Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How 'bout some slavery with that gumbo?

Thanks and a shout-out to friend and colleague Rick Martin for his Facebook sharing of an article in by Peter Birkenhead about Why we still can't talk about slavery.

Participants in my Nevermore Book Club will laugh about this. Last summer I read, in sequence, The Help, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Gone with the Wind. Apparently I talked about them. A lot. Now they try, as a bit of a parlor game, to work GWTW at least once into our weekly conversation about books. It's sort of the rubber chicken of the bookclub. Which to my mind is a better fate than it deserves. How the romance in this book overwhelms its, ahem, master narrative of racism is something I just don't understand.

Birkenhead notes GWTW's status as the most popular book in America, next to the Bible. With its publication, he says, the Lost Cause glorification of the antebellum South reached its apogee: "The culture of forgetting had become a national religion."

Then he immediately goes on to say that The Help (in its movie form) takes up where GWTW left off by being a tribute to "the unsung white heroes of black history" and by being "a gauzy rendering of the civil rights era as a triumph of the human spirit over mean people."

Sigh. Poor Kathryn Stockett. To have her noble effort at talking about racism dragged into the wake of a racist tract like GWTW. How does Birkenhead get it so wrong?

His article begins with a visit to an antebellum plantation in Louisiana and a nearby restaurant located in a building that might have housed slaves. The history of the places, as re-enacted by their present-day white denizens--shorn of any reference to slavery--is so upsettingly pristine and bowdlerized that Birkenhead swears off gumbo.

Birkenhead has discovered what he calls our national "black hole of memory." He very effectively recounts his palpable discomfort at the lily-white clientele and whitewashed memory of the restaurant. He asks the manager about whether the room used to house slaves, and gets a smiley-faced brushoff: "It's history, and that's all there is to it," the manager says; "it's not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see." Well, yeah, I can see why you might not want to call your pulled pork barbecue sandwich the "Twenty Lashes Special."

To Birkenhead, these places with their superficiality and muteness are symptomatic of a moral failing at the heart of our culture, a dishonesty about history, a false history invented by the South that has become "foundational" to the point that "it's a lie so big that no one will forcefully challenge it, a lie that's too big to fail."

The lie is, apparently, that the U.S. never was a slave society. "If America is a family, it's a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again--not with much honesty, anyway--about the terrible things that went on in its divided house." Even though slavery has been taught and written about, he says, to the point that nothing compares as "an academic ink-guzzler," nonetheless "we don't feel the connection to it in our bones."

Okay, so if I get this straight, slavery has been taught and written about ... but we just weren't paying attention. We don't feel the connection in our bones. For that to happen, we have to take a Louisiana vacation so we can eat gumbo and suddenly realize "Damn, weren't there slaves in this room? Why didn't anybody tell me?"

Anyway, why go to Louisiana in the first place? To get a real sense of the true dimensions of the slavery issue, I'd recommend ... our nation's capital. Or doesn't Birkenhead know that slaves built the White House? And the Capitol? Hmm, don't have much of a travel budget? Stay at home and look at the U.S. Constitution. Ever wonder why Article I, section 2 mentions "three-fifths of all other persons"? What do they teach journalists in school these days?

Birkenhead, a self-avowed Yankee, comes across either as unconscionably ignorant or woefully naive about  "the big lie" in a way that says a lot about our national inability to have an honest conversation about slavery. Everything would be okay, we gather, if only the South had engaged in "a period of reflection" to "process memories." If only Lincoln had lived to see through "an authentic, family-like, postwar reconciliation." Lucky Lincoln--he only had to win a war and went on to a martyr's glory. It's hard to say what kind of reconciliation he would've led--when only a vanishing minority of white Americans wanted to include blacks in their civic family.

What Birkenhead seems unable to acknowledge, for some reason, is that the end of slavery didn't mean equal rights for blacks--because of the larger problem of white racism. He dances around it, but in his haste to blame vapid plantation re-enactors and Lost Cause villains, he can't seem to admit that you can't only blame them.

Might not an "L.A. writer," as tags him, ever have wondered about the persistence of racism in the United States? Surely there have been signs of it, some of them within recent memory, in Los Angeles. Why does he look for the truth about slavery only on a plantation tour? Why not look for it in his own front yard?

Because that's the honest conversation we should be having. It's about more than slavery. It's about racism--South and North. From sea to shining sea.

Slavery is only part of that story--a crucial part, for sure. But another part of the story is the unwillingness of whites all across the U.S. to accept blacks as part of the family fabric that Birkenhead talks about. Whites outside Confederacy dropped the black cause--if they ever really picked it up--soon after the Civil War ended, and slavery with it.

The overwhelming majority of whites didn't fight the war for blacks anyway. To Northerners, "Slavery" was a corrupting, imperialist, aristocratic institution that debased white labor and threatened states' rights, and, with secession, "Slavery" was trying to subvert a legally concluded Presidential election by dissolving the Union. "The Union" was the cause. Northerners would beat the uppity slavers and save the Union. But blacks? Let the Southrons worry about the blacks. The Southrons brought this war on themselves. Once Northerners got rid of the cause of the war--slavery--they were overwhelmingly content to let the former slavers figure out how to deal with the former slaves. They barely made sure that the Constitution recognized everyone as a citizen. But social and economic equality? Forget it--remember the 10th amendment. Besides, there were redskins to massacre.

And then, when the Southrons promulgated the nobility of their Lost Cause, they weren't wanting Yankees to forget about the slaves. They were wanting the Yankees to agree with them that blacks were inferior and deserving only of lynch mob justice. That classic film of KKK hagiography The Birth of a Nation had a favorable audience in the White House. It wasn't silence that the Lost Cause sought. It was victory. It was nothing less than a national understanding that the South had been right to enslave blacks. African-American historians are generally agreed that the low point in race relations in this country came not during slavery, but during Jim Crow. In other words, after slavery. After freedom. The Old South wasn't so gone with the wind, after all. And frankly, my dear, Yankees didn't give a damn.

The "big lie" that Birkenhead has found--the national "black hole of memory"--is bigger than the story of African slavery in the South. It is the story of white racism. Talking about it as a Southern problem, as Birkenhead does, is a distraction that, while being a very satisfying source of rage, ultimately gets us nowhere if it stops at the Mason-Dixon line. It is a national problem.

Moreover, it's a national problem compounded by another national problem: not reading. If Birkenhead wants to talk about it, he ought to read the damn books. So should we all. Academic ink-guzzling indeed.

Had he bothered to climb out of his pop cultural black hole, Birkenhead could have readily discerned the difference between  GWTW and The Help. Margaret Mitchell was content to perpetuate racial prejudice; she seems to have thought it was the way the world should be. Kathryn Stockett seems to want to have an honest conversation that will, at least, start to move things in the other direction. Her book promotes that honest conversation. If Birkenhead wants the rafters in the restaurant room to witness the truth of what they've seen of slavery, Stockett uses her imagination to accomplish it, insofar as the racist attitudes of slavery were perpetuated into the twentieth century and beyond.

And if you object that she is white, I have to agree. She is white. Which isn't a bad thing, since we're talking about changing white attitudes, right? Well, you know about white people. They don't listen to black people other than Chris Rock, Charlie Mingus, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Jesse Jackson, Harriet Tubman, 50cent, Michael Jackson, W.E.B. DuBois, Herman Cain, Barbara Jordan, Duke Ellington, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Thomas Sowell, Spike Lee, Clarence Thomas (though he doesn't say a whole lot), the Old Spice Guy, the Rent Is Too Damn High guy, and others too numerous to list, but also including the POTUS. So, of course, white people not listening to black people means there needs to be a Magic Whitey to explain the black experience by translating it into mayonnaise. Stockett is the Magic Whitey du jour.

Which could be a gumbo plate, if anybody had a sense of humor. Birkenhead seems to want to feel the connection to slavery in his bones. He should eat more gumbo, not less.

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