Friday, March 27, 2015

case in the U.S. Supreme Court argued earlier this week raises the issue of whether Sons of Confederate Veterans have a right to buy logo rights on Texas state license plates just like other interest groups, and here we are again with the "It's heritage, not hate" and "The war was not about slavery" arguments.

Rather than vent, I will at this point hand over the mic to  Abraham Lincoln, who in his second inaugural address noted that at the beginning of the Civil War,

"One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves occupied a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war." (italics mine)

(Thank you, Mr. President.)

The persistence of the Lost Cause fable marks it as the most successful and perversely brilliant propaganda campaign in history.That, not the Confederate flag, is what the Sons of Confederate Veterans seek to commemorate.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Movie I Hate to Love and Love to Hate

I first saw Gone With the Wind at the 25th anniversary of its premier, in the city of its premier (Atlanta) at the theater where it premiered (the old Loew's Grand, on Peachtree Street). I was nine, and to this day, I can still recall the thrill, the electric excitement, the flourish of the heavy velvet curtains as they swept aside and that familiar theme music swelled. And then there were these words, superimposed on scenes of slaves herding cows up from the field at evening, accompanied by violins playing a sweetly mournful "Dixie"--eccentric spelling and punctuation unchanged:

"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South...Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow..Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind..."

By then, I was all goosebumps.

And here's the thing: I still get goosebumps watching that opening sequence. It touches something atavistic in me, some primal longing--and this is a difficult thing to admit to, because as everyone but the most diehard of  neo-Confederates would admit, that characterization of the South is pure fiction, except of course for the masters and slaves part. There were no "cavaliers" in the South; Southern aristocracy--the tiny percentage of the white population who had any plausible claim to that label, that is-- was not descended from English aristocracy; most of the South was made up of yeoman farmers who owned, at most, two or three slaves, if that; Tara never existed....The list of historical errors we're talking about here is a long one, and we haven't even gotten to the subject of race. But you get my point.

So how is it possible to love a piece of cinematic history that gets everything so fundamentally wrong? I think it's because GWTW is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are one way we make sense of the world. The "history" depicted in GWTW has only the most superficial connection with reality, but on a deeper level, it's the way generations of white Southerners fervently wished things had been. And even though it's ostensibly about a love triangle--Scarlett's pursuit of Ashley, Rhett's pursuit of Scarlett, etc etc--the real story is about a child's powerful love for her home and her mother. Scarlett never grows up, never stops longing to be reunited with her mother, never really ever leaves home. At nine, I was in exactly the same psychological condition--and like Scarlett, I lived in a time and place (Atlanta, during the height of the civil rights era) when the only thing that was absolutely certain was that the world I knew was in the process of swift and profound change.

A long time ago, a work colleague who was from South Carolina said something to me about how you had to be a white Southerner of a certain generation to know what it was like to hear truly godawful racist bile from the lips of someone you truly loved--a parent, maybe, or an elderly relative, or an old family friend. I knew exactly what she meant; I'd felt that simultaneous reaction of recoil and affection more times than I could count--and GWTW is just one more example of that weird phenomenon. I can't believe this crap, I think to myself, seeing those happy darkies and Clayton County plantation halls that look like the freaking Palace of Versailles, and then the next thing I know I am blinking back tears.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Advice To Dear Prudence

Just saw a letter to one of my favorite advice columnists, Dear Prudence, at Slate Magazine, from a family who moved from a liberal Northeastern enclave to a small Southern town and found themselves in hot water with their neighbors when they protested their daughter's elementary school teacher's practice of leading the class in a lengthy prayer before lunch every day. Now, contrary to what a lot of people think, the Supreme Court has never outlawed prayer in public schools (ask any student about to take an AP Calculus exam); it's sectarian prayers ("in Jesus' name," for example, or "there is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet") that has been found unconstitutional. I imagine that's what this teacher was doing, because when the parents protested, the prayers stopped. And now they're getting the cold shoulder. Prudence sympathized with how "distressing" it must be to live in a place where there is so little religious tolerance.

And I say, it's not distressing; it's the authentic, gen-u-wine Southern experience this family has encountered. You have not lived in the South until you have been told you are going to hell. I grew up being told I was going to hell every Sunday, and this was usually accompanied by a fairly vivid description of what hell looked like: a lake of fire, as I recall, and no lifeguard in sight. The Deep South is--or used to be until very recently, and still is in a lot of places--a region of great religious uniformity: evangelical Christian, from the Blue Ridge down to the Gulf Coast. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this which I won't bore anybody with, but as the letter-writer to Dear Prudence is discovering, being an outlier of any kind in that environment is a fascinating cultural experience. (I knew a Jewish woman once who was told by her playmates in south Georgia that John the Baptist was, in fact, the First Baptist. Needless to say, she was told she was going to hell, too.) For a couple hundred years now, evangelical Christianity has informed every aspect of Southern life, from its politics to its architecture. I was in college at Emory before I realized that the folks who invented the Ionic column were the ancient Greeks and not the folks who built all those Baptist churches. Southerners take their religion seriously: as I write, Georgia has just passed a law that allows people to carry their guns into church, among other places. My Southern friends on Facebook have been talking about this, and when one person asked why on earth anybody would want to carry a gun to church, I proposed that it was in case there might be some doctrinal dispute over, say, First Ephesians--whereupon I was immediately corrected by another Southern friend that there is only ONE Ephesians in the Bible, whereupon that person was immediately corrected by my brother-in-law, who wrote that there was only one Ephesians ever since the great Hahira Baptist shootout of 1859, when Second Ephesians when down with its defenders in a blaze of gunfire.

So my advice to the family from the liberal northeastern enclave would be: chill out. For a Southerner, sending other people to hell, or being advised to go there himself, is just another day in the life. Besides, you're going to get a much more interesting level of conversation in hell than you'd get in heaven, since most of the folks there will be Southerners. See you there!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Southerners and Being Gay

The Atlantic Monthly has taken note of what it considers a "stunning" fact--i.e., that "contrary to what one might expect, today Texans and Southerners are evenly divided on the issue of same sex marriage--as opposed to being ready to lynch them, which is the attitude I guess the writer assumes most Southerners would have.

Well, DUH. Southerners have always been hospitable to, and tolerant of, gay people. We're talking about the region that has given the world this guy

and this guy
    and THIS guy

 and this lady           and this lady 

....who are, in order, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin (and yes, I know he was born in the Bronx and grew up in New York City, but we're talking about the grandson of slaves and a writer whose whole career was focused on the problem of race, especially in the South, so I'm counting him as a kind of honorary Southerner)...and then there's Lillian Smith and Moms Mabley, bona fide Southern ladies both, and both of them women who loved women.

I could go on, but you get my drift.

Southerners have always known about gay people, and we have always been perfectly happy to live with them--provided they were willing to be discreet about their sexuality. As a child, I remember my parents having a certain "Uncle Millard" over for dinner fairly often. Uncle Millard was a "confirmed bachelor," my mother explained (I was too young then to know what that euphemism meant) and my dad would invite him home for some of my mom's cooking when Uncle Millard started to look starved (this was back gender roles were so rigidly divided that few men, even gay men, knew their way around a kitchen). Uncle Millard was later murdered by one of his lovers, and who knows how much pressure they both lived under, in a time and place where it was okay to be a "confirmed bachelor" as long as you pretended to like women and did not appear in public with the person you loved? Couldn't be good for one's mental health.

And how many youth ministers or preacher's kids did we all know growing up who white-knuckled their way through adolescence trying to appear to be someone they were not, and not fooling a soul? I remember a friend from high school who told her mom she was going somewhere with a guy we both knew, and her mom said, "Oh, ______! Well, you'll be safe with him." We all thought that was hilarious at the time, and everybody knew what it meant, but nobody talked about it. We were too polite for that.

And I'll never forget the high school classmate who was so clearly, so obviously gay, and almost willing to be "out" about it even back in the 1970s, who was so brilliant and so much fun to be around, and whose father was determined to send him away to college at The Citadel, where he would "learn to be a man." We all knew that our friend was doomed to get the living crap beat out of him there at the very least, and I remember the sudden silence when he told us this. But again, nobody said what we were all thinking. Too polite.

So Southerners have always been totally comfortable with gay people, and very tolerant--as long as nobody ever said what everybody knew. In that respect, The Atlantic Monthly is about a hundred years behind the curve--and demonstrating, once again, that what everybody "knows" about the South is often warped by stereotypes. One thing, however, really may be changing: all us older straight folks who grew up in those years may finally be unlearning the hypocrisy we were taught as kids.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Snow 101 for Southerners

As a person born and raised in the South who has been known to try to dig a car out of serious snow armed with nothing more than a metal kitchen spatula, I am the last to proclaim my expertise on winter weather. When it gets icy around here, I walk like an 80-year-old lady with a glass hip. I have been known to fall down stepping outside to get the newspaper. On more than one occasion I have gone skating with an enthusiastic beagle on the end of the leash--on my butt, and not by plan. So I offer these elementary survival skills to people currently living in the Deep South not as an expert, then, but as advice for my fellow Southerners who may be similarly weather-impaired. Hunker down, chilluns, and learn:

1. If by some chance you do find yourself behind the wheel driving on an icy surface, repeat these words: "I am skiing with my car!" It sounds weird, I know, but it gives you a certain jaunty insouciance when things start to go sideways--and believe me, that's the attitude of Yankee drivers who grew up driving on this stuff. "Oh, lookit that 18-wheeler go! Hey, did you watch the game last night?" Amateurs panic; seasoned snow drivers just enjoy the passing view. Jesus, take the wheel!

2. This is a 36- to 48-hour weather event, not the siege of Stalingrad. Southerners tend to get excited about snow, and in that excited state we are apt to start running around like chickens. Believe it or not, you will see your loved ones again, and chances are excellent that you have enough toilet paper to last two days. Leave the roads to those poor schmucks who absolutely have to be out there.

3. Essential tools: windshield scraper. Kitty litter or de-icer. Gloves. Car charger for your cellphone. Smartphone app for the insurance company. A pocket flask of Jack Daniels is a nice extra.

4. When the icy Armageddon has passed and you emerge from your cozy storm lair, clean off the top of your car. If it's snow, it will create a mini-blizzard once you get on the freeway, blinding the guy behind you--and if it's melted and then re-frozen, it either shakes loose in little shards, like shrapnel, or comes off in one big whoosh like a sheet of plate glass. This seems like a no-brainer to people who are used to this stuff, but not to residents of the Deep South who rarely encounter snow. A Deep South expatriate, I drove around obliviously spreading winter cheer every couple hundred feet for a couple of seasons before it was, ahem, forcefully explained to me that I was putting myself at risk of becoming a victim of justifiable homicide.

Finally, take pictures. Your great-grandchildren may want to see them someday: climatologists are saying that if global warming continues at its present rate, in 100 years ours may be a world without snow.