Archive for the ‘The South of the Mind’ Category

The Dan River

The Dan River last spring

The Dan River helped win the American Revolution. This is how we thank it?

On this day, more than 200 years ago, the Dan was the finish line in a race between two armies, a race that determined the course of the War for Independence.

If the Southern Department of the Continental Army, led by Nathanael Greene, crossed the Dan first, they could find rest, recruits, and re-supply in Virginia, which the war had not yet ravaged as it had the Carolinas.

If the British Army in the South, led by General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, caught Greene before he reached the Dan, they could force the weakened Continentals into an unwinnable all-out battle. Cornwallis could end the rebellion in the South, split the infant nation in two, and move north to corner and crush the bulk of the Continental Army under George Washington.

No points for guessing who won the Race to the Dan. On February 14, 1781, the last of Greene’s army crossed the Dan, which was swollen by winter rains. The Continental rear guard disembarked on the north bank as the Redcoat vanguard arrived on the south bank, only to find that every existing boat for miles in either direction was on the far side with the Rebels. Nathanael Greene had made sure of that.

The Race to the Dan was won at Boyd’s Ferry in modern South Boston, Virginia – not far at all from where 82,000 tons of Duke Energy’s coal ash has spilled into the river.

What’s most impressive about Greene’s triumph in the Race to the Dan is how he won. Greene reached the Dan first not by a single flash of genius or inspiring his troops to superhuman effort. He won by being more prepared. His army moved fast because their general was careful.

Gen. Nathanael Greene

Gen. Nathanael Greene

Before Greene even took command of the army in the South, he did more than due diligence. As he crossed the state with his commission, he sent out scouts, studied and commissioned maps, talked to locals. He learned the conditions of the roads, the quality of the soil, the loyalties of even the smallest settlements, and – especially – the nature of North Carolina’s rivers. He learned their width, their depth, their swiftness. He learned where every ford and ferry was. He learned so much that one of his officers later said that Greene knew each one of the rivers in the North Carolina Piedmont as well as someone who had grown up on its banks.

Once the Race to the Dan began – but long before he reached any river – he sent his quartermaster ahead to round up every boat available, along both the Dan and the Yadkin, so that twice during the race, the British could only look helplessly at both their quarry and every means of reaching them.

This kind of care allowed Greene to exhaust the British and stretch their supply lines past the breaking point. This meticulous planning gave Greene the chance to strengthen his Continentals enough to face and cripple the Redcoats at Guilford Courthouse, just weeks after they had crossed the Dan. Greene’s foresight led to Cornwallis marching his bedraggled army north along the coast, until they found themselves stuck, surrounded and surrendered in the little Virginia village of Yorktown.

That kind of care, planning and foresight is also the exact opposite of what Duke Energy has shown so far.

Duke Energy is the largest electric power company in the United States, with more than $100 billion in assets. According to their website, they have 27,775 employees. They claimed to monitor the Dan River site, but they did not know that the pipes underneath were made of corrugated metal, not reinforced concrete. They seem not to have anticipated what every homeowner knows: old pipes break.

Apparently none of their tens of thousands of employees, or their hundreds of billions in assets, could be spared or bothered to remove the coal ash from its retired Dan River Steam Station in Eden. Not after the Environmental Protection Agency issued a warning, not after a host of environmental groups filed suit to make them do so.

Dan River After Spill

The Dan River last week

In place of diligence, Duke Energy gave us complacency. In place of attention, Duke gave us assumption. In place of care, Duke gave us condescension.

In this they have been abetted by a state government that shows eager interest in taking no interest in the doings and dealings of entrenched corporate power, even when the corporation can inflict massive damage on the land, water, air and people of the state itself. The Associated Press reported Sunday that our state’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources blocked the various lawsuits against Duke’s pollution by offering “settlements where the nation’s largest electricity provider pays modest fines but is under no requirement to actually clean up its coal ash ponds.”

(Update: How bad is it? So bad the Feds have gotten involved.)

Those who like to put on tri-cornered hats and wave their rattlesnake flags often seem to forget that the rallying cry that inspired Greene, Washington, and the soldiers they led was not “No Taxation,” but “No Taxation Without Representation.” The last two words are key.

We should be less worried about governments whose leaders still are, after all, answerable to our votes, than we are about monopolies from whose power we have no reasonable recourse – other than the attentions of a careful government. We should be less worried about the vague specter labelled “government” than about a government that only pays attention to the wishes of privileged corporate interest.

That was what Nathanael Greene and his Continental Army of the South fought for, why they raced Cornwallis to the very river Duke Energy has poisoned. The Patriots of the Revolution did not fight for an absence of government. They fought for the presence of a government that served, not the privileged, but the people.

guilfordcounthouse 1

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

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You’re going to think you know where this Salon article by Alan Levinovitz is going.

You’re going to think you know where the writer is coming from, what he’s going to find, what he’s going to say.

You’re probably going to be wrong.

Spoiler Alert: The trick is to listen.

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South Writ Large will have a new issue out before long, so let me thank them again for publishing my short story “The Death of John Gardiner,” from the 2009 collection Parlous Angels:

That Christmas Eve was wet, and just cold enough that ice was a threat.

“Your mother fixed a good dinner,” John Gardiner said as Will Adams drove.

“She did. She usually does.”

Gardiner was silent except for his watery breathing. “I hope she knows how much her mother and I appreciate her,” he eventually said. He needed half a minute to say this, and he coughed when he was finished. When he finished coughing he took a puff on the cigar that he had snuck past his wife.

“I think she does,” Will said. “I know she’s happy to do it. She’s happy to be able to do it.”

John Gardiner nodded. He stared out the window, watching the thin woods and hemmed fields pass by, watching how the brown high grass of the Catawba valley had shrunk in this weather. Will wanted to think he was remembering the abundant woods and fields that filled the valley when he was a boy, and remembering how much he missed that abundance. Will wanted to think he was reflecting on how the woods and fields had receded since then, and reflecting on the part he had played in that. As a boy John Gardiner had helped his father bring trees down, haul them with hooks and chains out of the woods, and saw them into lumber. In his retirement he invested in development, in housing tracts, condos, and shopping centers. From Hickory to the west side of Charlotte he had helped remake the valley. Will wanted to think he was remembering deer hunts and turkey shoots . . .



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Y’all need to quit picking on Shelby County.

It’ll be hard, I know. Any part of the South that challenges any part of the Voting Rights Act would seem to be asking for it.

That’s just it, though: it’s low-hanging fruit. It’s a comedy goldmine. It’s too easy, since it fits so neatly into so many preconceptions. The jokes practically write themselves:

Weekend Update’s “Really?” on the Voting Rights Act

The Daily Show’s “Ballots of the Southern Wild”

I’m not saying the South’s not the “Michael Jordan of racism,” and I’m the last person who’d say we should look away, Dixieland, from what white Southerners did not all that long ago.

If we’re going to talk about – or even just joke about – the Shelby County case, though, can we acknowledge that they’re not challenging the Voting Rights Act, but only Sections 4(b) and 5, which require all or parts of 16 states to get federal permission to make any changes to how they conduct their elections? Can we give more than passing mention to the fact that New York, California, and New Hampshire are bound by the same Section 5 provisions as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana? Can we admit, after the voter suppression efforts in those Dixie-fried backwaters Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, that maybe Shelby County’s case shouldn’t be that they don’t need those Voting Rights Act safeguards anymore, but that the rest of the nation does, too?

(While we’re at it, could someone at NPR learn the correct way to pronounce Calera?)

Could Jon Stewart and Seth Myers look a few dozen blocks uptown, to the Manhattan deli where Forest freakin’ Whitaker was stopped and frisked and suspected of shoplifting, and then do more than shrug it off with the suggestion – if not the assertion – that while, sure, our part of the country has its racism, the South’s racism used to be a whole lot worse, and that make ours’ OK?  Can we recognize that the South has always been shot through with dissenters, or even that nowadays many in the South are only recently Southern, and are that only in terms of geography?

Or are we going to keep on making lazy assumptions about an entire group of people, counting on the unreflective acceptance of condescending stereotypes, many of which were derived from the effects of disparity in economics and opportunity, and doing so in large part because the handy demonization of the ‘other’ helps distract from inequalities and injustices within the larger cultural group?

‘Cause, you know, if there’s anything the South has proved it can do, it’s that.

Whatever the outcome of the Shelby County case, whatever the legalities affirmed or denied by the decision, it brings up a question of conscience and myth, the question this blog, in one way or another, is always asking: What claims does the past have on the present?

Almost all of legal segregation’s last defenders are dead and buried, but their children and heirs – literal and metaphorical – are still very much among us. Is it fair, then, to worry that the Shelby County challenge is Jim Crow’s first step out of the grave? Would we find it as worrisome (or as funny) if the challenge came from somewhere other than the heart of the Heart of Dixie, the suburbs of what once was “Bombingham”?  (Someplace like, say, Charlotte, the New South’s gleaming “Banktown” and host to the party of Barack Obama – even though it, too, did not make it through the Civil Rights Era unbombed?)

If you’re going to lay claim to any pride in the place you’re from, or in the happenstance of being from that place, you have to accept some shame for its faults and crimes, as well.

I feel shame for the South’s racial past, but not guilt. What practical obligations do I then have? What should I do, other than know the history, face the history, and tell the history, square and true, and do whatever little bit I can to keep the worst of it from happening again?

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If, on these virtual pages, I judge my native land, and call on my kind and kin to recognize and repent of our past and present sins, in too harsh a way, a great part of why I do so is to head off, to cut off, to knee-cap the smug and lazy assumptions of visitors such as Nona Willis Aronowitz:

“So how do you raise a progressive child in a sea of red? It depends on which city you live in, but it usually takes a good amount of effort—and resources.”

How do you raise a progressive kid in Alabama?  I don’t know; ask my in-laws, or the parents of my wife’s many lifelong friends who would call themselves “progressive,” almost all of whom graduated from Alabama public schools.

How do you raise a progressive kid in the South?  Ask my parents; shoot, ask me, since my son just cast his first vote ever last fall, and cast it for Barack Obama.


By the way, The Nation: This is not just “A Tuscaloosa BBQ Joint”; this is the original by-God Dreamland. Do a minute of research.

Asking how to raise a “progressive” child in the South just points out how specious and superficial such words are.  To much of my family across the South, I am the personification of a bleeding-heart liberal – I think gay couples should be able to marry, and gun owners should have to get licensed, and government should provide a strong social safety net.  To many of my friends in the Northeast, I’m a DINO (Democrat in Name Only) who’s been a gun owner since I was a child, who’s a big fan of capitalism and free-market enterprise, who has mixed feelings about organized labor, who worships at a Baptist church.

Neither my wife’s parents, nor my parents, nor my children’s parents set out to raise a “progressive” child.  All of us tried hard to raise thinking children.  To some, “thinking” and “progressive” may mean the same thing, but those are the same people to whom “South” and “reactionary” are synonyms, so what do they know?

Aronowitz admits that there are “blue dots” in the South, but those dots aren’t just in college towns or metropolitan hubs, and if you take the time and effort to look closely, they aren’t dots, and they aren’t just one of two primary colors.  Alabama may be “statistically . . . the most conservative state in the nation,” but I was in Alabama after the April 27 tornadoes ripped across the state, and I saw the long lines of Alabamians (and others from across the South) waiting for their chance to give of their means, their time, and their labor to help their neighbors.

The South is changing, quickly and dramatically.  In the Milken Institute’s most recent rankings of the fastest-growing metro areas (for job, wage, and GDP), six of the top 10, and 23 of the top 50, were in states of the old Confederacy.  Please do not presume to know what this growth will mean for the South, politically or socially, since you cannot assume that newcomers and transplants will be any less “conservative” than native Southerners.  (More to the point, please acknowledge that the South hardly has a monopoly on conservatives, reactionaries, or plain ol’ dumbasses.)

As I put it in an earlier post, not all of us who holler, hate.  The trick – no, the task – for us Southerners who both love and lament so much about the South, who would hate to leave this land no matter how much it breaks our hearts, who think purple whether we vote blue or red, is to figure out what is most worth holding on to, and how to hold on without being held down.

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“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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