Highway 61, Visited

February 19, 2018

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Since I love The Blues, and have always wanted to make a visit to the American South, and since I also find rivers and floods fascinating, it was time to finally make a trip to The Delta of Mississippi.  That’s not the Mississippi River delta, which is south of New Orleans, where the mighty river debouches into the Gulf of Mexico, but the oval-shaped region just south of Memphis, TN, alongside of Arkansas, with the Mississippi River separating them.
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The region is pancake-flat, and is bordered on the east by hills, on the west by the river.  The Mississippi has changed course over and inundated the region for millennia, and it is intensely fertile.  After the American Revolution, it became the site of some scandalous criminal land speculations, e.g. the Yazoo Strip Affair, and after the Civil War, clearing the hardwood forests and converting it to cotton farming proceeded at a rapid clip, with the support of Uncle Sam in the form of massive flood control works to protect the farming operations.  So much for Southern states’ resentment of federal intervention:  as long as the pork rolled in and nobody interfered with their “peculiar” institutions, e.g. slavery, and then Jim Crow, Washington D.C. was fine in their books.  You can read more about the how the river and the people interacted with the land in this interesting treatment.

Furthermore, I don’t just love The Blues:  I am very partial to the old fashioned, traditional, Delta Blues, the acoustic music that travelled north in the Great Migration, with people such as Muddy Waters, where it landed in Chicago and got electrified, eventually winning a huge audience in the UK, whose rock and roll invaders brought it back to us making it wildly popular among white audiences here too, at least for a while.  When The Beatles were interviewed at an airport upon their first arrival in the USA, a reporter asked who were their favorite American musicians, and among those volunteered by Lennon was Muddy Waters, unknown to the reporters.  “You don’t know who your famous people are,” quipped Lennon.

The two pictures below are from Stovall’s Farm, a plantation where McKinley Morganfield lived, worked, and played, before he got the confidence to up and leave for the North, as so many other black people had done.  His cabin stood on this site, but has been moved to a local museum:  ZZ Top (I don’t know their music, but they know their Blues61revisited!) made an electric guitar out of one of its planks, and used it to raise funds for the restoration of the cabin.  The state of Mississippi eventually got on board the Blues Train, and set up a Blues Trail, with historical markers up and down the region, especially along Highway 61, which Dylan “revisited” in his smash hit record.  (Highway 61 figures in quite a number of Blues songs, as it runs the length of the Delta, and beyond.)

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This cabin below is just next to the Muddy Waters site:  it wasn’t his cabin, but it looks as if it could have been!  As my wife remarked, it looks like “it’s right out of central casting!”IMG_0039

We based our visit to the Delta in Clarksdale, where there are lots of places to eat and hear music, great music, and in a relaxed, laid back environment that is wonderful.  We stayed in the very nice Delta Bohemian Guest House, where our comfortable room had a tub, plumbing fixtures, and tiled floor, that thrilled me.  (I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasms.) IMG_0045

Needless to say, it is Mississippi after all, the area is rather economically depressed.  These shots in Shaw, MS, where I stumbled on the Blues Trail marker for Honeyboy Edwards, a favorite of mine, capture the atmosphere nicely.

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Further south is the not particularly interesting town of Greenville, MS, which was the center of a lot of literary activity as well as a devastated area during the momentous flood of 1927, the relief effort for which, incidentally, catapulted Herbert Hoover to the presidency.  The museum about the flood, the greatest natural disaster in US history, I believe, was closed, but I did manage a brief rain soaked stroll along the top of the levee.

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Dreams of My Other

August 28, 2012

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I think that this image is what some people in Lubbock, TX have in their minds.   From the NYTimes today, edited for emphasis by me.

LUBBOCK, Tex. — …Ms. Rogers said she supported the idea of increasing the property tax to 34.6 cents per $100 valuation from 32.9 cents to finance the hiring of additional sheriff’s deputies — with one reservation.

It was that, she said, “it does not fund a paramilitary to create an insurrection and rebellion against the United States.”

Her comments might have sounded absurd at some other time, in some other place.

… A few days before, the county’s top elected official, County Judge Tom Head, made an appearance on a local television station to generate support for the tax increase. He said he was expecting civil unrest if President Obama is re-elected, and that the president would send United Nations forces into Lubbock, population 233,740, to stop any uprising.

“He is going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N.,” Mr. Head said on Fox 34 last week. “O.K., what’s going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking worst-case scenario: civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war, maybe. And we’re not talking just a few riots here and demonstrations. We’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy.”

… Mr. Head, a Republican who serves as the county’s emergency management director and presides over the commissioner’s court, made international headlines. He has not apologized, though he said that his statements were taken out of context and that he was using civil unrest only as an example of how he must prepare for worst-case scenarios.

To many in Lubbock, the notion of United Nations armored personnel carriers rolling down the brick-paved Buddy Holly Avenue, past the Greyhound bus station and the Disabled American Veterans thrift store, has been an outrage and an embarrassment.

Kenny Ketner, the chairman of the Lubbock County Democratic Party, has called for Mr. Head to resign, as did the local newspaper, The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. … Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, publicly questioned Mr. Head’s “mental competency to hold elected office.” [Good point!]

Ms. Rogers, 74, said after the hearing that she took matters further, placing a phone call to the Secret Service. “There is an element in this city that is so anti-Obama that I think they have lost grip a little bit on reality,” she said.


Pym

June 17, 2012

In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath.  You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it.  The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.

The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe.  He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job:  appearances, appearances.  Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica,  and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters.  It isn’t fiction, it’s fact!  What a scoop!  He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.

The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end.  Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose.  It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:

“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.

“Well, are your family landowners?”  At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.

“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly.  “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market.  You probably have quite an estate to attend to.”  Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness.  The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.

“Is this true?” he muttered.

“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.

“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”

Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA.  And among some people today, they probably are not yet.  The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures.  And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict.  It all gets pretty crazy:  it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.

Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with.  And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years.  And what was it all based on?

As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple.  What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look?  Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction?  In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner.  So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?

Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example.  Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym.  It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book.  And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?


Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


When the [Black] Saints Go Marchin’ In

September 12, 2010

I took a break from my diet of  40’s and 50’s noir to venture into contemporary cinema, and landed in Get Low a movie about a curmudgeon hermit with a terrible secret he longs to get off his chest.  The actors, Duvall and Spacek, are fine, but the film was dull:  it might have made a good short.  But I want to comment on the figure of the black preacher, Charlie Jackson, that Felix (Duvall) goes to for help with his redemption. Felix wants to throw a funeral party, for himself, while he’s alive, and he wants Charlie to do the formalities.

Long ago, Felix was involved in a destructive love affair, and he took on the hermit’s life out of shame for his actions, but before he retired from the world, he roamed a bit, and used his amazing carpentry skills to build a church for Charlie and his black congregation.  Now, Charlie is the one he wants to preach at his ‘funeral.’  Charlie plays the role often seen in American television and movies of the perfect [black] man.

Judges, wise, older counselors, loving and understanding grandmothers who set everything right – even oracles who know all before it happens, these are the roles in which we often see African Americans.  Of course, they play lots of other roles too, but this sort of odd tokenism is limited to them, I think.  What does it mean?  Is it a way of sentimentalizing them as opposed to dealing with them as real people?  Is it a superficial working out of guilt over the centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, similar to the sentimentalizing of Native Americans?  In this film, it serves to heighten the individuality and outsider nature of Felix – in the early 20th century in Tennessee, he built a black church!  Sort of like a saint who goes and does good works in a leper colony.

And Charlie is a good guy.  He’s a cranky old codger, sort of humorous, and the two white characters who fetch him are amused by his crotchetiness.  He speaks well, and is the voice of wisdom, at first refusing to participate until Felix will confess on his own, but then relenting out of higher humanity.

The pure fantasy of all this becomes jarring when he speaks at the party to a crowd of rural folks who have come, almost every last one of whom is white.  They listen respectfully.  Huh!?  This is circa 1930 rural Tennessee.  A black preacher speaking at the ‘funeral’ of a white man?  I imagine the actual reaction would have been more along the lines of “Who the hell is that N—–, and who let him in here?”  The reviewer linked in the first paragraph, a child of the South, seems to agree.

So, perhaps that is the role of the saintly black men and women.  Now we know that they are as human as we are, and we leave no doubt about that by showing them as perfect, even in historical situations where nobody felt that way at all.  And we can all dream that it really was that way.  So the way people are now, which is partly the result of those times, isn’t something we need to think about too much.