Posts Tagged ‘Jamestown’

“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.


Read Full Post »

I confess that Dixie has not been much on my mind these last two weeks.  The games of the 30th Olympiad have taken what little attention I have to spare.

I geek out over the Olympics.  Being from the South, I’m a sucker for elaborate productions of grand sentiment and triumphant nationalism; when said productions also involve physical dominance, how can a good ol’ boy resist?

I am tugged by my own personal history with the Olympics, too: I remember watching the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid at the same time that I watched a rare snow fall on my North Carolina home.  I ran back and forth from the TV to the window, giddy with the growing realization that not only were we going to beat those Godless Commie Russkies, but we weren’t going to school the next day, either.

Then the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics came about a week after my family had moved from my hometown to a new one on the other side of the state, where I almost got into a fight my first day in town.  Staying inside and watching every minute of the overproduced, red-white-and-blue broadcast seemed the safer option, at least in the short term.  I was young enough to be only vaguely aware that Carl Lewis was a massive tool; it made me much more vulnerable to the hype machine, but it also let me appreciate the magnificence of what he accomplished in the L.A. Coliseum, without being distracted by the full knowledge that he was, you know, a massive tool.

Centennial Park in Atlanta

In retrospect, I should have figured out a way to make it to Atlanta for Dixie’s only Olympic Games, even though in 1996 I had neither money nor a reliable car.  I should have bummed a ride, hitchhiked, crawled, since, given how it turned out, I doubt the Olympics will ever be so close again.  The media covering the games complained about the heat and humidity (apparently surprised that the American South swelters in late summer), as well as the shortcomings of MARTA (though Charles Pierce wrote recently on Grantland that he went to the Atlanta Olympics “as a fan and had a great time,” adding, “Most of the people who covered those Games consider them one of the great train wrecks in the history of the Olympics. There is a greater distance between reporters and spectators than I thought there was.”).

And then one of our homegrown whack jobs decided that blowing up the Olympics would be a good way to . . . what, exactly, I don’t remember.  He wasn’t crazy about women’s reproductive rights, damn furriners, the modern world?  I remember that he had bombed some Birmingham women’s health clinics before the Games, and I can’t forget that he hid for years in the southwest corner of my state, in the deep Appalachians where the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee meet.  I remember that the media wrongly identified a security guard named Richard Jewell as some kind of lead suspect, which he wasn’t, but they hounded him into reclusion and lawsuitsanyway.  He was a big ol’ round-bellied hoss, more than a bit of a Bubba, and it was almost as if he was offered up as a sacrifice, a man who looked like the worst and most convenient stereotypes of Southern manhood, because such a man makes an unprovocative scapegoat.  It was almost as if Richard Jewell was dragged into service as a global exculpation of the South’s old sins, in order to hide the new, darker version of those sins, as represented by the actual bomber, whose militancy was far worse than the Bubbas’ old lazy ignorance and casual hate.  A man like Richard Jewell is easier to confront, condemn, and punish than the far more disturbing Eric Rudolph.


I geek out over the Olympics every four years.  I geek out over London every four months or so, so imagine my geek singularity now that the two have converged.  London is the only place outside the South I’ve ever lived or ever would live.  London bursts with the spoils of a thousand years as a city, a capital, a seat of great empire; it manages to be sprawling and dense at the same time.  Within a week of my first arrival I went to Westminster Abbey.  They charge a small fee to tour beyond a certain point; when I stopped to pay, and looked down at my wallet, I noticed that I was standing on the gravestone of Charles Darwin.  I jumped a little, not used to trampling on the resting place of a man who changed the world.  The kindly old man waiting to take my money looked at me with that paradoxical patient exasperation that Londoners so often feel for Americans tourists, as if to say, “Yes, Charles Darwin.  Isaac Newton’s rotting over there.  Now, then, that’d be two pounds, please.”

Londoners tend to be polite, blissfully reticent, sarcastic, cranky, pessimistic but indomitable, and orderly.  No wonder I could live there.  And, four hundred years ago, Londoners led the founding of what would be the United States of America in what would be the American South.  Many English had tried to gain a foothold in North America; the Virginia Company of London succeeded at Jamestown, if barely, and at great cost.  The English who invested in the Virginia colony – either with their money or their person – were called adventurers, and the name fits.  They were hierarchical, more medieval than modern in most of the salient ways, but even their aristocrats were bumptious with the aggressive energy and vulgar vitality of a restless and growing nation, just starting to assert itself in the wider world.  They were vigorous and ambitious, grasping and brutal; their heroes were Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, whom other nations called pirates.  As much as America wants to see itself as a “city on a hill,” imbued with divine purpose, the nation irrevocably began at Jamestown, a purely commercial enterprise founded and backed by a corporation.

Jamestown, VA

These pushing English, transplanted to the Virginia tidewater, set the template that the country – and especially the South – would adapt, revise, remake, but always refer to, down through the centuries.  The timeline of the South can be traced, though faint and twisting, back to London.

So even if I haven’t watched the Braves these last two weeks, or pondered on the ruins of tobacco sheds, or speculated on the Democrats’ convening in Charlotte and all that it could mean, or even worried much about the coming college football season, Dixie may have been on my mind more than I thought.

Read Full Post »