters by reciting poetry.

The sirens stopped sounding.  We eventually dispersed.  The basement had begun to flood, anyway, and there were no twisters in the immediate vicinity.  We were as sane as we were when we descended the stairs an hour or so earlier.

How does anybody get used to this?  Tornadoes distract me from literature, even as literature distracts me from tornadoes.

Ole Miss students in a storm shelter last night waiting in the basement for the storm to pass

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