Slavery, Death, And The Beatles

December 8, 2019

“Beneath the blue suburban skies” in Penny Lane.

We visited London over the long Thanksgiving weekend and took a “day tripper” pilgrimage to Liverpool, where neither of us had ever been. Of course it was for the Fabs. I was standing in Penny Lane when our tour guide said, “look up.” The weather gods had bestowed “blue suburban skies,” and I took the above photo. Delighted, I later posted it on Facebook, both to travel-brag and because the day happened to illustrate Paul McCartney’s lyric so ridiculously well.

Among the responses was one from my longtime friend Robert Harland, who reminded me that Penny Lane’s namesake, thought to be one James Penny, had been a Liverpool slave trader. And he wasn’t alone, for Liverpool was a major slaving port. Its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave market in the latter half of the 18th century. Probably three-quarters of all European slaving ships in this period left from Liverpool. It was Liverpool ships which transported fully half of the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. 

Our tour guide had already told us all this. To its credit, Liverpool seems to be owning its sordid past and coming to terms with its historic role in a cultural atrocity. There’s no effort to whitewash the record; on the contrary, the International Slavery Museum which opened in 2007 provides a frank, visceral look at a time when buyers and sellers of human beings were men of respect, like James Penny — not just in Liverpool, but all over the world. (America is dutifully represented too.)

Robert suggested that were it not for the Beatles song, the street name would probably have been changed by now, but it’s not that simple. “Penny Lane” is a kaleidoscopic trip through McCartney’s memories; they’re “beneath the blue suburban skies,” yet it’s “pouring rain (very strange).” The barber, the banker, the fireman, the “shelter in the middle of the roundabout” — none of these are actually located on Penny Lane the street. Locals refer to the whole area as “Penny Lane.“ So even if the city fathers amended the street name, Liverpudlians would almost certainly continue to use “Penny Lane,” song or no song. After all, nobody calls Sixth Avenue “Avenue of the Americas” except for the postman. 


Inside the International Slavery Museum, some Liverpool place names that found their way to Jamaica.

Once you understand Penny Lane’s etymology, it becomes harder to true up Paul’s joyous, carefree nostalgia, but the song is so redolent with play and innocence (there is one naughty bit) and humanity that it wins. We have the ability to overlook overt racism when it becomes so commonplace that it sounds correct: for example, the Washington Redskins. (Why don’t they just call themselves the Washington Rednecks and be done with it?) Liverpudlian place names — including Penny Lane — traveled across the Atlantic as well, some surviving in Jamaica, one of the trade’s major ports of call, where the sugar business was built on the backs of slaves.

Of course, slavery had long since been abolished when the four lads were traipsing around their hometown, and they were “woke” enough as The Beatles to refuse to play before segregated audiences in America. We visited their childhood homes and imagined them discovering each other, and followed their tracks in places of note all over town. And then we came upon the grave of Eleanor Rigby. 


It was discovered in the Eighties in the small cemetery of St. Peter’s Parish Church, Woolton, Merseyside. Across the street is the church hall where John Lennon’s band the Quarrymen were playing on July 6, 1957, the day Paul McCartney walked in. Paul has often been coy about the origin of Eleanor Rigby’s name, but he and John almost certainly strolled through this graveyard more than once. Paul may even have genuinely forgotten where the name came from, but when shown this headstone, he conceded that the name might have lodged somewhere in “me subconscious.”


The Beatles have probably been overthought more than any other pop music act, but here are some tantalizing details. It was the custom for a deceased wife to take her husband’s name for the memorial stone, and as you can see, Eleanor Rigby was Mrs. Woods. But almost uniquely in this setting, Eleanor was “buried along with her name” — her maiden name of Rigby. Also, a few stones down lies the body of John McKenzie, who died at 73 in 1915. Just under his name is that of his daughter Rachel, listed more traditionally. Could Paul have seen this stone too? Was the real-life inspiration for “Father McKenzie” not a priest at all, but a proud father in the familial sense? At any rate, however these snippets of real death did or did not inform the composer, what emerged was a melancholy McCartney masterpiece.


How much emptier our lives would have been without the series of coincidences that flung these four lads together. That’s also the subtext of Danny Boyle’s very entertaining new movie, YESTERDAY, which I highly recommend. I want to remember them the way sculptor Andy Edwards does. His bronze statues were unveiled in 2015 at Pier Head on the Liverpool waterfront, where they stand surveying the Mersey today. 


Space And Race

June 21, 2018


The other night at a campaign rally in Minnesota, Donald Trump added a new chant for his fans, who already yell “Build the wall!”, “Lock her up!”, “CNN sucks!”, and even, lately, “Nobel! He ordered them to start howling, “Space Force!”, and naturally they obliged. Trump proposes to establish a sixth branch of the U.S. military because “there’s no place like space.” 

A “Space Force” is a notion which might occur to any bored ten-year-old doodling his way through a droning civics lecture, and that’s pretty much Trump’s emotional age. Whether or not he has the authority to actually create a new military branch is unclear, like so much else about his administration. (He also told the Minnesotans that he was “re-opening NASA,” which of course has never closed.) But I thought he used an interesting phrase to describe how this new outfit would be apart from but equivalent to the other five branches. He said it would be “separate but equal.” 

I’m not going to give Trump “credit” for deliberately using a loaded term from the civil rights era to excite his base. I think it’s just something he heard on tv one day and it kept floating around in the burbling word-stew inside his brain. Just like the time Sarah Palin, another colossal dumbass, used the term “blood libel” without realizing (I’m betting) that she was rubbing next to some serious antisemitism. The words just sounded cool to her. But accidentally or not, Trump sent a message to his eldest (and most virulent) fans, those good ole boys who can well remember when America was especially great — for white people like them. 

The doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal” was established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which has come to be regarded as one of the worst decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court. In Plessy, the Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. For the first half of the twentieth century, segregation was the law of the land, and guess what: Plessy has never been explicitly overruled. It’s been hacked away at, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which held that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional when it came to schools and ignited the American civil rights movement. (Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat the following year.) But technically, Plessy is still on the books.

Again, Trump has probably never heard of Plessy v. Ferguson. But make no mistake, there are folks at his rallies who really miss the days of “separate but equal.” Man, that was when America was really great! And one of them who can remember is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the gentleman from Alabama. I believe the General knew exactly what he was doing on June 14 when he opened his Bible to defend the barbaric “zero tolerance” policy that cruelly tears kids away from their parents. 

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” said Sessions. “I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” He was referring to Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (RSV). This passage has been especially popular in two American eras: it was frequently invoked during the Revolution by British loyalists, and again just prior to the Civil War by defenders of slavery — and Sessions knows it. Both groups were on the wrong side of history, as he is now. 

Besides, if you want actual Biblical advice on immigration, how about Leviticus 19:33-34 (RSV)? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” You can cherry-pick the Bible to support almost anything, but that sounds pretty dadburn specific to me. 

Trump may not understand everything he utters. Or he may believe his own childlike fantasies. (Remember when he tried to take credit for coining the term “prime the pump” during an interview with The Economist? The Economist!) His level of ignorance is prodigious: he’s nothing but a game show host, mate! But there are people around him who do know exactly what they’re saying. At the moment things seem to be going their way — but they’re building up a tsunami of karmic debt, and one day it’s going to come crashing down.


Civil Righting

February 25, 2018


I expect the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to become a regional travel destination: if you’re anywhere near Jackson, Mississippi, you will want to take time to stop by. I lived in Jackson for more than twenty years, beginning as a 12-year-old in 1962, so I was made keenly aware of the prevailing Jim Crow culture, so starkly different from that of my native Virginia (which had sported its own share of slaveholders, to be sure). But it’s so hard for a white man to truly appreciate what it was like to have the wrong skin color in the most notoriously racist part of the United States. This place helps us get it. For the victims of civil injustice, and their descendants, there’s yet more. Their long struggle has been laid bare for all to see. Their bottom-line emotion must be something beyond gratitude. Something like pride.


The museum is a well-heaved stone’s throw north of the Old State Capitol, where generations of elected bigots made black life miserable, first with enslavement and later by exploiting Dixie whites’ inbred revulsion to the notion of racial equality. Racism is by no means restricted to the Deep South (neither were lynchings, which took place in your state too — look it up), but that is the stereotype. Give Mississippi credit, though, for owning up to its past: this is the first museum about the U.S. civil rights movement to be sponsored by a U.S. state. (The National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis.)


There are actually two museums under the same roof in the new complex. You can also visit the Museum of Mississippi History, which unless I miss my guess was floated by white legislators as a quid pro quo to allow the civil rights exhibition. It begins with dioramas of cavemen — there’s lots of history down in Mississippi — and it’s fun in its own way. But the headline grabber is the civil rights side.


The facility is managed by the state’s Department of Archives and History, a stand-up agency which pored through its own files as well as those of the vile, secretive Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, sort of a state-run White Citizens’ Council which prowled the political sewers from 1956 to 1977. The people who put this campus together are scholars, not partisans. Nothing is spun or sugar-coated. Nowhere in either museum did I find anything but unvarnished history, nor did I read a single word which I knew to be untrue.


The Civil Rights Museum is intuitively easy to navigate. The exhibit halls radiate out from a large central rotunda, where you return after each exhibit. Keep going clockwise, and you’ll see it all in order. (A two-day “Dual Admission” lets you into either museum or both, which should give you all the time you need. If you are very interested in the subject and a physically fit museum-goer, you could easily spend a whole day at each one. I barely scratched the surface.) The first exhibits have to do with the slave trade: the physical passages are close and cramped, to give you a slight sense of discomfort. As you approach the birth of the activist movement, the rooms become larger, suggesting possibility, solidarity, and eventually freedom and triumph. This joint was built by pros.


There’s lots to read, which suits me fine, also a nice helping of tastefully programmed a/v. Little built-in theaters let you sit down and watch very well-produced short pieces on, for example, Medgar Evers (they also have the rifle that killed him, which is worked into the presentation). Hidden audio speakers startle you every so often by blasting an angry voice: “Whatchoo lookin at, boy?” Some of this stuff was happening while I lived there (e.g., Evers), but I was a white pre-teen and while I was dimly aware, I was not yet, you know, woke.


This movement is about blood and grit and passion. It can be emotionally exhausting before you come to the end — and you’re only in a museum! But you can’t make it through without hearing the glorious strains of songs like “This Little Light Of Mine” wafting past. That returns the mighty, overwhelming slog back to the shape of one human heart. Now the brave Freedom Riders feel like nervous soldiers engaging a fearsome enemy, and that’s exactly what they were: heroes in a long, grim battle.


The museum was dedicated last December 9. You may have read something about the ceremony. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican — these days they’re almost ALL frickin Pubs down there — decided to invite Donald Trump to the dedication. (I assume it was Trump’s people who ordered the invite from the feckless guv. At the time, you’ll recall, he was stumping for fellow racist Roy Moore in neighboring Alabama.) The NAACP pleaded with Trump not to come. Nearly every civil rights leader, aghast, stood on principle and regretfully boycotted the ceremony. But it gets worse. Trump didn’t even attend the dedication. Instead, he took a private, 30-minute (?!) tour of both museums while protesters marched outside, then gave a ten-minute speech to a small, Trump-approved group of worthies. And then he went away. He did what he does best: he stuck his fingers in the eyes of anyone to whom this museum meant anything. He blew up what should have been a reverent dedication ceremony without even having to frickin go. His slimy work in Jackson was finished before the first Big Mac was unwrapped on AF One. (Civil rights leaders returned to the museum for a Trump-free “christening” on February 24.)


Well, this museum is going to outlast the current White House gang and the fool who lives there. I’m so glad to be able to pay tribute to this indefatigable movement, which fundamentally changed our country against all odds, political and physical. I’ll definitely be back. The museum was full of school groups when I was there. Maybe more than one child — of whatever race — will pause and look and listen. You want role models, kid? This place is packed full of them.


Bill Minor, 1922-2017

March 29, 2017


The great journalistic lions who reported the civil rights movement from behind enemy lines are inevitably passing away, even those who’ve led long lives. This year alone, we’ve already lost John Herbers, who reported for the New York Times but was revered by us in the Jackson, Mississippi UPI bureau for his previous work there. (He was still an icon when I got to that same bureau in the late Sixties.) And now, just as sadly, legendary reporter Bill Minor left us yesterday.

“Real news” journalists in the Deep South during the civil rights era were essentially war correspondents. Telling the truth from inside the Jim Crow culture was dangerous. The entire political and legal establishment was set against these guys, and as far as home-grown journalism was concerned, well, the local press was under local rule and it would call out “Yankee agitator” reporters by name. Good ole boys still ran things, including the state legislature and every significant institution.

The Paul Krugman of Sixties Mississippi was a nasty little bigot named Tom Ethridge, whose “Mississippi Notebook” column ran several times a week in the Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest paper. In one titled “NAACP Witch Doctors,” Ethridge wrote, “The NAACP and their associates, seeking to exploit the unfortunate (Emmett) Till affair, have dug deeper into their bag of tricks. In a sense, they have reverted to ancient tribal instincts.” He liked black people just a tiny bit less than he liked union organizers: UAW founder Walter Reuther was the “top labor-fuehrer.” The paper printed no opposing point of view. There was your op-ed culture.

People like that were emboldened back then: they thought they represented the state as a whole. Reporters who spoke truth to power were on the bidness end of hate mail, death threats, and the occasional bit of vandalism: broken windows and even some flammable crosses. Then as now, none of the intrepid white patriots responsible had the guts to identify themselves, by day or by night. Bill Minor was one of the few public people to display the courage they so pathetically lacked.

Bill’s original podium was the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans paper, where he worked for almost thirty years reporting on Mississippi affairs (it’s next door to Louisiana), starting with the 1947 funeral of the notorious arch-racist Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo. He covered every important development along the way: the Dixiecrats, Emmett Till, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Goodman-Chaney-Schwerner, John Stennis, Ross Barnett, Trent Lott, and a lot of stuff you haven’t heard of, like the Mississippi contingent of influential Goldwater supporters who licked their wounds in 1964 and then helped jump-start the Republican Party across the entire Deep South, paving the way not only for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but arguably the current guy too.


Bill at work in his heyday, when everything was on paper.

In Jackson, the state capital, Bill had a reputation as a liberal, but only by comparison. He came from Louisiana, also a white-oriented culture — hell, in the late Forties the whole country was white-oriented — and it took some observation and soul-searching after his Navy hitch in World War II before he gradually came to appreciate that a society in which segregation was legal and proper was not a just society. But if you’re open to new ideas in a state where change is the literal enemy, you must be a pinko. In reality, all Bill was, was honest.

When the Times-Picayune shut its Jackson bureau in 1976, Bill bought a paper called the Capitol Reporter and printed a weekly broadsheet for about five years. I published a few articles in the Reporter in the late Seventies — it was also a great paper for arts and culture, kind of a down-home Village Voice — but the reason people picked it up was to read Bill Minor on politics.

Racism and xenophobia have hardly been extinguished in the South — nor, I submit, where you live — but Mississippi has not stood still. The paper which ran those Tom Ethridge columns is under new ownership, and until a couple years before he died, one of its most popular columnists was…Bill Minor. I never ceased to be amazed by the genuine love he showed for his adopted state: his famous “Eyes on Mississippi” column always had its own eyes on the potential that sometimes, it seemed, only he could see. He was a stalwart, a treasure, an exemplar, a damn fine newsman, and today Bill Minor is remembered fondly and tearfully at the state Capitol and far beyond.


A documentary on Bill’s life screens next month at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson.

Callin’ Y’all’s Bluff

February 25, 2013

betteroffRemember when Texas Governor Rick (“Oops!”) Perry made some mild mutterings about secession? “There’s a lot of different scenarios,” he instructed a “Tea Party” rally in 2009. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot. When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation…and one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”

English teachers can parse the preceding statement from here till summer break (history teachers can only roll their eyes), and they’re welcome to it, but Chuck Thompson went one step further. He took a thought experiment out to book length: what might happen if the Southern states actually did decide to leave the union and form their own country? His answer is the book’s title, BETTER OFF WITHOUT ‘EM: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. Basically what he’s saying is, y’all go right ahead!

Now, let’s get one thing straight up top. I was born, raised and educated (“bred and buttered,” as they say in Ireland) below the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s true that I’m currently considered a “Yankee” because I live in New York now (the first rednecks I ever knowingly encountered were in my transplanted, thus newly acquired, 8th-grade class in Jackson, Mississippi, where my faint Virginia accent pegged me to local ears as a “Yankee.” I had suddenly been thrust into such a strange clime that I couldn’t even summon the words to tell these budding young crackers that Richmond, Virginia was the frickin capital of the whole goddam Confederacy), but I was and remain proud of my Southern heritage, as I really hope you can possibly be of whatever yours is. (More industrious English teachers may start wasting time parsing that paragraph while I continue to talk to the class.)

Despite living close to half my life here in heathen New York City, I’m still a Southerner, and I’m fine with that. You can take the boy out of Dixie, but… Ask anybody. If you try to deny it, a psychological burr forms which can torment you for the rest of your life: Craig Claiborne may have suffered from this syndrome, and Rex Reed appears to be in its latter stages. Best to embrace it instead, like Willie Morris or Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams – he’s really from Mississippi, chumps, just like Channing Tatum and Elvis! And, ahem, me. I think the Deep South is fecund with terrific arts, eats, tunes, lore – it’s almost certainly the most colorful area of our country, and I’m one of its products, hoss. But now, having tried my best to establish my bona fides, I must end the apologia and turn to Chuck Thompson, who’s probably still unaware of the magnetic cultural force this region exerts above all others, even after visiting sporadically for some two years. See, he done stomped in and got all Godzilla on the South’s ass. But guess what, down-homies? He “might could” have a point. Two or three, in fact.

First, the ground rules. Mr. Thompson defines the seceders, the new Confederate States of America, as twelve contiguous states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Most of these were in the original Confederacy – you know, the one that defended against the War of Northern Aggression. He recognizes that his most glaring omission is Texas, also a Confederate state. (The Stars & Bars is one of the storied Six Flags Over Texas.) But it’s problematic. Anybody from the Deep South would tell you Texas is a Southern state. But Texans themselves might disagree: they’d say their state is sui generis, fiercely independent, not a joiner but a leader. For discussion purposes I’ll hand Mr. Thompson a Texas-less South, but that means it’s no fair when, on several occasions, he cites a stat and then defers: “it’s X in the South, Y if you count Texas.” You said we’re not counting Texas, OK? He will examine this new configuration through the prisms of religion, politics, race, college football, education and economics. This book is frequently funny, especially the chapter devoted to cheerfully bashing NCAA football’s perennially dominant Southeastern Conference, but there’s nothing frivolous about the reporting: every fact is exactingly sourced and footnoted so you can double-check if you’ve a mind to.

Mr. Thompson was raised by moderate Republicans (a vanishing strain which he personally admires) in Juneau, Alaska; his father was an official elector for Ronald Reagan in 1984. He’s perfectly aware that the South isn’t unique in any of its aspects: there are racists, religious fanatics and dipshit school boards everywhere. What’s special about the new CSA is the confluence of these cultural and spiritual traditions and beliefs, and the outsized influence this relatively sparsely-populated region wields over the rest of the country. For example, nearly half of the obstructionist, gerrymandered House Republican majority, which retained that majority despite losing the popular House vote in 2012, hails from a former Confederate state. But if the new CSA were ever to actually cut itself away, things would change in a…well, in a New York minute. Rick Perry aside (naw, just this once let’s include him), the very idea of Southern secession in the 21st century is of course ridiculous, and by that I mean “worthy of ridicule.” So here it comes.

“We realize men have evil hearts and can’t be trusted,” the president of a secessionist group tells the author as a way of explaining the Southern worldview of, as he puts it, “fervent Christianity.” The twelve states in question are home to fully half the U.S.’s evangelicals and nearly every nationally prominent religious leader. Not all of them are white. A trip to the seven-acre New Birth Missionary Baptist Church complex in Lithonia, Georgia reveals demagoguery, money-grubbing and gay-bashing so intense that civil rights activist Julian Bond boycotted the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King because it was held there and presided over by notorious firebrand Bishop Eddie Long. In Mobile, Alabama, a spurious rumor that Muslims are about to build six mosques in town galvanizes the evangelical community. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky appears to be merely funny until Mr. Thompson discovers that it attracted 1.2 million visitors in its first three years (adult entry fee: $24.95), and founder Ken Ham received generous tax breaks to build a $150 million “replica” of Noah’s Ark. “This, apparently, is the kind of socialism Kentuckians can believe in,” the author writes. He seems to appreciate the difficulty of living a humble spiritual life in a secular society, but what worries him is “end-timers” who not only believe Armageddon is near but honestly can’t wait for it to happen. Southern secession would further distance such fingers from the nuclear button: Mr. Thompson observes that without the South, George W. Bush couldn’t have gotten anywhere near the White House. Yes, apocalyptophiles aren’t exclusive to the region, but why not improve the odds?

President Barack Hussein Obama – did you realize he’s black? – is many Southerners’ worst nightmare, upending generations of received wisdom. Amazingly, he has defied Mr. Thompson’s Seven Deadly Sins of Southern Politics: demagogic dishonesty, religious fanaticism, willful obstruction, disregard for own self-interest, corporate supplication, disproportionate influence, and military adventurism. This incendiary combination is what keeps the South in the pocket of the Republican Party, which profits from pitting the region against the rest of the country. In a new CSA, Republicans would continue to rule supreme, but the makeup of the United States Congress — representing the rest of us — would be dramatically different. The fearless Mr. Thompson asks around to determine the redneckiest bar in deep-South Carolina, and dares to talk politics with the hulking biker types therein. (This place is so country that the house band has never heard of Marshall Tucker – and they’re from Spartanburg!) The resulting conversation makes no sense. Neither does the “pro-business” climate that has sucked auto-industry jobs from the industrial Northeast for decades, but at a fraction of the wages, and stripped of the union leverage that might possibly force any improvement. Manufacturers these days, claims Mr. Thompson, treat the South like a Third World country, so let it become one. Also puzzling is the bellicosity with which the region has always rattled military sabers, even at imaginary enemies. “Here’s a secret intel bulletin for all y’all who’ve never left Yoknapatawpha County and imagine the United States is constantly on the precipice of enemy invasion,” he writes. “The only way this country is ever going to surrender its liberty to a foreign power is if it keeps electing corrupt officials who auction it away to multinational corporations and overseas government interests in exactly the fashion that southern star chambers have been doing to their own people throughout their entire dyspeptic history.” Hyperbolic? Sure. But so is Bill O’Reilly, and y’all don’t seem to mind that.

Economics has always been a deep mystery. If Southerners hate big government, then why do they continue to take more away from the Feds than they pay in taxes, year after year after year? Get your government hands off my Medicare! was a hilarious placard at an early “Tea Party” rally, but too many Southerners simply don’t realize that they’re not entitled to their entitlements if their Republican puppet masters decide to snatch them away. Sorry, but if the South seceded, the rest of us would be getting a lot closer toward balancing our national books instead of subsidizing so many bloated, fried-butter-snarfing ER-bound deadbeats. (That sounded a tad harsh, even to myownself, but aren’t we all supposed to be acting like cold-hearted, free-market businesspeople?)

Now we come to education, the essential building block for everything else. Mr. Thompson doesn’t mean higher education here; there are many fine such institutions in the South (I was privileged enough to attend two of them, and consumed quality mind-food each time). Nope, we’re talking about basic education, the ultimate difference between sharecropping and shareholding. In the South, the notion of education for all has been under attack ever since the notorious flashpoint of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Following that judicial defeat, the region has steadfastly resisted progress (itself a loaded word among rabid Dixie conservatives) in learning. The first, doomed step was standing in the schoolhouse door. Then forced busing, with which earnest liberals actually twisted many public schools downward in the most egregious unintended consequence of the late 20th century. (Southerners at the time were secretly delighted to watch “enlightened” Boston parents endure the same busing agonies and act identically. See, people are alike all over, they sneered, and this time they actually had a frickin point.) Finally came white flight, with those who could afford it abandoning public schools in favor of home-schooling or private “Christian academies” and other euphemisms for “you have to be white to attend.” Today’s Republican Party (most vocally in the South) wants to dismantle public education, or at least leave it in such a shambles that no thinking parents would dare entrust their kids to the system, and instead use public money on vouchers to help ferret the young’uns away. You can see this sentiment wafting through the knee-jerk opposition to President Obama’s proposal for universal pre-school: the early argument was that it’s “too expensive” (as if a permanently undereducated working class isn’t), and it might strengthen teachers’ unions by adding more public-school teachers to the mix (the candid and cynical underlying truth). Some of the most notorious foot-draggers are the Usual Suspects, such as Little Rock, Arkansas, which required President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard in 1957; today, it can’t find a school superintendent who is (a) capable and (b) willing to oppose a particularly boneheaded school board. Ten of the fifteen states with the lowest incidence of high-school graduation are in the new CSA, and remember, there are only twelve CSA states altogether (public schools are largely financed by property taxes, which are as low in the region as its test scores). Mr. Thompson watches in stupefaction as the Biloxi, Mississippi board closes the town’s best school, Nichols Elementary, which is 90% black, to “save $400,000 a year,” even though the district is running a $10 million surplus, and even as the Kellogg Foundation offers a $1.5 million grant to keep Nichols open for at least three years. Huh? Biloxi’s only African-American member of the City Council, which has no power over the school system, believes the board wanted “to make sure that white schools in this district never have to be embarrassed by being outperformed by a black school again.” Speculation, yes — but given that it wouldn’t have cost Biloxi a dime to respond to the public outcry and keep the school open, can you think of another reason? A new CSA would be able to hobble its own future generations all it wants. It simply wouldn’t be our problem any more.

I may be doing this book a disservice by reciting a litany of criticism — it’s actually a major-league hoot, a great deal of fun. Mr. Thompson is as fair as he can possibly be, and never misses an opportunity to tell us that individually, his Southern hosts and interviewees tend to be nice, warm, gracious people. But then he turns “serious,” and messes with the real religion down home: college football. I’m kidding, though not about the importance of the college gridiron to the new CSA; it’s what basketball is to Indiana, what hockey is to Minnesota. But Mr. Thompson has a, well, ball taking down the mighty Southeastern Conference (he’s a University of Oregon grad). He claims the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which has determined the best college football team since 1998, is stacked in favor of the SEC, and the reason is 15-year television contracts with ESPN and CBS which are worth a combined $3 billion. Yes, with a B. He believes SEC powerhouses regularly run up wins against weaker teams and otherwise game the system to make sure at least one of them is in contention every year, just as their tv partners want. I’m not the rabid fan Mr. Thompson is, but you be the judge — he seems to make sense to me. However, one thing is undeniable. If the CSA seceded, we would not only be able to establish an impartial way to test the SEC against other conferences, but the annual USA/CSA contest would also become more like a World Cup match in its ability to stir intense nationalistic emotion. The resulting fan frenzy would make the pros’ Super Bowl look like a grade-school kickball game.

This book makes you ponder. If the South seceded, we would sure miss some things about it, no doubt. Faulkner. Skynyrd. New Orleans. Bourbon. But we could still trade for bourbon, just as we currently do for every single dram of our Scots whisky. We could still read our Faulkner and crank up our Skynyrd. And as for New Orleans, if this loony idea ever did actually come to pass, the CSA International Trade Commission would be down on its knees begging for tourists. So we’d get our beignets too. This thought experiment is a goof, but with some non-ironic points to make as well. A righteously indignant Southerner might reply, yeah, but I could write the same thing flipped around! You may be right. I invite you to do so, and I promise to review it here with cheerful equanimity.

Eavesdropping On The Help

March 5, 2010

Every once in a while an “it” novel turns up that strikes a chord, fires up the reading groups, and nestles high up on the bestseller list for a good long time: a recent example was Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES, far better loved in the reading than in the watching. Since last summer, the “it” book — to the tune of nearly two million copies — has been THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi from 1962 to about 1965. I happened to live there during that time, so I read THE HELP with particular interest, if belately. On my trip to Jackson last month, the first time I’d been down there since THE HELP’s publication, everybody wanted to talk about it, but I hadn’t yet had the pleasure.

Most people were excited about the book and its notoriety. It is the story of black domestics in Jackson, told from their point of view – a set of truths that many people, including the author herself, only noticed peripherally at the time. I’d moved to Jackson in 1962 from Virginia, hardly an “enlightened” place – after all, our Founding Fathers were slaveowners – but, at only twelve, I had never before seen such a relationship: in certain families, a domestic was so everyday-intimate that she actually helped raise the children. The point of view wasn’t exactly master/slave, but definitely dominant/subservient. Aside from this ipso facto state of superiority, I never saw or heard anyone take advantage of or act cruelly to “the help.” But then, I didn’t travel in the circles where everybody has help. This book takes you there.

Reading the book, my friends in Jackson luxuriated in the little details: place names, weather, Southern idioms. And the first gentle rap from them was usually that the author got too much of this easily-checked stuff wrong. She misspells the name of Lanier High School. The city’s beloved Woodie Assaf, America’s longest-serving TV weatherman, wasn’t on channel 12 (Jackson’s CBS affiliate), but channel 3 (WLBT, the NBC affiliate, whose call letters she gets right later in the book). Millsaps College, my alma mater, didn’t have a postgraduate program in 1962. It’s puzzling why Ms. Stockett employs a fictional newspaper, the “Jackson Journal,” when everything else is quoted from life. But these are small specks unrecognizable to anyone outside Jackson, just as it takes a New Yorker to notice that the New York Times didn’t have a “Living” section back then. Far more important is the story, and it’s quite arresting. As in the book within this book, you see the help through the help’s eyes, trained on the ladies who hire them. Some even inspire surprising fondness.

Lots of people I talked to were crazy for the book, but there was some opposition. One friend huffed, “She can’t write!” With this I must disagree. Ms. Stockett makes an already hard job even harder by writing in first person in three distinct voices: a white college graduate and would-be writer; a feisty maid who talks back too much; and, most bravely and impressively, a woman who has spent her life raising white children and who speaks in heavy, beautifully-observed dialect (on a hot day, a character “kind a itch around in her clothes a second”). The writer, desperate to escape cloying Jackson society, sets out to secretly gather the anonymous stories of the city’s “help,” both good and bad, into a book for Harper & Row in New York. And don’t forget the period: the Freedom Riders have barely left their buses, the murders of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy march by solemnly in the background, and Jim Crow is the law of the land. If you were there, you remember it like a dream. If you weren’t, it’s almost beyond belief.

There used to be a saying down there: “The northerner loves the race and hates the individual. The southerner hates the race and loves the individual.” I suppose whatever truth there may be in that theorem – along with the sad intransigence of those who cannot tolerate even the notion of change – is the kernel which Kathryn Stockett digs for here, the essence of what she has tried to say after five long years of effort. This is obviously a very personal novel, which will make her next one even more important. Is there any more gas in the tank? She’ll certainly have everyone’s attention. Meanwhile, we await the film version, to be produced by Chris Columbus and directed by Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of the novelist who optioned THE HELP before it was published. Last I heard, the director of the Mississippi Film Commission, my friend Ward Emling, was working to get the picture shot in Mississippi.* Imagine shooting anywhere else! But as all film commissioners know, it’s not about verisimilitude these days: it’s about tax breaks.

One thing I resent in those from outside the South is a certain patronizing regard for the region’s traditions, even the less flattering ones. I’m sure there are waves of haughty indignation rising from reading groups all over the country as they discover the separate lives of the races in the pre-civil rights era. But as Boston’s school-busing parents learned for themselves not even ten years later, there’s plenty of prejudice to go around. In an afterword, the author calls native Mississippians “a wary, defensive bunch. We are full of pride and shame, but mostly pride.” She also details the mischievous glee with which she could debunk anyone in New York asking “Where are you from?” and hearing “Mississippi”: depending on the reaction, she can cite either Jackson’s harrowing crime rate or the state’s oversized contributions to our culture. So, to the same point, how does this privileged white girl presume to tell us what it’s like to work in a home where you can’t even use the inside bathrooms; where you can be fired, or even jailed, just on the whim of a pompous matron; where there is no recourse, none, for the most outrageous abuse? It’s simple. She can’t. She can only give us her own perspective. But it’s the closest we’ll get until the real thing comes along.

*5/13/10: Friends in Mississippi tell me that this morning’s Jackson paper reports they will begin shooting in Greenwood, Mississippi in July. Close enough. Congratulations, Ward.

4/24/11: THE HELP is released in trade paperback and immediately hits #1 on the Times trade fiction list, after spending more than two years on the hardcover fiction list. (It hit on 3/1/09.) The forthcoming film adaptation is one of the most eagerly anticipated pictures of the summer.

9/9/11: And the film delivered — one of the big hits of the summer, and pretty much dominant from mid-August to mid-September. There was still some flick-crit carping over the white girl writing about blacks, and the untested-director childhood friend blah blah, but my friends who have seen it say it sings.

9/12/11: For anyone planning to visit Jackson — a lovely and historic town — my friend Linda Mann at the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau points out that you can take an auto-directed HELP tour through the beautiful Belhaven neighborhood and beyond. Here’s the info.


October 12, 2009


Fellow travelers from Willie Morris to Truman Capote have all discovered a delicious fact about New York City: a Southern accent goes real far up in here. People assume you’re a little slower, maybe they need to re-learn their manners and take care of you. My wife, a naturally cheerful person, has a “little-girl” timbre in ordinary speech, though she’s an excellent actress and can adjust it as needed. She stretched a few vowels and dropped a few Gs when she first moved up here from the Deep South, but even before she assimilated vocally, you mistook that for naivete at your peril, as dozens of people on the other side of the conference table have learned over the years.

This inclination to subtract a few IQ points when one encounters a Southerner is a attitude I call placism. A cultural background, a position in society, is inferred simply by an accident of geography, or physical location. It’s real, and it’s quite common, though you can’t truly understand it until you get out of the place(s) in question and look back. American expats in England face a national version of this same attribute – just because you’re a Yank doesn’t make you a preening cowboy — but personally I only know one of its manifestations: prejudice against Southerners. It’s not the way you look, but the way you sound, that makes people think they know things about you that aren’t so.

Let me be clear that I’m not talking about racism, a heinous, malefic and shameful prejudice which has no place in modern society. One’s accent doesn’t generally invite physical harm, at least not any more – we’ll have to ask contemporary first-generation Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Asian-Americans (more frequently the subject of racism because of physical attributes), Hispanic-Americans and the like, to make sure – but as members of each of those groups know, you can still be taunted, ignored, or patronized by people who think they’re superior to you simply because of the way you pronounce words. And, as with all prejudices, you’re judged well before you’re able to offer any individual characteristics.

I first encountered placism in person when I was twelve. I was in school in Jackson, Mississippi, having moved there from my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. Many Virginians, including my family, are descended from French Canadians who settled halfway down the Eastern seaboard. (Far fewer are the “FFVs,” or “First Families of Virginia,” direct descendants of Jamestown settlers, a point of snooty pride among the genealogically inclined, as with “Daughters of the American Revolution,” or “DAR.”) The accent is from Canada, Boston, New England – the word “house” comes out sounding more like “hoose” than “howse.” Canadian Peter Jennings, the great ABC anchorman, spoke this way, and at the time so did I.

When I arrived for the eighth grade and started talking, my new Mississippi classmates accused me of being a “Yankee,” their worst insult. (Only derisively, I must add, never threateningly. It was black people who had more serious things to worry about from Johnny Rebs in 1962.) My first reaction was, “I just told you I’m from Virginia. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, you dopes!” “Well, you sure sound like a Yankee! And what’s this about dopes?” Amazing: I was imputing personalities on severe Southern accents, just like they were doing to my “Yankee” speech. Not only was I a victim of placism, I was guilty of it too!

Americans are every bit as concerned with the perception of class as are (famously) the British, and in both countries, the evidence comes out of their mouths. Such comedians as Monty Python and Ricky Gervais follow a long music-hall tradition of making people howl by throwing in an “I fink” or two, or just saying “innit?” at sentence’s end. The coarse Cockney is as much a stereotype as the coddled Oxbridge fop, even if he’s as streetwise as Russell Brand’s character (or is he for real?) seems to be, and the accent tells the tale. How else did Henry Higgins think he could actually transform Eliza Doolittle by correcting her speech? Placism. If she didn’t sound right, she could wear all the fancy fashion in London, and she’s still just a flower girl.

Southerners – crackers, rednecks, hillbillies, whatever you want to call them — are the American Cockneys. There is a courtly, soft-spoken Southern accent that announces the cultured upper class; one such speaker is former president Jemmeh Cauduh. But when most people hear Southern speech, they’re thinking way downmarket: Jim Nabors dined out on this perception for years. His character of Gomer Pyle is an interesting one, because though his cornpone mannerisms are funny, Gomer’s moral compass is set in just the right place, and he baffles figures of authority, from Barney Fife all the way to his Marine DI, Sgt. Carter, with stubborn cheerfulness and allegiance to what’s right; in that sense, he’s actually a leader. Same for Jed Clampett and his clan: they’re not the Gumps, because they have more sense than that. But they’re immune to greed and venality (wouldn’t you be, whompin’ up your vittles in a Beverly Hills mansion with a see-ment pond?). Yet what they communicate to many Americans is, dumbasses. And that’s simply because of how they sound. Ever seen a heavily accented Southern college professor interviewed on TV and wonder: man, how’d she get there? You’re a placist, my brutha.

“I never met anybody from Mississippi before,” a book-publishing colleague told me one day. What else could I say: “And I never met anybody from Long Island!” What were we each expecting to see, or hear? I’m a firm believer in the notion that people are alike all over, but when I hear “youse” as the plural for “you,” a singsong voice that rises on the last word when stating a series (“I went to the bank, I picked up the kids, I went home, I turned on the tube…”), or the wonderful, all-purpose “Fuggeddabouddit!”, I know I’m in another land, and it’s my own placism that tells me so. People in the Deep South were secretly pleased (that’s how we roll: we talk about you behind your back, while up North they say it to your face) when Boston had its own school busing problems in the Sixties. See, we thought, you’re no more enlightened than we are! But it was only placism that made me feel schadenfreude regarding the denizens of Haavahd Yaahd; I had no idea what they thought individually, and there are irrational people everywhere. The Coens did Midwesterners no favors in FARGO, and we laughed at them. But what would you assume, instantly, if a stranger chimed in to your cocktail-party conversation with, “Yer darn tootin’!” These days I try to throttle back my gut reaction whenever I hear unfamiliar speech, and I’ll bet others with a wide circle of friends are doing the same. The South has lots to atone for, you bet. But lighten up, podnuh: we gave you Elvis!

Music And Change

October 8, 2009

Here is something I got from a very close friend. I think it deserves a wider audience.

By Stanley Graham

Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you have an “Aha moment”: a revelation, an epiphany, a moment of clarity. More common, for me at least, are those “What Were They Thinking” moments, when my naïve inner self is rudely forced into auto-examination by another’s incomprehensible statements — which, in the world my parents raised me, would indicate you were not (because of a lack of rational and/or civilized thought) the kind of person with whom I should, or would be allowed to, associate. My father would proclaim: “The best way to stay out of trouble is to stay away from trouble.” The banned personae of my parents’ world, in retrospect, seem limited to criminals, bibulists, racists, and religious zealots; though, at the time, I really didn’t know a bible from a bibulist.

I was brought up in one of those GI subdivisions, where the GI Bill and the American Dream came together to build neighborhoods reflected in popular culture, such as LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and FATHER KNOWS BEST. My father was the breadwinner, my mother was the homemaker, and until I started school, three times a day we sat down in the dining room as a family – my father came home for lunch every day – and if I had been playing outside I got cleaned up and dressed in time to greet him. When we were at the dining table we ate and had family conversations; neither television nor music was allowed at mealtimes since my father thought they would be distractions from the togetherness we shared at that table. Every Sunday we went to the church which stood at the end of our street (only seven houses away) and the elementary school I went to was just three blocks farther.

One Saturday when I was six years old, we were driving to Bay Springs to visit my maternal grandmother, and we stopped at a Billups service station for gasoline. It was in the summer of 1954 and cars were rarely air-conditioned back then; I was thirsty and went to one of the water coolers that stood in front of the office. There was a line of people at one water cooler and no one at the other. I went to the cooler that was open and got some nice, cold water. When I got back to the car my father was laughing and he said: ”Bud, did you see the signs above the water coolers?” I said, “Yes sir, I did. One of the signs says ‘White,’ the other sign says ‘Colored.’ What do they mean?” He said, “I hope you never know.” I asked him why there was a line of thirsty people standing in the hot sun at one water cooler when there was no one at the other. As I remember he said, “Foolishness, just damn foolishness.” I think the reason I remember this at all is when we got to my grandmother’s home he recounted the story, at much greater length than I remembered it, with pride at my “breaking from the herd.”

Yes, I am a Southerner; in 1752 when my ancestors landed in North Carolina they turned left at the mountains and wound up in Mississippi. Most of them moved on to Texas in 1811, when one of them, on the occasion of detecting wood smoke from a neighbor’s fireplace wrote: “this land is becoming too crowded.” I come from a long line of peculiar people who happen to be Mississippians.

Stacy, a dear friend who now lives in Seattle, chided me into joining Facebook, humorously emailing me: “if you don’t get on Facebook I will never speak to you again.” In the main that leads to thanks for Stacy in getting me back in touch with quite a few friends and, in one instance, for a self-examination brought on by a now “de-friended” acquaintance from high school.

As is my want, I post songs that appeal to me on my Facebook page, because of my love for music and the memories music evokes in me as well as a desire to share those images with my friends. Quite often there are responses that remind me of things that happened as long ago as “sock-hops” and “Dee-troits” – a haircut that combined the flat-top with duck tails.

There is a strong place and time association for me with the songs of my youth and yes, Tom – even disco. Margaret and I danced at The Lamar, Main Harbor, and Adrienne’s – usually Samba, Rumba, or Fast Fox Trot, but to discotheque music and we loved having dance floors available all around the town. Ah, to be young again… or at least to have a young back!

But then, last week, a “friend” defaced my Facebook wall with what I first took to be a racist response to one of the songs I had posted. I say defaced because when I read it I was at first shocked that someone would think something like that, much less publicly write it on someone else’s wall. At any rate, here are the lyrics to the song:

By Sam Cooke
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees


There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Sam Cooke’s song was rated Number 12 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It has been covered many times. The latest cover of which I am aware was on AMERICAN IDOL by Adam Lambert. I think it a beautiful, moving song.

The response, which shocked me to my core, was:

“If this is change you can keep it I don’t want it.”

Simple (on more than one level) and harsh, yet biased.

Shock and the immediate reaction that this person was a racist led me to revisit the lyrics; I still think it a beautiful, moving song. My second reaction was this might be a conservative (with a small “c”) knee-jerk reaction to the change we have recently had in the White House, evinced after President Obama’s slogan CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN, which led me back to my first reaction. Then, after reflection and discussion, the idea was posited that this song must have some particular relevance to this person’s life and an occurrence that was distasteful to them – my first reaction is still not ruled out; the explanation now goes from racist to probably racist but definitely rude… not much of an improvement.

In the end, it led to my not-so-simple decision to de-friend an acquaintance from high school. I should probably thank them for leading me to examine the song’s lyrics, their possible motives, and the results of actions one takes – even the action of hastily consigning one’s ill considered feelings to a near unknown on Facebook. But as the old saw goes: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

That Obama, He Can’t Even Serve BEER Right!

July 30, 2009

The A-hed in today’s Wall Street Journal reports the latest non-issue in the White House: today’s reconciliatory beer party after the Cambridge flap. Turns out that Henry Louis Gates is fond of Red Stripe, that delicious Jamaican brew from London’s Diageo, while Sgt. James Crowley is partial to Blue Moon, majority-owned by the Brits. The president’s going to suck on a Bud Light — but remember, Anheuser sold itself last year to InBev, a Brazilian/Belgian company. So none of the three are American beers! OMG! I cringe to think of Sean Hannity shrieking about this tonight: he’s the babbling idiot who tut-tutted the president for ordering “fancy mustard” (it was Dijon) for his diner burger a few months ago. Maybe Glenn Beck can have a good cry about unpatriotic suds. Sheesh. Sometimes I’m embarrassed for us.

FRIDAY: Professor Gates had a Sam Adams Light. The only true American!

The Gates Of Wrath

July 27, 2009

Nice piece in this morning’s Times about the unfortunate Henry Louis Gates incident in Cambridge. Let’s stipulate, as President Obama did during last week’s news conference (and probably wished he’d stopped right there, though he would have been castigated just as loudly if he had) that I wasn’t there and have no idea what really happened. I can guess, like everybody else, but that’s all it would be: a guess. The Times story gives great credence to the notion that two decent people just ran afoul of one another. Yes, it’s ridiculous that Professor Gates was handcuffed and schlepped down to the station. But it’s also curious that an officer responding to a break-in call in an area that had recently suffered more than twenty — several of them in broad daylight — would find himself anything less than welcome, especially since the professor has always been regarded as a soft-spoken uniter, far from the hair-trigger personality of a, say, Al Sharpton. There’s definitely something we don’t know, and may never know. It might be as simple as this: the professor was jet-lagged, pissed that his door was jammed, suffering from a cold he caught in China, and maybe even a little disappointed that the officer didn’t recognize him from his Harvard ID card, which some reports have said did not include his street address. How dare a townie cop give me grief in my own home? To Sgt. James Crowley, I’m investigating a break-in and I see people inside the house. What happened next is in dispute, but if the professor did indeed feel he was being racially profiled and let fly verbally, well, I’m a white man, and I’d never do that to a uniformed cop of any ethnicity. That’s Stopped For Speeding In College 101: it’s “sir” this and “officer” that, and you don’t need to be part of a minority to understand. I was very disappointed in Bill Maher on REAL TIME last Friday for riffing on this incident exclusively from Prof. Gates’s point of view, without one scintilla of empathy for Officer Crowley; to Maher it was a knee-jerk police foulup (as I’ve already said, the arrest was a huge mistake), end of story. Well, I have my doubts. Maybe it will turn out to be a “teaching moment,” as the president suggested. I just don’t want to see the record of someone who is by all accounts a good cop unfairly besmirched, any more than I want to see an elderly man with a cane trundled into the Cambridge pokey. Ugh. Two guys in the wrong place at the wrong time, and every chattering ninny on tv has $.02 more to pay.

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