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

July 27, 2016

Breaking Glass and Other Unladylike Activities

Pardon my silence, gentle readers, over the last two weeks. Apart from the horrible shooting of innocent civilians and police officers in Louisiana, about which I will have much more to say later, I have been glued to the television watching a barrier  to women’s progress drop — why others seem to care less, I cannot say.  All I know is that whether you adore or loathe Madam Clinton, that barrier got busted last night, and I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of me that the women in my family have carried for generations.  I suspect the women in your family have been carrying it, too.

window glass

It’s not corny. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s really important.

My family’s women fought for the right to vote.  They have been involved in politics in material ways since then.  One of my grandmothers joined the League of Women Voters pretty much as soon as it was opened and organized for the Democrats.  My other grandmother joined the Communist Party when she was young, attended meetings (really quite possibly) in the same place Arthur Miller did.  The women in my family never devoted much energy to Junior League-approved activities.  Multiple generations of them (before me) were bad cooks. They never did more sewing than the socially acceptable minimum, probably dating back to the reign of Queen Neb in Ireland. They wanted something more public to do, always.more engaged with the world outside, but that world dismissed their efforts.

Survival for these women was always precarious, as they couldn’t run their own lives as much as they ought to have been able to do, and it was always by grit that they pulled themselves out, not ladylike graciousness.  Let me give you some examples from my past:

Sfearthquake3b

My great-grandmother walked out of this mess with a chest of drawers strapped to her back and toddlers clinging to her skirts.

One of my great-grandmothers lived in San Francisco in 1906.  She had a drunk for a husband and several small children. When the quake hit, her house stood, but her husband was trapped under rubble in some bar.  She assumed he must be dead.  As the fire approached her block of the city, she had to flee.  She took a chest of drawers, some of her husband’s belts, filled the chest of drawers with all the valuables she could stuff into it, strapped it shut with one belt, strapped it on her back with two others, and she told her children to cling to her skirts while they walked away from the fire, the billowing smoke close behind them, the sound of windows exploding in the heat shattering, the dust of the rubble in their nostrils. She managed to walk the little family to a patch of land they owned far outside of town.  She managed to get a house up.  She managed to get a job as the post mistress, though this was a novelty at the time, a woman touching others’ letters. She put money aside to build a church in the country town near the house was.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually showed up, temporarily sober, and eventually disappeared again for years and years, to show up periodically. She didn’t legally own the land or the house.  She couldn’t preach or even read a Bible passage in the church.  She couldn’t have risen in the ranks of her profession.  She didn’t own her own life, really, but she had built it out of the ashes of disaster.

lower-east-side-history

My widowed great-grandmother, saddled with six kids, made it out of this squalor and sent all her children to college.

Another example: Another one of my great-grandmothers was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, married young to a door-to-door salesman at about that time.  They had six kids, one right after the other.  She did work with artificial flowers for a factory at home as she watched them in a tenement apartment. When the youngest child was two and the oldest child was only ten, my great-grandfather stepped on a rusty nail while making his rounds and died of tetanus the next day.  There was no social security back then, and no life insurance.  By the absolutely mammoth grit of that woman, she worked herself harder than a human being ought to work in order to send all six of those children to college.  She made every activity into a lesson.  Counting blocks on the bus was a math lesson.  Family meetings were run by Roberts rules of order as a civics lesson. All six of those children went to college. A couple of them became millionaires. She never lived in anything bigger than an apartment in a city. She poured all her resources into others, except for her truly indomitable strength.  I remember her staring at me when I was a toddler, beaming with pride.  She did not suffer weaklings well.  In the bitterness of her hard life, she could be cruel. In me, she saw a future of strong women.  That, she liked. She needed someone to win the fights she had not been able to win, to carry on a struggle that stemmed class struggle and the double indemnity of being born female and poor.

Nobody tells these stories to children, I think.  They don’t want to frighten them.  Grandmas are supposed to bake things. They are supposed to sing songs with little girls and braid hair. But that’s not the truth, really. The truth is that life is always tough as a mother in one way or another, and the women have to dig deep into the dirt, drill into the concrete, to make sure they can withstand it all.  You probably have no idea of the struggle behind you.  It’s not ladylike to talk about such things.  I’ve had to piece together the real story of my family in tiny scraps. You weren’t told the war stories of your foremothers.  You don’t even bear their family names.  But believe me, this is your story, too.  You probably don’t know half the hell you’ve made it out of, because you were clinging to somebody else’s skirts while you walked along slowly singing the alphabet, unconscious of the disaster you just barely eluded.

So all this I just told you — that’s why I don’t care whether you love Hillary Clinton or you hate her. What happened last night in Philadelphia matters to those rugged women behind you that got the short end of every stick. When they announced her nomination, my lungs filled with new air.  I stood taller. I felt different, a difference that I am certain will be permanent.  If you are a woman, and you don’t love what happened last night, I declare you blind.  I declare you unpatriotic.  I declare you so frigging privileged you have no idea what a spoiled brat you really are.

Gentle readers, I tell you — register to vote. Be brave. Take a deep breath.  The air is different today.  You can breathe deeply today.  You have no idea how much oxygen is left for you to take in.

 

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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?

March 30, 2011

Is This Feminism? I Don’t Know. This is Texas.

Earlier this year, I wrote about young women who are learning at a disturbing antebellum pseudo-reenactment to be Southern belles of a highly disempowering kind.

Check out this photo of my wonderful step-daughter Alissa, and notice that she is not exactly behaving like a hoopskirted and helpless young lady:

There's a time to talk feminism, and then the time for talking ends.

Now, Alissa has not attended a consciousness-raising encounter lamenting the violence against women.  She did witness physical violence in her home — her mom with her step-dad — bad fights.  Her father (my husband) is a wholly non-violent guy, but her mom preferred another man with whom she used to have physical fights regularly.  Alissa learned about violence, and she will have none of it, and she has not chosen any kind of consciousness raising support group that might be the choice of a woman from the Northeast to achieve this clarity of purpose.  Is she a survivor?  You bet.  Could she also shoot to kill?  You bet, without apology, if necessary, to protect herself.

Is this feminism?  I don’t know.  This is Texas.

Alissa is in a relationship where she and  her future husband (they’re engaged) talk like the most traditional of Southern couples.  Toby, her guy, thinks of himself as the man of the house, and she understands herself as a lady.

But just look at her — would you mess with her?  Don’t try breaking into her apartment late at night, because even if Toby isn’t home right then, she will mess you up but good.

A lot of women in the South, particularly in Texas, use the rhetoric of Southern belledom, but what they really mean is never quite what their ancestors meant.  They mean more what Molly Ivins meant.  They mean more what the late governor of Texas Ann Richards meant.

Texan women refer to themselves as ladies, but don’t mess with them.  They are women, too, and as they say down South, they ain’t too saved to whup yer hide.

Alissa has a job where she earns more in salary and benefits than her fiance does at present.  This is a problem for neither of them, at least in the short term.

She intends to wear a  poofy white dress on her wedding day.  All shot guns may be left at the door.

An armed society is a polite society, a male friend of mine from Texas often remarks.  If you get an invitation, you’d better RSVP.  If you RSVP yes, you’d better bring a nice gift.

Here comes the bride.  Go ahead, make her day.

February 20, 2011

Fiddle-dee-disempowerment — Why every feminist should watch the movie SOUTHERN BELLE

Last week at the Oxford film festival, I saw the scariest film I had seen in a good, long while.  The monster that re-emerged from its crypt was not a slime-covered zombie, exactly.  The thing that made me afraid of things that go bump in the night was not a decaying ghoul.  She was wearing a hoop skirt, a corset, and she was about sixteen years old, very cute, in fact.  My horror was not due to her so much as the people who were using her image to try to take away twenty-first century women’s sense of their own rights and leadership potential.

This girl is beautifully dressed for her disempowerment lessons

Makewright Films, run by two outstanding documentarians, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley, documented without apostrophe, for no comment is really necessary, the 1861 Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again, at least the version of it that a man who is clearly at odds with twenty-first century uppity Yankee women like me, founder and historical revisionist Mark Orman has concocted.

The sad thing is that the actual Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee in the actual year of 1861 (not the undead reenactment version) was a place that was exploring the possibility of conferring empowering educations to young ladies of the South.  The actual place, shut down some time after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, was a four-year college for young women — this at a time when women’s post-secondary education was a very new thing in this country, North and South.  However, Mark Orman, with the conspiracy of several older women, is painting a version of that academy’s past that has no historical foundation.  Rather, he gives a speech where he claims to twenty-first century high school girls that the war was over states rights (a view recently decried yet again by credible historians in The Washington Post as recently as this past week) and not slavery, that a greater percentage of freed negroes who remained South owned slaves than did white people in the South, which even if it proved to be true would in no way justify the institution of slavery.  He even draws on Paul’s epistle’s exhortation, “Slaves, obey your masters,” as a God-sanctification of the institution as it was practiced in Tennessee in 1861.  Let me tell you what I REALLY think, in that offensive Yankee way I have — Mark Orman’s views are repellent, they stem from a clear insecurity about real women’s agency in our current society, and if I were not a Christian (who by the way, would never own slaves or think God wanted me to), I would be out looking for him to kick his ass right now, preferably in front of a bunch of men who would laugh at him later for being beat up by a girl.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I have spent a year in the New South — and believe me, brother and sister Yankees, it is not like a black-and-white film strip with fire hoses plowing down scared African-American students praying on courthouse steps.  It is a place of vibrant questioning and repositioning, not always smoothly, but always toward a better place.  New Southerners are optimistic, progressive, intellectual, curious, and excited about new possibilities in their region and beyond.  Guys like Mark Orman are part of a South that New Southerners reject.

Again, I say don’t misunderstand me.  Look at this blog — you’ll see a hundred references to Gone with the Wind, a seminal document for Southern Culture.  However, at the 1861 Anthaneum Girls’ School, they tell the young women who come there to participate in what can only be loosely called a reenactment that Southern ladies are not allowed in hoop skirts  to behave as Scarlett O’Hara.  Instead, they exhort them to behave like Melanie Wilkes.  Even if I were the most racially and gender-issue insensitive teenage girl bitten by the fashion bug of 1861, I would drop my bustle and get out of the hoop skirt right then — because Scarlett is awesome, and Melanie is mealy-mouthed.

Once they have laid the foundation of  a false construction of racial issues in the South, they then proceed with their primary project — that of teaching twenty-first century girls that being a lady means being self-effacing, having no right to decide to move even from one part of a room to another without a proper escort, that it means never standing up to a bully in any direct manner.

Understand that the girls who attend this so-called school are marvelous young women — one was there poignantly looking for a trace of her deceased mother, whom she had seen in a period costume photo taken at Dollywood.  Another was clearly bitten by the aforementioned fashion bug, and with the complicity of her mother, she had a million outfits that were spectacular — making her the belle of any Edith Head Hollywood production set in the Old South.  Another girl, who won a prize for being the best lady of the term, was bright, lovely, kind to others, beautiful in old-world terms (think not slutty-looking), and mentioned a desire to climb the corporate ladder, but she had decided she wanted to do it — she actually said it — without equal rights.  If I were a relative of  hers, I’d be staging an intervention right now.  The last, and possibly the most disturbing story of the whole film, was a rather geeky girl who had tons of personality, lots of opinions.  The film leaves her looking more poised and grown-up, but she says that she has  learned that a lady is someone who doesn’t stand out — she is a part of the background, only part, as she put it, of the big picture.

That’s why I’d go to Tennessee, but for the love of Jesus, and beat that fat Mark Orman to a pulp if I hadn’t made a promise to God to behave in a manner not more ladylike but more Jesus-like — for that girl, the one whose character he apparently crushed.

Why do I take this so personally?  Because, I, too, received without irony the disempowerment lecture that these girls received.

When I was in eighth grade, I attended a girls’ school — Castilleja School for Girls.  On Founder’s Day, back in the 1980s, the year I was in eighth grade, they made us listen to a lecture from the vice president of the alumni association.  She told us in no uncertain terms that ladies  do not pursue careers and marriages — that the few most spinsterly among us might just need a career, but those of us with the slightest feminine charm should go trolling for a rich husband whose career we would support with our intellectual efforts and whose children we would raise without seeking something that credited us apart from this family unit.  Even in eighth grade, some of the girls there had already begun trolling, with their mothers egging them on.

This vice president of the alumni association was eloquent — I remember most distinctly something she said, even today.  She said that any woman who had ever protested or fought in any indirect way for her rights, including the right to vote was “a wingless valkyrie of questionable sexual orientation.”

What a vivid turn of phrase!  Clearly, she had done well in English before she quit thinking for herself.

I remember, at age 13, sitting there, in the front row (because I had arrived almost late), realizing that I had just seen it all spelled out for me.  On one side of an insuperable barrier — there were the ladies, like the woman with the face lift and the slicked-back bun in front of me, talking, insulting my grandmother and great-grandmother and mother, who were all pioneering heroines for women’s rights.  On the other side of the barrier — there were my ancestresses and women in viking garb, singing  but not flying, Marlene Dietrich, who had already impressed me with her powerful, pan-sexual ethos sizzling on the screen in fishnets in black and white, and other women, complicated, maybe not all happy.  However, at least they were not pretending to be happy like the women on the other side, the ladylike side, of the barrier. These wingless women were apparently talking in loud tones about things they really cared about, not like the Castilleja’s mother’s club, that pretended to like each other but stabbed each other in the back while wiping their vampirically lipsticked mouths with monogrammed napkins when any of  the others of them would leave the lunch table — yes, I had heard them, too.  I knew whose party I wanted to be invited to — it wasn’t the smug supper club.  It was the wingless valkyrie rave.

I thank Castilleja School for Girls for trying unsuccessfully to disempower me for the twenty-first century.  It clarified a bundle of things.

I left the next year and went to public school in no small part because of this speech.

I thank the makers of Makewright films for clarifying things, too.  I have never  been prouder of my ancestors who fought with the Yankees against slavery.  I have never been prouder of myself for speaking loudly, having opinions and demanding that others who may not find  them palatable hear them, for getting arrested for women’s rights and for the end of Apartheid.  I know which side of the barrier between Old South and New South on which I belong, and that Mason-Dixon Line I will never cross unarmed.

Every feminist should watch this film.  The fight isn’t over.  The grapes of wrath are still in the field waiting to be trampled.  If anyone wants to come trample them with me, let me know.

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