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

June 18, 2016

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of New Orleans

Not long ago, New Orleans bandleader  Jean Baptiste filmed a Late Show segment with Stephen Colbert, whom he showed around the French Quarter.  Jean stood casually in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, not breaking a sweat, as he is from Louisiana, his family having lived there and played jazz there for numerous generations.  He was showing Stephen how to “hang” on a street corner, looking casual and cool.  Colbert was neither casual in a summer-weight suit, nor was he cool.  He said just standing there for a few minutes he was sweating so much he was experiencing “swamp ass.” I think “swamp ass” would sound much more elegant in Cajun, as it would translate into, “cul de bayou,” but it is not a phenomenon Cajuns regularly experience, accustomed as they are to the heat down here.  The rest of us, though, who might even be used to Southern heat (Stephen Colbert grew up in the South), are ill-acclimated to avoiding cul de bayou, cuisse de bayou (swamp thigh), or couilles de bayou (swamp testicles).  It’s hot and muggy in New Orleans.

cold drinkThat weather mojo works both ways, by the way.  Yankees are much more able to handle cold.  Every Southern lady I know who doesn’t ski owns only thin jackets, nothing at all from the Northface Catalog, and the second the temperature dips below forty degrees, they shiver as if it were going out of style.  I married my husband in an old antebellum mansion which had served as the Yankee headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  The night before our January wedding, the fountains had frozen over in the garden.  I walked around getting ready in a t-shirt and jeans while the majority of guests on his side of the aisle trembled violently and stomped their feet to keep from getting frostbite.  My years walking between skyscrapers in Manhattan while the wind shot ice pellets at my face made a breezeless thirty-degree chill feel like a cool day hardly worth noticing as cold.

Come June that year, of course, my experience changed radically. I remember when the headache started — three a.m., and it was the middle of June, and it was eighty degrees outside.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I took the dog for a walk, and I saw bats flying overhead, catching the many bugs in the air.  I also saw my neighbors out for a stroll with their dogs, as this was going to be the coolest moment for at least twenty-four more hours.  The headache lasted through July.  I remember the early days of the month, sitting in a gazebo I had set up in our back yard, staring at the ice melting in a big plastic cup of mint tea I had filled to drink out there, my head throbbing so hard because my blood didn’t know what to do with the intensity of the heat that would not quit.  By August, the headache had dissipated with the murky-smelling mist off the Mississippi that had wafted over our back lawn every morning during the hottest summer days.

I have never had a heat headache in any subsequent summers, acclimated as I am to Southern heat.  Still, though, New Orleans heat is not for wimps.

I cannot imagine how slaves harvested rice in this weather.  They almost all died young, it seems, according to a plantation tour I took once.  I don’t know how anybody survived New Orleans heat before air conditioning. It’s impressive to imagine anybody trying to put on a corset in this weather. It would take a particular admiration for martyred saints that a good Catholic homily might inspire, as no Protestants would see the merit in suffering like that just to have a wasp waist. The French doors everywhere in New Orleans are a relic of the era when the only hope anyone had of enough air was to make certain that the house was no stuffier than the outside air, in  the vain hope of some kind of cool breeze emanating from some virgin martyr’s icy breath. Sinful city as New Orleans has always been, the hot-blooded women of the metropolis could offer no icy virginity to pair with martyred sainthood recognizable to the Vatican, so people suffered in this town.

I admit it. I can’t stand the heat.  I have left New Orleans for a few weeks of respite six hours due north in northern Mississippi.  It isn’t hot enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat here, now with my acclimated sweat glands. I am writing my dissertation, and it is good to sit in a library with the air conditioning on full blast, drink a diet coke, and to think of nothing but knights and Middle French and Middle English works of literature that describe them. I am sweating, but there is no cul de bayou. There is no headache, except from squinting at faded letters in old books. But I admit it.  I am a mauviette de bayou (a swamp wimp),  a faignant de bayou (a swamp weakling loser), and it would take a miracle de bayou (you’ve got this one on your own) to acclimate me to this tropical sauna before next June, when there will be no escape from the impressive humidity and heat.

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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.

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.

August 16, 2015

From Homecoming Court Member to ISIS Member — How One Young Woman Responded to Mississippi

How does a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi, not raised Muslim, a woman, decide to join ISIS? Jaelyn Deshaun Young recently graduated from Warren County High School on the edge of Vicksburg.  She was in the homecoming court, meaning that she was no loner; people at school liked her and thought she was pretty, which she is. She got good grades, went to Mississippi State with an eye toward becoming a doctor.  Her father was  police officer in the Vicksburg police department; he had served in Afghanistan prior to that, where he fought Al Qaeda.  He took his family to church on Sundays.  How does a young woman raised in that atmosphere decide her destiny is to join a terrorist, Christian-persecuting, woman-raping organization that beheads other Muslims and destroys precious works of ancient art?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

It would be easy to blame her young husband, Muhammad Dakhlalla.  His father was a leader at a local mosque in Starkville, Mississippi, near the university campus.  He must have radicalized her. Except this is not what the FBI says happened. They say that it was Jaelyn who led the charge toward ISIS, according to their investigation.  Muhammad, known to most as “Mo,” was not a radical. His father’s Islam manifested itself publicly in feeding the poor.  He ran a restaurant in Starkville until he had to close it down; he was giving away more food than he was selling. This kind of religious practice is not likely to lead to beheadings. Jaelyn certainly converted to Islam while she was getting to know Mo, but he wasn’t pushing the couple into a life of terrorism.  Mo told the FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters that he was willing to fight and die for the Islamic state, but their most impassioned correspondent, itching to get to Syria to fight, was Jaelyn.

So how does a pretty, smart, charismatic girl who grew up in Mississippi in a Christian home decide not just to convert to an Islam guided by acts of charity but to an Islam guided by acts of terror?

She must have first grown disenchanted.  Teenagers are champions of disenchantment. I know I was. When I was in high school, I wrote an angry chapbook of poetry, which I dedicated to “high school students and other inmates of society.”  I had spiky, red hair for a time.  I sneaked out to parties with lots of people wearing brightly-striped Mohawks in places like abandoned warehouses, parties with punk bands that got shut down by the cops, parties where I had to run out the back door because of a raid. I thought high school was a cruel farce. Instead of going to senior prom, I sneaked out to meet a neon abstract sculptor whom I was dating (after meeting him in a cutting-edge art gallery where he was exhibiting his work) for a night of transgression. I refused to attend graduation. Jaelyn must have felt something like this – only there are no Mohawk-punk-band-warehouse-parties in Vicksburg. She would have had to channel her feelings of discontent elsewhere.

I imagine her father, a police officer and a veteran, must be a fairly conservative, pro-establishment kind of a man. He must have told his daughter that education was the path to success.  She certainly did well in school. She surely made more friends than I did at my high school; new wave art girls do not tend to get elected to homecoming court. The social establishment was not, it seemed, particularly rejecting of her. Her revolt could not have been because of a prom scene like the one out of Carrie.

That said, Jaelyn is a woman of color, and Vicksburg is a town where there are racists.  I know because I lived there.   They talked to me about people of color in disparaging ways sometimes. Though her father is a police officer, it would be hard to watch the national pattern of police brutality against people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the tanks and tear gas thrown at peaceful protesters in Ferguson, and not get disgusted, to feel as if America were terrorizing black folks.  It is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Black lives matter, and it does not seem that police forces across the country acknowledge this. How could this problem NOT strike home for a young woman of color whose father was on the police force?

But rage and disenchantment are not enough to explain the embracing of a radical form of Islam that rapes, beheads, and destroys. How could a smart young woman conclude that these were her allies? She, like so many who choose to join ISIS, must have been ignorant of what real Islamic Caliphates looked like a thousand years ago.  There, women had more freedom than they did in the Christian nations.  Medicine, science, and the arts flourished.  Religions of every stripe were tolerated. While it was dangerous to cross a caliph, the caliphs were not known for kidnapping, torturing, and brutalizing people under their power.  Nothing about ISIS suggests they are trying to build such a caliphate.  They destroy art.  They oppress and enslave women.  They kill Christians, crucifying them, killing their babies before their eyes, even desecrating ancient Christian cemeteries.  They used mustard gas on a town last week – a chemical weapon so brutal and horrid that it was banned after World War I by the Geneva Convention, that thought it ought not be used against enemy soldiers.  ISIS used it on children a few days ago.  This is not an Islamic caliphate of old.  This is a demonic holocaust.  How does a daughter of a man who fought Al Qaeda decide to join such a group?

I look into the face of this pretty girl, taken from her high school yearbook, and like her parents, I don’t understand.  The FBI agents claim that when that Islamic gunman shot a bunch of Marines recently at a recruiting office, she rejoiced that the numbers of people who agreed with her were growing. I see the pretty, demure smile on the face of this young lady, and I am baffled.  I want to ask her what could have ever made her so angry at the sleepy town of Vicksburg that she would want not just Islam instead of Christianity but this brutal form of it.  I want to ask her who hurt her so badly she thinks she needs to join a group of monsters for protection from them. I would take her to the NAACP Jackson headquarter to sign up to register voters, something I did when I lived in Vicksburg.  I want to take her to a party of free thinkers, rare as they may be in a place like Vicksburg.

I want to give her a book of Rumi’s peaceful poetry. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is perhaps the greatest poet from Islam who ever lived.  He lived in an Islamic caliphate that encouraged his work.

He wrote:

“’Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

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

Jaelyn, I would meet you there.  Let me urge you, with an Islamic mystical poet, not to throw away your life to become cannon fodder for a pack of fascists, or now, where you are in America, a jail bird.  There are so many other ways to reject Mississippi culture, if you feel you need to.  Meet me there, and you, Rumi, and I will talk.

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

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.

February 20, 2012

Surprise! My step-daughter’s seventeenth birthday, or a Yankee ambush the South can endorse

Charlotte and her friend Hannah looking both sweet and Southern

Charlotte turned seventeen last week, and in keeping with local matronly customs, I threw her a party.  Because, however, I wanted to surprise her, I involved her favorite teacher at school, her track and field coach, and the entire (small) group of girls in her class.  They all knew that I would arrive with balloons and flowers in my hand, a tune of one of her favorite indie rock bands blasting through my car’s speakers, to whisk them all away for manicures, pedicures, and Chinese food.

This was one Yankee ambush the South could get behind.

Women down here love throwing parties; it is a mark of maturity and refinement.  I’m not sure that my utterly un-veranda-ed and foreign-cuisine-laden fete qualifies me for membership in the local Junior League, but I finally seem to have hit a positive note here, as far as my neighbors are concerned.  Mothers and daughters graciously RSVP-ed and enjoyed the subterfuge, seemed to approve of my party favors and invitations, seemed to enjoy the unusual (for here) party activities.

The girls who came enjoyed themselves, I think, and Charlotte tells me they liked me, too, calling me “the sweetest thing ever.”  Girls in cheerleader outfits called me “ma’am,” and they found it fascinating that I could speak foreign languages of a variety of kinds.  I promised these girls that if they came over to our house at a non-surprising moment, I would gladly feed them my non-Southern cooking and speak to them in whatever language they liked.

You know they're friends because they have a sign that says so

The fact that I had an album by indie band Down with Webster — at my age — makes me an unusual step-momma.  So does having a giant poster of David Bowie incorporated into my kitchen’s design.  Being internationally focused is unusual — all of these girls have commendable future plans — veterinary school, human medical school, international business, but the majority of them intend to stay within the boundaries of the state of Mississippi.  Some of  them have boyfriends who really might become husbands already.  In truth, I find them every bit as exotic as they find me.

At least everyone seems to have had a lovely time.  It is they, in fact, these bright, energetic girls, who are the sweetest things ever.

Happy birthday, Charlotte.  May all the surprises life throws you be as pleasant for you as you seem to have found this one.

February 12, 2012

On Missing the Dixie National Rodeo

Even if we had gotten tickets to the Dixie National Rodeo, we would have missed the real rural Western experience.

Last night, my husband Chuck and I found parking behind some horse trailers in an alley a walk away from the Jackson State Fairgrounds.  We walked between stands selling cowhides and saddles and stands selling lariats and posters of country music legends to the north entrance of the coliseum.   I was wearing brown boots, blue jeans, a red gingham blouse with a kerchief, a  denim jacket under a sheepskin coat.   We met two other couples there, both living in Vicksburg like we are, and we were planning on buying cheap seats up in the rafters so that we could watch the bull riding, the barrel racing, and who knows what-all.

However, when we  got to the box  office, we realized that they had sold all the tickets already.  We were not going to the rodeo, after all.  Instead, as a sextet, we went to a Japanese restaurant down the street and had a lovely evening, anyway.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing, but the experience the rodeo promises to people like us, people with graduate degrees and uncalloused hands, would be unattainable even if we had seats so close we could feel the breath of bulls on the back of our necks.

The image may be western, but the viewers are removed from the realities of settling the West

Almost the second the West was won, America developed a sentimentality about cowboys.  Buffalo Bill ‘s Wild West Show was just a show, not wild at all, for people who would never be cowpokes, unless poking a cow can be extended so far as slicing into a New York strip steak.

The people who back their trailers up to the Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi may indeed have learned to straddle the agrarian image of America that Thomas Jefferson gave us and the contemporary realities of cell phones and Facebook status updates just like they wrap their thighs around the back of an angry bull, but the rest of us, the ones buying, or trying to buy the tickets, we have no such capacity.  We are products of a society that dishes us up true grit on a salad bar where we can pick and choose between morsels of culture.  All six of us, the ones who went out to dinner instead of the rodeo, we are all white folks, so we are no more Japanese than we are cowboy.  So to what do we really and truly belong?

One of the women who ate teriyaki with me last night told me she was from a small town called Hot Coffee, Mississippi, and I am sure that she comes from more rural digs than I do in Brooklyn, but she and the other woman lamented the disappearance of a sign welcoming outsiders to Hot Coffee that looked like someone was pouring coffee off a sign post.  The other woman remembered that her father used to woo women by walking around where he came from with a pet goat, and somehow, in the vocabulary of this particular rural region, that was like having a nice ride in Hollywood.

But we, the educated people — lawyers, professors, computer scientists, chemists — we don’t have goats.  We may come from Hot Coffee, but we are not stuck there by land battles or other forms of economic necessity.  If we use a lasso, it’s not for livelihood — it’s a rope trick, nothing more.  So who are we?

This boy from New York City was adventurous but ultimately more Republican than Bull Moose

People often say of those who move away and move back that they can never really and truly go home again.  I furthermore say that any of us who refine our minds can never truly be present for The Dixie National Rodeo.  We are too aware of other things, and our options are too many.  People who get up to milk the cows at 4 am usually do so out of necessity, not out  of romantic transcendental ideologies.  As for Dixie, that country no longer exists; indeed Dixie, as opposed to the real Confederate States in secession, was as mythological as Atlantis, for no one who has picked cotton for no money sings happily about how they wish they were back in the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten — look away.  So moving South — which I undoubtedly did — it has not made me any more a Southern Belle than Teddy Roosevelt made himself a cowboy when he bought guns in Manhattan at Tiffany & Company (Yes, that Tiffany’s used to sell guns, silver plated, apparently, along with the rest of their jewelry) and moved to the Dakotas.  Teddy Roosevelt mastered the skills of a cowbpoke out on the range very impressively, but he always could count on other forms of income.  He managed to inhabit the rough neck culture, but he himself remained a city slicker inside.  He could hunt in the land of grizzlies, form the rough rider brigade in the bar of the luxurious Hotel Menger, but this was a bit like Marie Antoinette building herself a Hameau to play at being a peasant girl.

I will never be a cowgirl.  I might learn to shoot a gun, Tiffany silver-plated or otherwise.  I might learn all the manners of  a Kappa Kappa Gamma.  I might learn to inhabit this culture with thorough fluency, but somehow, I’ll end up eating foreign cuisine, reading a marvelous book, investigating arch Machiavellian realities or corn pone frontier humor from a consumerist, internationalist, twenty-first-century intellectual distance.

It’s a shame we missed the rodeo.  I think we would have had a terrific time.   The truth, though, is we missed the rodeo over a century and several libraries ago.

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

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.
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