Thursday, June 27, 2013

Paula Deen and the Myth of the Happy South


The most damning moment about race in the Paula Deen transcript took place during a long discussion about her brother’s wedding plans. Deen had been to a restaurant in “Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere” that had an extremely professional wait-staff of middle-aged black men, dressed in white jackets, black trousers, and black bow ties. She was asked if she had referred to them as “niggers,” by accident, and she said, “No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.”  As others have noted, the answer suggests that she would quite possible refer to non-professional black men, or black men not doing a fabulous job, as “niggers.”  Such an attitude would not be atypical for American white southerners, or indeed for many other people around the country of many different races, but still exposes a celebrity like Deen to charges of racism. 

To be fair to the plaintiff, Lisa Jackson, who is suing Deen, claimed the celebrity chef said, “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.”  I actually find that kind of unlikely, but it’s anything is possible.

I think the focus on racial epithets, while understandable, misses a complex subtext. In memoriam, we’re still fighting the Civil War.

Perhaps I should have written, “The War of Northern Aggression,” the oddly complex mouthful  that many southerners have adopted as their preferred terminology (the Wikipedia entry on varied names is pretty useful).  The name focuses on the north as the aggressor, the wrong-doer, with the south simply defending themselves and their “way of life.” The incoming head of the N.R.A., for example, talks about the war of Northern Aggression as a reason people need firearms.

But Paula Deen calls it the Civil War. Here’s a long excerpt:

Q Do you recall using the words "really southern plantation wedding"?
A Yes, I did say I would love for Bubba to experience a very southern style wedding, and we did that. We did that.
Q Okay. You would love for him to experience a southern style plantation wedding?
A Yes.

The deposition continues:

Q   Why did that make it a -- if you would have had servers like that [the black waiters], why would that have made it a really southern plantation wedding?
A Well, it -- to me, of course I'm old but I ain't that old, I didn't live back in those days  but I've seen pictures, and the pictures that I've seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.
Q Okay.
A And I was in the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south. 
Q Okay. What era in America are you referring to?
A Well, I don't know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.

Deen has fully embraced the romanticized version of American southern history. The blacks worked in the house, serving the whites, with great professionalism and care. In her praise for the black waiters, she reveals herself a player in the ongoing struggle to re-write American southern history as anything but a slave-based empire.

This vision requires admitting that slavery existed, which Deen does later in the transcript, but suggesting that it really wasn’t all that bad, that blacks who worked for good masters found life pleasant as part of an extended family. This narrative embraces the myth of the paternalistic system that yes, involved slavery, but the slavery was so much better than in other parts of the world. And it’s true – in the Carribean, where slaves were imported regularly, conditions were worse. In the American south, you needed slaves to be able to breed, because children had monetary value. At any rate, historians have debunked the myth that slaves were not treated cruelly and didn’t rebel. One could look up Loren Schweninger’s work for starters. Slaves fought. They ran away. They tried to escape their conditions. And they were punished for it, often brutally.
Another part of this myth embraces the idea that although NOW we know slavery is bad and all people are humans, we didn’t know this in 1800 or so. This is not true either, although the equality of blacks to whites as a general principle took a long, long, time to develop (and witnessed first the birth of scientific racism). As England outlawed slavery, norms were shifting long before the first shot of the Civil War.

And then finally we get the Civil War, not as a war about slavery, but over states rights. And yet, if you unpack each and every document of secession, they all explicitly mention the “states rights” to keep slavery legal as the cause of secession. It’s inconvenient for southern nationalists (people who see Southerners as an independent people who should have the right of self-determination) and defenders of the Confederate culture (and flags) to focus on slavery, so they argue against the evidence. The evidence, however, is clear - the civil war was about slavery. Alas, it is very hard to change people’s minds on articles of faith, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is.

One fascinating off-shoot of this is the question of black confederate soldiers. They didn’t exist. A Virginia textbook claimed they did until a professor noticed (and read that whole link; it’s riveting, and has lots of good links). What’s so interesting here is that there was a faction in the Confederacy that argued for freeing and arming slaves, as they knew they had a manpower issue. They were outvoted until the final year of the war when things were desperate, and even after a few slaves were enlisted, not a single one saw combat (here’s the book on the topic, by an Illinois professor).

And yet, despite all the evidence, the myth marches on. At the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference last March, at a panel on minority outreach, an audience member reacted to the idea that Frederick Douglas had forgiven his former owner. “For what?” said Scott Terry, “for feeding him and housing him?” There was some applause and cheering. Terry later claimed to be a direct descendent of Jefferson Davis.

Paula Deen does not deserve to lose her job or sponsors for being nostalgic for the era of slavery and Jim Crow. The idea that she is being “lynched,” as claimed by the horror/romance author Anne Rice, or “crucified,” a word I am seeing all over the conservative blogosphere, seems to betray a certain lack of historical awareness on the part of the writers, or maybe they are just being ironic.  To me, it works like this: Deen said some disturbing things. She’s a public figure whose earning depend on people liking her. Now fewer people like her. Therefore, she’s worth less money as a spokeswoman or on TV. This is not about free speech or “lynch mobs,” but is the price of fame-based and personality-based merchandising.

But I refute the idea that her romanticized view of the south is harmless. From her visions of black men in bow ties serving whites, of  plantation culture, of the charm of southern life “After the Civil War. During the Civil War. Before the Civil War,” we go straight to Scott Terry, to the author of a Virginia textbook, to the very people who right now are undermining the voting rights act claiming that the blacks of yore were proud of their relationship with their paternal masters, to the people hanging confederate flags from courthouses. It’s not harmless when anyone holds these ideas and certainly not when it comes from a self-made icon of the South.

Anyway, if you’re not from the South, don’t feel so smug.  We all try smooth away embarrassing truths out of our histories. It’s the job of the historian and of the informed citizen to resist that impulse, because the abrasion of rough edges might, just might, keep us from replicating the sins of the past.