Every childhood has a Radley house, a Boo around the corner opening our eyes to a world that doesn’t appear or work the way we thought it does or will.
Old Rain spooked my little world. Some said he was a freakish child abandoned by a troupe of carnies, others said he was a lost baby Bigfoot come south. When he wasn’t brooding in a boarded-up house in Pittsboro, he haunted the woods and hollows feeding the creeks and streams that feed the Skuna River. I don’t know why we called him Old Rain, but what else is the Skuna or any other river for that matter except rain that’s found its way from hills to the bottoms and over-wintered in owl-haunted sloughs, steeped in the character of the land, distilled and aged in the hands of Almighty God, and become an inspiration of the earth itself?
We lose imaginary monsters under the baggage of adulthood, so I tucked Old Rain away after finding far more frightening things than furtive whisperings on lonely pathways. Now I believe he was a faunus of the little river bottoms and low wooded hills that my Choctaw ancestors knew and loved. They would call him bopoli, one of the little people who threw sticks, cones, and stones to make a stir in the woods. My Welsh ancestors would call him Cernunnos, the Green Man, a living vestige of the vital, priapic spirit of vast, virgin forests.
Old Rain in mind and memory is a companion in those places I cherish most: bright spring hills, close summer woods and frosty winter fields. Hold your Radleys close. Make of them your own magic.
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.
I call myself a painter; I paint, so I’m a painter. A teacher of mine, William Baggett, said, “Too many students call themselves artists, and they’re not artists; they’re students.” That stuck with me. I’m still learning, so I’m a student too, and I never want to get past that.
At USM, Jim Meade became my mentor. Meade steered us towards the formality of composition. He would talk about the Golden Mean, the Golden Rectangle, the Fibonacci sequence, and how all those tied into aesthetics. We would draw forms and divide them up, explore the geometry of formats just to get us geared into recognizing that this is the way things can be arranged so that your brain knows it’s there, even though it’s not drawn out. It was so boring! I often thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I came here to become a good artist and to find something that nobody’s ever done before and become famous; that’s why I’m here!’ But it ended up becoming a completely different experience.
The first class I took I failed. The teacher said that I could render things okay, but that I didn’t know anything about drawing. At that point I realized that I either had to dump all my preconceived ideas about art and begin learning, or I’d have to find something else to do, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. I’d just gotten out of the military, I was 24, one of the “old guys” in the class. And these young kids were, well, drawing circles around me. I had to humble myself, tell myself that I had to learn, and if I want to discard it, I’d discard it. So we did gesture drawing, weight drawing, blind contour, taking the works of Renaissance painters, placing tracing paper on top and finding how they lined up their compositions, learning from masters of their art. When we were given more freedom to start making decisions, form was so ingrained it was natural. We didn’t even have to think about it. Then Jim came up with a great phrase, which I attribute to him because I’ve never heard anyone else use it except myself, but he called it cultivated intuition. You cultivate a visual idea so much that it becomes intuitive.
Meade would also tell me not to worry about coming out with my own style. He told me that style is either going to happen or it’s not; it’s going to be you coming out. He would tell me, “Miles Davis didn’t get a trumpet and start writing his own music and improvising; he learned the notes, he played the scales, he did the boring stuff over and over and over. Once he got good at the boring stuff, then he played other people’s music. Then, when he became proficient in other people’s music, people he admired, he took all those things and was able to push it further out than it had ever been pushed before.” That made complete sense to me. I wasn’t in college to make paintings, I wasn’t studying art to make paintings; I was studying to learn how to paint, the paintings would come later.
Visual strength is seeing something that connects deeper than ‘Wow, that’s a pretty horse in that painting.’ Or ‘That painting looks just like a photograph.’ It might be a great painting that looks just like a photograph, or it might be a shitty painting that looks like a photograph; but the fact that it looks like a photograph is irrelevant. It could simply consist of a few squiggly lines in the right place and it would be charged. Dali’s work is cool and interesting and psychological, but it relies so heavily on the subject matter being shocking that it’s a matter of diminishing returns: the more often you see his work it doesn’t grab you like it did the first time. I’m not sure if what he was doing defeated his purpose visually. Van Gogh’s Chair is powerful on both levels. I think good art engages with precariousness in balance between the linear composition and the color; you want unity, but you don’t want so much unity that it’s boring. You have to have some contrast. I guess I’ve allowed for this chaos and order by allowing all the chaos and accidental stuff to happen at first, so I’ve got to put it together. I don’t want to take away that spontaneity, but I want it to eventually look like a flat piece of art with everything fitting within the frame.
Every art professor in the world would probably cringe to hear someone say this, but art is something that you hang on your wall and you look at every day. If people didn’t have art hanging on their walls, then artists wouldn’t exist. I have a painting by Ellen Langford that see every day, and every time I look at it, it re-engages me. And I notice something different about it; either I’ll look at it formally, at the composition, the way she treats the negative space between the trees and around the house, or I’ll look at the expressions on the faces and see the animals in there. There’s a lot going on, but at the same time it’s simple; it’s got this juxtaposition, this push/pull, so what jumps out at me most often is what’s farthest away. Arnheim talks about this in his book, about flattening the space by making what’s farthest away in the painting come forward.
Even in my non-representational pieces, I’m very much concerned with the negative space and the picture plane. If everything doesn’t look like it belongs there, if everything doesn’t relate to that flat surface, then it doesn’t work. I try to put a sort of weird overlapping depth in there, but it also has to be flattened. So you’re tricking the minds of your viewers with this push/pull going on; it’s a visual element I use to re-engage the viewer. When people say ‘This artist is so talented,’ it’s almost an insult to the hard work it takes to be decent at something. That’s also what’s exciting about it. My work has continued to change and evolve, and I still learn things. They can refer to me as an artist when I’m good.
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.
On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.
“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”
Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.
At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.
“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.
When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.
Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.
Mississippi legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out and/or rebuilt after Katrina. Some say that a shadow of the Dixie Mafia still operates on Mississippi’s coast.
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.
What compels writers of great works for adults to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems published under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.
In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:
‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard Grave and windless bells; mine air Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.
Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve, Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’
But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.
The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought. The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”
On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.
Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.
The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.
Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.
As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart, or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and it’s not that easy.
What is the South? The answer isn’t easy; hell, getting enough facts in one pile is hard enough, then you have to figure in observer, perspective, and perception. A dedicated minority of natives maintain that the South is a fluid, protean, shattered chimerical idea as well as just a place to hang your hat. This embracing grassroots duality is compounded (likely compromised) not only by Cash, Woodward, Foote, and their myriad lesser ilk, but also those from outside the South–the nation, the continent, even the hemisphere–who come here to write about it. And they are legion.
Joan Didion, a product of New Journalism, is best known for her introspective writings on culture and politics, though her most acclaimed works are deeply personal; The White Album (1979), including the title essay dealing with a nervous breakdown and The Year of Magical Thinking, (2005), written shortly after the deaths of her daughter and husband. It’s worth noting that her trip to the Gulf South was taken only two years after her critically acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a gritty, myth-busting account of California’s counter-culture during the 1960s. The notes for South and West were published almost fifty years later.
Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans with images of procreation, death and decay:
“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead. One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car.”
Some might consider this an inauspicious beginning for a book about the Deep South, but then striking a gothic note isn’t out of order. Then her focus narrows:
“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be; the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.”
Throughout the work, Didion interacts with prominent locals, including Walker Percy and (surprisingly) Stan Torgerson, but not Eudora Welty, stating that she dared not visit Welty in Jackson because she was certain that so near an airport, she’d catch a flight to the west coast. I find it telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford; perhaps it’s just as telling that she even went looking. In Meridian, Didion describes an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie “as if it were Czechoslovakian; this is quite literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is staring at a screen without comprehension, driving through Dixie in a distracted daze. We should bear ear to her dispassionate observations, if only to see ourselves in her eyes.
Food is a passionate issue for many people, and some foods are certainly controversial. Barbecue, for instance, is a highly inflammatory subject, but almost any food can become a flash point; I was once involved in a heated discussion about how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich (Do you use mayonnaise? I don’t…).
Arguments over foods range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but unless you’re one of those self-styled and overly-promoted griddle Napoleons or oven Antoinettes you can get your fill of almost everywhere—or just an all-around jerk yourself—talks about foods and cooking tend to be cordial and convivial, albeit with the necessary measure of peppering. People who enjoy food and cooking are gregarious, open, and giving. At any gathering I’ve ever attended, activity revolves around the food. What semblance we have of hearth nowadays lives on in kitchens, and hearth and home are practically inseparable. Most people will agree that the best meals are home-cooked, and home itself must be one of the warmest words in the English language. Home entails more than place; the word implies security, comfort, congeniality and much, much more. Here in the South, the word has become infused with almost mystical implications, evoking a poignancy and mystery peculiar to the region. When we talk about home cooking, we’re talking about foods with a voice in the family and in the community, a cuisine that sings of time and place, a balm for the mind, a madeleinefor our memory.
Foods without history and bereft of geography are just plain bad. When I was growing up in the `Sixties, America’s tables reflected the mentality of Levittown, and the only really good cooking was found in rural and ethnic homes, those permeated with a sense of the past, of family, and often of the earth itself. I grew up in north Mississippi, which is home to the cooking of the middle South, of the yeomanry, of the people who were the rule rather than the exception in the rural South of their day. Theirs was not a light cuisine; it sustained people through long days of hard labor. Breakfasts usually featured biscuits made from lard, grits, eggs and pork in some form or the other; other meals were made from fried or stewed meats and vegetables cooked with fatback. My people are descended from small farmers who came into this area from Virginia and the Carolinas, and the way my ancestors cooked still informs the cuisine of the region to this day. They fed themselves and their families on the same basic foods the colonists at Jamestown ate: corn and pork augmented by whatever fruits and vegetables they could get to grow as well as game and fish. Food was important to them because it was their only unadulterated source of pleasure. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.
Recipes are dead words; it’s up to the cook to breathe life into them. It’s an unwritten law of cookery that the same recipe in the hands of, say, six or seven cooks will produce different (often surprisingly different) results. If you want to learn how to cook, then you must cook yourself. Once you’ve become more secure in your abilities and more confident of your results, then by all means be more creative. One of the glories of cooking as an art is that it lends itself easily to experimentation, but be “original, not outrageous,” as Alice B. Toklas cautions. Capote once said of writing that you must learn the rules before you can break them, and this is true of cookery as well. Bear in mind that most people prefer the familiar to the exotic, and even slight variations in a favorite dish might give pause to your most appreciative audience. So if you’re determined to try seasoning a pound cake with cayenne or bake catfish with pickled peaches, don’t be surprised to hear, “Honey, I love you, but . . . “ Those might well be the kindest words you’ll ever hear.