A Failed Southern Lady at Ole Miss

In this excerpt from her (somewhat fictionalized) Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985), self-confessed misanthrope Florence King—celebrated by conservatives and liberals alike for her arsenical wit—renders a somewhat breezy and most definitely catty account of her brief career as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in 1958. She wrote Confessions in graduate school, which she never finished after embarking on a career as a writing putative first-person stories for pulp magazines like Uncensored Confessions. (Her first: “My God! I’m Too Passionate for My Own Good!”) Many might find her impressions of Ole Miss in the late ‘50s of interest, and fans will like the way King lays the overwhelmingly Southern-ness of Oxford on with a trowel. This selection also describes the beginnings of her passionate love affair with a young woman who was killed in a car accident shortly afterwards.

My South was a region of narrow red brick Federalist houses and vast rolling acres of cobblestones. I had never seen naked children playing with a dead snake, nor a four-year-old standing up to nurse at the breast of a mother seated on a porch, but these riveting sights were mine from the window of the Memphis-Oxford bus.

Oxford itself was a pretty town with a courthouse on the square and a Confederate statue in front of it. It was almost dark when the bus pulled into the depot. As I got off, a taxi driver spotted me for a student and jumped forward, tipping his cap.

“Carry you up to campus, l’il lady?”

His idiom for “drive” was another first; for a moment I visualized myself arriving in a swoon in his skinny arms. He loaded my luggage and I gave him the name of the dorm the dean had assigned me to.

“That’s Miz Arvella’s dorm,” he said, referring to the housemother the dean had mentioned. “A fine woman.”

Proctors had to arrive two days earlier than the other students, so the campus was empty and unlighted when he pulled up before a dimly outlined rectangular house set in a copse of dark overhanging trees. In the tradition of Gothic paperback covers, one light burned in the house. The driver shone his headlights on the walk so I could see and I mounted the porch and rang the bell. I heard footsteps and then the door opened.

“Hey, Miz Arvella!” the driver cried happily.

“Hey, Mistuh Reece! How you doin’? How you been? You have a good summuh?” She turned to me. “You must be Flarnz. Are you Flarnz? Are you the proctuh named Flarnz? They said you wuh comin’ tonight. The Dean said to me this mornin’, she said, ‘Flarnz is comin’ tonight.’ Did you get heah awright? How you doin’?”

Everybody started talking at once; the driver answering his questions, I answering mine, and Miz Arvella asking more. It made walking through the door difficult: other people enter houses but Southerners surge in on wings of speech. Miz Arvella was the same age and shape as every other old lady I had ever known, but there was nonetheless something un-Daughterly about her. The word “askew” came to mind. I was used to rigidly glued gray fingerwaves and personalities to match, but Miz Arvella looked as if she had been cut out of her own speech pattern.

I reminded myself that I was getting a free private room out of this. Miz Arvella took me upstairs and showed it to me as the driver followed behind with my bags. It was huge and attractively furnished and sans Granny-my first room-of-one’s own. I paid the driver and he left me alone with the fine woman.

“Come on down aftuh you wash up. We’ll have us some coffee and Ah’ll explain your duties,” she said, and waddled out.

I washed up and looked out the window but could see nothing except an amber patch made by my own light; beyond it lay the wet black velvet of a Southern night. It was as still as death, yet there was something pervasively alive about it, a sense of things unseen moving among the trees on soundless wings. No wonder so many of the early settlers had gone mad. (“One Nathaniel Upton was floggèd for shewing himself in publick unclothed.”)

I went downstairs to join Miz Arvella. She led me to a little room with a wall board that contained buzzers and corresponding room numbers. Next to the board was the proctor’s desk and a table containing the sign-out book. According to the dean’s letter, I was to alternate odd and even nights with Miz Arvella, each of us having every other weekend off. There was very little to do and I could study at the desk once the girls were out on their dates. I had to check them in, keep track of late records and grace periods, chase any boys out of the lounge when the witching hour struck, and lock the doors.

As a woman of legal age, I had no curfew. I could go out after I locked the magnolia blossoms in, and stay out all night if I wished. My job entitled me to a key to the dorm, which Miz Arvella issued me now.

Next she explained the buzzer system. This is what she said:

“When a guhl has a phone call, you know what Ah mean, when the telephone rings, when somebody is callin’ huh up. When a guhl has a phone call, you press huh bell once. When she has a calluh, when a boy comes in to get huh, you know what Ah’m tryin’ to say, when they’ve got a date that night and he picks huh up, when he comes in and asks for huh in puhson ‘stead of callin’ on the phone, you unnerstand what Ah mean? When she has a calluh, then you press huh bell twice. That way, she knows whethuh she’s got a phone call or a calluh. ‘Cause see, if she has a calluh and you press huh bell once ‘stead of twice, she’ll think it’s a call ‘stead of a calluh. She’d come downstairs in huh dressin’ gown with huh hair up in cullahs, and there stands huh calluh, just standin’ there right in front of huh just as big as life. She’d just die of embarrassment, you know what Ah mean, she’d just fall down dead is what Ah’m sayin’, she’d just perish!”

She invited me to dinner in her apartment but I pleaded travel fatigue and escaped to my room. I poured myself a drink from Herb’s Prohibition flask, which he had filled with Scotch and given me for a going-away present. I heard the phone ring in Miz Arvella’s bedroom. A call, not a calluh. I put my hair up in cullahs, had another drink-you know what I mean, I poured some more whiskey out of the flask and drank it is what I’m saying—and fell into bed.

I slept twelve hours and awoke to the kind of morning that can turn night people into morning people. The warm sunny air was so fresh and sweet that I actually stuck my head out the window and inhaled. Ole Miss had a bona fide campusy look that my city college had striven for and missed. It was enough to make a graduate student feel like a co-ed at last, instead of the strangely haunted, secret-drinking proctor of Miz Arvella.

No sooner did this thought pass through my mind than I heard a tap at my door.

“Flarnz? You there, Flarnz? Come on down and have breakfast. Miz Zaviola’s heah. She’s one of the othuh housemothuhs and she’s just dyin’ to meet you.”

I was starving to death, so with two of us in extremis there was no reason to try and get out of it. I dressed and went downstairs, sniffing appreciatively at the aroma of Miz Arvella’s home-baked biscuits.

The other housemother looked more like my kind of old lady but she sounded exactly like Miz Arvella. This is what she said over breakfast:

“When Ah heard they wuh lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy, Ah saw the handwritin’ on the wall. Ah said to myself Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall if they let those guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy. Ah said the same thing to one of the mothuhs that called me. She asked me what did Ah think about them lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy and Ah said to huh Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall.”

My stomach was shaking. I was sorry because I had always enjoyed old ladies and I wanted to enjoy these, but I had to escape the echo chamber. As soon as I could politely do so, I excused myself and went for a walk around the campus. It was nearly deserted without the students but I had an imaginary companion. As we strolled through the grove in front of the white-columned Lyceum, Somerset Maugham whispered in my ear: “It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with equal zest.”

Maybe. Probably. But there was something a little too sweeping about Willie’s theory. The most feminine temperament I had ever encountered belonged to Evelyn Cunningham, but though she was a chatterbox, she was not a repeating rifle. No matter how much she talked she always moved forward, usually too fast; her needle never got stuck. Compared to Miz Arvella and Miz Zaviola, Evelyn was taciturn.

I stayed out as long as I could, but with the campus closed and no car to take me into town I was thrown back on the dorm. That meant having my meals with Miz Arvella because I want to emphasize this-she was what the South calls “a good soul.” She would give you half of anything she had to eat and three of everything she had to say.

As long as I had to endure her echolalia, I decided to analyze it. Perhaps she had been the youngest in a large family and had trouble getting people to listen to her. When she told me she was the oldest of seven and had raised her siblings after their mother’s untimely death, I decided that her thrice-told tales sprang from saying “No, no, no” to children while she herself was still a child. When both housemothers told me their late husbands had been farmers, I blamed isolation in the country with laconic men. This did not explain the absence of echolalia in farmwives in other parts of America, especially New England, but by then I was in no condition to pick a fight with myself.

All of my theories collapsed on the first day of school when the dorm was invaded by girls and mothers from every part of Mississippi, representing every social background and sibling rank, who all said everything at least three times.

“Well, lemme tell you, Ah’ve been on the horns of a dilemma evva since we got up this mornin’ to drive Tulaplee up heah from Jaspah City. Ah’ve nevva seen a fuhst day like this one. Ah tole Jimmy Lee while we wuh drivin’ up heah, Ah said Jimmy Lee Ah said, Ah’m on the horns of a dilemma, that’s what Ah tole him. When we got to Clarksdale, Tulaplee remembuhed that she forgot huh opal necklace and we had to tuhn right around and go back home and get it. By the time we got stahted again, Ah was on the horns of a dilemma the likes of which you have nevva seen.”

“Mary Lou’s upstairs just cryin’ huh eyes out ’cause it’s the fuhst time she’s evva been away from home. But Ah tole huh, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, there’s no point cryin’ your eyes out ’cause there comes a time when the Mama bird pushes the babies out of the nest. You know what Ah mean, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, Nature tells the Mama bird to push the babies out of the nest, so you hadn’t ought to cry your eyes out like that, ’cause the time has come for you to leave the nest, that’s what Ah tole huh. But she kept cryin’ huh eyes out, so I went and got huh Daddy and Ah tole him Ah said T.J. Ah said, you make that chile unnerstand that she’s just got to leave the nest. So T.J. talked to huh a long time, a right good while, and finally she dried huh eyes and she said to me, Mama, she said, you’re right. Ah’ve just got to fly.”

The front door burst open, crashed against the wall, and shuddered on its hinges as an embattled mother and daughter surged through the foyer and stormed upstairs. This time it was the daughter doing the talking.

“Ah got sick and tard of listenin’ to all that ole hoorah so Ah tole him Ah said Purvis Lee Thornton Ah said, Ah don’t want to heah another word out of you, so you just hush your mouth right this minute, that’s what Ah tole him. And he said to me he said Jackie Sue he said, Ah know good ‘n’ well you been datin’ Lamar Creighton on the sly, and Ah said now listen heah Ah said, that’s the biggest bunch of hoorah Ah evva heard! Ah said you just take that up the road and dump it, Ah said, ’cause you’re just as full of hoorah as you can be, that’s what Ah tole him.”

Thus vanished my slim hope of blaming it on the menopause. I took four aspirin, helped Miz Arvella get everybody squared away, and then escaped to the allmale world of the History Department to sign up for my classes. I took Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Age of Reason, Historiography and Historical Research, and Thesis I. After I registered, I had an interview with my thesis advisor.

“I see from your transcripts that you’ve had six years of French,” he said. “I assume you’re planning a topic from French history, since you can do the research in the original. How about Syndicalism?”

Ralph had warned me about professor-generated topics. (“You can bet he’s writing a book on it and wants a free research assistant.”)

“Labor movements don’t interest me,” I replied, “and besides, it’s too recent. I like the distant past.”

Having blurted these sentiments to the only liberal at Ole Miss, I was smoothly but quickly transferred to another advisor, but he too pounced on the French, albeit with much more chronological empathy.

“How about Pippin the Short?”

“I’ll think about it,” I lied.

I wanted to write on the historical Bérénice, but I hesitated to say so for two reasons. First, very little was known about her and I was afraid there would not be enough to make a whole thesis. Second, I did not want to suggest a female topic after two men had suggested meaty male topics. I knew what History Departments thought of “hen scholars poring over Godey’s Lady’s Book.” I decided to see if I could solve both of these problems by fleshing out Bérénice with Titus and her father and grandfather, Herod Agrippa and Herod the Great. The latter’s policy on watery moles was bound to be an inspiration.

Next I went to the library to get my carrel assignment. The study nooks for graduate students, smaller versions of Herb’s first alcove at Park Road, were on the top floor of the library. The room was blessedly quiet and deserted. My carrel was next to a half-moon partitioned window that faced east and got the cool morning light. The desk was a Formica slab bolted to the wall, which made me think of the stationary desks bolted to the floor in high school. I gazed around the partitioned little space and smiled. It seemed more like my first private room than the one I had in the dorm. I ran my hand along the bookshelf above the desk. I was going to like studying here.

I heard a chair scrape and turned around. A woman stood in one of the cubicles in the back of the room with her arm draped over the top of her partition. The sleeve of her white shirtwaist was rolled up to the elbow in a businesslike way but the arm was languidly, almost bonelessly Southern. Just then she moved, seeming to push herself off the partition with a conscious effort, and started up the aisle toward me. She looked slender even though she wore a gathered skirt, so the body under it must have been thin. Her hair was dark and wavy and twisted carelessly up on the crown of her head in a chignon from which a few strands escaped and straggled down. She was taller than I, and as she came closer I saw that she was older. She looked about twenty-seven.

It seemed to take her forever to get from her carrel to mine. Southerner she undoubtedly was but a repeating rifle, never. Her smile was slow and lazy, too, but her undernourished air did not extend to her teeth. They were strong, perfectly aligned, and as white as her cotton blouse.

“Hey,” she said.

It meant “Hi.” Her eyes were dark grayish-green with golden flecks. I wondered what she put down when she filled out an application. She wore no makeup at all.

“Saw you get in a cab last night. I was going to carry you up to campus but you got away.”

I was still not used to “carry” for “drive” but her voice was as soft as velvet. I introduced myself and she responded with something that sounded like “breast.”

“Beg pardon?”

She gave a resigned smile as though she had been through this many times before.

“B-R-E-S. Rhymes with dress. My mother’s maiden name was Le Brès. Huguenot. We’re from the Gulf.”

“Are you a graduate student?” I asked.

“Graduate assistant. Classics. I got my master’s last year. I’m doing independent reading this year.”

“You mean Latin and Greek?” She nodded. “But Latin’s my specialty.”

It explained her oddly un-Southern, elliptical way of speaking. The military precision of Latin would necessarily eliminate the Mississippi daisy chain. I was terrifically impressed. As I tried to think of something ungulpy to say, she looked at her watch.

“Want to go get some coffee?” The jukebox was playing “Tom Dooley” when we entered the snack bar. It would continue to play all that year and become the song I afterwards associated with her, incongruous as it and she were. Several people gave her a quick glance and then looked speculatively at me. She continued on through the main part of the shop and led me to a smaller annex around a corner. I put my books down beside hers on the table she chose and we went to get our coffee.

“That’s our section,” she said, jerking her head back toward the annex. “It’s known as the Poet’s Corner. The campus cuties and the meatheads always sit in the main section. It’s called segregation,” she added with light irony.

I decided to test her. “I call campus cuties malkins.”

She knew what it meant. “Yes, they are that, but campus cutie is a proper noun around here. Capitalized. An official title. An award.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. The student newspaper picks a Campus Cutie of the Week. Black.”

“What?” “No, I mean the coffee.”

We returned to the table and I told her about my idea for a thesis on Bérénice. Once again she picked up the intellectual ball and ran with it-much farther than I could.

“Hmm. Not much to go on. Tacitus mainly. ‘Titus reginam Berenicem, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur, statim ab Urbe dimisit invitus invitam,’” she quoted rapidly. Something that was pure joy went through me. “There’s a little more in Deo Cassius,” she continued. “And the New Testament. Saint Paul met her. Bet that was an interesting occasion.”

Two co-eds at a table at the end of the main section were peering around the bend and staring at us. When I looked at them, one smirked and jabbed the other with troopers looking for cars with low trunks. I heard about the bootlegger who ran “Johnny’s Grocery” who became so undone by hypocrisy that he eventually came to believe he really was a grocer and started attending meetings of the Retail Food Merchants Association.

The strangest story they told me was about the local option situation over in the next county. Anyone with a powerful thirst could drive thirty miles to Batesville where there was a tavern that sold perfectly legal malt liquor. Not beer, malt liquor.

“Why malt liquor?” I asked.

Nobody knew. “That’s just the way it is,” Lucius said with a shrug.

It was an example of those recumbent QED’s that so infuriate Northern liberals. Another is: “It’s always been that way.”

Suddenly I found myself dying for a drink. I was not much of a drinker at this time, and it was only mid-afternoon, but going to live in Mississippi was like being transported back to the 1920s: I wanted it because it was against the law to have it. The others evidently felt the same way; all had a parched, panting look. I was about to suggest a drive to Batesville when Augustus spoke up.

“Hey, I’ve got a jug of Thunderbird wine in my room. How about if we take it down to Bres’s apartment and drink it?”

I had never drunk Thunderbird but like all city people, I was familiar with the vintage, having seen empty bottles bearing the label scattered in alleys. Bres agreed to the suggestion and we left the coffeeshop.

First, we had to stop by Augustus’s dorm and stand watch while he brought out the jug in his laundrybag, surrounded, for authenticity’s sake, by a bundle of his underwear. I expected to hear sirens closing in on us. It was a heartrending example of the sanctity of states’ rights.

The six of us walked down to the well-named Faculty Shacks, tiny frame houses like beach cottages whose peeling exteriors evoked the old saying, “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Each little house was a separate apartment with its own driveway; Bres’s contained a 1954 Ford with Pearl River County tags. She opened the door of the house and we trooped in.

The uncarpeted living room was like an oven. While she was in the kitchen getting ice, I looked around. The furniture consisted of two mattress-on-a-door couches facing each other and separated by a cable spool coffee table; the lamps had been made out of green wine jugs weighted with pebbles, and the bookcases from planks of lumber and cinder blocks. All in all, bohemian done to a turn.

She was fairly neat but not shockingly so; her slut’s wool was coming along nicely and her window ledges contained that undisturbed layer of aristocracy to which I was accustomed. There were books everywhere, in and out of the bookcases, and an enormous collection of grant literature: prospecti and brochures on Fulbright-this and Guggenheim-that. Lucius noted my interest in them.

“If you want to know how to live on grants forever, ask ole Bres. Freighters to Europe, too. She’s got the schedules memorized.”

It was exactly what I did want to know. I imagined the two of us living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and sharing a Left Bank garret. It was an easy dream to realize in the fifties; grant money fell like rain and Arthur Frommer was the Vagabond King.

Bres brought in the ice and we started drinking the awful wine. I could barely swallow it but everyone else lapped it up. Still thinking about the Southern-ness of classical studies, I ventured my opinion and asked the others what they thought.

Bres shook her head. “That was true once but today’s Mississippians wouldn’t buy it. One way or another, Latin makes them mad.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Three reasons.” She shot a long index finger out of the relaxed curve of her fist. “Primo, it’s Catholic, so the Baptists hate it. Secundo, it’s the symbol of scholarship, so the anti-intellectuals hate it. Tertio, the campus cuties hate it because it has a reputation for being hard to learn, and that makes it unfeminine.”

She turned to me with the barest inquisitive glance. I had difficulty swallowing, but this time it had nothing to do with the wine.

“Actually, they’re right for once,” she went on. “It is unfeminine. It’s ideal for writing military reports, which is what Caesar’s Gallic War is. The g’s and c’s are hard. The Church has ruined the real Roman pronunciation, you know?-and then there’s that marvelous brevity. Southern women like to put things in, but Latin takes things out. Like “Where is the mirror?’ Ubi speculum est? You don’t need ‘the.”

Once again she looked at me. Her glance was wry at first, but as I held it her eyes widened with unmistakable meaning. Suddenly she put down her wineglass and raised graceful arms to her hair and began to reorder it in that half-abstracted, half-automatic way of women who wear their hair up, swiping at the nape of her neck to catch loose strands and tucking them into the chignon at the crown. As I continued to watch her, she removed a bobby pin and opened it with her teeth. There is no gesture more womanly, yet it has all the carelessness of a little girl who loses her sweaters and breaks her Thermos jars. Something melted inside of me, a hard tight ball in whose center lay a tenderness I had never acknowledged or expressed. I wanted to hug her, to pull her into my lap and rock her. When she smiled shyly up at me from under the bow of her bent arms, it was all I could do not to cry.

The ghastly wine was nearly gone. I had drunk only one glass but my tongue tasted like a Croatian army sock. I shuddered as the others drained their glasses in one gulp and smacked their lips appreciatively; evidently Mississippians would drink anything. Sorella suggested that we turn our afternoon into a night of serious drinking, and the Grope started discussing a gas station near Water Valley where, it was rumored, you could buy a pint of applejack. Not whiskey, applejack; not gin, applejack. It being impossible to telephone ahead and ask point blank if the gas station sold illegal hooch, they were willing to drive all the way down to Water Valley on the strength of this uncertain gossip.

Reluctantly, I looked at my watch. “I’m on the desk tonight.”

“We’ll make a hooch run when Florence can go with us,” Bres ruled, and the argument subsided at once.

We all went to the cafeteria instead. I should have been hungry but I could barely finish a hamburger. I had fallen in love at last.

South to America: Race, Black Nationalism, and Jackson, Mississippi

These selections from Imani Perry’s South to America (Ecco; January 25, 2022) join earlier excerpts from V.S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South and Joan Didion’s South and West to exhibit how others from outside the American South perceive both the region in general and Mississippi in specifics. Perry’s work echoes Naipaul’s in scope and form (in fact, she read A Turn in the South to prepare herself for the project), but Perry’s work is more perceptive, more learned, sure, and determined.

 Many will find South to America as provocative as it is ambitious. Perry maintains that race is “at the heart of the South, and at the heart of the nation,” and that “the country has leeched off the racialized exploitation of the South while also denying it.” These selections provide the reader with a radical perspective on the South, and most specifically on Jackson, Mississippi, which she says is “publicly, unapologetically Black.” While many will be surprised to hear Jackson’s Mayor Lumumba referred to as a “scion of Black nationalism,” it’s certainly nothing new.

Race is at the heart of the South, and at the heart of the nation. Like the conquest of Indigenous people, the creation of racial slavery in the colonies was a gateway to habits and dispositions that ultimately became the commonplace ways of doing things in this country. They came to a head at the dawn of the Civil War, only to settle back into the old routines for a hundred years before reaching a fever pitch again before receding.

. . . . . .

We are a nation that stratifies, often putting the people who build and sustain it at the bottom. Among us, there are citizens, second-class citizens, noncitizens, and those who are cast so far beneath every other category that it is as though they are seen as nonpersons. Although these habits are not all directly about race, race remains the most dramatic light switch of the country and its sorting. And yet “racism,” despite all evidence of its ubiquity, is still commonly described as “belonging to the South. I don’t just mean that other regions ignore their racism and poverty and project them onto the South, although that is certainly true. I also mean that the cruelest labor of sustaining the racial-class order was historically placed upon the South. Its legacy of racism then is of course bloodier than most. But other regions are also bloody in deed. Discrimination is everywhere, but collectively the country has leeched off the racialized exploitation of the South while also denying it.

The consequence of the projection of national sins, and specifically racism, onto one region is a mis-narration of history and American identity. The consequence of truncating the South and relegating it to a backwards corner is a misapprehension of its power in American history. Paying attention to the South-its past, its dance, its present, its threatening future, and most of all how it moves the rest of the country about-allows us to understand much more about our nation, and about how our people, land, and commerce work in relation to one another, often cruelly, and about how our tastes and ways flow from our habits.

. . . . . .

Harpers Ferry is a historical chiasmus. In school, we learn how slavery was heroically defeated. Harpers Ferry was a precipitant. In Harpers Ferry, we learn of a hero’s defeat by the forces of a slave society. It is the main event. The flip is all the more pointed because of the political history and public memory of the South. Many in the region haven’t ever really accepted the loss of the Civil War, or perhaps more accurately, The South is on a recurring loop of cold Civil War battles that repeatedly bend towards the logic of the slavocracy. Even now, with some Confederate monuments toppled, many—literal and symbolic-remain. They are evident in the crowing about states’ rights and gun rights, efforts to disenfranchise  Black voters, and desperate attempts to keep the world’s puppet strings in the hands of elite White Americans. Ironically, then, like places throughout the South, Harpers Ferry is a monument to the defeated. Only here the defeated are wild-eyed radical abolitionist John Brown and his companions, and not the Confederate dead.

Harpers Ferry is shaped like a seal head, with the Potomac River above, the Shenandoah below. The tip of the nose is where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. At this crossroads, in 1866, fresh from the disaster of the war, Black people came together in homage to Brown and built a one-room schoolhouse for freedpeople, called Storer. It grew into a degree-granting four-year historically Black college. There is a small exhibition about the establishment of Storer College and subsequent events.

In 1906, after the promises of Reconstruction had been denied, and Jim Crow had settled across the South, members of the Niagara movement gathered at Storer College. This was the second meeting of the racial justice organization. Its leaders, W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, were influential Black intellectuals.

. . . . .

The Niagara movement, though not taking up arms, was radical in its time. As measured and intellectual as their pursuits were, such work was driven by a passion that was more often than not punished.

As with many HBCUs, Storer was once a high school in addition to a college. The first president of postcolonial Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, completed his high school education at Storer before going on to Howard University. I tried to imagine-with some difficulty the brilliant and fiery African revolutionary leader up here in the West Virginia mountains. Mostly, I wondered how he experienced this brand of Whiteness that in its speech patterns and sartorial details was not like that of British colonists, yet just as insistent upon superiority. Did he contemplate the trees, just as green as in Nigeria, but full of leaves that spiked out rather than arched? Did he ache with loneliness? Though Azikiwe is mentioned in the Storer College exhibit, there isn’t much discussion of his time or reflections about what it meant for a man who became so great out there to have been a Black boy here.

Maybe I am projecting too much onto the place, keeping myself from seeing it fully. Maybe there is nothing unusual about a leader of African independence studying math, running a pawnshop, and being a coal miner in Appalachia. After all, Martin Delany, one of the fathers of Black nationalism, was himself from West Virginia. He said, “It is only in the mountains that I can fully appreciate my existence as a man in America, and my own native land.” “Native Land” had by then, even for those who eventually returned to Liberia like Delany, a remote and aspirational quality. But he knew the mountains.

Storer-which, according to the exhibition signage, was one of three historically Black colleges in West Virginia-was closed after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Its Blackness violated the prohibition of segregation.

. . . . .

I HEARD HIS VOICE OVER the PA in the airport and I wet my eyes. “I am Chokwe Antar Lumumba,” the mayor of Jackson welcomes you when you arrive. He is one of a growing number of young Black Southern mayors, Mayor Lumumba, like my uncle Cornelius, went to Tuskegee for college and Texas Southern for law school. He was nurtured in the tradition of HBCUs. And he is a scion. Sons have a certain importance, culturally. Patriarchy, that fundamental structure of the West, was denied to Black people during slavery and has remained fragile ever since. Money, protection, domestic authority–these are elusive, though cherished things in the face of poverty and prison. As much as I have written about escaping from patriarchy’s hold, I can’t pretend to not understand the deep yearning for a son to take on the leadership role of the father when it comes to Black people. To “carry on” in a picture of respected manhood. I do not mean this as a criticism of scions themselves, who may very well be feminists or iconoclasts, but rather as an ob. servation as to why they’re so important even to an avowed feminist.

In Jackson the mayor’s father, the elder Chokwe Lumumba, had spent decades in the service of the freedom movement. The attorney for revolutionary Black activists of the Black Power movement like Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, he was also a leader of NAPO, the New Afrikan People’s Organization and notably carried a chosen surname that was the same as that of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese anticolonialist movement leader who had been murdered in 1961 by Belgian and US forces.

NAPO was a coming together of different communities in the New Afrikan Independence Movement. The Republic of New Afrika was imagined in 1968 as an independent Black-majority nation in the Southeastern United States. The first vision was articulated at a meeting of the Malcolm X Society in Detroit. The states they imagined as being part of this new nation: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. They shared goals of selfdetermination, landownership, and an independent nation-state for New Afrikans, who were colonized by US imperialism, in line with the older Black Belt theory. They believed in Democratic centralism, socialism, and reparations, as well as humility and selfdefense. One of its founders, Queen Mother Moore, was a native of New Iberia, Louisiana, and is considered the mother of the reparations movement. She moved to New York, became a Garveyite and an internationalist, and involved herself in a host of educational and political organizations. Political power, even among those who questioned the political economy of the United States, was a meaningful tool for shaping how people could live. The elder Lumumba was elected to the Jackson city council in 2009, and then to the office of mayor in 2013. He died under mysterious circumstances soon thereafter. The latter two events were national news, but I’d heard about the elder Lumumba repeatedly from my parents and their friends of his brilliance, courage, and commitment to the struggle” to “free the land.” And now here was the voice of his son, bearing a shared name, welcoming us to Jackson.

If there is one egregious miscasting of the Black Power movement, it is the neglect of the South in that history. The action was not all on the coasts or major cities. Once upon a time, emancipation and its consequent constitutional amendments promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, only to be dashed when Reconstruction ended. Black people turned to building internally-schools, churches, civic organizations so that they were ready when it was time to take up direct action again. Once upon a time, Black Southern organizers, leaders, and laypeople faced death and confronted evil. They changed American law. In fact, I would argue that 1954 to 1965 was the most significant decade in the history of US constitutional law and legislation. Black people’s protests offered the prospect of an equitably heterogeneous society. Nominally embraced, it was socially and economically refused. Enter Black power. Or perhaps reenter. Black nationalism and Black secession and Black armed self-defense had always been a part of the political imagination of the Black South, from Martin Delany through Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey and the Stono Rebellion and Garvey ism and the Deacons for Defense. For some reason, folks want to act as though Black power started in New York and Oakland, even though the Black Panther logo came from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, and even though Huey Newton was born in Louisiana, and Sundiata Acoli in Texas, and Eldridge Cleaver in Arkansas, and Kathleen Cleaver in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Gil Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee, and Assata Shakur in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt in Louisiana. Sterling Brown commented in the earlier civil rights era: “It is a mistake to believe that this protest in the South is instigated by Negroes from the North … I found a large degree of militancy in Negroes who were Southern born and bred, some of whom have never been out of the South… I found this protest natural since the Southern Negro is where the grip is tightest and the bite goes deepest and most often.” Stated another way, Southern Black people learned steeliness the hard way, under the thumb of Jim Crow. And perhaps from seeing how the North wasn’t much better, if at all. They learned there was nowhere to turn and no option but to fight back.

The vision of the Republic of New Afrika was to build a place where Black people could implement a cooperative vision of social organization not unlike what folks on the Sea Islands did during the Reconstruction era. There they built workers’ collectives out of the land they’d once worked as slaves, until the property they’d earned was returned to the master class. Such visions always lived in the shadow of the Confederate fantasies that continue to animate White Southern politics. The movement of Black radical politics into electoral politics and policy made sense in the Black Belt.

Before the 2020 election I came across a news report that warned about Russian trolls planting the idea of an African republic in the Southern states. They claimed we would be flooded with messages about being taken for military training on the continent. I wondered if whoever was reporting had looked back in history to our wildest dreams and decided to see if they might be seductive yet again, and therefore disturb the vote. Or had the idea of Black self-determination and self-governance become so preposterous that it was the wildest trick imagined? Better yet, perhaps they took freedom dreams as foolhardy fantasy and thought they could sprinkle them anywhere, tapping into anxieties about Black discontent. Whatever this moment of moral panic meant, in the present and in retrospect, the Republic of New Afrika has never been established. But Jackson has stayed on the move. It is part Chicago and mostly Mississippi, a place where, like the first Chokwe Lumumba, people reverse-migrate, either to start a revolution or because life in the North was too cold.

Jackson is urban, but it is also country. Naipaul referred to it as “the frontier” It was where he was introduced to the classic architecture of the Deep South “There were streets of ‘shotgun’ houses. It was the first time I had ever heard the expressive word: narrow wooden houses (like mobile homes or old-fashioned railway carriages) with the front room opening into the back room and with the front door and back door aligned. On Sunday afternoon the people were out on the streets, so that the effect of crowd and slum and blackness was immediate: as though outdoor life, life outside the houses, was an aspect of poverty.” I wouldn’t call Jackson the frontier, but it might be something else: a sort of reverse metropole, a substation of the people.

I have had bantering exchanges with Mississippians for years. Eddie Glaude reminds me, “Your blues ain’t like ours.” (True enough, but Motown is the baby of Jefferson County, Alabama, gospel.) Kiese Laymon told me, “Mississippi is Alabama’s mama.” Which is in a sense also true. Alabama was carved out of Mississippi. I feel competitive sometimes, but the fact is that Mississippi is the only place that has ever felt so akin to Alabama to me that, if dropped in the middle, I might confuse it.

The first time I ever met Jackson native Kiese was on Vassar’s campus. He had invited me to talk to his students. We talked about virtuosity, the striving for excellence that sits at the core of Black Southern aesthetics. It was a conversation about art, but also about identity. The fact is that we come from a tradition that treated beauty as a form of refusal. And in refusing White supremacy with our beauty, we are a people who are exacting critics. We are withering and hyperbolic. A perfect example is how often we’ll describe a vocalist who is competent, if not outstanding, as someone who “can’t sing worth a damn.” On the other side of that judgment is the requirement of humility. And the requirement of humility poses some challenges to self-esteem. If you get a big head, you’ll be admonished about getting too big for your britches, either directly or slyly: “You might can sing alright, but you ain’t got nothing on X” or “Who told you to wear that?” Implicitly “that” undermined whatever success you may have had. And the consequence is that striving for excellence and even achieving it leaves one still on un steady ground.

The second long conversation I had with Kiese, about eighteen years ago, was about my flailing efforts to write a novel. I’m embarrassed about the failures of that artifact. I knew less than zero about composition and form back then. But the most interesting part of the conversation we had was about what was the most interesting part of the novel, the way it pivoted around a character who was a New Afrikan. Kiese told me his daddy had been in NAPO. Almost immediately there was another layer of familiarity between us. It should have been anticipated, though. Southerners choosing African names for their children—like “Imani,” meaning “faith,” or “Kiese,” meaning “joy”-were signals, for a time, of twin commitments to roots and rootedness, as it were, the people and the land, here and there.

Then one day back in 2018, Kiese posted a photo on Facebook of a drawing someone from Mississippi had sent him as part of a request for money. The sender was a visual artist who wrote on lined notebook paper. Within an hour or two, I sent Kiese a drawing that the same artist had sent me. It was nearly identical but not. Each had been hand-inked in pen rather than photocopied. On the drawing he sent me, the artist had run the pen back and forth to correct a mistaken line: the artist’s hustle had to be respected. I’m guessing he thought that these two Black writers, obviously stuck on home (the idea, the topic), might be willing to redistribute a little bit. And it was a good gamble because I sent him money, more than made sense. Kiese did, too.

The formula of the drawing was rudimentary, a pen drawing of a cabin in the rural South. It’s an architectural form that remains, though just barely, and doesn’t withstand history that well. In contrast, plantations are preserved with urgency. But now they’re farms. The only real difference between a farm and a plantation is how it’s used and who it uses, nothing else. Still, real estate brokers sell working farms as “plantations.” I suppose it gives some buyers a rush, a delightful turn in the past. It turns my stomach. The brokers will describe the vastness of both the home and the empty space around it. They promise things like: “This one has it all, luxury, beauty, recreation, fishing, hunting, guest quarters, timber. You name it and it’s here. The only way you are going to understand this property is to take a look for yourself. Paradise…” All that is missing is us.

I had heard about children being charged with building plantation dioramas as part of science projects in Southern schools. So I googled, following the mothers’ anxious questions asking how to do this. You cannot buy a plantation kit from anywhere, I’ve found. You perhaps could turn a farm kit into a plantation, by placing Black figurines about. But you would also need cabins and ragged clothing to be authentic. For the resourceful parent, however, there are plenty of guides online about how to make one from scratch. It seems less offensive than buying a slaveholding landscape already prefabricated. Dollhouse fantasies are generally expected to be idyllic, except when used by child therapists as a vehicle to open up about trauma. I’d pass on that exercise.

One of the big three craft stores, Hobby Lobby, has all the supplies you need. Crafting is big in the South. Its kitsch is not, however, self-mocking. There is honest joy in the ritual of making things. Hobby Lobby sees itself as wholesome. Its Oklahoman founder, David Green, and his executive offspring and siblings live the gospel as they see it. The stores are piously closed on Sundays, and donations go to megachurches and institutions like Oral Roberts University and Liberty University. Green even funded the building of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, where you can take a virtual tour of the Holy Land. The museum opened in 2017. But thousands of Hobby Lobby-owned artifacts, presumably intended to be housed at the museum, were confiscated by the FBI because they had been stolen from Iraq Hobby Lobby paid a fine and returned the relics. The museum claimed no intent to ever hold them. It did, however, feature fifteen Dead Sea Scrolls. As it turns out, those were all fakes.

But it’s still filled with other stuff. A story is crafted in this museum, as with a plantation replica or a site of historic preservation, of a particular tradition. We all have to accept narrative histories can never be comprehensive. But choices are made that reveal values and priorities. And I suppose what I find so compelling about Jackson is that there is no avoiding the truth that there is a battle still being waged over the story. Jackson is named for Andrew Jackson, though, like many parts of the South, it might just as easily have been named for Stonewall Jackson. Though one was formally a president and the other a secessionist general, they shared plantation values of domination. For me, that heroism is shameful. For others, it is to be lauded. Thus, the battle is over truth. But it is also over decency. If you make sin look pretty, that must mean you love the devil.

The generations of freedom fighters in the Black Belt continue their work. And in Mississippi, they have made it the state with the most extensive Black political representation in America. It is the closest we have to a realization of full Black political citizenship. And it is the only state with a scion of Black nationalism as the executive of its capital. Jackson is publicly, unapologetically Black, even for Mississippi. It evidences itself in culture as much as polities. For example, the marching band at Jackson State University is called the Sonic Boom of the South. When the male dancers jump, in navy and white so crisp it could not have possibly touched dirt or concrete for how pristine it is, they are suspended in air, time stands still, and yet the music goes hard and unceasingly. When the women dancers dash a hip, to left, to right, it is sharp, taking back the lasciviousness teased in an instant, a taste before magisterial precision; as the horns gleam, the musicians are consistent as seasons of crops. They march, left right left right. The band does not make the flesh crawl; it revels in it. Love this flesh, it says. It makes sense that this is where the great chronicler of Black history in poem and fiction and prose Margaret Walker made her home as a professor at Jackson State University. She was one who saw the glory of the eternal coming of Black people. The exultation.

They march through the streets, not just in stadiums, and you can always see the dirt high-stepping underfoot. There is no easy resolution between beauty and terror, between poverty and abundance. And just outside of the city, you find yourself looking around and saying the South would be worth holding close even if only for the trees. You can see it. How before all the building, the Piney Woods once stretched across five states. And as chopped down as they are now, their sharp warm scent and sight wraps around you even when you’re standing from a distance. They emanate fragrance that you feel in your eye sockets and above your socks. They are a fortification against climate change. The scientists say these trees are in a desperate battle against human green, slowing the pace of destruction by literally killing greenhouse gases with their scent, If only we were willing to reblanket the Southeast in conifers, we might save ourselves.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t really make it better. Because while we have won, we lose. We still are being killed by what the land won’t bear for us. We bear the wounds offered up as data or statistics. The life expectancy for Black men in Mississippi is 66.71. In Alabama it is 66.66. I stare at the statehouse, with its golden orb at the top. It is imposing, and yet it also looks like it could be peeled like a fast-food wrapper, to find some chicken inside. The interior rotunda in the seat of Mississippi government has a statue of the blind goddess Justice lit by over seven hundred lights. Around her are two Indigenous people, a European explorer, and a Confederate soldier. There is no African. Look up at the top of the gold leaf copper dome and see our national symbols a white-headed bald eagle.

We haven’t outrun or outlived the plantation, although it looks a little bit different. Now the fugitives are from Central America and the unfree laborers are in prison. Some kids are still hungry, even so many years after the breakfast programs and Head Start and all of the gains fought for by Black elected officials, because the gag is in the money and the land, and it still isn’t free. There’s an honesty to Mississippi about all of this. The triumph is not in ends; it is in the fact that we are still here.

A Faulkner Walk on the Wild Side

In 1931, William Faulkner published his first collection of short stories, These 13, which in addition to some of his most acclaimed and most frequently anthologized stories—“A Rose for Emily”, “That Evening Sun” and “Dry September”—included “Divorce in Naples”, Faulkner’s most direct if not overt exploration of  homosexuality.

Faulkner had already broached the theme in the intimacy between Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate Shreve McCannon in The Sound and the Fury (1929), included a portrait of lesbian Eva Wiseman in Mosquitoes (1927), and would touch on the theme in later works, but “Divorce in Naples” stands as his most explicit examination. Simply put, the story depicts the relationship between two sailors, George (“Greek, big and black, a full head taller than Carl”) and the younger Carl (“with his round yellow head and his round eyes, looking like a sophisticated baby”).

‘THEY CAME INTO THE SHIP together at Galveston, George carrying a portable victrola and a small parcel wrapped in paper bearing the imprint of a well-known ten-cent store, and Carl carrying two bulging imitation leather bags that looked like they might weigh forty pounds apiece. George appropriated two berths, one above the other like a Pullman section, cursing Carl in a harsh, concatenant voice a little overburred with v’s and r’s and ordering him about like a nigger, while Carl stowed their effects away with the meticulousness of an old maid, producing from one of the bags a stack of freshly laundered drill serving jackets that must have numbered a dozen. For the next thirty-four days (he was the messboy) he wore a fresh one for each meal in the saloon, and there were always two or three recently washed ones drying under the poop awning. And for thirty-four evenings, after the galley was closed, we watched the two of them in pants and undershirts, dancing to the victrola on the after well deck above a hold full of Texas cotton and Georgia resin. They had only one record for the machine and it had a crack in it, and each time the needle clucked George would stamp on the deck. I don’t think that either one of them was aware that he did it.’

One night Carl disappears and George, frantic, fails to find him. When Carl returns after three days, he reveals that he has been with a woman, and George kicks him out of their berth only to discover later, after their reconciliation, that Carl was too naive to have sexual congress with the woman, and

“ …two weeks later we were watching him and George dancing again in their undershirts after supper on the after well deck while the victrola lifted its fatuous and reiterant ego against the waxing moon and the ship snored and hissed through the long seas off Hatteras.’

Most of Faulkner’s examinations of same-sex desire focus on men; Faulkner had close relations with many homosexual writers and artists, including his townsman and fellow writer Stark Young and his childhood friend Ben Wasson as well as William Alexander Percy and Lyle Saxon. It goes without saying that while living in New Orleans he doubtless knew many others.

The story draws most directly on Faulkner’s experiences with William Spratling, a down-on-his-knees New Orleans fairy, in sailing to Europe on the West Ivis beginning July 7, 1925 and to Genoa on August 2, where after landing they celebrated their arrival by going drinking with the ship’s officers. The drinking bout turned into a brawl with “pimps and prostitutes”, after which Spratling was arrested and thrown into an Italian prison where during the night he had a “homosexual encounter”. Rape is of course implied, but then again we don’t have any evidence that the encounter wasn’t consensual. The event in Genoa provided the kernel for the story, and Faulkner himself was heard to joke at one point that he was jealous of Spratling.

Faulkner’s representations of sexuality are Victorian and veiled. “Divorce in Naples” displays sexual activity blended with romantic idealism and sexual innocence if not confusion, but–typically—Faulkner  leaves the tension–as well as our interpretation–suspended.

Bragging of Mrs. Byrne

Having a designer set of Jane Austen displayed with discreet prominence tags one just as soundly as a brittle shelf paperback Louis L’Amours. If you pardon as understandable the inordinate number of books devoted to cooking, for the most part you’ll find my library eclectic enough to deflect instantaneous psychoanalysis. The glaring exception is my copy of Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, which labels me as a pseudo-intellectual of the vilest sort.

I met a fellow the other day who told me that he had snagged a first edition of the OED for twenty bucks from a library that was cleaning its shelves, and I felt cheap and disgusted with myself for being jealous. Therapy doesn’t help. No.

 

Delta Voodoo

Indianola, Mississippi has the dubious distinction of being the subject of not one but two studies by Northern anthropologists. The more prominent study by John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) comprises a psychological perspective on how race relations in the Deep South were shaped by “caste” and class. While in Indianola, Dollard stayed at the boarding house of the formidable Kathleen Claiborne, who, when her guest complained that she was over-cooking her leaf vegetables, set a plate of chopped fresh turnip greens before the anthropologist and sedately walked away. Her son Craig was to recall this years later when he encountered Dollard in the offices of the New York Times. Dollard graciously asked of Mrs. Claiborne, and hearing of her demise, recounted that she was “a great lady”.

The second, lesser-known study was written by the delightfully-named Hortense Powdermaker, who, fresh from work with a “primitive” people, the Lesu of New Ireland in present-day Papua New Guinea, came to Indianola to study the black community. After Freedom (1939) is the first complete ethnography of an African-American community in the United States. Powdermaker’s goal was to use anthropological methods to give insight into American society. She considered race relations to be one of the most pressing social problems of her day—as indeed it was, and continues to be—and she hoped that her work would prove valuable to those in a position to promote change.

Needless to say, those who could affect a change ignored Hortense’s study, After Freedom presents us with a fascinating look at life in the Mississippi Delta during the Depression. Among the more interesting sections is “Lagging Beliefs” in which Powdermaker documents the folk superstitions then prevalent in the black community. The following is a short excerpt.

A large number of the superstitions practiced in the community today to be concerned with love, or connected in some way with the relations between men and women. Others have to do with luck in general, and still others are designed to bring bad luck to an enemy. Many are concerned with physical health. individuals are not really superstitious give a perfunctory observance to certain superstitions, much as a northern white person may knock on wood without really “believing” in the necessity for the gesture. Others take their superstitions more seriously. These for whom superstitions have most meaning go for assistance to the voodoo doctors who dispense advice, charms, and spells. The types and varieties of superstitious beliefs may be suggested by a small sampling:

Wearing a punctured dime around the ankle will keep trouble away.

Stray cats or kittens who wander into a house and stay there bring good luck.

Dreams foretell events. If a dream is told before sunrise, it is bound to come true.

A woman described a very vivid dream in which her dead father came to take away her mother, who was still alive and apparently well. Next day the mother died.

Throwing salt after an enemy brings him bad luck.

The hair of an enemy can be used to bring him disaster. Usually it is concealed under his doorstep or someplace where he will walk over it. An old woman who is a sharecropper believes this firmly that she never allows anyone to comb her hair or use her comb, and always takes great care to destroy her combings, so as “not to take any chances.”

Certain perfumes will “hold” a man by magic as well as by allure. A woman can hold a man by putting something in his food. No information could be obtained about what was put in, and this belief appears less widespread than those concerning “poison.”

“Poison” put into an enemy’s food will work him harm. One woman told how her husband died because an enemy put poison in his whisky. Snake poison is among the worst; a sloughed snake skin, dried and made into a powder, is sprinkled into the enemy’s food while he is not looking. The powder comes to life in his stomach and gives him fits. The tale is told of one man who had such fits, and finally the snake ran right out of his mouth.

The mother of a young boy who had recently died told that for four years he had been subject to fits, during which he would scream, kick, and twist his head “almost clear around.” The mother had a “friend,” and another woman was jealous of her. The jealous one made some “poison” to put into her food, but nobody would take it to her, and the woman could not come to the house herself. One day, however, when her rival’s little boy was playing near her house, she gave him food containing the poison, Immediately the child began to have fits. His mother took him to doctors, to hospitals, to a voodoo doctor, but nobody could cure him. Finally she carried him to an especially famous voodoo doctor, who gave the boy some medicine, which made the poison come out. It emerged in a terrific bowel movement—a long narrow thing, about five inches in length, which had given him the fits by running around in his stomach. At the same time there came out a lot of little things that looked like maggots. Now the child was cured of fits. But immediately after he grew very sick, first with flu and then pneumonia, and soon he died.

The voodoo doctors employ a variety of cures for an even larger variety of ills; they claim to restorc health, to revive fortunes, to unravel mysteries. Often they give a charm in the form of a “hand,” less commonly called a “toby.” A “hand” is usually a small bag, one to two inches square, made of silk or sometimes of cotton, said to be stuffed with spider webs and horse hair worked into a powder, Sometimes very fine bits of glass are added. The bags should never be opened. They are carried in a pocket or worn next to the body, and are to help the wearer in love, business, or some other venture, One of these bags may be used to hold the hair of an enemy when it is placed under his doorstep to give him bad luck.

Instead of the hand, some voodoo doctors give their clients a small piece of paper with writing on it. This is worn next to the skin, and should not be read. Herbs, roots, small bottles filled with oil or other liquids are also given. On one occasion, a woman was given a small sealed bottle to conceal in her bed as a love charm. Later she went to a voodoo doctor for help in repulsing the attentions of a man she did not want. For this he gave her a piece of paper sealed with wax so that she could not read the inscription. She wore it in her stocking, and after that she was able to rid herself of the undesired attentions.

A hand was considered responsible for the incessant quarreling of a couple. One day the wife saw a small black bag under the front steps. Trembling, she dug it up and found it filled with steel needles and spices. She was sure this had been planted by her enemy and had caused the quarreling. She destroyed it at once; the report did not tell whether the quarreling stopped.

Ignatius at the Hop

“A small and sallow figure whose shorts hung clumsily in the crotch, whose spindly legs looked too naked in comparison to the formal garters and nylon socks that hung near the ankle,” resplendent in a red beard, besotted by the milk of human kindness—and perhaps feeling not a little guilty—stands on the porch of the Reilly home ready to provide some comfort to Irene Reilly. Patrolman Mancuso had found out that Irene couldn’t afford the a $1000 fine for drunk and destructive driving he’d given her.

Mancuso looked at the Plymouth and saw the deep crease in its roof and the fender, filled with concave circles, that was separated from the body by three or four inches of space. VAN CAMP’S PORK AND BEANS was printed on the piece of cardboard taped across the hole that had been the rear window. Stopping by the grave, he read REX in faded letters on the cross. Then he climbed the worn brick steps and heard through the closed shutters a booming chant.

 Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry-yi-yi.
They don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry… yi.

 While he was waiting for someone to answer the bell, he read the faded sticker on the crystal of the door, “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” Below a WAVE held her finger to lips that had turned tan. (p. 33)

The “chant” Mancuso hears is the refrain from “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” is a song written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio. Originally recorded by The Four Seasons, “Big Girls” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 17, 1962, and spent five weeks in the top position. The song—along with the movies that Ignatius sees at the Prytania—provides an important signature for the novel’s time setting. Mancuso follows Irene into the kitchen and they commiserate over coffee and donuts. Soon enough, they begin to discuss Ignatius.

“He’s out in the parlor right now looking at TV. Every afternoon, as right as rain, he looks at that show where them kids dance.” In the kitchen the music was somewhat fainter than it had been on the porch. Patrolman Mancuso pictured the green hunting cap bathed in the blue-white glow of the television screen. “He don’t like the show at all, but he won’t miss it. You oughta hear what he says about them poor kids.” (p. 35) “Oh, my God!” Ignatius bellowed from the front of the house. “Oh, my heavens! These girls are doubtless prostitutes already. How can they present horrors like this to the public? What an egregious insult to good taste. Do I believe the total perversion that I am witnessing?” Ignatius screamed from the parlor. The music had a frantic, tribal rhythm; a chorus of falsettos sang insinuatingly about loving all night long. “The children on that program should all be gassed,” Ignatius said as he strode into the kitchen in his nightshirt. Then he noticed the guest and said coldly, “Oh.” (p. 36)

Most of us will recognize “the show where them kids dance” as “American Bandstand,” but in New Orleans, in November, 1962, the popular local edition of was “The John Pela Show.” Pela was a staff announcer for local station WWL-TV who in 1961 took over hosting duties of the show originally titled “Saturday Hop.” Featuring a studio full of New Orleans teenagers dancing to the latest pop hits, and with groovy, era-appropriate graphics—including a stylized riverboat–setting the mood, the live, hour-long dance party originated from the WWL studios every Saturday a must-see for NOLA teens in the day.

Ignatius maintained an extreme opinion.

“The ironic thing about that program,” Ignatius was saying over the stove, keeping one eye peeled so that he could seize the pot as soon as the milk began to boil, “is that it is supposed to be an exemplum to the youth of our nation. I would like very much to know what the Founding Fathers would say if they could see these children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil. However, I always suspected that democracy would come to this.” He painstakingly poured the milk into his Shirley Temple mug. “A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.” (p. 37)

After a tumult with Irene, Ignatius retreated to his room.

He slammed his door and snatched a Big Chief tablet from the floor. Throwing himself back among the pillows on the bed, he began doodling on a yellowed page. After almost thirty minutes of pulling at his hair and chewing on the pencil, he began to compose a paragraph.

Were Hroswitha with us today, we would all look to her for counsel and guidance. From the austerity and tranquility of her medieval world, the penetrating gaze of this legendary Sybil of a holy nun would exorcise the horrors which materialize before our eyes in the name of television. If we could only juxtapose one eyeball of this sanctified woman and a television tube, both being roughly of the same shape and design, what a phantasmagoria of exploding electrodes would occur. The images of those lasciviously gyrating children would disintegrate into so many ions and molecules, thereby effecting the catharsis which the tragedy of the debauching of the innocent necessarily demands. (p. 40)

Considered the first female writer from the German-speaking lands, the first female historian, the first person since antiquity to write dramas in the Latin West, and the first female poet in Germany, Hroswitha (c. 935–973) was a secular canoness at Gandersheim Abbey In Lower Saxony. She has been called “the most remarkable woman of her time”, and an important figure in the early history of women. Hroswitha’s six short dramas are considered to be her most important works. Ignatius’s conjuration of Hroswitha likely stems from her position of a dramatist, with the medieval stage providing a parallel to a televised dance floor, making  her somewhat of a patron saint of public performance. She’s an interesting choice for his appeal, since Tool most certainly would have been aware of Hroswitha’s reputation as a proto-feminist, which jars somewhat with Ignatius’s position as an ultra-conservative Catholic:

“I do not support the current pope. He does not at all fit my concept of a good, authoritarian pope. Actually, I am opposed to the relativism of modern Catholicism quite violently.” (p. 45)

Finally, lest we take recoil at Ignatius’s dire punishments for (presumably) innocent teenagers, bear in mind that Ignatius is a medievalist, and though diminished in light of more contemporary horrors, the Middle Ages were cruel. Ignatius is simply following the script.

Willie’s Liver

Willie Morris, by most accounts one of Mississippi’s most beloved authors, particularly for his homespun WWII memoir, My Dog Skip (1995), is perhaps less fondly remembered for his autobiographical North Toward Home (1967; written when Morris was all of 29). Hailed by the Sunday (London) Times as “the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain”,  but damned with faint praise by the Sunday (New York) Times as though “lacking in focus”, “well-written.” Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983), which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.” (“Lurching” would have been more apt.)

Morris’s early successes as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr., the scion of the conservative family that owned the magazine over a dispute about the publisher meddling in editorial operations in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne, whom he recklessly advised to write an embarrassing memoir. He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, the literary nipple of Mississippi, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels with Willie as the Prince des Sots.

At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye. And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened. James was a good man who lived a hard life.

The Warehouse enjoyed a somewhat upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded. Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, far enough away from the noisy bar where Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds. Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver, dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle and served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.

Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my friends at the Rose before it shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Neither the besotted nor the hungover Morris ever complained.

This grumpery against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole with a small group. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.

I remember it was a late afternoon, and Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor and not a half-hour had passed when Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” Then he snickered.

The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. We were all in shock, and I tried to follow Doxie out to say something, but he left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it. I let it go for then, but after forty years, Willie’s gross incivility and utter lack of regard for those considered unworthy of his company remains a defining moment for me of his corrupt, dissolute character.

Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings. Layer liver atop vegetables and cover for about five minutes, or until the meat is firm. Invert to serve.

The Dixie Limited: A Review

With The Dixie Limited, M. Thomas Inge fills a crucial academic niche in work on the Faulkner canon. Arranged chronologically from over the last eight decades in a collection of essays, articles, reviews, letters, and interviews by Faulkner’s contemporaries and their successors.

In his introduction Inge refers to a paper presented by Thomas L. McHaney at the 1979 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, “Watching for the Dixie Limited: Faulkner’s Impact upon the Creative Writer,” later published in Fifty Years of Yoknapatawpha (University Press of Mississippi: 1980), edited by Dr. Doreen Fowler and Ann Abadie. McHaney stated that “writers seem to have more in common with one another than with their own native literary establishments.” He continues to say that “the literary establishment, especially in the sense that it constitutes the best-seller and the major book-reviewing media, did not have as much to do with him . . . as did the other creative writers in English. His impact on them was immediate and sustained . . .” Inge’s thesis echoes—and subsequently amplifies—this assessment: “The novel has certainly not been the same since Faulkner, that much seems clear, and the intent here is to document some of the reasons by surveying the exact nature of what Faulkner has meant to his colleagues both in the United States and abroad.”

The title references a famous quote by Flannery O’Connor that first appeared in a paper she read in 1960 at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The subject of the speech, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Fiction,” notes a tendency to the grotesque in the “Southern situation” as well as the “prevalence of good Southern writers.” She then states, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Inge notes that O’Connor took heed of her own advice, and developed an original vision and distinctive style of spiritual and gothic austerity. Eudora Welty also cultivated her own talents in Faulkner’s looming shadow. “It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic—it made me happy to know it was there, all that work of his life,” she wrote. “But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence.” She also said—with characteristic modesty—that “[Faulkner] wrote about a much vaster world than anything I ever contemplated in my own work.” She was not intimidated by Faulkner; she learned from him.

We often lose sight of Faulkner’s earlier works, situated as they are behind the towering edifices of his Yoknapatawpha novels, but he attracted the attention of other writers at the beginning of his career. The Fugitive poet and future Agrarian Donald Davidson found Soldiers’ Pay (1926) the product of “an artist in language, a sort of poet turned into prose,” and considered Mosquitoes (1927) grotesque, too heavily influenced by Joyce, yet admirable “for the skill of the performance.” Lillian Hellman read the manuscript of Mosquitoes (for publisher Boni & Liveright) and in an enthusiastic review for the New York Herald Tribune likewise found Faulkner at his worst under the influence of Joyce in overwritten passages, but the novel demonstrated to her a genius “found in the writings of only a few men.”

Following the publication of The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), nobody with an eye to the landscape of American literature could ignore the emergence of William Faulkner as a dominant if not to say dominating presence. Sherwood Anderson, writing in an essay for The American Mercury in 1930—sixteen years after the editor, H. L. Mencken, published his searing denunciation of the state of southern literature, “The Sahara of the Bozart” in the New York Evening Mail—set the stage for the century’s most celebrated literary rivalry by saying, “The two most notable young writers who have come on in America since the war, it seems to me, are William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.” This comparison became even more unavoidable as the two barreled down, traveled the same track, or —in a perhaps more apt Hemingwayesque metaphor—faced off in the same ring.

As the century wore on, more and more writers, playwrights, and poets found it contingent upon them to weigh in on Faulkner’s looming stature. His impact in Britain was impressive, though mixed, with Rebecca West and George Orwell, who, as a champion of lucid style, condemning The Hamlet in 1940 as “fatiguing” and “certainly not worth a second reading to understand it.” Somewhat predictably, considering Faulkner’s own indebtedness to Proust in both style and theme, his reception in France was both spectacular and profound. Sartre declared in 1946 that Faulkner had “evoked a revolution” through his innovations in perspective, tonal monologues, and changing the “chronological order of the story” in behalf of “a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.” In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Sartre wrote, “Pour la jeune France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.”

Inge delineates Faulkner’s deep impression on the literature of South America, saying, “By liberating these writers, and many others, from the traditional themes and methods of narration, and paving the way for new techniques in dealing with time and history and modern tragedy, Faulkner helped generate what may be the most vital writing in the world at the century’s end,” even going so far as to say, “It is indeed arguable that [Gabriel García] Márquez’s 1967 masterpiece, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), could not have been possible without Faulkner’s fiction to serve as inspiration and master instruction.” Inge also describes Faulkner’s global impact with contributions from writers in South Africa, Japan, and China.

In addition to the two above-mentioned, Dixie Limited includes a generous portion of women writers: Kay Boyle, Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Spencer, Lee Smith, and others. Excruciatingly appropriate on several levels are selections from black writers: Ralph Ellison, Chester Gaines, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian Richard Wright. Faulkner’s impact—and lack thereof—on political and social issues features prominently in Baldwin’s essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” and it’s also the theme of perhaps the most endearing essay in the collection, Roark Bradford’s “The Private World of William Faulkner” (1984).

Faulkner’s critics are not ignored. In addition to Orwell, you’ll find disparaging statements—in varying degrees and often at different stages in their own careers—from Ellen Glasgow, Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Ann Porter, John Barth, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as a generous helping of bile from Hemingway. Inge includes “one of the most damning assessments perhaps ever written about Faulkner” from Irish short story writer Sean O’Faolain, who concluded in a1953 address at Princeton University, that Faulkner demonstrated “More genius than talent.”  You’ll find most of these in Inge’s remarkable introduction, which deserves reading and re-reading for only for those includes these poison pen remarks, but also for and also paeons from the likes of Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Shelby Foote, and Walker Percy, along with illuminating observations from Richard Ford and John Grisham.

Though The Dixie Limited is an academic work, it is important for the lay scholar as well, particularly those of us who grew up in the same milieu as that of the man many consider the most important writer of the Twentieth Century. Our proximity to Faulkner seems to have bred in us a complacent acceptance of his stature. This book provides us with perspectives for a more balanced appreciation of a literary figure of global stature who just happened to have been born in the wilds of North Mississippi.

 

Savoring Sansing

David Sansing gave me hell when I was at Ole Miss. It didn’t help that he knew my parents and probably assumed it part and parcel of his consideration of them to single out their wayward son for what he doubtless considered the academic equivalent of “tough love”, but no matter how attentive I was in class or how good my grades, I always felt targeted for seemingly innocuous but loaded questions that ended up with a subtle and solemn sort of tsk-tsking.

As time went on, I realized I wasn’t the only slacker he picked on; in retrospect, I think Sansing considered it his God-given duty to inspire every student he taught with a profound respect for the Muse of Mississippi History (bless her tattered soul). He is a marvelous teacher. What made Sansing even more formidable in the classroom is his leonine demeanor, the high, noble brow framed by curling swept-back hair; he is the very picture of an academic, moreover one who if he should ask you what the Black and Tan Convention was, and you respond that it was a craft beer festival, you likely won’t live to tell of it.

The title essay confirms Sansings command of his subject in sturdy prose that crackles with authority and sets forth his theme: “Poverty and prejudice and illiteracy have kept Mississippi back, and backwards, but The Other Mississippians have battled poverty and prejudice throughout our history. And for every Mississippi politician who has shamed its name, there have been others to make it proud.” And in the initial passage of “History of Northern Mississippi” Sansing describes the singular mystique of the state he loves:

Any standard historical atlas of the United States will indicate to the most casual observer that there is a political and geographic subdivision designated Mississippi. There are fifty such subdivisions, and collectively they constitute the United States. However, Mississippi is not just a state of the Union. It is a state of mind; it is more than a constituency, it is a condition.”

“History of Northern Mississippi” was presented as the opening lecture at the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference in 1974, and I find it germane that Sansing’s dissertation at Mississippi College (1959) was “A History of Calhoun County, Mississippi”. “History of Northern Mississippi”, along with the later essay “Professor B.L.C. Wailes: A Forgotten Man of the Old South” represent two of the finest examples of historical writing to be found in our literature, a subject that also comes under Sansing’s expansive attention along with the Meredith Crisis, the Mississippi state flag, the University of Mississippi and tributes to the likes of L.Q.C. Lamar, Arch Dalrymple III, John Leslie, Bill and Carroll Waller, Professor Guyton and others.

Former students will delight in hearing Dr. Sansing’s voice thundering off the pages and students of Mississippi history across the globe would be tragically remiss if this entertaining, edifying and authoritative work doesn’t find a place on their bookshelf. You will find yourself picking up David Sansing’s The Other Mississippi again and again for great writing and heartfelt history.