|Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville Louisiana|
Now, I do know we have certain attitudes, and I also know that sometimes it is right near impossible to figure where they all came from. I'm a country girl, grew up in central Alabama. We were one of the first in our area to have running water. Daddy worked hard. We moved from a two-room shack with an outdoor toilet, to a white house on top of a rolling hill. Daddy built it himself. I have gone from carrying water in a bucket, to working with some of the highest tech on the cutting edge of technology today. I have seen some changes in my time and there is no doubt about that.
Change doesn't happen in a day though; neither does history. History is important in these parts. We do so love our stories, but I always had the feeling that no matter how much I knew, there was always something else, something I didn't know. Could be a few things folks didn't do a whole lot of talking about, maybe a few things folks didn't honestly want known, skeletons in closets, and all that. It's been said that when we put a skeleton in the closet, we shove it as far back as we can get it. We shut the door tight and we lock it. Then we throw away the key. That is the South for you. We do so love our closets, with a good locked door, and a key that can't be found.
When you are very young, you don't always catch on as to why those closets are always locked, or that things are not quite… "right" is not the word I am looking for, or maybe it is. Anyway, in some kind of way, I have written for many years, and back in my younger days, I was nudging around for more information on some stuff I was writing. No matter how much I learned, I never quite felt like I was getting it right, so I slipped into a class on Southern sociology to try to get a better handle on some things—big picture and all that. Did I ever step into a can of worms? I went in expecting that, at the very least, I'd get a good recipe for mint juleps. Nope. No recipes and no mint juleps.
I learned about sharecroppers, what it meant to be dirt poor, working the land in a system that no matter how hard you worked—you would never get ahead. I learned about Jim Crow Laws. Oh, I had heard of them, but I could not have explained them if I had to. I heard a bit about populism, too. It has popped up now and again in the South, but never took much hold, probably because those involved tended to end up on the bottom side of the daisies. Huey Long was one such example. If they were lucky, it was just their careers that ended up on the bottom side of the daisies. Big Jim Folsom was a good man, potential to do a lot of good, some folks say if he had stayed in office Alabama would have been a leader in Civil Rights, things would have been a lot different for a whole lot of people, but before it was over, he was done for and the gossip was still flying. It seems to me, if you want to oil that gossip wheel good, throw in a little Southern populism. The way I see it, populism might not be a bad idea at all, when you consider what we got going with the Democrats and the Republicans. There is no doubt about it, some folks do not like populism, they just plain didn't like the idea of all this organizing and collaborating for all this common good among the poor folks of the South, Black and White, the working class – they'd just as soon not have them getting together.
I also learned about the long term effects of a war in your homeland, not the war is not really over rhetoric, but Reconstruction, the magnanimous rebuilding that comes after, what that really means in the lives of real people who had a war fought on their own land. We talked about slavery and what the former slaves faced with their new found freedom in a land and among a people that was not their own.
I also got an ear full of politics, of the divided South; of race, Black, White, and Indian; of class, of the Southern aristocracy and poor White trash. I learned of political divisiveness and I do not mean the divisiveness that comes because some of us choose to be Democrat and some Republican or some are Black and some are White.
I learned of the divisiveness that was deliberately used as a political strategy. There was a calculated move to divide the South, to pit the middle and poor Blacks and Whites against each other, to ensure that there was so much animosity between them/us, that they/we would never again (and I do mean ever again) vote as a cohesive block. Despite what folks from other parts think, and despite the never ending media spin that has the world convinced that a more racist people has never walked the face of the Earth than those Whites born in the South, it wasn't always that way. Not even after The War. It wasn't that way before it either, despite slavery. What I mean is, even after The War, things got a whole lot worse before they ever started getting better. And it didn't have a thing to do with the ordinary folks in the South, not the Blacks, and not the Whites. It was politics one more time.
Why was creating such a divide such an issue that folks would work so hard to not only forge the separation, but to ensure that a bridge would never be built that could span the chasm of hatred in that racial divide? Who does that? Why would they? It's politics one more time. Divide and conquer is one of the all time most effective political strategies. Make no mistake, it is most definitely a playing to win kind of strategy, and it works – if you happen to be a political kind of person, in the game, playing to win and all that. Today's media and communications technologies make the whole thing even more insidious, bumps those notches up fast.
Manufactured hate and manufactured racism: Forget everything you ever knew or believed about voting your party, your cause or even what you believe. To understand the South, you have to understand how the politics of the strategy of "divide and conquer" figured in so many of our attitudes, how they were handed down, and how those politics continue to play out in our region.
There is most definitely a divide, but one thing I didn't know is that after The War, early on, the poor and middle class Blacks and Whites did come together when they voted. They were doing well for a while, they had a good start working together, and gaining political strength, it was called the "populist movement." For a while it seemed that some of those ugly problems from The War would indeed be overcome, and that Blacks and Whites were coming together as citizens and working for the common good. However, there was not complete agreement as to whether this newfound harmony was a good thing at all.
Indeed, the good politicians of the South realized that if the poor and middle-class Whites and Blacks ever came together as a political force—their own political careers would be history. The so called populist movement made them more than a little nervous. So, in what has come to be known as some of the most astute political maneuvering in all of political history, they set out to convince the poor and middle-class Southern whites that they too were part of the aristocracy—not to in any way be associated with the morally depraved former slaves—their depravity is another story, but we will get to that—or the poor White trash down the road—who might have been their brother, sister, or cousin. The thing is, about the time they left one house, they'd be over there talking to the neighbors down the road about how morally depraved the others were. Are you starting to see a pattern here? According to them, we were all poor and obviously morally depraved. But to talk to them, you'd never have a clue it was you they were talking about when they went on up the road a piece.
You have never seen a more morally depraved people or land than those of the Southern degenerates. If you went up and down the street, you'd think we were all degenerate. Could be a few of us were and still are. Meanwhile, those gossiping political do-gooders got a lot of the Hell, fire, and brimstone Bible preachers all stirred up. Those good preachers were not going to let those good politicians trump them on the stumping of moral depravity. I'm not knocking the Bible or the ones who thump it, I am merely questioning the level of degeneracy and where that degeneracy came from in the first place. Or the level of stirred up the good people of the South got over the moral depravity of all their family, friends, and neighbors.
Anyway, those temporarily impoverished aristocratic Southern Whites had to be convinced of the moral depravity of the Blacks. Mine you, they were also dirt poor and in the middle of their own struggles to overcome the remaining chains of slavery (lack of education, money, jobs, land, etc.); which no matter how hard they worked, they never seemed to be able to leave behind, and which although free, they now faced decades of struggle to overcome what slavery had done to their lives and those of their children for generations to come. Despite it all, a whole lot was said about their depraved degeneracy, too.
Could be we are all degenerate. Did I say that?
Anyway, the way it went down, those politicians went door-to-door, spreading the word about those lazy degenerates down the street, and if folks would just work a little harder, they would not be so poor, and their morals would be a whole lot better, too. And each and every one they talked too, well could be they had met hard times, but they/we are/were in this together, and they weren't going to let on to the good politicians or anybody else for that matter, and surely not the neighbors down the street, that they had perhaps run onto some hard times too and their bank account wasn't quite what they'd like. Those good politicians were shaking hands, wagging tongues, and patting backs, "We are all in this together," they swore. That was their story and they stuck to it.
In the meantime, a whole lot of those good preachers also got a mite riled up about all those lazy degenerates. Everything considered, most good and moral Southern Whites considered it in their best interest to vote for the good old boys, big business, big corporate, and anything wealthy. Morality and all that. Whether that was Democrat or Republican has changed with the times, but that is another story.
So, why did all this have to happen? The problem, as the good politicians saw it, was that if these Blacks, former slaves, and poor and middle-class Whites ever voted as a block, they would be able to make a whole lot of changes that would benefit them all. By all indications, they were doing just that. Overall, I don't know that these changes would have necessarily hurt the elite one iota, but those elite would be ever so much more confident in the level of their eliteness if they just kept things under control. One does so love to be elite.
This "all in this together" thing has been going on for a long time. As times change, it has been reconfigured a bit. Back in the days of slavery, figures vary, and there is some disagreement as to the numbers, so to be safe, somewhere between 5% and maybe 25%, but probably closer to 5% of the Southern population owned slaves. The bloodiest war in the history of this country was fought over the interests of roughly 5% of the population of the area. Most of the other 95% were either owned by and/or worked for, or was in some way obligated to that 5%. Some 150 odd years later, this whole region is still suffering from those repressions and a backlash from the attitudes that lead to that war, which like most of our wars today are still fought for the good of maybe 5% of the population, that is just a maybe. It is actually more like 1%. It seems to me, folks have been "in it together" for quite some time.
The thing is, with those kinds of numbers, from the start, for that proverbial 5% to maintain their position, those poor, albeit temporarily in hard times, aristocratic Southern Whites had to be convinced that they were one of them, not poor at all, or to be confused with those among the "lower classes." Despite their obviously temporary inconvenient financial misfortunes, they were indeed among the veritably venerated morally elite aristocracy. None of them had a thing in common with their poor Black neighbors down the street, who were cursed until the end of their days by Noah himself, much less that poor White trash cousin, who was indeed degenerate and morally depraved, despite working three jobs. The abject poverty of them all was highly indicative of the most heinous of moral depravity. Those politicians hit the streets, knocking on doors; hands were shaking, heart-to-heart and eye-to-eye. They were a resounding success.
What do we get out of this? A whole lot of folks who think that being rich is highly indicative of the highest of moral standards. That if you are hard working and moral, even if you are not rich now, you have just temporarily met with hard times, and if you vote for them—as in—for the things that help them get further ahead—the things that will help keep the rich rich and the elites elite—if you do that, it will trickle down to you and being the hard working moral person you are—you will be back where you belong—among the aristocracy—the proverbial 5% or 1% as it is today.
As to the race issue, that was there too, and a potential problem to those good politicians if the working class Blacks and Whites ever got it through their head it might be a good thing to work together.…
Sin is important in the South or the apparent lack thereof and so are morals. Thanks to the good politicians, if you are White, even if you don't have a penny to your name, you are infinitely and for all time superior (or at least you consider yourself superior) to a person with as much as a single drop of Black blood in their lineage because your great, great, great… granddaddy did not accidentally walk in on his daddy when he was drunk… and naked.
As if in a direct affront to every single ounce of intellectual reason, all that had been gained, and despite finally being free, a whole lot of things got a whole lot worse before they ever started getting better for the African Americans in this land. Thanks to sin, morality and a few good politicians. Instead of having more and increasing rights, the few rights they did have disappeared into a land of Jim Crow Laws and a South so divided that when the Civil Rights Movement emerged it was like one more civil war or perhaps that the other had never ended. On both sides of that war, there was a whole lot of Bible quoting, Hell, fire, and brimstone preaching, and a whole lot of praying, too.
God was on somebody's side, but it was never quite clear exactly whose. Sins are very important in the South. Did I say that before? We have to keep our sins in perspective. Ham never should have walked in on Noah when he was drunk… much less naked. And even if he did, he should have done something about it, covered him up or something. If he'd been a good Southern boy, he would have locked that sin in a good strong closet and thrown away the key. But no, he went to get his brothers to try to figure out what to do about their drunk naked daddy. I don't know what he was thinking. Some things belong in the closet. Blacks would not be in the shape they are in today, much less then, if Ham had understand that some things really do belong in a closet with a good strong door and a key that can't be found.
Anyway, somehow from point A to point B, we have the moral superiority of both money and White people, which in the first case is based on having plenty of it, and in the second case is most apparently based on not having an ancestor who accidentally walked in on their drunk naked daddy.
The more I thought on it, I had a hard time getting my mind around the moral superiority of people with money, especially some of the people I knew and how they got that morally superior money. I never quite bought into the thing about Noah either. When we talk about Noah today, we talk about the ark and the flood and all the animals. I always loved the story of Noah's Ark. That is some smooth public relations skills there. Nobody goes around talking about how he got so drunk, doing Lord knows what, buck naked and all that. Then he cursed his son and all his son's offspring to be slaves throughout eternity and to the end of the earth for walking in on him when he was so indisposed. I'm sorry, but that just seems a little extreme. What I'd really like to know is what Noah was doing when Ham walked in on him.
What is it called when somebody walks in on somebody and that somebody is guilty as all sin and somehow before the story ends, the one who walked in and accidentally found out that the other person was sinning, they end up being pronounced guilty. To this day, people talk about Noah and his ark, whether they are Christian or no, children everywhere know the story of Noah and the ark. Everybody doesn't know so much about Ham though, mostly just the ones who find it convenient. And the ones who do, they never tell those stories in the same breath. Somehow or other, they start locking that closet door instead of wondering what it was Ham walked in on, what exactly Noah was doing, and why in tarnation some folks think they can use it all to justify what they did to African Americans in this country.
Anyway, for all kinds of reasons, I had all kinds of problems with all that. It was somehow a South that did not leave me quite so proud. Make no mistake, I am a daughter of the South. I love my people and I love my land. But I've also done some thinking along the way. And I've had more than a few years to do that thinking. Times change and people do, too. The more we learn about the way of things, sometimes we change our minds as to what we might consider morally right or wrong. Not because it is not right or wrong, but because we learn things that we didn't know before, could be some of those things were locked away in a closet somewhere.
On a personal level, I have come to realize, I am not among the 1%. I am not even among the 5%. No matter how blue my blood, no matter the position of my family among the early settlers who came over, the nobility of my family before they ever set foot on a boat for this New World, or the general who served in "The War," it doesn't matter. None of that matters. I am not among the aristocracy. I am not just temporarily on hard times. It doesn't matter how hard I work, it is not likely I am ever going to be among the 1%. For me to vote and walk around living as if I am is not going to do me a bit of good.
I should be voting for me and what will make my life better, not for the things that will make sure that the folks who already have the most will continue to have more than their share of it. That doesn't make good common sense. No matter how many times they say it, saying it a million times will not change the truth. It will not trickle down to me and it will not make my life any better when they get richer. They are not morally superior because they have more money. I will not be morally superior because I vote for them. And my neighbors are not lazy depraved good for nothing degenerates because they have to work three jobs to get by. Why was that understanding such a long time coming?
Times keep changing, the stories change, and the characters change, but the moral doesn't. The line about us being "in this together"—that hasn't changed either. The Blacks are in now, finally, and the Hispanics are out, way out. So everybody thinks whatever they can do to discriminate against them is just fine, poor, lazy, morally depraved, and all that. That is just about where people start forgetting their history. Who is telling them what and exactly whom are they saying it about?
We're gossip prone in the South. There is no doubt about that. And the higher the faluting the mouth doing the gossip, the more likely we are to listen. Back when this started, we didn't have the resources or the communications technology to get a handle on what was really happening from the big picture. When those politicians went door-to-door with their hate mongering gossip, make no mistake, that is what it was, but the people who came before us, they did not have the communications technology or the resources to get to the bottom of things that we do today. They were not in a position to have enough news and information to come close to providing them with the resources they need to sort out the lies from the truth. One thing I have learned along the way, no matter how hard you work at it, it still takes some sorting. Could be there is a reason for that too, and that reason is pretty much the same as it was when they really were going door-to-door.
There is something in us all, when the powers that be, whatever or whoever those powers are, when they whisper in our ear, shaking their head about the degeneracy and the low life scum among us, we like to think that we are the ones on the high road, that we are the hard workers, the chosen ones, we are indeed better than the others. We are not. As hard as it is to understand, we are in this together. It is not our closet with the missing key.
Copyright 2013 Regina Pickett Garson
All Rights Reserved
Image: Rosedown Plantation: Brandonrush at the Wikipedia Project.
All Rights Reserved
Image: Rosedown Plantation: Brandonrush at the Wikipedia Project.
Note: The genesis of this essay was a Southern Sociology course taught by Gene Hodges at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, 25 some odd years ago. The course included much discussion of The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash, which although dated, is still considered a seminal work in Southern thought. I have read other along the way. In an attempt to update my information and make sure I got my facts straight, I also checked various online and print sources. If there are errors, it is not with intent, and not because I did not try to get it right. The one thing I have learned along the way, is that the more I learned about these matters the less I realized that I truly knew. I am indeed a daughter of the South. My family was here before The War. I love the South, but some of the skeletons in those closets really bothered me. It was always my intent that before I was gone, I would put some of these things to paper. At a certain age they say, it is time to "get 'er done." With that, the words are words I felt needed to be said. I did my best to put down the truth as I know it. As for the rest, all I can say is it is what it is.
For more information:
Southern Populists: http://etymonline.com/cw/populists.htm
The Mind of the South (1941) by W. J. Cash. Vintage Books.
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS): http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/index.html
The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) by C. Vann Woodward. Oxford University Press, USA