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Archive for the ‘The South of the Mind’ Category

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

http://www.americanfoodroots.com/features/bourbon-were-milking-it-2/

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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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So, America’s best-known He-Man Woman Haters Club finally lets in two women, and one of them is named Darla.  No one else finds this funny?

The other first woman admitted to Augusta National is known as Condi, and no one is surprised.  Condoleezza Rice is one of the most accomplished people of the age, male or female; she is also an avid golfer and sports fan, so she should fit right in on Magnolia Drive.

Yet Rice’s obvious qualifications obscure the extraordinary fact that one of August National’s first female members was once a little girl in Birmingham, excluded from water fountains and schools, personally affected by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.  Good Lord, what a life.

 

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This is funny –

“By the late 1960s . . . pressure from local church groups (in Hillsborough, NC), who didn’t like racing on Sundays, led Bill France to look elsewhere as he sought to build a larger, faster track. Unable to persuade local authorities to expand the Hillsborough site, he turned instead to a small town in Alabama and built the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.”

– especially when you pair it with this:

“But historic Hillsborough, North Carolina, can probably claim more critically acclaimed authors per capita than any zip code in the region.  . . . A list of Hillsborough’s resident authors reads like a who’s who of Southern letters—(Michael) Malone, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Randall Kenan, Craig Nova, Annie Dillard, Frances Mayes, Hal Crowther…the list goes on.”

I’ve been to Hillsborough, and I’ve been to Talladega, and I can’t quite make the mental leap to what might have been.  Though I would like to see Michael Malone pounding down PBRs in the infield and throwing chicken legs at Kyle Busch.

(Many thanks to Lew Powell for sharing the ‘Hillsborough Speedway’ article on the North Carolina Miscellany blog.)

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William Faulkner died 50 years ago last Friday.  He died in a sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi, not far from the “little postage stamp of native soil” he transformed into Yoknapatawpha, but not in it, either.

By then he was already the “lion in the road” for Southern writers, a Nobel laureate, his work declared “unmatched in our time” by Robert Penn Warren.  He outlived his only contemporary rival, Ernest Hemingway, and so he got the last word in their long-running and childish war of snide remarks.  “I cannot respect a man,” Faulkner said, “who takes the short way home,” though Faulkner killed himself with alcohol as surely as Hemingway did with a shotgun.

By coincidence, I finished re-reading The Hamlet last week.  The most remarkable thing about this remarkable novel is that it’s far from Faulkner’s best.  It lacks the heat and force of the earlier masterpieces; even so, I’d rank it with the best American novels of the 20th century, and would give a minor body part to write something as good.  As a young man I marveled at the rhythms of his language, at the head of steam his sentences could build.  Now I am deeply impressed by his storytelling, his skill at constructing a scene and a sequence, and I am humbled by the range and depth of his imagination.  Though he wrote almost entirely within the borders of a single fictional county, he populated that county with an entire world.  He seems to feel perfect empathy for each character he creates, to have lived an entire life on each one’s behalf.

Like George Washington and Babe Ruth, Faulkner’s excellence has become a cliché, and so he’s unappreciated in an odd sort of way.  As Southern readers and writers, we tip our caps and salute his standing, but we don’t take The Sound and the Fury to the beach.  We admire and maybe even grapple with his work, but we don’t cherish it like we do Walker Percy’s or Lee Smith’s or Harper Lee’s.

That’s a shame.  His best novels are difficult and demanding, and revelatory and extraordinary.  They’re even, at times, really, honestly, funny.  They reward the attention they require.

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The word “icon” gets thrown around a lot these days, almost as much as the phrase “the word (fill in the blank) gets thrown around a lot these days.”

So I’ll say instead that Andy Griffith stood for something.  His name, his face, his TV costume, the notes of his show’s theme song, all work as shorthand for a certain kind of South: a time and a place that, like all the many Souths of the mind, only ever sort of existed.

Andy Griffith died yesterday.  He was 86.  He died in Manteo, North Carolina, where he’d made his home for as long as I can remember.  I will now make the irresponsible if geographically correct observation that Manteo’s not quite on the absolute opposite end of the state from Mount Airy, Griffith’s Blue Ridge hometown and the long-assumed model for Mayberry, but it is doggone close.

Manteo, though, is where the young Griffith, fresh out of Chapel Hill and teaching school in Goldsboro, played Sir Walter Raleigh in Paul Green’s outdoor “symphonic drama” The Lost Colony, so maybe it felt as much like home as anywhere else.  Griffith moved on from Walter Raleigh to the state’s dinner-club stand-up circuit, and then made his name playing country dumb: first on his hit record “What It Was Was Football,” then in the television movie (and the Broadway play and feature film) No Time for Sergeants.  Then he proved he had serious talent by playing the sociopathic Lonesome Rhoads in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.  It’s a performance and a movie that will curdle the stomachs of those who know and love Griffith only from Mayberry and Matlock.  Griffith is vicious and lustful and manipulative, enthralling and intimidating co-stars as forceful as Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.  He’s amoral and terrifying.  He embodies the acquisitive, Snopesian, white trash South, and could have made a career playing – and come to stand for – that, had the success of the No Time for Sergeants feature not given him a chance to create his own TV comedy.

The Andy Griffith Show was such a hit that in eight years it never left the Top 10.  It spawned not only spin-offs and direct descendants, but a whole subgenre of sitcoms and variety shows.  Griffith showed network executives on both coasts that people in the South – and throughout so-called Middle America – not only owned them new-fangled tee-vee sets, but they had the discretionary income to spend on advertisers’ products.

He also showed that they were aware – or, at least, could sense – that massive shifts in society were under way, shifts that frightened them and made them hungry for what they already thought of as “simpler times.”  Civil Rights were just the righteous crest of the wave; the surge and the rip were economic.

Economics are more or less missing from Mayberry, along with black people.1  Each of the main characters in The Andy Griffith Show has a trade, a job that serves a concrete function within the small town society: sheriff, deputy, barber, mechanic, schoolteacher, town drunk.  No one clocks a shift at the textile mill or furniture plant, which by 1960 was what most small-town Southerners did for a living.  The agrarian-market small town that Mayberry would have been was, by then, largely a thing of the past, replaced by mill towns and factory towns.  Within a generation, those small towns, too, would be dead or dying, the few survivors staying alive by trafficking in the kind of nostalgia that made The Andy Griffith Show such a hit.

The Mayberry fallacy is the belief that the town and its people are based on Griffith’s memories of a cherished boyhood.  The geography and the forms might have been drawn from Griffith’s hometown, but the show’s content is its star’s own conception of the hometown he’d liked to have had, along with the writers’ and the actors’ skillful use of ancient tropes, about comedy and about rural and small-town life.  Mayberry was never real, least of all for its creator, yet millions have flocked to the show (and thousands have flocked to Mount Airy), and they swear by them both as time capsules, as works of historic preservation, for a time gone by and better, when everyone knew not only their role but their neighbors’, and each was happy with and in their role, and all were decent and wholesome and good – give or take a Fun Girl from Mount Pilot.

Many who so swear, of course, tend not to realize – or choose to ignore – that the core and font of Mayberry’s goodness isn’t strict and wrathful order, but the decency, humility, and gentleness of its sheriff, who in the era and region of Bull Connor didn’t even carry a gun; that they themselves are more Barney Fife than Andy Taylor, and that Mayberry would become hellish and dystopian if Deputy Fife were running the show; that if any little bitty part of The Andy Griffith Show was ever true in the real world, even for a moment, it was true only for a very fortunate few, and could never last.  Many who so swear tend to the right, and I do not know what they make of Griffith’s long and vocal support of liberal causes and Democratic politicians, in state and national races.2

So far this has been a shitty year for North Carolina.  We’ve lost Doris Betts and Doc Watson and now Andy Griffith, along with many others, and William Friday was just in the hospital in serious condition; we regressed our state constitution, and our legislators have voted – if only by accident – to rip the state apart, literally.  We mourn the loss of a beloved entertainer, a native and neighbor of whom we were proud, but we also contemplate the waning – I will not say the loss – of what Andy Griffith stood for.  He said of his namesake show, “Our basic theme was love.  And understanding one another.  And hoping the best for one another.  Love.”

He did not give his fans a testament, a historical record.  He did not show the small-town South as it ever really was; he stood for what it was and is at its best: a community, decent, caring, humble, gentle.  Mayberry was never anything but a dream, but it sure was a good dream.

1 In a 2003 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Griffith said he regretted not including African-Americans in Mayberry, but that he didn’t want them appearing only in menial roles, and that he and the writers were unable to figure out a way “so (characters) would rush into a black doctor’s office.”

2 Why take down that video, Funny or Die?  Jeez.

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Today I am a redneck, and I will be again tomorrow.

By Wednesday, it should start to peel.

While I was away, Duke Energy decided to cut down a tree in my front yard.  Fair enough; the tree was clearly dying, and they did so at no charge.  The crew they sent to do the job, though, left a mess of logs and limbs, matted grass and crushed flowers.

I decided to see not inconvenience, though, but opportunity.  For the last several years, I’ve read and written about the early Southern frontier, from Jamestown to the American Revolution and beyond.  Chopping, splitting, and hauling wood was a central fact of life through almost all of the South for three centuries, and it’s half-past high time that I try my hand at it.  Saturday morning, I went and got my ax and my maul out of the storage shed, spat on my palms, and got to work.

To make a long story short – actually, the story itself is short; it’s just the day that was long – I went to bed Saturday night blistered, calloused, sore and sunburnt.  I also, at some point during the day, had entertained the following thoughts (in no particular order):

  • Drop me – 2012 me, not some alternate 18th-century version of me – in the Southern backcountry before the invention of the chain saw and/or pre-fab housing, with my shelter dependent on my industry and skill with an ax, and I’m going to spend a lot of nights sleeping under the stars before I’ve chopped enough for a hovel, much less a cabin.
  • Alternate 18th-century me, though, would almost certainly have been raised to that kind of work, and would have had a rudimentary cabin built in a day or two.
  • My most glaring lack for this job wasn’t the strength or the stamina, but the skill – to find the cut lines where the wood will split easily, to strike those lines true with every swing, to spot and avoid the punky wood that won’t split no matter how hard or often you hit it.  I learned and improved as the day went on, but I would have saved lots of time and gallons of sweat if I’d known all that when I started.
  • Not that some more strength and stamina wouldn’t have come in handy.  In 1750, the average adult American male was half-a-foot shorter and about 50 pounds lighter than me, but I wouldn’t want to arm wrestle that guy if he worked like that on a regular basis.
  • Which makes me wonder about the early settlers who weren’t raised to that kind of work – the transported convicts and indentured city dwellers and skilled tradesmen who’d never had to use an ax or maul.  How often did – if not survival, then the course of the rest of their lives, depend on how quickly they learned; or how hard they were willing to work to overcome their handicaps; or whether or not they had kindly, knowledgeable neighbors?  If a settler needed two or three times as long to build a cabin before he could start to clear fields and plant crops, was he stuck behind the curve of prosperity, never able to catch up?
  • I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s astonishing how much wood comes from a single, medium-sized tree.  My tree (a red oak, by the way) was a toothpick compared to the oaks and maples of the great old-growth American forests the early settlers found.  Even so, one two-foot-long section produced enough split shingles for two wheelbarrow loads.  A friend of a friend who heats his home with a wood-burning stove has filled a cargo van three times, and there’s still at least two more van-loads in my yard.
  • Yet we almost deforested America, as the English did Ireland.
  • I have seen several log or half-timbered houses and barns that have managed to survive to the present day.  I have never been as impressed by their construction as I should have been.
  • David Hackett Fischer, citing the OED, says that ‘redneck’ was long used as “a slang word for religious dissenters in the north of England,” and quotes North Carolina’s Anne Royall, who in 1830 “noted that ‘red-neck’ was ‘a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians.’”
  • Others trace this use of the term back to the Presbyterian Covenanters of 17th century Scotland, who wore red scarves or collars.
  • Meanwhile, in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, F. N. Boney of the University of Georgia says the term ‘redneck’ “did not come into common usage until the 1930s,” and “is usually a negative expression describing a benighted white southerner.”  He locates the term’s origins in the blazing sun under which their ancestors worked.
  • I suspect that both meanings and histories of the word are correct, and interchangeable, since the populations described so often overlapped on the Southern frontier.  It’s also entirely possible, if not downright probable, that the first meaning was forgotten entirely over time, and the term re-invented with only the second meaning in mind.
  • Either way, it’s absolutely certain that any and all etymologies of the word were utterly irrelevant that Saturday evening, when the hot shower water hit my red neck.  Land o’ Goshen and my stars-and-garters, that hurt.

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Not all of us who holler, hate.
Not everyone who drawls or twangs
Speaks hatefully, nor everyone
Who prays in stiff-backed pews demands

That God incline to those like us.
Not all of us who ache for fall,
For fishing and football think in thick
And arid ruts.  Not all of us.

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