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Posts Tagged ‘Why did everyone in Fried Green Tomatoes talk like a SNL sketch when half of them were from the South anyway?’

“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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