Archive for the ‘The South of the Mind’ Category

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.
. . .
: 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?


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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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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This doesn’t have to do with the South, specifically.  But, you know, bourbon . . .

milkpunch-ingred-600x450AFR photo by Michele Kayal , courtesy American Food Roots

Bourbon: we’re milking it


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Only one thing drew me away from the bowl games today: cooking the turnip greens.greens

(Speaking of the bowl games – Jadaveon Clowney, oh my good Lord.)

Though my wife fancies up the black-eyed peas into Texas caviar, I like my greens straightforward: some bacon, some salt, a quarter-hour of hard boil, an hour of simmer.  My father taught me to cook them that way, as he learned from his mother.

Have the years that I began with greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread been luckier and more prosperous than those that I did not?  Well, yes, by and large, as best as I can remember.  Do I really believe that this meal has mystical powers?  I’d say I believe it for the same reason I believe in ghosts: it’s so much more fun than not believing.

Better yet, I’d say I believe for the same reason I toss a pinch of spilled salt over my left shoulder, or remind myself – only every so often, and only in certain company – to say “might could.”

The folklore holds that eating this meal on New Year’s Day became lucky right after Sherman’s March, when black-eyed peas and greens were all the Yankees left Southerners to eat.  (Though some say Sephardic Jews brought the black-eyed peas custom with them to Georgia in the 1730s.)  In the standard telling – as far as there is such a thing – the peas stand for coins, the greens for bills, and the corn bread for gold.

This symbolism would have come as a surprise, once upon a time.

“The great triumvirate of southern vegetables was made up of turnips, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes,” quoth the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.  “Turnips were often planted in an open space near a pioneer’s house site before he had built the house, because they could be planted in late summer and would produce turnips and greens before a freeze ruined them.  The greens were more valuable than the turnips themselves, and in the spring they met the residents’ almost desperate need for a green vegetable.

“Cowpeas were of many varieties.  [Ed.’s note: including black-eyed peas]  Better green but good dry, peas were boiled with a piece of fat salt pork.  With corn bread they provided enough calories and enough protein to sustain a hard day’s work, and that was what the southern farmer needed.”

blackeyedpeasFor all but a few, the hardscrabble life of the Southern frontier gave way to the hardscrabble life of Reconstruction, sharecropping, mill and factory working, and generations relied on the same cheap, durable foods.  The daily fare of most of the South didn’t change much until after World War II.

I suspect that the notion of greens, peas, and corn bread bringing luck on New Year’s really began – or really took hold – around this time, too, and I suspect that the notion was less about the stated purpose, less about looking ahead to the new year, than looking back to some notion of a purer, poorer, prelapsarian South.

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Maybe it’s the basketball.  Or, more precisely, the lesser fervor for college football.  Maybe it goes back as far as the “vale of humility” days, the paucity of plantations and plantation aristocracy, and the state’s reluctance to secede.  Maybe it’s just having “north” in the name, but even before North Carolina popped up blue on the 2008 electoral map, other Southerners often looked at the Old North State and weren’t entirely sure it was really ‘South.’

Geography put North Carolina in the Upper South, made it hard for the state to thrive in the antebellum economy (a regressive state constitution didn’t help), but made it easier for the state – especially its Piedmont – to grab hold of the various “New South” projects with a grip unmatched, except for maybe Atlanta’s.

Former Charlotte Observer editor Ed Williams, a Mississippi native, said of North Carolina, “In this state, there was a fierce and ceaseless battle between the forces of enlightenment and reaction, and, unlike in most of the South, the outcome was not a foregone conclusion.”  The standard narrative and popular conception – inside and outside the state – emphasize the battle, that North Carolina at least put up a good fight against its worst impulses and “the burden of Southern history.”  Before any North Carolinian pulls a muscle reaching to pat his own back, though, he would be wise to remember that enlightenment lost the battle at least often as it won, that post-Reconstruction North Carolina has been home to the only armed coup of an elected government in U.S. history, “Bloody Gaston,” at least 168 lynchings between 1865 and 19411, the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, and – for 30 years – Senator Jesse Helms.

Still, the rest of the South tends to look at North Carolina and see Chapel Hill, as wayward and subversive in its sociology department as in its preference for the Smith Center.  They see Asheville, with its high-end resorts and hippie enclaves.  They hear the nasally voices of all the halfbacks (who left the Northeast for Florida, missed changing seasons, and moved halfway back) and the in-migrants working high-tech or high-creativity jobs in the Research Triangle Park (some look askance at our having a Research Triangle Park in the first place).  They see Charlotte, as gleaming and as gridlocked as any Northeastern metropolis.  A hotel clerk in south Georgia once asked where I was from, and said, “Well, that’s almost the South,” when I told him2.  My own wife, Alabama-born and bred, told me, when we were dating, that she’d never thought of North Carolina as “really” the South, though she did think so of Virginia, and I must “really” love her since I married her anyway.

That’s what the South sees.  The rest of the nation looks at North Carolina and just sees more South.  As far as most of America is concerned, my wife and I, for all practical purposes, are from the same place.  A colleague in the book business once took me to dinner with him and some of his New York friends, who were friendly and welcoming and visibly surprised that I could carry my end of conversations about politics and pop culture.3

The Daily Show came to Charlotte along with the Democratic National Convention, and for the most part they treated the host city as if it were a newly found province full of rustic exotics.  They got giddy over biscuits and grossly misrepresented our barbecue.  (This is too important for a footnote: In no sense can any meat still clinging to a rib be called “North Carolina barbecue,” unless the rib itself is still clinging to the rest of the hog, which is still cooking over hot coals.)

I love The Daily Show, which won a much-deserved 10th consecutive Emmy Award last night.  You know what other show won big at the Emmys?  Homeland, filmed in Charlotte, as were The Hunger Games and Talladega Nights and – um – the last season of The Bachelorette.  The Emmy broadcast honored the late Andy Griffith.  One presenter mentioned that another presenter hailed from North Carolina; he doesn’t, actually, but Emmy-winner Julianne Moore does.  So do this guy and this guy and this guy’s parents.

Charlotte is the 17th-largest city in the U.S. – bigger than Detroit, Boston, Seattle, Denver, and Washington, D.C. – and is at the center of the 33rd-largest metropolitan area, bigger than Austin’s, Indianapolis’s, and Milwaukee’s.  It’s second only to New York as a financial center, and is home to Bank of America.

Charlotte, in other words, is hardly a backwater, any more than Atlanta or Nashville or Richmond is, but perceptions abide.  Maybe that’s not all bad, at least to those of us who want the South to remain – in some sense if not all – the South, distinct and of a piece with the best of its particular history.  Even if the rest of that South isn’t at all sure how the Old North State fits in.

1 To be fair, that number falls below the figures for the rest of the Southern states, except Virginia, which is damning by faint praise at best.

2 I said back, “Watch it now,” in that smiling, friendly, no-but-seriously-you-better-watch-it-buddy kind of way that men have; it was the only response that would have satisfied him.

3 To preemptively answer my children and all others who would question my knowledge of pop culture, this conversation took place a long time ago.

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