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

October 24, 2015

The South Comes North, Conquers and Desegregates: Anne Babson and Caroline Randall Williams read tonight in Pittsburgh

Oh, readers of this blog,whom I adore — please come revel with me tonight.  I am not inviting you to meet me in a wheat field under the full moon with a blanket.  I am not inviting you to look for me hiding in a cave on the edge of Hannibal, Missouri, so we can sneak in the church balcony and watch our own funeral.  I am not inviting you to slip out of the governor’s ball so we can elope in my mother’s buggy.  No, none of these.  I am asking you to escape with me North.

Come see me tonight at 7 pm at East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh

Come see me tonight at 7 pm at East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh

I am reading tonight (October 24) in Pittsburgh at East End Book Exchange, 4754 Liberty Avenue, in the Little Italy section of town known as Bloomfield, at 7 pm.  The reading is called “Iambic Drawl.” With me will be the brilliant and lovely Caroline Randall Williams.  Caroline Randall Williams is a poet from Tennessee who has done something really radical — she has written a book of poetry, Lucy Negro Redux, in which she reclaims (and repurposes) Shakespeare for African-American Southern women, who have often had complicated and rather painful relationships with older white men. She talks about it, really talks about it in her very clever book, a book so clever it hurts my feelings that I have never thought of anything so clever to write myself.

I will read selections and delicatessen cuts from my collection The White Trash Pantheon, which resets the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South. In it, as many of you know, I write about white privilege, although I do so with a lot of humor, as this allows white folks like me to examine our pretensions and reject them.  I also write about idolatry, as myths about white people in the South have engendered false gods that some have actually revered.

Together, Miz Caroline and I are busting a few myths, including, but not limited to:

  1. White people have a unified and illustrious heritage.
  2. Black people do not.
  3. White people have some kind of a corner on the market for heroism.
  4. Black people are merely victims in society, not participants, not contributors.
  5. White women are the only women who are really beautiful and elegant.
  6. Black women are the only women who are really drudges.
  7. Old books have nothing fresh to say to new people.
  8. New people have nothing fresh to say to old books.

We are going to tear down these walls and others and dance around linguistically.You should come out and hear us!

In high-falluting literary and scholarly circles, there is an abiding tendency to see African-American writers as operating in some sort of a cloister wholly separate in their influences and their production of poetry, and if white folks should read that poetry, it is because we are committed to being somehow politically correct.  Paris Review poetry editor Richard Howard once remarked that black poets would only be great writers when they stopped writing about race all the time.  What Mr. Howard failed to realize was that he was writing about his own race all the time, too, the presumptuous

 privilege of belonging to a dominant racial group that has believed that its culture was THE culture and that African-American culture was merely multiculture.  The work of Caroline Randall-Williams belies this notion, as I hope does my own.  Mr. Howard’s idea is wrong, and it ought to be obvious to all — African-American culture is at the center of all cultural achievements in America, not a parenthetical influence at all.  We should not read African-American poets’ work because we are being democratic.  We should read African-American poets’ work because much of it is good, some of it great.

This woman is on her way toward greatness!

This woman is on her way to greatness!

I am reading, then, with Caroline Randall-Williams because I actually get to — she is a good poet on her way very possibly to being a great poet.  If you meet her tonight, which I hope you will, you will almost instantly realize she is ten times smarter than the rest of us.  She is also delightful and gorgeous. Her career is a freight train barreling down the track, and we can get out of the way or get on board, because she is part of the next big thing, as I hope to be right with her.  She likes what I do to old books in my writing, because she likes to mess with old books, too. Call it quilting or decoupage if you like, but we have been calling it post-post modernism.  We deride the Derridian idea that text has no inherent meaning.  We just think that we get to couple authorial intentions of old to our own; we write back.  We also write around.  We write beneath and above.  We believe in capital-T-truths, but you’ll have to ask us nicely if you want to hear which ones.

So come out to East End Book Exchange tonight at 7 pm.  We are going to be post-post.  We are going to be the Confederacy’s worst nightmare.  The South rises again tonight and wins Pennsylvania, only it’s not as General Lee imagined it, not at all.

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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!

August 3, 2015

How as a Preteen I was Seduced by Margaret Mitchell and Abandoned by American Culture to Her Hegemonic Discourse

I read Gone with the Wind as a required book for my summer reading list between seventh and eighth grade a private girl’s school.  At the time, I was hoping, like almost everyone who is going to turn thirteen years old, for a great romance, proving somehow I was desirable, affirming my blossoming powers of female charm, a romance that would serve my ego.  I had no conscious thought of love by any adult definition, and I had limited information on sex, but I knew this much – the idea of a good-looking boy who would parade around with me in public, letting the other girls at my school know, most of whom I found milquetoast and cruel, that he thought I was awesome, one who would slow dance with me and neck with me at a co-ed party, the kind I was rarely invited to, that appealed to me more than I could say.  Boys often get criticized at that age for only having “one thing on their mind,” but truly, though I did not have a clear picture of that “one thing,” my motives for wanting a boyfriend in the abstract were no less selfish and shallow than any boys at that time of life would have had.  My chief object in this pursuit, one mostly in a state of total fantasy in my sex-segregated life, was to outdo the girls who made fun of me for being nerdy and not obscenely rich the way they were.

Given my summertime agenda, reading about Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks Barbeque, where she stole other girls’ beaux and threw a vase at Rhett Butler while wearing a big, flouncy dress – that was my idea at twelve-and-a-half of a pretty impressive afternoon, if I could get over the Civil War getting declared that day, which I mostly did.  The later descriptions of Rhett Butler’s hot-lipped kisses on Scarlett’s palm sounded pretty good, too.  And as a role model for gumption, Scarlett probably continues to influence me, though her purely self-interested modus operandi is something I hope I have overcome at this less adolescent time of life.

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

I was already literary enough in junior high school to understand, as I read the section of the book that describes the siege of Atlanta, that I was in the presence of a master artist in Margaret Mitchell’s pages.  In rereading the book this summer, decades later, I find myself enchanted by her astonishing narrative structure for this section of the book, the way that certain phrases become refrains.  The scene where the battle is within earshot of the dark city of Atlanta, and in the night, various Southern men knock on Aunt Pitipat’s door, each with different manners of speaking reflective of a diversity of region and class of these Confederate soldiers, where because of the dark, Mitchell confines her evocation of scene to non-visual descriptors only – I actually applauded that scene in my rereading.  I remember at twelve-and-a-half, I was awestruck by the idea of a whole yard filled with wounded soldiers, and with Doctor Meade being forced to alleviate suffering as best he could nearly single-handedly and with limited supplies.  In rereading the scene years later, I still see the mastery of Mitchell.  She was a genius of a writer, clearly influenced by Vanity Fair and the works of Tolstoy.  Let me say we have never had an author in America who was very much better than Mitchell, and perhaps we never will, as far as structuring a complex narrative goes.

But what I learned about my adolescent self, my junior high school, and American culture as a whole while I reread Gone with the Wind horrified me, and I need to share it here.

How is it that in remembering the lush descriptions of Northern Georgia, the hot lips of Captain Butler, the wounded soldiers, the balls and ball gowns, the effete Ashley, the noble Melanie, I nevertheless forgot the horrible, horrible racism of Gone with the Wind as I read it at not-quite-thirteen for my school, a school in Yankee territory?  How did I, who remember vivid details from readings I did years and years ago – how did I not truly grasp and retain the enormity of Mitchell’s racism in reading this book?

Margaret Mitchell’s story tells us that the North attacked the South for more or less no reason – no reason!  For slaves were uniformly happy unless they were of very bad character, according to her.  Masters were benevolent and unabusive, though occasionally an overseer of trashy and Yankee-friendly ways might commit violence entirely independently of slave masters’ knowledge.  For Mitchell, people of color were bug-eyed, lip-jutting children, not merely ignorant by lack of education, but naturally ignorant the way a dog is ignorant of algebra, not because junior high school failed to teach him but because dogs can’t handle problems that solve for X.  For Mitchell, the Klansmen were heroic gentlemen, rather than terrorists.  For Mitchell, people of color shouldn’t vote because they would only be beguiled by slick white Yankee carpetbaggers who didn’t want what was best for the African-Americans, namely slavery.  Why didn’t any of this shock me as a school girl?

Understand that my parents were in the civil rights movement, and they took me to civil rights’ rallies when I was a child, so I absolutely knew that Margaret Mitchell’s understanding of the capacities of people of color was wrong, and if asked, I know I would have said so.  I did not know that the Klan had a present-day existence, and if I had known, I would have been horrified, aware as I was in some measure of what they had done to thwart Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man I considered a hero.  So again, why wasn’t I shocked?

My teacher who assigned the book to me never mentioned the problem of race in relation to the book, not once.  Who would assign this book to adolescents and not discuss racism?  He wasn’t much of a teacher, anyway.  He flirted with me inappropriately, and again – I was twelve going on thirteen.  I don’t think he harbored any proactive racist views, not that I could tell, but as a current teacher of literature, I find his lack of discussion on a topic central to understanding a text wildly irresponsible.  My parents knew I was reading the book and only asked me if I thought Rhett Butler was a better character than Ashley Wilkes for Scarlett to marry, and they reminded me that my great-great-grandfather had been in the Union navy as a navigator, though not in combat in the war, it seems.   They got a video of the movie and let me watch it to help me write the paper for my class, and nobody mentioned the difference to me of how Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel behaved on screen so differently from our family’s actual, real-life friends of color, and while I remember noticing that their on-screen behavior seemed unrealistic, I also noticed that when white people I knew in real life kissed, no violins swelled as the sky turned red, as they did when Clark Gable kissed Vivian Leigh, and I chalked the mawkish acting of those portraying slaves in the film not to a form of institutional racism but the overall absurd melodrama of the film in general. Why didn’t anybody mention this problem of wildly blatant racism to me, and why didn’t I reflect more deeply upon it?  How could I forget it?

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This revelation of past impressions makes me reflect on how deeply ingrained white privilege must have been in the ambient culture of my youth.  Just as few enough people question why models have to be rail-thin in order for designers to think they will help sell clothing, nobody around me, not even my activist pro-civil-rights parents, saw a problem worth discussing with me when I read this book.  I think like anorexia is a tacit expectation of female youth today, my life in late twentieth-century American culture was so steeped in racism that much of it was invisible from notice.  My parents wanted laws to be fair for all people and cared as much about friends of color as they did about anybody else, but I think they thought little about daily acts of racism that were not specifically mandated or forbidden by law.  It wasn’t illegal, after all, for Margaret Mitchell to write her political message into her book.  It was not unfair that she should be allowed to express her point of view.  But the truth was, I must conclude that nobody was really offended by the tone of her fiction, by the implications of diminished humanity  of so many characters in her book, of her book’s justifying a genocide of such a magnitude that it will never likely be wholly documented.

I must admit that young person that I was, I had already absorbed intensely racist ideas through a culture that was Northern, not Southern, and therefore I was not shocked or personally offended, though I would have told anyone who asked that racism was wrong and that I did not think I was better than a person of color.  I hung out with two twelve year-old girls at school who were African-American, Dionne and Rueisha.  I remember one day – my thirteenth birthday – during lunch hour, we turned on some music in the yard of the school and danced, and some white girls turned a hose on us, and we had to run off the lawn not to get wet.  Nobody got in trouble for this, though the next day, other white girls approached me, but not Dionne and Rueisha, and asked me to never dance during lunch hour again, that I was embarrassing them because we were in the same class.  I remember thinking it odd that they thought I was embarrassing for dancing to R & B, which I still love, but that it wasn’t embarrassing to them that my two friends, who were also in our class, did the same.  I remember pondering whether it was that they were black that made it “predictable” that they would dance, or if even my hilarity-filled friendship with these two girls were the source of eighth-grade embarrassment.  But I thought Gone with the Wind’s message of racial dishonor was merely fictional.  The book made me want to be a great writer.  It made me want to own a beautiful home and treasure it like Scarlett did Tara.  It made me want to see the South. I don’t believe it made me want to own slaves or see any group of people as less than fully human.  But it somehow contributed to my discounting outrageous assertions about race in our culture, and largely because I as an adolescent was not compelled by any adult authority to question the assertions in a required reading assignment.  Like Scarlett, I wouldn’t think about that now; tomorrow was another day.

Dionne and Rueisha and I still danced sometimes after this incident, though not on the lawn in front of our classmates.  Dionne and I transferred in ninth grade to a big public high school, and our circles of friends became largely segregated, as the currents of the culture pulled us apart.  I wish we had had the discussion about the book in class, in my living room, that Dionne and I, who had both been required to read the book, had discussed the racism in it.  Instead, like Rhett going off to fight the Yankees in the last battles of the war, Dionne and I were abandoned like Scarlett on a perilous road with dangers and no clear sense of what to do next.

But this is how white privilege takes itself for granted, how cultural oppression is hard to see to the group that benefits from the oppression.  Even if I had had no friends of color at my snooty girls’ school, I would have been robbed by this education without educating, this reading without contextualizing.  The keys to what we need to know about ending the hegemony present in American documents lies in the discourse of the establishmentarian authors as least as much as it does in those in revolt against that hegemony.  We need to raise our political consciousness so that Twelve Oaks burning makes sense, so that Frank Kennedy’s death makes sense, so that Scarlett’s pathological selfishness makes sense, so that America makes sense.  And then we need to change America into a place where the few oppressing the many is a wholly unimaginable occurrence, something only in the pages of historical fiction, not a present-tense struggle of any kind.  And this is how we get there – not just by revolting against the bad idea but examining it on its own terms to expose its fallacies.

One day I will teach Gone with the Wind to  my students next to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacob’s narrative, and Whitman’s poetry about wounded soldiers.  I will hold the long-overdue discussion, and while this will not stop the deaths of people like Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, it will make us ready to shout “no,” to tell those white preppy girls that they are the embarrassment, that black women don’t act like Mammy, nor are they named “Mammy,” nor do they crow smilingly at the idea of some white slave owner asking them to lift up their skirts to show off their red petticoats, and no, just no – we need to unpack it all, admit to it all, and finally be able to renounce it all, truly all of it.

July 30, 2015

Day 3: White Privilege and the Eye of the Needle Through Which White Christians Must Pass to Enter Heaven

Tender Readers,

 

I thought I would share with y’all my recent guest blog post on another Word Press Blog, this one a Christian blog based in Africa, where I was asked to talk about racism as a spiritual problem.  I wrote it like a homily on white privilege and the American church.

 

I hope you enjoy it. Follow the link below.

My white face.

 

Day 3: White Privilege and the Eye of the Needle Through Which White Christians Must Pass to Enter Heaven.

January 15, 2015

Hiring Help — and trying not to be Hilly Holbrook

My husband is not a tidy man.  Few Southern men are tidy men.  There are some.  I had the pleasure of sharing an apartment (platonically) with a Southern man from South Carolina who was as neat as a pin.  I don’t know with any certainty that he ironed his pajamas, but if he had, I would not be surprised.

However, my husband is of the more common variety of mess-amassing masculinity that dominates Southern constructions of manhood.  I have come home to ask questions like the following:

  • Honey, why is the vacuum cleaner covered in mud?
  • Why is our dog drinking water out of my Tiffany cut-glass bowl?
  • Why is the cat box in the kitchen?
  • What was this object under the sofa, and what happened to it to make it smell that way?
  • Why are your sweaty socks on the dining room table?
  • Why is there a pile of trash on the mattress?
  • Is there rotting bacon in here under one of the throw pillows?
  • Why?  God, why would you EVER put THAT there?

Normally, I clean up these messes when I am home, but my husband and I have to be apart some of the time for our respective professional activities, and he has agreed that in order to keep the house something less than a health hazard, we will have a cleaning service come in monthly and repair such damage.  They are making their debut today, shortly before my departure.

The two ladies who have come here in a uniform of jeans and black polo shirts with a company logo are two white women in pony tails.  They are vacuuming the man cave right now.  Still, I find myself, particularly for the purposes of this blog, reflecting on Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which is perhaps well-intended but ultimately essentialist in its views of women of color in Jackson, Mississippi at the time of Medgar Evers’ assassination.  What I will say in great favor of the novel is that Stockett has accurately portrayed the neighborhoods of white people of Belhaven in Jackson in the early 1960s and the outlying town of Richland, now a bit of urban sprawl, but then a farming community.  The person she surely best understood among her characters, perhaps the most memorable among them, was Hilly Holbrook, the nasty, catty, racist Junior Leaguer who is terrified of appearing ridiculous in any way to her peers.  For her, the engaging of a maid is a birthright, the ultimate symbol of white privilege, class privilege (while she is a disgusting human being, no one at her Junior League meetings would suspect her of the slightest trashiness), and one of the limited assertions of power a Southern Lady of the bridge-playing, pearl-wearing set in 1961 could make with impunity.  Without apologizing for one iota of her horrible behavior, her manipulative, demeaning cruelty to characters white and black in the narrative, one can understand her temptation to play the tyrant in a system of power in which she occupies only a middle rung.  She treats her maid horribly — and receives a comeuppance delicious to the reader, though perhaps less so to her.

This woman is my least favorite Southern woman.  I hope I am not at all like her ever.

This woman is my least favorite Southern woman. I hope I am not at all like her ever.

She comes to my mind as one of the cleaning ladies apologizes for spilling something brown on our cream-colored carpet.  She cleans it immaculately.  I am not upset.

Hilly Holbrook is the loosely fictionalized worst of Southern womanhood, surely.  But even a Yankee like me thinks about what this cleaning service’s presence in my home represents in terms of class privilege and racial privilege.  I am sure that Oprah Winfrey hires someone to clean up.  I of course know that there are plenty of white families in America who can’t afford the price tag that accompanies these cleaning women’s perfect streak-free shine of my mirrors, their careful straightening of things on shelves, their dusting in corners.  However, even though every person in my house right now is Caucasian, the mark of employing a maid service is one that has privilege, racial and class privilege, all over it, and no amount of these logo-sporting workers’ scrubbing can rub that out of the surface of this transaction.

I don’t feel guilty.  FOX would call me a “job creator.”  However, I remain conscious, though I grew up in a house with two working parents and cleaning help that came in regularly, that this is my participation in a game that is rigged against some people.  My husband’s job at a large corporation helps us to be in the category of those who don’t have to clean up all their own messes.  Tennessee Williams once castigated himself, after a particularly drunken bout of lost weeks in a New York hotel room that he trashed, in a preface to one of his plays.  He thought, at least abstractly, that nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess.  This was for him an expressed ideal, and he never really got sober or tidy again.

I will not consider anyone who works for me less than me, I hope.  I think, though, about Stockett’s remarkable statements from her character Hilly, who believes that she’s not a racist, that racism lies outside of her household, out of her interactions with her maids.  “Oh, it’s out there,” Hilly declares.  I never want to have that kind of myopia about my own privilege, though I am grateful not to have to clean up disastrous messes for my husband when I get back from my time away.

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