RED CLAY AND THE BLACK EXPERIENCE
James C. Cobb - For the Journal-Constitution
Sunday, October 30, 2005
From "Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity," by James C. Cobb, Copyright copyright 2005 by James C. Cobb. Used by permission of Oxford University Press Inc.
Twenty-seven years after her arrival as one of the first two black students at the University of Georgia had helped trigger a riot, Charlayne Hunter-Gault came back to address the graduating class of 1988. Though not nearly so dramatic as her first appearance on campus, her return on this occasion was in some ways no less significant. She was speaking at commencement, but her remarks would have been equally appropriate for homecoming. Hunter-Gault established this theme at the outset, noting in language that contrasted starkly with the hateful rhetoric --- "Two, four, six, eight, We don't want to integrate, Eight, six four, two, We don't want no jigaboo" --- that had greeted her on her initial visit to the campus, that it was "good to be back home again. In a place that I have always thought of as 'our place.' " If, on the one hand, Hunter-Gault's remarks were remarkably gracious and even conciliatory, they were also noteworthy in the matter-of-factness with which she assured her mostly Southern white listeners that the South was her home, too.
. . . Focusing on the suffering and injustice imposed on African-Americans by the Jim Crow South, external critics found it both easy and logical enough to conclude that the last thing any black person in the South would crave would be an identity as a Southerner.
When whites insisted that the blacks who sweated in their fields for starvation wages and bore the crushing burden of Jim Crow were satisfied and happy, many observers simply embraced the counterfallacy that all Southern blacks were hopelessly, totally and eternally alienated from the place where they had seen so much injustice and hardship.
. . . As Ralph Ellison observed in 1965, "Love of the South is glamorized by the white Southerner; but the idea that a Negro may love the South is usually denied as an utterly outrageous idea."
Viewed against this backdrop, perhaps no phenomenon of the post---civil rights era is more striking than the readiness, even eagerness, of African-Americans both in the South and outside it to identify themselves unequivocally as Southerners and claim the region as home. Survey data from 1964---1976 revealed significant changes in the sentiments of both Southern and non-Southern blacks who said they felt warmly disposed toward "Southerners." In 1964, only 55 percent of Southern black respondents expressed warm feelings toward Southerners, as opposed to nearly 90 percent of the Southern whites polled.
By 1976, however, the proportion of Southern blacks who expressed this warmth stood just below 80 percent and only slightly below the percentage of white Southerners who felt this way. Analyzing these results, John Shelton Reed and Merle Black concluded that in 1964 "many Southern blacks may have been unclear about whether the category ["Southerners"] was meant to include them and their black friends and neighbors. . . . By the 1970s, it appears, many Southern blacks did understand themselves to be Southerners, and they were not unhappy about it."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, similar polls produced similar results, and by 2001 the percentage of blacks in the South who identified themselves as Southerners was actually slightly higher than that for whites. . . .
In "Growing Up Black in Rural Mississippi,'' Chalmers Archer recalled Holmes County and "how horribly and how wonderfully it treated me." As a youngster, Archer witnessed beatings and knew the grief caused by white violence firsthand. After a gang of whites threatened to kill him, his parents --- in a move rendered deeply ironic by contemporary realities --- had packed him off to Detroit for safekeeping. Yet, recalling his life in Holmes County, Archer remembered many more good things than bad in a childhood where hard work and ever-present racial anxieties were offset by a sense of belonging --- to a family, to a community and to a place.
As he explained, "I have many good memories of my experiences growing up in Tchula. After all it was 'home.' And it's just human nature to want to look back kindly on a place of which you were once so much a part."
Anthony Walton's father had insisted that leaving Mississippi for Chicago "was the best thing that ever happened to me." Yet, when Walton recalled his mother's perpetual homesickness and reflected on his childhood experiences in a neighborhood full of fellow migrants from Mississippi, he remembered "the same church sermons and suppers, the same food as our families had in the South," all of them "quite different from that of the mainstream North."
For Walton, Chicago had simply been "the northernmost county of Mississippi." After college, he lived in Rhode Island and New York City and "tried to be a Northerner because this was what I thought it would take to make it." In the end, however, though a resident of the "resolutely Yankee" state of Maine, his "experience in the North" had taught him "that I am first and last a Southerner, as I was raised to be."
Though fully aware of the sacrifice and suffering that Mississippi had exacted from his forebears, after visiting the state and acquainting himself with the "ghosts and bones" of its historical landscape, Walton understood that rather than forget them, he must "embrace the ghosts and cradle the bones and call them my own."
Walton seemed to confirm the judgment of African-American literary scholar Thadious M. Davis, who observed that "while anthropologists and sociologists may see the increasingly frequent pattern of black return migration [to the South] as flight from the hardships of urban life, I would suggest that it is also a laying claim to a culture and to a region that, though fraught with pain and difficulty, provides a major grounding for identity."
Ironically, black Southerners often found it easier to come back to the South and feel at home than did their white contemporaries. When white expatriate James Morgan returned to his native state to interview actor and fellow Mississippian Morgan Freeman, who had recently forsaken Manhattan to live near Charleston in the edge of the Mississippi Delta, he was more than a little apprehensive because he expected Freeman to fit into "the angry black man box, the militant crusader container." He soon discovered, however, that Freeman "may feel more warmly about our home state than I do."
When he learned of his visitor's apprehension, an amused Freeman assured him, "I really am a product of the South, easy-living, easygoing, quiet, gentle." Freeman seemed to see the South itself in much the same way: "that safe place, the womb of nativity. . . . [W]hatever I am I was nurtured there." A tour of his place was punctuated by frequent interruptions as Freeman pointed out the beauty of the countryside and exulted in the sweet-smelling honeysuckle: "You don't have to plant that. That just grows. That's Mississippi."
Freeman's comments suggest that, like their white counterparts, black Southerners defined their Southernness primarily in terms of enduring attachments to community and place.
. . . Novelist Alice Walker explained that the history of her family, "like that of all black Southerners, is a history of dispossession" and that when she came of age in the early 1960s, she awoke "to the bitter knowledge that in order just to continue to love the land of my birth, I was expected to leave it." Describing the South of her birth as "a beloved but brutal place," Walker believed that "it is part of the black Southern sensibility that we treasure memories for such a long time, that is all of our homeland those of us who at one time or another were forced away from it have been allowed to have."
This realization led Walker to recognize at once that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was "The One, The Hero, The Fearless Person for whom we had waited." Struck by King's serenity and courage, Walker knew immediately that she would resist the forces that sought to "disinherit" her and that she would "never be forced away from the land of my birth without a fight." In her 1972 tribute to King, she thanked him for leading this fight: "He gave us back our heritage. He gave us back our homeland, the bones and dust of our ancestors, who may now sleep within our caring and our hearing. . . . He gave us continuity of place, without which community is ephemeral. He gave us home."
Morgan Freeman said much the same thing some 30 years later. Relishing the irony of the South's role as "the new comfort zone" for so many blacks, Freeman insisted, "If Dr. King were back and he were told that, I think he'd believe it. Of course he would. That's what he meant to happen, that the South would be a place that we don't have to run away from. As a matter of fact, we want to run home."
As the author of "Roots," Alex Haley won fortune and acclaim by tracing his own family's historical and cultural ties to Africa, but he made it clear that his primary identity was derived from the South when he admitted, "I don't know anything I treasure more as a writer than being a Southerner." An enthusiastic supporter of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, in its foreword Haley not only waxed nostalgic about old men swapping stories and old women quilting, but paid tribute to those who had produced a volume dedicated "to presenting and distilling our Southern distinctiveness."
Haley's personal recollections of boyhood Saturdays in Henning, Tenn., were remarkably similar to Harry Crews' memories of Saturdays in Alma, Ga: "Saturdays were a big, big day for us. . . . Wagons, buggies, T-Models, A-Models --- people bringing stuff from their farms to sell from the back of their wagons. . . . Around 10:30 in the morning the town square was one big, mingled aroma. Together with the noise of people talking and the cats and dogs, mules were stomping their feet and shuddering to make the flies get off for a moment. You'd smell watermelons cut open down the middle. . . . [Y]ou'd smell fried fish and then you'd smell fresh fish . . . celestial barbecue. . . . All these smells just came together --- it just transported you. It was our circus, our carnival every Saturday."
. . . Charlayne Hunter-Gault called her 1992 memoir "In My Place" because it focused on her resolute decision to abandon the "place" to which the white South's insistence on caste conformity sought to confine her. In doing this, she also claimed her rightful "place" as an American judged by her talents rather than her race and as a Southerner entitled by birth and struggle to claim the South as home.
Hunter-Gault also found comfort and inspiration in a physical and sensory South that was her "place" as well. Attending summer school in a "hot sultry Athens," she received "an unexpected gift" when she encountered "the evocative sights, sounds and smells of my small-town childhood, the almost overpowering sweet smell of honeysuckle and banana shrub seducing buzzing bumblebees and yellow jackets; the screeching cries of crickets emanating from every shrub and bush; clouds of black starlings producing shadows wherever they flew over the dusty red clay haze. This was the part of the South that I loved, that made me happy to be a Southerner, that left me unaffected by the seamier side, which would deny I could have pride in anything but Aunt Jemima."
Reflecting on her own youthful experiences in Tennessee, poet Nikki Giovanni realized that Knoxville was "a place where no matter what, I belong" and that in turn, "Knoxville belongs to me."
Determined that her son also "must know we come from somewhere. That we belong," Giovanni penned her autobiographical "Gemini," in which she reflected on her childhood in Knoxville and her grandparents' neighborhood, which had later been destroyed by urban renewal. Giovanni observed poetically that white biographers would "probably talk about my hard childhood/ and never understand that/ all the while I was quite happy."
. . . Maya Angelou also retained an intense connection with her grandmother's store in Stamps, Ark., a gathering place for black cotton pickers, who came in early, still sleepy, but expectant and hopeful, filling the lamp-lit store with "laughing, joking, boasting and bragging." By the end of the day, however, "the sounds of the new morning had been replaced with grumbles about cheating houses, weighted scales, snakes, skimpy cotton and dusty rows. In cotton-picking time," recalled Angelou, "the late afternoons revealed the harshness of black Southern life, which in the early morning had been softened by nature's blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness and the soft lamplight."
Angelou felt a strong personal attachment to the South as both a place and a source of identity, however. "I do believe once a Southerner, always a Southerner," she confessed, explaining that the South was "so beautiful, you can understand why people were willing to fight and lose their lives for it. . . . I feel sympathy for black people who have no Southern roots."
. . . John Oliver Killens found it ironic that the apostles of black nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s failed to understand the importance of the southern black experience rooted in "land, earth, soil, dirt. Black dirt: our own black dirt to dig black hands into, black Southern dirt to create upon, the good clean sweet loamy earth, to hold, to smell, to touch, to taste, to cultivate, to watch the good earth grow, harvest and prosper, to forge black and positive images."
Such emotions seem strikingly reminiscent of the words of Harlem Renaissance writers like Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Sterling Brown, all of whom alluded to the beauty and sensory pull of the South.
. . . No longer feeling such pressure to write anti---Jim Crow, "protest" fiction, black writers could also address issues like gender and other complexities, including tensions and conflicts within the black family and community. Born to a sharecropper family, Alice Walker grew up near Eatonton, had studied at Spelman and Sarah Lawrence, and worked as a civil rights activist in Mississippi during the 1960s. Yet, Walker's fiction revealed her desire to look beyond (though certainly not ignore) white oppression and explore themes of community, identity and gender in her writing. She found it regrettable that "even black critics have assumed that a book that deals with the relationship between members of a black family --- or between a man and a woman --- is less important than one that has white people as primary antagonists. The consequences of this are that many of our books by major writers (always male) tell us little about the culture, history, or future, imagination, fantasies and so on, of black people, and a lot about isolated (often improbable) or limited encounters with a nonspecific white world."
Walker's 1982 novel "The Color Purple" won the Pulitzer Prize and became a runaway best seller. In both the novel and the subsequent film adaptation, whites remain more of a secondary than a primary menace throughout. The most controversial aspect of Walker's story was the way the black male characters assert the masculinity that they must repress in the company of whites by brutalizing and exploiting black women.
Raped by a man she believes is her father, Celie, the downtrodden protagonist, becomes a mother at 14 and is "given" by her "father" to "Mister," a widower, who further abuses and dominates her. When he brings his former lover, Shug Avery, into their home, however, what seems like Celie's ultimate humiliation actually marks the beginning of her liberation, as her emotional and physical relationship with Shug encourages her to resist Mister's tyranny. . . .
The pressures to present a united front during the activist phase of the civil rights movement would have made a novel such as Walker's most unlikely during the 1960s, but "The Color Purple" represented a dramatic breakthrough in the treatment of Southern black life by black writers themselves.
It reflected not only the influences of the woman's liberation movement, but the accomplishments of a civil rights crusade that, whatever its shortcomings, had nonetheless given black writers the opportunity to treat their own culture and community with greater candor and critical insight.