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Archive for January, 2013

“Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” James Carville once said (about one of his boss’s sophisticated lady friends), and I couldn’t mind much, since . . . well, since you get the feeling that James Carville knows his way around a trailer park.

I thought of that yesterday when Salon asked if the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild is “an interloper,” seeing as how he’s neither black nor a native of the bayous.

Is he an interloper?  Of course he’s an interloper!  So are almost all artists, and how paltry and narrow our culture would be if they were not.  I’m more concerned about Benh Zeitlin being a title-thief who apparently talks like, you know, a 12-year-old.

No white man with a lick of sense will claim – even to himself – to understand “the black experience” any more than he’ll claim to know the pain of childbirth, though he may profitably wonder how much the experience of any one African-American is applicable to all other African-Americans.  No responsible white artist is going to approach the creation of black characters with anything other than respect, caution, rigorous imagination, and as much empathy as he can muster – which is exactly how he should approach the creation of any character.

We can be prickly down here in Dixie about how we are portrayed, especially by those outside Yankee interlopers.  Lately I find myself less concerned with nativity than with authenticity, of art and of intent.  Checking the bona fides can lead you down a rabbit hole, one that gets tighter and tighter until you finally run out of air.  My first book was about the Jamestown colony, a place that grabbed my interest when I found out that my ancestor John Southerne landed there in 1619.  About 120 years later, though, one of John’s descendants moved from Virginia to North Carolina, and I ran into some (not many, but some) in the Old Dominion who did not care for me usurping “their” creation story.

I never meant to usurp anything.  I don’t think I’d know how to go about usurping, even if I wanted to.  I’m not sure where the line is between usurping, appropriating, exploiting, and representing, telling, seeking to understand.

Part of me wants to say that whoever owns the story is whoever tells it first, or last, or best.  The better part of me, though, knows that to be wrong, ignorant of the realities of media distribution, now and ever.  It’s naive idealism masquerading as tough talk.  All sorts of people throughout history tried to make their stories known, and saw their attempts blocked, subverted, or stolen.

Some in the South note – if not complain – that the region’s crucial role in the winning of the American Revolution was downplayed and neglected by historians from the North, especially those from New England, and especially after the Civil War.  That is true, and begs the response: Southerners, then, should have funded more colleges and universities, more publishers and printing presses; they (we?) should have supported public schooling and universal literacy much earlier and with more enthusiasm; they (we?) should have celebrated writers and thinkers instead of driving them out.

And if those Yankees had told the story of how the Revolution was won by the South?  Would the South have rejected those storytellers as interlopers?

I guess it would have depended on how they told the story – with respect and sincere attempt, or with lazy stereotype and contempt?

That is the question to ask of any storyteller, wherever they may be from.

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One Sunday several years ago I attended a funeral at a small Southern Baptist church, tucked into a break in the woods, deep in the gully-wash country where the Piedmont, vaguely, gives way to the Foothills.  Near the end of an otherwise restrained and gentle eulogy, the preacher declared that the deceased now enjoyed freedom, real freedom, true freedom.

“And not that Martin Luther King kind of freedom, neither,” he added with a sneer.

Another Sunday, many years before that,  when not otherwise engaged with changing the course of Southern (and American, and world) history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., summed up Southern history rather well.  He explained and anticipated why dumbass crackers like that preacher would sneer at the kind of freedom King struggled for:

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

The full text of King’s sermon is available here; many thanks to Joy Vermillion Heinsohn for sharing this with me.

My esteemed cohort Patrick McLaughlin recommends David Roediger’s monograph “The Wages of Whiteness” for an “in-depth examination” of the Drum Major Instinct, which is similar to what W. J. Cash called “the proto-Dorian bond” in The Mind of the South.  Rob Riggan’s very fine novel The Blackstone Commentaries recognizes and dramatizes the instinct, or the bond, and the sad effects it has had on the South.

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Samuel L. Jackson, when promoting his latest movie, demanded that a white interviewer say the N-word, instead of saying “the N-word.”

The exchange went, in part, like this:

Hamilton: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the usage of, uh, the N-word, in this movie.
Jackson: No? Nobody? None … the word would be?
Hamilton: [Whispered.] I don’t want to say it.
. . .
Jackson
: OK, forget it.
Hamilton: I’ll skip it. Sorry, guys. It was a good question.
Jackson: No it wasn’t.
Hamilton: It was a great question.
Jackson: It wasn’t a great question if you can’t say the word.

I had neither heard nor heard about this interview until I read Rembert Browne’s recent Grantland article “Django, the N-Word, and How We Talk About Race in 2013.”  Browne writes about cultural ownership and “Django Moments,” building to the embedded video and full transcript of this exchange between Jackson and the film critic Jake Hamilton.

I have not yet seen Django Unchained, so I can’t and won’t comment on the movie itself.Sam-Jackson-Django-unchained-scowl  I have not yet seen because, dang, y’all, I’ve been busy.  The author and director Candace Allen has seen it, and writes well about the various controversies surrounding it.  The Guardian’s David Cox wonders if the movie has “defused the ‘n-bomb,'” and Tamara Ikenberg singles out Jackson’s performance for particular praise.

I know I should want to see it, since its director calls it a “Spaghetti Southern,” a Western set in the South.  That seems like a logical transfer to me, and I’m curious to see how Quentin Tarantino pulls it off.

I’m more curious, though, to see how Django Unchained depicts and deals with slavery.  I have to give Tarantino some credit for dealing with slavery at all, since it’s so much easier to make a historical epic or adventure movie that doesn’t deal with slavery, the way The Patriot didn’t.*

If you’re going to discuss – or even just think about – the history and culture of the South with any seriousness and honesty, you have to deal with the fact that the overwhelming majority of Southerners, from 1622 until at least 1865, countenanced, enabled, encouraged, praised, and/or fought and died for the enslavement of millions of fellow human beings.

And once you start dealing with that fact – with any seriousness and honesty – you have to recognize that the questions and the record are complex and thicketty, even though it all boils down to the simple moral certainty that no individual should consider another individual as property.

You also should recognize that slavery and its legacy isn’t just a problem for the South.  I have heard the theory that the South actually is ahead of the nation in racial reconciliation, since history has forced the South to confront the issues more directly than has the rest of the country.  I don’t know enough about the rest of the country to know if that theory has any merit.  I know that the late, great coach ‘Big House’ Gaines said once that New York City could be more dangerous than the South for a black man in the 1940s, since the South posted signs telling him where he wasn’t welcome, while in the North he had to figure it out himself, quickly.

I know that the South has come a long, long way just in my own lifetime, and that we are still a long, long way from good, if “good” means that we all size up each other based on the content of character, rather than the color of skin.

I know that when I was growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, all my white male classmates and I watched The Dukes of Hazzard and wanted a General Lee of our own, complete with the Stars and Bars on the roof and “Dixie” on the horn, and we never thought twice about it.  We went on field trips to Civil War battlefields and bought gray field caps and Confederate flag bumper stickers and didn’t see a damn thing wrong with it.

Even we knew better, though, than ever to use the N-word.  We learned, often as soon as we learned the word itself, that it was as taboo as the profanities that rhyme with ‘Nothersmucker and Cheeses H. Riced.

Maybe even more so, since the prohibition on the N-word had less to do with moral probity or progressive sensitivity than with practical safety.  We attended public schools only a handful of years into bussed integration, and public use of the N-word would have multiplied our chances of getting the ever-living shit beaten out of us.

Even as an adult, writing fiction set in the South of the recent and distant past, knowing that the N-word is the word that would have been used, I have trouble writing it.  The reason isn’t “political correctness”; it’s simple decency.  What right do I have to use that word?  How would I feel about it, if I was on the other side of the South’s racial history?  How do I feel when Northerners throw around words like ‘redneck’ and ‘cracker,’ with a far less sensitive history behind them?

And if Samuel L. Jackson – who, before he was Jules Winnfield or Nick Fury in the movies, was an usher at Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s funeral – wanted me to say the word, what would I do?  I feel like any choice I made would feel wrong, but I think that I would and should say it, without undue embarrassment; it is, after all, only a word, no matter how loaded and heavy.  Allen, in the article linked to above, writes, “To those who fear that any usage of the word confers it legitimacy, I say that those wishing to join their vocabularies and destinies with the likes of Candie [the slaveowner played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django] are already far gone down the road to perdition and diagnostic tools to ferret them out are always helpful. Presently the word is in the closet, not the grave. Serious discussion and soul-searching demands saying the word.”

“And in the world we live in today,” Browne writes near the end of his piece, “where access to various modes of public expression is becoming increasingly accessible, the walls around ‘talking about race’ are rapidly crumbling. Finally. And, just as a heads-up, if this makes you uncomfortable, if the idea of potentially offending someone is your greatest fear, or if you’re content to discuss it like a simpleton, then 2013 might not be your year.”

If that’s the case, then the question becomes: Whose year will it be?

* According to The Patriot, in 1780, all of one South Carolinian owned all of one slave.  The slaveowner is roundly condemned; the one racist on the Patriot side has seen the error of his ways in time for the Battle of the Cowpens.  The black people seen working on the farm owned by Mel Gibson’s character explain to the British villain that they are free people, working for hire, which would have put their employer at a crippling economic disadvantage to his competitors; he’d have gone bankrupt if the war hadn’t come along.

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How do you think Zombie Andrew Jackson is going to feel about the city he fought to defend, the city where he became a national hero, the “inevitable city on an impossible site,” someday becoming the world’s greatest SCUBA diving destination?

Jackson_Square_New_Orleans

Not good, I’m guessing.  Not good.

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(Oh, how fun it would be to write no posts but those that portray the modern South as one big tailgate outside a stadium where the home team always wins, followed by a fish fry and then a pig pickin’ and then a barefoot wedding, all on the grounds of a restored farmhouse with a wide front porch, on 2.5 acres that border a clean river, attended by a coterie representing all ages and races, but all of them attractive, holding advanced degrees and progressive political and social views.  Oh, how fun portraying that South would be.

But I would hate myself in the morning.)

Fifty years ago today, George Wallace stood on Goat Hill and swore – before God and the nation – to preserve “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”wallace

The full sentence, in fact, went like this:

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

(You can read the full address, penned by Asa Carter, here.)

That sentence ends on a crescendo, a cue for the audience to applaud, a slogan for the segregationist bumper stickers.  That sentence’s end is what was meant to be noticed, what was meant to be the headline, what will be and should be remembered today.

The crux of the sentence, and of the sentiment, and of segregation, comes at the beginning, though.

Any and every coherent culture ever on this Earth has been quite certain that they have it right, and they become more, and more loudly, certain as the real or perceived threats to their culture mount.  The South was and is no different, except that arguably – as with college football and charismatic faith – we do what others do, but with a good bit more combustibility.

I have said and I will say again that I could live in no other part of the nation or the world without missing the South every single day.  The South offers so much to love and honor, and as someone pointed out on Facebook not long ago, you never hear of anyone retiring to the North.

I’m just curious how so many Southerners remained (and remain) so hellfire sure that we were (and are) “the greatest people that have ever trod this earth” in the face of test scores and trailer parks, pellagra and strokes, defeat and invasion, standards of living and life expectancies, homicide rates and Honey Boo Boo.

Fifty years ago today, Wallace’s inauguration inaugurated a year in which the segregationist order would flare and flame and fail, taking many innocent lives with it.  His promise was doomed, and all but fools could see it was doomed, by Christmas; his stand for segregation was as grand and futile and self-defeating as his “stand in the schoolhouse door,” or, for that matter, as the firing on Fort Sumter.  The history of the South is littered with such stands, and I have to wonder how great a people we could possibly be, since we never seem to learn.

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What does it say about the South that three of Away.com’s “Five Creepiest Towns in America” are here?

(A fourth, Key West, is in a former Confederate state, but I don’t think anyone ever would describe it as part of the cultural South.)

If you answer, ‘Long settlement, frequent economic stagnation that discouraged redevelopment, a conservative regard for tradition and ancestry that sometimes cripples progress, an occasionally poisonous nostalgia, a brutal history of slavery and exploitation and war, a sweltering climate that (I swear) must melt people’s brains a bit from time to time, a landscape that juxtaposes harsh sunlight with broad and menacing shadows, and the fact that there’s just something a little weird about Spanish Moss,’ then shut up.  You’re no fun.

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The poet (and fellow North Carolinian) Bill Griffin came up with the idea of the Southern Sentence Poem last August.  He explains:

“Last month after a poetry workshop we all went out for lunch.  Someone had been reading a book of Buson and Issa, and we got to complaining about how hard it is to transmigrate haiku from Japanese to English.  . . . At some point we came up with the idea – note here that no alcohol was involved in these discussions – that we Southern poets need a poetic form we can call our own.  I remember us laughing about what we might call such a thing;  the term “Bubba” seems to have come up a few times, with various prefixes and suffixes.”

You can learn more, and read some Southern Sentence Poems, at Bill’s blog or on the Southern Sentence Poem Facebook page.

My own contribution to the form goes like this:

The line at Stamey’s was so long that we
began to get a little antsy, scared
we might not get a seat, much less our fill,
before we had to cross the street back to
the Coliseum for the evening games,
but we had not been here since we were kids
and Dad brought us, back in those dark days when
the Deacons played their home games over here
in doggone Greensboro, and we believed –
had heard, at any rate – the barbecue
was worth the wait, and missing the opening tip.

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