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

January 3, 2018

What Does it Mean to be Southern in 2018?

Some aspects of Southern life are nearly universal and date back to descriptions over a century old. Mark Twain briefly joined an ad hoc Confederate militia hunting for Yankees they never found, but in his description of their several-day adventure, after which Twain quit the militia, he describes the welcome and the breakfast the several members of the self-formed militia met at a farm house — a breakfast with eggs, fresh biscuits, grits, and two kinds of pig meat, butter and jam.  Big breakfasts are still a quintessential Southern experience today, and a century from now, Southerners will likely still eat big breakfasts. Southern life was and remains more about who you know than what you know in many areas of life, unlike life in New York, where personal connections open doors, but only competitive competency and some measure of luck keeps one in a job. Laws are more like rules of thumb down here, with privilege playing an unjust role in many individual circumstances, not just in matters related to race and class, but also whether your uncle Bill is still a county deputy. While that politic of relationship may change over time, I don’t expect to see it disappear during my lifetime. Other aspects of Southern life that seem perennial include a deep love for hound dogs, women who pay a great deal of attention to grooming, more than in other regions of the country, and a large gap between publicly-declared moral codes and private behavior — Southerners continue on the whole to sin on Saturday night at the honky-tonk and repent on Sunday morning in the church pew. That cognitive dissonance doesn’t seem headed out of town any time soon, though a girl can hope. The South has always worked hard but values leisure time, cherishing lazy afternoons. And I show myself as a Yankee every time I ask for “unsweet” iced tea — because iced tea without sweetener is just a Southern heresy. None of that is going away in the near future. These cultural phenomena are not universal.  Not every woman grooms for three hours before a date.  Not everyone loves a good hunting dog down here. But they are norms — and the South tends to change slowly when it changes at all.

alabama-trump-supporters

White Southerners two years ago — how many feel this enthusiasm today?

Nobody in the land of political punditry was terribly surprised that formerly Confederate states voted for Donald Trump in the last election.  He was, after all, employing Goldwater’s “Southern Strategy” of race-baiting and xenophobia — and there are enough registered voters in the South who see brown people foreign and domestic as the reason things aren’t working out for them.  They believe their local jobs have gone to immigrants, rather than have been relocated overseas to countries where human rights are not respected.  They don’t distinguish clearly between the Islam of Malala Yousafzai, who got shot in the face by the Taliban, and the Islam of the member of the Taliban who shot her in the face, and rather than assuming that Malala’s Islam is the predominant view of the religion on matters personal and political, they assume, with a great deal of help from a fear-mongering television network, that it is the Taliban’s view that predominates (it does not). The Trump campaign message got rid of the dog-whistle in dog-whistle racism, as nothing could be clearer than declaring Mexican immigrants rapists with “some, I assume, are good people” tacked on at the end — translation: I know Mexicans are rapists, but I can only assume that this is not universal because I only see Mexicans as rapists. His calling women who opposed him “nasty” or  talking pejoratively about “blood coming out of her whatever” — that plays on old-school Southern sexism, applied by those who practice it in either smiling and condescending false chivalry toward “ladies,” and applied aggressively and menacingly toward women who have opinions that differ from their own — like the man from Alabama who called me a “cunt” recently for believing Roy Moore’s accusers.  Most men in the South seem to respect women, though they may not understand them all that well. But for a certain segment of the population of Southern states, the sexism and racism of the Trump campaign wasn’t a bug — it was a feature.  For some Southerners, some white Southerners, Trump’s call to make America great again was a call back to a social system that discounted the majority of the human race as child-like or inherently criminal. Not all Southerners ascribed to this vision of a great America, but enough did.

 

Neither was it a surprise to see a ban on transgender bathroom access emanating in the South. The South likes ladies a lot, but not ladies who used to be gentlemen. Regional fear-mongering made some fear rapists would use this as an excuse (despite a significant number of people reluctant to believe women who come forward to report rape as it is actually likely to happen. That such ideas would particularly take hold in small Southern towns is not surprising. The South was behaving predictably, showing a preference of traditional notions of gender and gender roles over any acknowledgment of changes actually taking place in their own communities. As Hannah Rosin showed in her book The End of Men, where big changes actually take place in what women do and what men do in the South at about the same rate as they do in the North, in the South, the rhetoric about gender remains largely unchanged in many communities — even if the majority of women in a Southern town work outside the home, the rhetoric about women’s roles sound like a reflection of expectations not lived for the last 50 years.

But then, as the nation polarized during and after the 2016 election, and intellectuals read Hillbilly Elegy in an attempt to understand what hit them, something shifted. Almost exactly a year ago, women all over the country, including in the South, marched in pink hats to reject the rhetoric of Trump and his political agenda for women, not just for women. When Trump signed an (unconstitutional) Muslim immigration ban, thousands of people spontaneously ran to the airport to protest, not just in places where one might expect leftist radicals, like San Francisco and New York, but at Atlanta and Kansas City airports as well. Was it Southern to reject the idea that Mexicans were rapists and Muslims? What had happened to the people who had overwhelmingly voted in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri for the Trump agenda?

tiki torch nazi

How many Southerners felt these men spoke for them?

Then, in Virginia, after a group of out-of-town Nazis arrived in Charlottesville to terrorize (and kill one of) their political opponents with the explicit approval of Donald Trump, who called them “very fine people,” it was as if a switch flipped. In that same Virginia, which had voted for Trump in 2016, the state flipped like a cosmic morality lesson.  Not only did they take the governor’s house, the lieutenant governor’s house, and the attorney general’s job, they (pending a court battle) seem to have taken the Virginia House of Delegates Republican majority away.  But it wasn’t just that the tide turned against Republicans. A man whose girlfriend had gotten shot ran against a pro-NRA candidate and won. A transgender candidate won against a man trying to ban her from certain bathrooms and won — not while talking about gender, while talking about traffic problems in the community. And multiple candidates of color won against overtly racist candidates. It was as if Virginia was as good as its slogan: it really was for lovers, not haters chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

 

And then there was Roy Moore, bless his heart.  He wore a cowboy hat inspired by Toy Story, waved a gun around at his rally, excused his predatory sexual behavior with teenagers by saying he always got a girl’s momma’s permission to date a high schooler before he did in his thirties, who got compared to Jesus (!) by pastors who saw him as a persecuted victim when (Republican) now-adult women came forward despite death threats (!) to talk about his sex crimes against them, and rode a horse he didn’t know how to ride to go vote for himself on election day.  He got beat by a guy who prosecuted the Birmingham Church KKK terrorist bombers The first Democrat to serve in the United States Senate to serve in decades just got sworn in a couple of hours ago.  Alabama’s politics have been ugly for quite some time, rife with corruption and race-baiting, much uglier than the good nature of most of the people of the state, but now, they have elected a man who is a pillar of the community and who has just hired one of the few African-American chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill.

take it downWhat happened to the South? My own wonderful town, New Orleans, took down the Confederate monuments. They did this despite death threats to construction crews assigned to the work and menacing demonstrations by white supremacists from out of town — though not so far out of town as the Charlottesville protesters. KKK poster boy David Duke lives fifteen minutes away from what used to be called Lee Circle.  And New Orleans elected its first woman mayor.  Atlanta elected a black woman mayor. And when climate-denying crazy bag-lady-with-a-nice-blonde-blowout Ann Coulter asked whether having a lesbian mayor caused Hurricane Harvey to hit Houston, Texas resoundingly rejected her remarks. Yes, I’m talking about Texas, a place as Republican as a Mercury Astronaut drinking Tang astride an electric bull while Ted Nugent plays guitar!

Something happened in the South last year.  What exactly was it?

I have a theory. As a carpetbagger, I have had an outsider’s point of view as I reside below the Mason-Dixon line, and consequently, I believe I witnessed a cultural realization, however incident-specific and/or temporary it may be. As I observed earlier, the South talks a serious game of rigid cultural morality, but they don’t live out that morality as preached. In his book Everybody Lies Seth Sephens-Davidowitz confirms, for instance, that while Southerners are much more likely to say they don’t like homosexuality and don’t believe they know people who are homosexual, the South watches as much gay porn as the North does. While Southern pulpits speak passionately against heterosexual promiscuity, and pews are usually filled with people to shout “Amen,” the five states with the highest rates of STDs are all Southern. It’s as if Southerners like the abstract idea of an all-hetero-virgin-before-wedding-night community, but in life, they are not prepared to live out the moral standards they claim to espouse for themselves and want to impose upon everyone in America. Could it be that this gap between actually living out the imagined cultural standard in sexual matters and the standard itself exists in other parts of Southern thinking about social norms?

My theory is this: A lot of Southerners liked  the rhetoric of Donald Trump until somebody tried to live it out. Getting rid of Mexicans (remember — they’re rapists) might sound good until you see the picture of a child crying while his mother gets handcuffed by ICE. The idea of embracing something called “white pride” sounds appealing until you see those terrorists in khakis and Tiki torches attacking non-violent protesters in Virginia. Swaggering around calling women nasty sounds great until you realize the people calling others nasty are nastier than the accused women, and maybe you elected some. Banning transgendered people from bathrooms sounds like common sense until you meet an inoffensive customer at the big box store who isn’t allowed to use the restroom, and a mannish-looking biological woman gets arrested for using the ladies’ room, and all of a sudden what seemed like common sense seems unneighborly and unnecessary. We are more than fifty years since John Lewis crossed the bridge in Selma. A lot of Southern white people have forgotten what lived-out Southern bigotry looks like in person, and it isn’t great , it isn’t American, and seen up close, it won’t make America great again. Having seen it and confronting its real implications, many Southerners are quietly and privately revising their commitment to Trump’s stated values.

There are counterarguments to what I am saying.  The voters for Roy Moore were overwhelmingly white, and the voters for his opponent, newly-seated Senator Doug Jones were disproportionately black. Trump’s base has not eroded so much that he does command respect from about a third of Americans polled, and a lot of those people live in the South.  But a lot of people who weren’t involved, weren’t paying attention, shrugged their shoulders, talking about not trusting politicians are now paying attention, asking questions, getting organized, and going out to vote.

If making America great again means splitting up families, shaming peaceful members of the community who expose the truth of gender and sex in the South, insulting women who work and express opinions, and revering as contemporary role models people who fought to keep slavery, increasingly, Southerners are doing what Huckleberry Finn did when confronting his conscience about the runaway slave Jim. A month ago, when Steve Bannon said, “there’s a special place in hell for Republicans who don’t support Roy Moore,” Kyle Whitmire, an Alabaman journalist whose columns are picked up by multiple newspapers in the state, tweeted the famous words from Mark Twain’s great American novel out of the mouth of Huckleberry Finn in response to Bannon: “All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.”

This quotation from the novel about the moral growth of its unlikely hero suits the South in this time as perhaps never before. The South seems to be saying to itself “all right then.” Transgender people are against God’s law, and normalizing their lives is sinful? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.  Gay couples want a wedding cake for a marriage or a respectful mortuary for a funeral, and gay marriage is unscriptural? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Women ought to know their place and not try to run things — after all, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not suffer a woman to teach”? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Treating undocumented immigrants is unpatriotic, and breaking up their families is legal? All right then. I’ll go to Hell.

The South as a whole may NOT have questioned the overarching validity of abstract stated goals of the campaign of Donald Trump, but one person by one, Southerners are walking away from the MAGA rally. Racism still exists in the South.  Sexism and homophobia still exist in the South.   An abiding belief that poor people are lazy still exists here, too. But Southerners are just not mean enough as a group to really get behind the lived-out oppressions this administration intends to enact if left unchecked. Perhaps more Southerners who voted for Trump heard “drain  the swamp” and thought the Donald had correctly diagnosed a problem, and he had conveniently blamed people that most Southern whites consider “other” for all of it. But when it comes to solutions, this administration offers few of them that Southerners seem prepared to abide.

All right then.

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May 9, 2017

Taking Down Confederate Idols to Raise Up Southerners of Today

To my blog followers, it must feel like I woke up after a three-month Mardi Gras Bender, a Rip Van Winkle to a cocktail they serve down on the French Quarter called the Grenade, and now instead of a walk of bead-bespangled post-Mardi-Gras shame, I am crawling back to work trying to act nonchalant, saying, like a good Southern belle might say after a lost weekend, “I don’t remember WHAT-all happened last night!”

Indeed, I am back after a hiatus inspired less by alcohol than post-election malaise and an onslaught of other responsibilities.  I am awake, no longer beaded like a burlesque dancer on a Bourbon Street stripper pole, not that I’ve ever SEEN a stripper pole on Bourbon Street — I just can’t remember a thing from last night!  I must have fallen asleep without any shenanigans or hoo-haw — I am a lady, not so much Southern as Belle, not so much Belle as baller, not so much baller as beatified. I am back to talk more about the South through the eyes of a Yankee invading the Confederate ruins, much like my ancestor did, only instead of a gun, I bring a book, a blog, and I blow kisses. Hi again!

mardi gras

I am waking up a bit dazed behind Confederate Hall off of Lee Circle. I have a vague memory of Mardi Gras.

What happened to Mardi Gras, you ask? Like a good Southern Belle post-bender, I secretly remember EVERYTHING that happened last night, even though I pretend not to. Nevertheless Mardi Gras is a mirage, a Brigadoon community that emerges from the mist every year.  Here are things I remember:

  • I was not twenty feet from Harry Connick, Jr., truly, who was gorgeous in a tuxedo, ageless like a Brigadoon brigand.
  • I saw a woman dressed as a water lily riding her bicycle which she had papier-mache-ed into the shape of a hippo.
  • I saw men dressed like harlequins carrying flambeaux.
  • I saw a semi-truck transformed into a giant tsunami on which rode Poseidon and a crew of Greek oarsmen.
  • I saw a mermaid sprout legs and dance to a Louis Armstrong song.
  • I saw a famous chef riding a street car covered in disco balls.
  • I saw trinkets flying in the air, tossed out in largesse to strangers.
  • I saw men dressed as skeletons brandishing signs that said, “Make America Great Again.”
  • I saw men dressed as Zulu warriors marching with spears brandished under a pedastaled statue of Robert E. Lee.

And therein lies my subject, gentle reader, as I begin again in my post-Ash-Wednesday tone. After the Brigadoon mirage of Mardi Gras receded, the Zulus turned to ordinary neighbors, mostly of color, and the Statue of Robert E. Lee remained looming above them, an enduring menace in a town where police brutality can still occur killing people of color, a symbol that says to every person of color, “know your place — it hasn’t changed since before the Yankees took back the town, even if y’all invented Jazz and whatnot.”

lee circle

Sunday the White Supremacists from out of town came to tell the people of New Orleans that they had to keep a statue standing that they don’t want any more.

The people of New Orleans do NOT want to keep General Lee standing above them in a present-tense vigil.  New Orleans is entirely comfortable with a historical context for General Lee, General Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, champions of the plantation system, willing to pour out the blood of poor white men to defend it to keep black folks legally nothing more than agricultural equipment.  They have a museum that wrestles with Confederate memories — We don’t know WHAT-all happened on the grounds of Oak Alley plantation!  We just woke up here! Such statues are welcome in an examination of that history.  But the people of New Orleans, under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have decided to make the past the past, whatever William Faulkner said about the past. They are taking down statues that glorify these men, as today, they do not represent the values of my wonderful adopted home town.

The Take it Down NOLA movement held a parade to celebrate the taking down of these monuments two days ago, and they were met by protesters carrying white nationalist symbols who almost all came from out of town. An hour north of here, The Advocate reports, white supremacists hand out flyers in Mandeville. David Duke lives in Metairie, about as far as Newark is from NYC. Lots of KKK recruitment goes on across the Bonnet Carre Spillway in northern Louisiana parishes, but this is New Orleans, a blue dot in a red state.  Thanks to the vigilance of a very cool-headed police team, little violence took place, but a heated argument between those who treasure those dead white men and those who refuse to kiss the dust between their toes ensued.

I may be foggy-headed from the haze of a Mardi Gras honeymoon with my new home town, but don’t these battle reenacters know that the principal of any home is that you need to remove the junk of the past in order to redecorate and reorganize?

There is plenty of room in the South for a new definition of whiteness, of Southernness.  We see this embodied in people like Sally Yates of Georgia, like James Carville, like Emeril Lagasse, like Harry Connick, who really ought to reappear in this blog entry in his tux and sing a song for me — but I shake my head clear of that mist again. The new South is filled with interesting, inventive, progressive, generous white people. It’s the heavy burden of these old dead white men who were advocates for a perpetual genocide of black people that makes the South less glorious than it ought to be now.  With its many beauties, its amazing wealth of natural resources, its many musical idioms, its great writers, its gallantry, its faith — the South could actually be the richest, most wonderful part of the country if it would stop trying to hang onto an old hierarchy as if it represented anything other than a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. If the Southern Belle, awake from her bourbon bender, actually told the truth about who was with who doing what last night, the chiffarobe could get dusted out and converted into an office organizer to get new work done.

To my Southern neighbors, beloved all, I urge you to embrace your best present-tense selves.  I am a carpetbagger, still misty-eyed from Mardi Gras, but when I look at y’all, all y’all, I see a region brimming with potential, with a better nature upon which I call now.  Be the sons and daughters of a South that refuses to define itself in terms of color lines. Be the South that makes great gumbo, that grabs huge cat fish out of the swamp for dinner, that plays the best dance music in the history of the world, that knows how to sweet talk a lady and make her forget herself, that brews the best bourbon, that knows like New Orleans knows, that less is never more. More is more, and still more is still more, and more amity is more amity, more peace is more peace, more hope is more hope, and more justice is more justice.

Now that I’m awake again, or perhaps I mean woke, it’s time we take down these old men and stick them in the museum where they belong. Let’s make room for new heroes, ones whom all the South can celebrate without pain.

 

January 10, 2017

Joan of Arc as Inkblot — What She Symbolizes Today and Where She Symbolizes It

On March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc wrote to the head of English occupying forces in the city of Orleans and told him that God was giving him exactly one chance to surrender the city to her, a fourteen year-old girl dressed in armor, the equivalent of drag king attire at the time, as women were not trained to be soldiers. “Faites raison au Roi du ciel, rendez à la Pucelle qui est envoyée ici par Dieu, le Roi du ciel, les clés de toutes les bonnes villes que vous avez prises et violées en France. Elle est ici venue de par Dieu pour réclamer le sang royal.” — Do right by the King of Heaven. Give back to the Maiden who is sent by God, the keys of all the good cities that you have taken and raped in France. She is come here by God to defend royal blood.. The English general in command laughed at the letter, though she said he would surrender Orleans peacefully to her that day or after bloodshed the next day.

The next day, to his astonishment, he surrendered Orleans to Joan.

joan-of-arc

The real Joan of Arc was a distorted fun-house mirror for the politics of the fifteenth century. She hasn’t changed a bit in that regard today.

For the people of the Late Middle Ages, Joan was either a great saint or a horrible witch, a nasty woman. Though within a generation of her execution Joan was exonerated of all charges and her inquisitor charged with heresy for ever bothering her, at the time of her death, they burned her at the stake for daring to dress like a man. The heresy charges couldn’t stick; Joan’s theology was conventional if eccentric in the extreme. The only policing that could kill her under rule of law was the fashion police. She wore armor, and the sentence for that was death.

Today, I submit to you that she remains a political figure who operates something like an ink blot. What is in the heart of the beholder reflects the interpretation, even the reenactment, of Joan’s unusual story.

joan-of-arc-nola

For the people of New Orleans, Joan of Arc is a symbol of French heritage and the traditions of an inclusive and costume-loving city. Her arrival right after epiphany marks the beginning of carnival season.

In New Orleans, rather than old Orleans, Joan remains a powerful symbol.  As the commander of the battle of Orleans and its hero, as well as the patron saint of France, it is easy to understand her potent symbolism for a town named for the place of her victory. She is an old French symbol for what one man I met called the capitol of a nation that never came into being, a new France on the Gulf of Mexico. This past weekend was the annual Joan of Arc parade, a parade to mark the official beginning of carnival season in New Orleans (yes, it’s a whole season down here, not a day, not even a week). People disguised in medieval costumes parade through the French Quarter, where they share a vin d’honneur toast with the head of the French consul, a priest from the Saint Louis cathedral blesses the crowd’s paper machie swords, and a general party in the carnival style. This is odd, really, as Joan of Arc was not what Bakhtin called “carnevalesque.” She was anti-libidinous, a virgin who remained so in order to retain the purity of her angel voices. Then again, she got killed for being in drag, and there are a lot of people in this town who might sympathize.  She was an uppity woman of the first order, and people here like women who know their own minds and aren’t afraid of much. So while she might not have invented Mardi Gras and would never have taken her top off if someone threw her some beads, she fits right in here.

Here, Joan is a symbol of French heritage of the city but not of a fierce French nationalism. While the occasion of a blessing at the cathedral, she is nevertheless ecumenical. The people who put on this annual parade are a social club, not a religious sisterhood. The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc claim their mission includes people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds and attempts to encourage artistry and revelry. They are interested in fun, not fundamentalism, as is in fact all of New Orleans. This is, after all, a city with pirate heritage, not just French heritage, and if a gal shows up in the Vieux Carre with a kind of butch haircut dressed as a guy, one hardly notices. As all of New Orleans revelries, the Joan of Arc parade is inclusive and frolicking. Joan symbolizes the old French ways of the city in the hands of the gender-complicated, a place of liberation from oppression not so much from the English as the Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip.

jeanne-darc-marine-le-pen

For the National Front, the rough equivalent of Trump and the Alt-Right in France, Joan of Arc (depicted here as a gold statue behind party leader Marine le Pen) has been appropriated as a symbol of white nationalism, as Joan fought invading foreigners. Rather than chase away the English, Marine le Pen wants to chase away Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East.

There is another group this year that has embedded Joan into their mission, though they do so with far less revelry and fun, although they are known in France as “le FN.” The menacing alt-right has been growing in France, just as it has been here.  The National Front is the party of Marine Le Pen, whose mission it is with other white people to deport all the immigrants, all of them, particularly those of North African and Middle Eastern descent.In the 1980s, the party was an ugly joke, run by Jean-Marie LePen, Marine’s father, who said disgusting things to scare people like immigrants were bringing AIDS to France and that it could be spread by mosquito bites. Marine LePen is less crude and less confrontational than her father, but the party is capitalizing on France’s recent terrorist attacks to suggest that only white people should be considered French and that all others, regardless of place of birth, ought to be deported.

For the National Front, Joan is the scourge of the foreign incursion, a saint of France, a pure French girl who could be the vessel of a pure French white bloodline. She is a call to return to traditions long since considered too narrow in France by most people. The party is overtly racist, and they see Joan as a purifier of the race, giving that royal blood Joan mentioned in her letter by extension to all those whose families have been in France for centuries. She is often evoked at their rallies, and she is a call for exclusion by any means necessary.  Their Joan says surrender the city, you foreigners, today, or pay for your residency with your own blood tomorrow.

So what are we to do with Joan, a prisoner of our divergent political ideologies? Is she a saint of white nationalism, or is she the patron saint now of a town that values individual expression and racial and gender diversity? Is she a witch or a saint? A better question for us to ask is who we are. Are we a community of a liberated city celebrating its victory over hegemony, or are we a bunch of fascists who so distrust other people’s customs that we would shove them out of our midst? If we are white, is this the source of our purity, or is our purity a purity of heart, of goodwill toward all? Are our swords a costume accessory or a way of life? I submit our parade route has hit a fork in the road.  Either we dance toward a welcoming cathedral that would offer blessings, toward a balcony for a celebratory drink, or we are headed into a battle where either way, win or lose, the things that are really pure in us get burned alive. Who will we be during this carnival season? Who will you be, my reader, in this hour of occupation by those most of us have not chosen? How will you stay pure, my maidens? I say don’t put down your swords. We are going into battle. In all things, do right by the King of Heaven. We are sent by God here for this very hour. Know what is right and do it, whatever it may cost you.

 

September 25, 2016

Pirate Country –my transplanted life in the north tropics

Where I live now, there are Walgreens and Walmarts, bells of tacos and kings of burgers, so it is no more and no less American on the West Bank of New Orleans than it is in Duluth or Houston. Yet there is a mysterious, mariner-gothic bent to New Orleans (see my previous post about the evocation of vampire Lestat on my morning defecation walks with dogs), and taking a momentarily ecocritical view of my life, I understand its mystery better: I am living in the northern tropics. Wouldn’t you know that’s pirate country?

Perhaps because of an early childhood visit to Disneyland, when I think of the landscape of a tropical town, I immediately think of pirates of the Caribbean.  The truth is that when pirates were more common in colonial America, they were not a strictly tropical phenomenon.  My old town, New York City, had pirates, too.  Down on Hanover Street in the financial district there is a plaque that marks the site of the house owned by the infamous pirate Redbeard, who seems to have lived in peace with legal traders of goods and whose characters were no more shocking or flamboyant than a Wolf of Wall Street or a Godon Gekko (named, I note for the first time, after a tropical lizard — interesting) who exclaims “greed is good.”  Couldn’t that selfish sentiment be turned into the refrain of a pirate shanty?  Let’s find out:

The Shanty of The Gordon Gekko, Galleon Sans Blason

Greed is good, my buccaneers! Greed is good!

Pillage is pretty like a pert blonde lass!

Rape is right as rum in a mug of wood!

Greed is good!  Spanish galleons — kiss my ass!

 

Yes, Wall Street‘s horrible motto works well in piratical rhyme and meter. The sentiment itself is piratical. So I have lived in pirate country before, but it has not felt so obvious as it does now, while Spanish moss, if not Spanish galleons, droops over me as I shuffle in sweltering weather between buildings to teach writing. In the mornings as I drive along the causeway across bayoux, I sometimes see mist lifting off of marsh water, a mist that would mask a small landing party of buccaneers rowing a pirogue.  The weather’s abundant sizzle itself suggests the lasciviousness of piratical life.  The fact that it is now fall, and most days in this season will still get up into the nineties until we get close to Halloween, well, all that sweltering heat makes me want to rip off my lacy shirt and stand on deck wearing nothing but my knickers and boots, a single earring, and a kerchief cap until we catch a stiff breeze and spot a slave ship headed for Jamaica and we board her to liberate the human cargo to ask if they would like to join our crew.  Actually, in New Orleans, we say “krewe.”

anonymous_portrait_of_jean_lafitte_early_19th_century_rosenberg_library_galveston_texas

Pirate/war hero Jean Lafitte used to hang out where I hang out now in New Orleans. I am slightly covetous of his hat, but the scowl I can manage as necessary.

New Orleans has welcomed pirates of greater notoriety than Red Beard and more flamboyant than Gekko. Jean Lafitte (pictured here) fought with Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans during the war of 1812, and the two of them may or may not have met in secret to discuss battle plans.

This partnership between piracy and politics seems to have continued in New Orleans.  Local senatorial candidate David Duke tried to take his white supremacist case yesterday afternoon to the people on Jackson Square, a place where Lafitte surely walked, but he was soundly rejected by the crowd. I note that pirates tended to have interracial crews  (not unlike Mardi Gras Krewes these days) and made no bones, no skull-and-cross-bones, about lovemaking between the races.  To Duke that is race-destructive miscegenation, not the satin-clad complexities of pirate romance. He prattled on about how black men were raping white women with false statistics he got out of his size-insecure nightmares, not FBI files. And yet, as he spoke, he stood on a spot where Lafitte surely stood, away from which he surely swaggered. Even without a Klan hood on, especially without a satin, embroidered weskit and without a plumed hat and scabbard, he looked and sounded pathetic in this town of transgressive swashbuckling.

I look through the heat of the day and contemplate how much more comfortable I would be with my laces unlaced, with my bodice ripped. I realize that this is pirate country even today.  The people on Jackson Square used vocabulary in revolt of Duke’s ideas that I won’t repeat here — suffice it to say it was salty and worthy of outlaw sailors. I say he had it coming. Don’t cross pirates unless you are willing to need an eye patch for the rest of your miserable land-lubbing life!

Atchafalaya & I-10

I commute along this path regularly.

Tomorrow, as I commute back and forth, I will see white cranes fly overhead, see lizards skitter down the bricks of my house, encounter perhaps another swarm of black dragonflies marauding like low-flying bombers. The northern tropics call for a cool drink, a change of clothes after a sweat-breaking day, and a willingness to fight the red coats or the white sheets like the old sea shanty legends tell.  I ride a car, not a ship deck, but I gaze across the water at a town lit yellow and know that this is the kind of town I already understand.

Don’t believe me?  My book The White Trash Pantheon is already in stock at Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley. I have arrived, New Orleans.  En garde!

April 30, 2016

Queen Bey’s New Orleans of the Mind

In January 2016, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, her husband and collaborator, moved the discourse of their art from New York down South.  In “Formation,” Beyoncé sets her video in New Orleans, on porticoed porches, in tough neighborhoods with post-Katrina housing, and in the cuisine, even, of the town — she tells us she carries hot sauce in her bag, a particularly Cajun/creole gesture. Her new release, the remarkable and deeply poignant Lemonade, is set in a place ill identified, a Gothic Southern space, at some moments surrealistic — like a night bus filled with women dancing while painted like West African ghosts, while Bey  sings about how her man isn’t on her mind — and we do not believe her in this haunted vehicle. Other houses catch fire, and they look like they are from the Garden district. Bey gyrates in the flames. She exits a public building with a flood following her in her saffron dress as she smashes car window after car window with a baseball bat. A group of smiling young African-American marching band members and pep squad members march down a street still damaged from storms — an image typical of my neighborhood in the Algiers section of town. We aren’t in New York, the New York Jay-Z has rapped about for decades, where the famous couple has held court for quite some time.  We are not quite in a New Orleans that we know by a skyline or a landmark — some songs are sung in basement parking garages, others in private rooms.  We are sitting with the aristocrats of American culture in  a New Orleans of the mind.

spanish moss nightThe psychology of New York is gritty, but it is never so permanently bleak that one cannot find a boat ride, even the Staten Island Ferry for free, to get a little perspective, a breath of fresh air, a breeze off the Atlantic, a panoply of sky scrapers.  One’s problems seem insignificant in the aspirational spikes of concrete that make shadowy canyons.  One believes in New York City that opportunity is around the corner, even if one circles the block for hours like a cab waiting for a fare.  New Orleans, unlike New York City, is permanently haunted.  The dead cannot quite get buried there — they abide above ground, boxed in just barely by cement and marble. The legacy of slavery is palpable; it is a town that never entered the mainstream of America, much like New York, which is situated on islands off the coast of the mainland.  No melting pot, it is a town where cultures do not so much intersect and blend than they remain distinct and dynamically intermingled.  New Orleans is as African a town as it is European in many ways. The coexistent diversity of cultures in that town, one which might alarm some people in a place like Mississippi, is the strength of the odd survival of the place. One doesn’t overcome one’s problems in New Orleans.  They do not vanish into the mud, six feet under.  One stuffs and mounts one’s problems.  One repurposes one’s griefs into useful household objects.  One doesn’t get over.  One lives with despite.

In Lemonade, the film, New Orleans serves as a backdrop to this kind of thinking about betrayal and loss.  No group has been more repeatedly and unapologetically betrayed in this country than women of color, and how are they to bear all of it — all the dishonor thrust upon them? Forgetting seems in this film not to be a real option, any more than it is for New Orleans to make evidence of the dead to disappear. One must live with the evidence, the scars, the memories, the voids, and one must find a way to remain hopeful. One must live with the past despite its ongoing bitterness and overcome despite all rational calls to lie down and die.

This is the abiding mood of Lemonade, and it is perhaps a cogent cue to the entire American culture about how we might deal with the tragedies of our day.  The betrayal within one marriage is not a national tragedy, but the killing of Trayvon Martin is. Trayvon’s mother is in the film Lemonade, and she, too, must abide in the bitter memory of a dead son and an acquitted Zimmerman. She, too, must survive despite all. We are anxious in white America to forget past injustices committed by people who look like us.  We feel uncomfortable by association,  don’t want to take responsibility for what we did not personally do.  But it is unreasonable of us to expect people chanting “black lives matter” to pause and acknowledge that all lives matter, which of course they do.  We must do as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have done with their enduring marriage — acknowledge all the ugly hurts, seek reconciliation that honors the total experience of that pain, and move forward with that knowledge still present but not explosive.  A truth untold is explosive.  A city dishonored erupts into riots. New Orleans has found a distinctly American wisdom that makes room for a syncopation of now with then, of group with group, that gives space for multiple potentially dissonant experiences rendered a space for solo, then folded into the jazz that ultimately finds  a harmony.

America needs such a strategy.  We cannot pretend the past did not happen. That would be a form of lunacy and a continued dishonoring of the dead. We cannot pretend we are not all implicated in a culture where brutality exists against the politically and economically vulnerable. We cannot bury the dead, because until we fully acknowledge the enormity of the problem, the dead cannot die but haunt us. We can move past, perhaps trailed in the shadows by an ugly legacy, but we can improve, if we allow each trumpet its solo, each sax its wail. We need a New Orleans of the American mind, an imperfect landscape ravaged but rebuilding, a diversity that includes all of us and might just get along. The cultural conversation has moved South, as have I.  Will you start driving South on the Interstate until you can see the Spanish moss hanging from the trees?

April 19, 2016

A Candlelight Vigil for the Slaves at Ole Miss

Governor Phil Bryant, as he resists the inevitable wave of change in his own state by legalizing cake discrimination, defending the inclusion of the stars and bars in the Mississippi flag, and general attempts at revisionism, declared this month Confederate History Month in Mississippi.  The Confederate dead have long be mourned in greater pomp than the dead of any other war in this state, but the story told about the South at reenactments and here, on  the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi, where a costumed annual wreath-laying takes place in the Confederate cemetery behind the old basketball stadium, is generally false.  It’s not that people fought without gallantry in grey uniforms, they did.  It’s not that they were mean to family members or small puppy dogs.  But there still abides a myth that says, 1) The Civil War was not a war fought primarily over slavery (the statements of Confederates as they declared war belie this idea), 2) Those who were slaves were generally happy, and 3) The Yankees ruined a really good thing by ending slavery and thereby effectively ending Plantation culture as it had previously existed down South.  To all this, the University of Mississippi chapter of the NAACP chants, “Hell you talmbout.”

candlelight vigil 2Though not a particularly politically minded campus, compared to, say, UC Berkeley, Ole Miss has a Black Lives Matter movement, and happily, there are white people on campus who agree that black lives do indeed matter, and all people deserve respect.  Last year, despite Phil Bryant’s advocacy for a Confederate-ish state flag, the student body of Ole Miss overwhelmingly voted to remove the state flag from the campus until such time as the image changes to something less offensive to African-American students, whose families were terrorized under that symbol.  The white students are generally unwilling to be chained to the ugliness of past genocide, generally unwilling to manufacture or perpetuate myth in order to cover up ugliness that they do not claim as their own present-tense sentiments toward people of color.  It’s not a perfect campus — the statue of James Meredith got lynched by one student, who was expelled and charged with vandalism, and his conspiring fraternity was unhoused from the campus by the governing body of that frat’s national Greek organization.  But it is not a campus like the one James Meredith walked onto when first he desegregated this institution with its Grecian columns and shuttered colonnades.  Then, he got shot at and shouted at.  Today, most students just want to get to class before they get marked absent.

candlelight vigil 3People of multiple races participated in a candlelight vigil to remember during this so-called Confederate History month the lives ruined by slavery on this very campus, individuals who built buildings on the campus and were owned by the plantation scions who did things in some instances like rape or put out cigars on the skin of these slaves.  We cannot walk into the Lyceum, the administrative building, without seeing the work of their hands.  They did not come to learn.  They came only to survive, but the students of color who have followed James Meredith here and those of us who are fortunate enough to study with them have a moral obligation to commemorate them.  If we are going to remember the Confederacy, then let us really remember it.  Not just the wasted young lives shot up at Shiloh, hospitalized here, then buried, but those who had no choice in their comings or goings and who suffered under the oppression of the wealthiest families of the Confederacy, whose sons attended this school with an entourage of slaves. Let us remember how we who are free and of multiple classes and genders, the rich white boys who came here would have scoffed at all of us who aspire to live a life of the mind alien to their own idea of world order.  Let us remember, really remember all of it.

candlelight vigil 1We gathered, held candles in plastic cups, and sang spirituals sung by slaves in order to remain hopeful of freedom in this life of the next, recited their names, where we even have their names.  Mostly we do not have their names, not even their names.

Here, though, I write the names of the ones who ended up in court records, bequests, arrests, seizures — recorded as livestock might have been recorded, not the way citizens were ever discussed, but this is all we have to witness them — these kinds of records, no parentage, no address, no testimony of likes or dislikes, no images, no words that quote them at all — just these names or fragments of names.  Here they are:

Jane

Alford

Collins

E.M. Farill

Lou Farill

Ann Thompson

Ema Jones

Frank Watson

Tom Brown

Seth Brown

Clarecy Brown

Phillip Brown

Frank O’Brian

Tom Goodey

Jeff Profit

John Thompson

James Kerr

Peter Kenshaw

Callie Pillar

A. Nelson

Mary Nelson

S. Williams

And the others, the many whose names are lost to history, Confederate or Union.

Say their names and remember.  Don’t lay a wreath for them wearing a hoop skirt.  Rather, come as you are, free as you are. Sing about freedom.  Carry a light. Bless them.

March 9, 2016

Shouldering the Dangers of the Pentacostal Church

“Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone.” — Job 31:22

Beloved readers of this blog, I write to warn you of hazards you may not have considered in choosing whether or not to attend church.  It’s true that a good church shepherds the lost soul to paradise, but have you considered all the dangers of worship, particularly if the church you attend is loving or expressive?  I have survived a serious, nay, let me call it a medieval danger, and I am barely unraptured enough to have both feet on Earth to tell you about it.

ShoulderSurgery_ORIGINAL_460x261To be fair to the church I attend, I was already in danger when I arrived.  You see, there is a doctor in town who has told me that I could qualify through my insurance to let him cut off my right arm and reattach it with a titanium shoulder joint.  I have been apparently sleepwalking. Moved with unconscious piety,  like Rebekah in Genesis 24, I have been (sleep) walking to the well and filling a large jar of water, balancing it on my shoulder, which has become for NO OTHER discernible reason arthritic.  The doctor is almost gleeful when he tells me he can perform this monstrosity on me, that I will only need half a year to recover from this Frankenshoulder operation, and that after this, the mild chronic pain I have will be gone, gone after half a year of medieval torture pain and immobility.

A couple of weeks ago at church, a young man of Christian character shook my hand vigorously, glad to see me.  He’s strong, stronger than he knows, and when I smiled and took a seat, I realized that for the next hours I would need to pray for healing.  I raised my hands to heaven as we praised the Lord, and I realized I would need that healing now. In Bible study, I could fully recognize the truth of Isaihah 22:22, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  Because I, for one, couldn’t imagine twisting my hand on a door knob that would either open or shut whatever it was that Jesus locked or unlocked with that shoulder key.  I knew I didn’t want to push, or pull, or twist, or mangle anything. If that wasn’t evidence of my faith, I don’t know what is.

crucifixion

Crucifixion can’t be good for one’s shoulders.

The truth is, it’s not just shaking hands at the church door that’s a danger.  It’s not just lifting one’s hands to praise the Lord.  There are all kinds of secret dangers hidden in church, including:

  • Tambourine accidents — Musical enthusiasm could rip a rotator cuff if the believer is not careful.
  • Starbucks-Venti-sized portions at coffee hour — One bucket-sized drink hoisted too high could tear a tendon.
  • Emphatic gestures in theological debate — Zeal is fine in moderation, but no one should slap a pulpit in rebuke if the fire and brimstone get too hot or stinky.
  • Choir robe malfunctions — Tripping on the way to the back row of the choir loft could make an alto bump into the organ.
  • Hugging like a muthah — Someone might love the brethren just a little too much, squeeze like a boa constrictor.
  • Hat accidents, or “haccidents.” — Ladies still wear big hats in some churches, laden with fruit and plumage, netting and holy mysteries.  It just takes one low-flying bird out on the church steps to snag that tower of rattan and turn it into a neck and shoulder disaster.
  • The clap (to the music) — Proclaiming a little too much victory might sprain into defeat.
  • Volunteering — That heavy punch bowl one might carry into the reception hall, that Wreath that needs one to glitter spray  it and add more plastic begonias to it (I did say I was talking about pentacostal churches, didn’t I?) are shoulder tragedies waiting for a women’s fellowship workday to happen.

There are surely other shoulder hazards at church, but because Jesus endured the ultimate shoulder hazard — crucifixion, which is very painful to the shoulders with the rest of the upper body — I attend despite the risk.  The physical therapist is sticking electrified needles in me, not nails, and she is having me shrug Talmudically, releasing certain tense muscles and conveying a resignation that the paradox of faith is that God answers Job’s questions about hardships (like shoulder injury) with other questions.  Why ask why? I give the burden of the ineffable to Christ to shoulder.

 

February 16, 2016

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

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

Elvis birthplace 2

Elvis was born in this shack during the Great Depression

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

elvis birthplace 1

Seventeen dollars gets you what they call the birthplace experience.

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

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

Elvis birthplace 3

Elvis emerged here.

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

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

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.

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.

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