27 August 2017

Poverty, shame and the American South

When I was in New York State awhile back, visiting my grandmother – my South Carolinian grandfather’s second wife – I told her a little bit about the amateur genealogy work that I had been doing. She was interested in it, and told me that she’d encouraged my grandfather to do the same. He wasn’t interested. When she asked him why, he’d replied: ‘because I don’t want to find anything I’d be ashamed of’. Indeed, I didn’t find any of the resources on the Cooper line through links or websites maintained by our own family, but instead through the Fowlers, who are related to us by marriage. Based on what my father and grandmother have told me, there were two things at work that prevented the Coopers of Greenville County from keeping or maintaining an interest in their own past: poverty and shame.

There really ought to be a theory of special relativity for the poor. When you’re poor, time dilates. Your horizons narrow. You start thinking about the season. Then the week. Then the day. Anything beyond that is a luxury. Personally, I’ve only known relative poverty: the sort which comes from having some savings, no debts, but also no (or very little) income. But even that relative deprivation was enough to cause me to lose interest in planning for the future or thinking about the past, and instead look for short-term solutions. So really, I can only imagine dimly what it would have been like for the Coopers in the 1920’s and 1930’s: permanently in debt, living on what they could get picking and baling cotton, wondering whether they would have enough to last the season. What would they have cared for some names scribbled in some old government ledger somewhere in Pennsylvania?

And then there is the shame aspect – which is the flip-side of the culture of honour for which the South is, for better or for worse, known. The country has now spent decades telling Southerners that they need to be ashamed of who they are and where they were born. That the sins of the nation are borne on their shoulders. The response from the older generations of Southerners – people like my grandfather – has been to shrug it off. It was part of their world, and not one they were in any position to negotiate. However: based on my understandings of what my grandfather told me when I was younger, on what I was told about my grandfather by those who knew him best, and on what he actually did – he did his level best to overcome and repudiate a legacy which he saw as an occasion for shame. He embraced the New Deal and the opportunities offered by the GI Bill with both arms. He served as a Navy medic in the Pacific theatre of WWII. He moved to Providence, Rhode Island. He married a Jewish woman from Racine, Wisconsin (a woman whose ‘whiteness’ at the time was highly-questionable) – and later, a native New Yorker with Austrian immigrant roots who had fought for integration and fair treatment as a district superintendent for Washington DC’s public (read: majority-black) schools. And he passed on his values to his children: Dad still calls men ‘sir’ and women ‘ma’am’, but he has a strong New Deal, Social Gospel streak, and supported Bernie (as I did) with his pocketbook, as well as with his vote.

The tangledness of my family history is tangled up with the American South in ways I have yet to fully appreciate. A reader of my blog recently pointed me to Chesterton’s What I Saw in America as a definitive resource on the American South (a book which I have, in fact, already read). But, like de Tocqueville, Chesterton was a tourist – and not one gifted with de Tocqueville’s keenness of observation, despite his ability to play with an idea and turn a phrase. It’s far too easy to romanticise the South, particularly for people who burden it down with all manner of nostalgic importance – or who write onto it ideas and models imported from elsewhere. The moonlight-and-magnolias (auto-)mythologisation of the South (something which Chesterton, unfortunately, latched onto somewhat) is something I’ve militated against on this blog. Not because I’m anti-Southern, but because the Coopers are very much a Southern family, and because their own story as cotton-picking sharecroppers cuts against the grain of that mythology.

Because you can’t really talk about the American South without talking about the ‘other side’, no matter which ‘other side’ that is. It’s a unique and complex place in which I’ve spent far too little time, and I fear that I’ve done it something of an injustice myself by focussing too heavily and too harshly on the œconomic distinctions which make it different from any place in the Old World to which its own mythology might mistakenly point. No matter that the evidence does suggest that the antebellum South was largely an œconomic colony, whether of the American northeast or of Manchester or even of its own coastal planter class. Focussing on that dimension alone may miss a significant part of the picture. The very best treatment of the American South I have yet seen, despite its deadpan-snark sense of humour and the fact that it’s aimed squarely at a British audience, is Rich Hall’s documentary The Dirty South, which shows precisely how the lived experience of a place has been ‘downright distorted’ in popular culture – from the straight-up moonlight-and-magnolias mythmaking of Gone with the Wind to the one-dimensional caricature of Southern religion in Inherit the Wind; from Harper Lee to Erskine Caldwell; from Li’l Abner to Deliverance.

‘A chief motive today to emphasize past evils is that we might whitewash our own’ – or so says my Chesterton-reading commentator. This is indeed true, but I would advise this gentle reader to remember what the great Southern man of letters himself said: ‘the past isn’t over; it isn’t even past’. It’s not to escape indictment for myself that I write about the South and its past; it’s so that others may better understand where I’m coming from in the present. Because – poverty, shame, honour, pain, race, sectionalism, manners, all of it – even though I’ve lived my whole life in the Rust Belt, in the Upper Midwest, in New England or in China, I’m nonetheless in several senses a creature of the American South, and that’s not something I can shrug off with ease. Still, I can only write about that piece of it I know, and at that a piece I’ve gotten secondhand and through the blood.

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