August 2011 Archives

HE HATE ME!

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The ol' Bloviator learned a mighty long time ago that when we academic types make any attempt to engage the public through the media, the odds are better than even that we will either be misquoted by representatives of said media or castigated mercilessly by members of said public who don't particularly care for our opinions or, as in his most recent experience, both. The OB has been rebuked, reviled, ridiculed, and even threatened by an irate citizenry so often that after talking with a reporter for the Hotlanta paper about the novel and recently released film version of The Help, he was not exactly surprised to find the following missive coiled and ready to strike when he opened his trusty Inbox yesterday morning:

Sir: I have posted unflattering comments about you, and feel it necessary to inform you of them On the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Commentary on the Movie "The Help" <http://shar.es/HUXBo>

The wording here is meant to suggest that the writer feels honor-bound to inform me that he has taken issue with me in a public forum. The literal translation is closer to "I went to the trouble to say some really hateful things about you, and I'd be really pissed if you didn't see them." Meaning to suggest that his satisfaction would be denied him, the OB replied thusly:

Sir, I am in receipt of your information and most grateful for your courtesy in informing me. However, having never received unflattering comments before, I think it best to avoid reading your remarks rather than risk the emotional devastation they might inflict.

The OB was merely funning Mr. Mean-Spirited, of course, 'cause he knew all along his curiosity would get the better of him, and he'd have to take a peek. Before we get into that though, let's take a look at what  the OB actually said (as well what that lyin' Atlanta rag says he said) that got his new worst enemy so torqued off. First off, yours truly got irritated right off the bat because the piece was titled "Black, White Atlantans talk about 'The Help.'" The OB has made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions over many years that he is a native of Hart County, Georgia, and proud of it. He harbors no ambition whatsoever to be associated with Atlanta, and right-thinking Atlantans, a few of whom he even numbers as friends, would doubtless avow that the feeling is absolutely mutual. At any rate, this is what ran in the paper with the OB's name attached:

That whole business of employing black women as domestic workers is part of the foundation for how the economy worked in the South. Having a black maid was a status symbol. A lot of whites at the time were not particularly wealthy but they were able to have help because they paid those women and men as little as they did.

'I grew up in Hart County and my parents would ask black folks to help out if we were cleaning out an old barn or killing chickens. My family would want to pay them in the form of old clothes once the work was done. It was clear that the black people wanted money for their work, but they had no recourse during that time. Some people say, 'Well if things were that bad, why did they put up with it?' Well it's clear that there weren't a lot of options for them doing much else.

And for the black people doing the work, it wasn't that they had to do it, it was that they had to act like they were grateful and happy do it. The so-called decent white folks got a lot of psychological gratification, or either willed themselves into thinking that, 'I'm really helping these people and they are so grateful to me and I'm doing something good.'"

Ok, Ok, though the OB admits he might have said some of it better, the foregoing is a reasonable approximation of what he recalls coming out of his mouth. Unfortunately, so is this:

I would say that today having someone come in to clean your house is possibly more of a middle-class marker or benchmark in the South more so than in other parts of the country.

In this case, the OB should have stuck to history, which is his home turf. There is a ton of evidence indicating that having a black servant in the Jim Crow era was a definite status symbol for whites with aspirations to be seen as middle or upper class. Although the OB still feels he may be right in what he said about the contemporary South, he admits his remark about the lingering symbolic importance of having domestic help today was largely impressionistic, and he wishes he hadn't made it.

The remaining verbiage linked to the OB, however, definitely belongs in the "where the hell did that come from?" category:

Then you look at today, and I hate to say this, but there are academics who can be the most liberal folks and they have domestics. So you just can't jump to judgment on somebody who has a domestic servant now. But there's no question that things are different now, but it is a matter of class.

What the OB actually said was that he had known liberal white academics over the years who criticized their white colleagues who hired black housekeepers, etc., for perpetuating certain vestiges of Jim Crow as if the women who could find no other work and really needed the money would have been better off penniless and unemployed.

As to his ardent detractor du jour (who also spews a little venom at others quoted in the article), the OB will allow him to speak for himself, for his comments reveal not just volumes but an entire library about their author:

As I reflect on the superfluous comments by this racially imbalanced panel of five "experts" I must insist, to be fair and balanced, that the reader follow my link to a FaceBook thread of the "Buckhead Native" Group, which serves to far better inform any interested person of the unusual nature of the relationship between white women, the employers, and black women, the employed, as seen by the children of those white women, many of whom were raised by their black maids. This thread:

(https://www.facebook.com/groups/45120523937/?view=permalink&id=10150261075683938),

What is amazing to me, a child as described above, literally raised by our maid, our mammy, Carolyn Manning, is that other than Wynette Blathers, who was a maid, , I can not imagine that either Professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall or the Honorable Julian Bond, both of whom were the elite children of educated "Middle Class" black parents, and both of whom could well be described as "high yellow" African Americans, have any real understanding, other than academic or apocryphal, of the conditions of employment or the nature of the often personal emotional ties that the white wives had with their help. Nor can I assume, based on his observations, that Professor James C. Cobb ever laid his head on the bosom of his black maid and sobbed over some school day disappointment while this dearest of all women, his maid or mammy, comforted him....

Dr. Cobb, surely a Cracker, remains shocked that liberal white folks have domestics, "but it is a matter of class." The guilt he must feel that his parents would want to pay "them" (their farm help) in old clothes once the work was done. This professor's red neck shines brightly as he casually notes " . . . it was like they had to act grateful and happy to do it" and of course he notes" so-called decent white folks got a lot of psychological gratification or felt "I'm helping these people . . . (they must be)so grateful to me . . . (I'm) doing something good"

Dr Cobb, as I reflect on your comments, I don't believe you have been so close to a load of manure since you last visited your family farm in Hart County, Georgia. I've read a number of your articles and your blog, and am amazed that you manifest such a lower middle class "guilt" driven understanding of Southern Culture, and I can surely appreciate that a University lead by a boyishly sycophantic upwardly motile "wanna be" southern gentleman, as Doctor Michael F Adams is, would have you as a Spalding Distinguished Research Professor, Southern History and Culture, but really, your comment "having a black maid was a status symbol" is neither well researched nor well considered. (Wrong on both counts, see above. Sorry, couldn't resist. OB)

Well, he doesn't know about you, but the OB surely hopes his chief critic feels better now. In fact, although he can't vouch for the film version of Kathryn Stockett's novel, the OB is actually indebted to the one who heaps such vitriol upon him for inadvertently making the best possible case for why it is such a good thing that The Help has been so firmly fixed at or near the top of the best-seller list for so long.

 

 

 

 

 

William Faulkner's best-known observation about the inseparability of past and present in the South is "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The Ol' Bloviator, however, is partial to "It's all now, you see. Yesterday won't  be over until Tomorrow and Tomorrow began 10,000 years ago." 10,000? How about 85,000,000 or so, Mr. Bill? As a simple-minded sort, the OB loves graphics and maps whose significance just jumps out and grabs you. For example, a while back, he ran across an intriguing mash up of maps beginning with this one which, give or take a day or two, shows the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts as they existed about 85 million years ago, during what they call the "Cretaceous" period.

cretaceous CROP.jpg

The light blue area represents a warm tropical sea teeming with all sorts of aquatic life that was deposited along what was then its coastline. This extremely rich organic detritus made for superbly enriched, dark soil once the waters receded, and many millions of years later, the contours of this ancient coastline would constitute the southern "Black Belt," where the rich, black earth would prove an excellent place to grow. . . . GUESS WHAT?

If you said "cotton," please proceed. If you didn't, I'd suggest shutting down the computer before you hurt yourself or someone else and grabbing either a comic book or the Auburn alumni magazine. The following map shows the concentration of heaviest cotton production in 1860? Notice anything? 

crop cotton_1860.gif


 

Since it was the South and it was1860, then this map was also a proximate representation of the heaviest concentration of slaves at that point. OK, let's ease on ahead about 128 years and gaze upon this map, which superimposes the cotton-production map on one showing the highest percentages of the vote received in the South by one Barry Obama in 2008.

OBAMAVOTEimages.jpg

The OB wishes he was more proficient at using Photoshop, which makes splitting the atom seem positively mundane by comparison, but he ain't; so the best he can do is this combo.

compcretaceousVERY BIG MIX.jpg

If you think southern history is the least bit lacking in irony, consider that the counties with the highest cotton production in 1860 were home not just to the most concentrated slave populations but to the largest slaveholders as well. Thus, as accreted over a gazillion centuries, nature's endowments helped to populate a distinct swathe of the South with the people most vigorous in the defense of slavery in 1860 and those with the greatest enthusiasm for electing a black president in 2008.

Never one to pass on the chance to write something quotable about his native region, Faulkner also has an uncomprehending Canadian say, "Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it. It's better than Ben Hur.. . . ." Better than "Ben Hur"? My Aunt Bessie's bloomers! It's better than "Animal House." Take this report, for example, which was sent along by the OB's friend Hardy, courtesy of his friend Joe over in Luverne, Alabama, where they are gearing up for the "World's Largest Peanut Boil" (17 tons worth) on the first weekend of September. At any rate, it seems there was a bit of a ruckus at a Wal-Mart over in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, last week as detailed in this account regarding one Mr. Travis Keen, who was arrested after a witness reported to police that a man driving a Ford Taurus drove past him "with his penis exposed." When Officer Colby Spillers confronted him, Keen reportedly "stated he did have his penis out because of past experiences he had at Wal-Mart. Keen stated when he comes to Wal-Mart he gets aroused."

Normally, the OB wouldn't touch this one with (ahem) a ten-foot pole, but the fact that Mr. Keen had no record of prior transgressions of any sort gave him pause. Mind you, the OB is not looking to defend weenie-waggling of any sort, be the waggler in question a Congressman or a humble troller of Wal-Mart parking lots. Still, having seen some fairly peculiar things at Wal-Mart himself and realizing that to some folks, there is a fairly thin line between "erotica" and just plain "rotica," it struck him that Mr. Keen's case might indeed offer some extenuating circumstances. Eventually, his rage for justice for Travis Keen led the OB to this site, thanks to which he may now rest his case that, given the visual stimuli afforded by a typical trip to Wal-Mart, our man Travis was probably not acting totally without provocation. Here, for example, is "Exhibit A," which  might also be labeled "I see London, I see France. . . ."

london3008walmart.jpg

 

Making no presumption about Mr. Keen's sexual preference, the OB covers that base with "Exhibit B," who seems himself  to be signaling that getting at least to second base will be "no problemo."

walmart3009.jpg

Finally, not ruling out the possibility that the defendant might have been under the insidious influence of a fruit fetish, courtesy of the Produce Aisle, here's Exhibit C.

peachwalm3001.jpg

 

At the risk of taking things one Faulknerism too far, our man Willy F.  also observed through one of his characters that northerners  are susceptible to an "almost helpless capacity and eagerness to believe anything about the South not even provided it be derogatory but merely bizarre enough and strange enough." In all fairness, much like the aforementioned Mr. Keen, Yankees have not acted entirely without provocation  in forming these stereotypes, but what the heck, as Roy Blount, Jr., another astute observer of our people points out, we southerners just seem "to get a kick out of being typical."

No More Teflon For this Icon

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The committed sadomasochists among you might  be interested to know that a more comprehensive version of this piece may be found in the current  issue  of Humanities.  The truly desperate may mash here to listen to the Ol' Bloviator's discussion of this article on NPR's "On Point."


After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed  that one of the four "great Americans" whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted "his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government" and confessed that since he could not see "how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated . . . why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me." Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, "in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. . . . Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained."

LeebyIkeKSAP221.JPG

(Ike admired Lee so much that he took a shot at painting his own portrait of him.  Whatever you think of his presidency, this definitely suggests that he was wise to stick to his day job.)

        Eisenhower was not the first president of the United States to show such reverence for Lee. With characteristic restraint, Theodore Roosevelt pronounced him "the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth" and declared that Lee's dignified acceptance of defeat helped "build the wonderful and mighty triumph of our national life, in which all his countrymen, north and south, share."  

        As TR's reference suggested, when it had finally become inescapably apparent that nothing was to be gained from fighting further, Lee had respectfully rejected Jefferson Davis's reckless call for continued resistance through guerilla tactics that would reduce his men to "mere bands of marauders" and serve only to inflict further suffering on the civilian population. He had then advised his fellow southerners to "unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war" and endeavor to "promote harmony and good feeling." Fearing that a high public profile might make him the source of controversy or conflict, Lee spurned an undignified and sectionally divisive campaign for personal vindication such as the one waged by his former commander-in-chief. When asked to participate in establishing battlefield monuments at Gettysburg in 1869, Lee had  politely declined, allowing that he thought it better "to obliterate the marks of civil strife" and "commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered." He also rejected  lucrative opportunities to serve as the front man for railroad or mining or other commercial enterprises seeking investors, choosing instead to quietly sequester himself at little Washington College, later Washington and Lee, where he served as president from the fall of 1865 untill his death five years later, at which point propagandists enjoyed full license to cultivate the legend of his infallibility as "a public officer without vices [and] a private citizen without wrong."

         Not only did white southerners in general desperately need a hero at that point, but  leaders of the movement to recruit northern capital needed to construct the foundations of an industrial economy for the "New South" needed a nationally appealing  figurehead who, unlike the sour-pussed and sectionally antagonistic Davis, could serve as the symbol both of the nobility of their "Lost Cause" and of their campaign for "reconciliation" with the North, which loosely translated meant, "Send us your 'bidness' but stay out of ours, especially how we handle our racial affairs." 

This, northern investors and their political hirelings proved more than willing to do, much to dismay of African Americans who found themselves the proverbial lambs on the sacrificial altar of North-South reconciliation. Amid the greed and scandal of the Grant era, Bobby Lee didn't look half bad in the North either, and the New York Herald had  declared upon his death that "here in the North we . . . have claimed him as one of ourselves" and "extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us." Understanding the broader and exceedingly dark racial ramifications of this national embrace of Lee, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained bitterly that he could scarcely find a northern newspaper "that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee," whose military leadership of a "bad cause" seemed somehow to entitle him "to the highest place in heaven." 

Douglass and several generations of his successors would remain voices in the wilderness even as the Civil War Centennial observance kicked off in 1961. Walker Percy, who had been thoroughly catechized in the Reconciliationist gospel as a youth, found it alive and pervasive as the nation began its official observance of the Civil War centennial. Contemporary writing about the war, Percy noted, "commemorates mainly the fighting. . . . Yet it is all very good-natured. . . . In the popular media the war is so friendly that the fighting is made to appear as a kind of sacrament of fire by which one side expresses its affection for the other." Compared with politics, certainly, there was "an innocence about combat," and the centennial's narrow focus on the military aspects of the war virtually assured that Robert E. Lee would garner even more attention than Abraham Lincoln, especially given "Lee's very great personal qualities," not to mention "the American preference for good guys and underdogs, and especially underdog good guys."

            The almost ostentatious magnanimity shown the Confederates during the centennial was especially striking because a century after emancipation, as Percy noted, "the embarrassing fact that the Negro is not treated as a man in the North or the South" was effectively "a ghost at the [centennial] feast." Sit-ins and freedom rides had already marked a more confrontational turn in the civil rights movement, and centennial officials hoped to avoid having their activities drawn into this conflict, either by segregationist demagogues invoking the idealized states' rights rhetoric of the Confederates or by black leaders likening their crusade to the struggle for emancipation. On the latter point, as one of them explained, "We're not emphasizing Emancipation. You see, there's a bigger theme--the beginning of a new America."

            As the nation entered what would become the most acutely dangerous years of the Cold War, national unity and morale clearly took precedence over the divisive issue of racial equality. All the more reason to use this occasion, as a Georgia centennial pamphlet put it, to "discern from our history what has made us the most powerful and united [nation] on the face of the earth." Naturally, if facing up to Cold War realities required a renewal of faith in American virtue, a Virginia centennial spokesman could think of no finer example than Robert E. Lee, "a man largely without hate, without fear and without pride, greed or selfish ambition." Regarded by North and South as easily the war's greatest general and rivaled only by Lincoln as its greatest man, Lee, as historian Thomas L. Connelly saw it, "emerged from the Centennial more than ever adored by the nation."

Still, that nation had changed a great deal between 1961 and 1965. By the time the Centennial observance closed with a somber recreation of events at Appomattox, the Civil Rights Act was on the books and the Voting Rights Act was on the way. Newly empowered African-American activists were soon working to secure the removal of public monuments or the renaming of public streets, parks, buildings, and schools commemorating Confederate leaders or prominent slaveholders. In New Orleans, for example, the majority black school board voted to change Robert E. Lee Elementary School to Ronald E. McNair Elementary in honor of the first black astronaut, who died in the Challenger disaster.

        Lee's defenders are quick to point out his dislike of slavery but not always so swift to note that he actually described it as "a greater evil to the white man than to the black race" or that he believed the punishments they suffered were "necessary for their instruction as a race." His view may have differed but little from the majority of northern whites at the time, but it was Lee, after all, who commanded the massive military effort that, if successful, would surely have extended the life span of slavery. Nor is there any gainsaying that Lee's installation in first the southern and then the national pantheon owes much to the efforts of those who were also bent on restoring and preserving white supremacy in the postbellum South or that his name was appropriated by many a klavern of Kluxers, or that, of all his champions today, none sing his praises more lustily than the belligerent representatives of neo-Confederate secessionist groups. Given his direct connections to the cause of slavery and his posthumous appropriation by those who succeeded in replacing it with Jim Crow, it's understandable that  many African Americans would prefer that Lee's name not be associated with one of their community institutions. Yet, we can only hope that at some point combatants on both sides of these skirmishes over symbols will realize that there is surely polarization enough already over the far more substantive and urgent concerns of a needful present without the additional stress of incessant quarreling over how the past is represented. For example, when an Annapolis councilman called for the former slave port to issue an official apology for the "perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness" that slavery had inflicted on black people, a constituent allowed that she would prefer "a resolution to atone for the lack of a decent middle school curriculum in Anne Arundel County."

 Unfortunately, although it might make for good political melodrama and perhaps even gladden the departed soul of Frederick Douglass, stripping Robert E. Lee's name from a school is unlikely to reduce overcrowding in its classrooms, upgrade its computer or science labs, or end drug trafficking in its corridors. If it would, ironically enough, Lee--at least the one Dwight Eisenhower believed he saw in the portrait on his wall--would likely be the first to join Douglass in endorsing the move.

 



 

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