I’ve Had The Time of My Life

New Orleans is, of course, more than Mardi Gras; but whenever anyone mentions New Orleans, most people’s minds immediately go there.

It is probably the most famous thing about New Orleans, no matter how hard we try to convince outsiders that there’s more to the city that our annual bacchanal…Mardi Gras is always the default; so much so that the entire season is collectively (and incorrectly) called Mardi Gras; Mardi Gras is merely Fat Tuesday (mardi gras literally translates into fat Tuesday) and the rest of the season is Carnival. No matter how often you try to correct people, it never takes and so I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer correct people. It is what it is.

Likewise, people think of Carnival as a debauched event, and there is some truth to that–women do show their breasts for beads, and I’ve seen guys drop trou as well. However, I can also honestly say I’ve never seen that happen on the actual parade route on St. Charles Avenue; perhaps that happens down on Canal Street during parades, but it doesn’t happen in Uptown. I’ve only witnessed it happen in the Quarter–people on Bourbon Street displaying the required flesh for people up on balconies with a seemingly endless supply of beads, demanding boobs or butts or balls in exchange for a strand of beads. I’ve personally never dropped trou for beads–never will; why on earth would you when they are thrown with such reckless abandon from floats during the parades?

Like most New Orleanians, I had some vague knowledge of the history of Carnival in New Orleans; I knew that the theme song “If Ever I Cease to Love” came about because of a visit from a member of the Russian Romanov royal family in 1872; the Carnival colors of purple, green and gold were also in his honor. I knew that Comus, Momus, Proteus and Rex were the original krewes that paraded; that the flambeaux carriers originally were necessary to light up the parades in the darkness of the night; I also knew that the members of those original krewes–that still exist today, even if some of them no longer parade–were made of the city’s ruling class elites, and the krewes were offshoots of the exclusive Gentlemen’s Clubs in the city–the Boston Club, the Pickwick Club, etc.–that also still exist today.

But I didn’t know a lot about the history; I didn’t know much beyond what I would read in the annual Arthur Hardy’s Parade Guide, which I buy religiously every year. It’s easier, of course, now; there are parade apps that track the parades so you know where they are; whereas before you just had to stand on the route and wait, or (if you are lucky enough, like we are, to live close to the parade rout) listen for a marching band before heading down to the Avenue.

So I decided recently, since I’m reading a lot of New Orleans history, to read James Gill’s Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans.

lords of misrule

The white men in jackets and ties were obviously out of their element. Normally, at this time of day, they would be preparing to leave home or office for a couple of drinks, lunch, and maybe a card game at their clubs. Now, on December 19, 1991, they shifted in their seats, returning hostile glances from a large contingent of black men and women in the packed basement of New Orleans City Hall. The city council was meeting in spartan surroundings while its regular chambers were being renovated, but the physical discomforts were nothing compared to the general psychic unease as everyone waited for the great debate on an ordinance to desegregate Mardi Gras parades and gentlemen’s luncheon clubs.

New Orleans is a Southern city, with all that entails and perhaps even more. There were slaves here before the Louisiana Purchase; both the French and the Spanish brought slaves to New Orleans and Louisiana. New Orleans didn’t hold out long as a Confederate city; it surrendered to the Federal navy fairly early in the war, and with that surrender, the Union plan to control the Mississippi was one step closer to fruition. Racism, Jim Crow, and all the horrible white supremacy that comes with those things were evident here; the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that established the horrific doctrine of “separate but equal” was a case that originated in New Orleans, and had to do with segregated railroad cars. Several years ago Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city council finally agreed to remove the Confederate statues and other memorials commemorating the city’s racist past; General Lee no longer stands with his back to the North on his plinth in Lee Circle; the statue of General Beauregard outside the entrance to the New Orleans Museum of Art was removed, and the statue of Jefferson Davis on the neutral ground along Jefferson Davis Parkway was also taken down. Perhaps the most egregious memorial–the Battle of Liberty Place memorial–was also removed in the dead of night.

New Orleanians like to pretend that New Orleans doesn’t have that same vein of racism and white supremacy the rest of the South does; but it’s definitely there. It might have more a genteel veneer over it, but it’s definitely there. Orleans Parish is probably the most progressive parish in the entire state–but that’s also an incredibly low bar to set. The vast majority of people I know were in favor of the removal of the memorials, and whenever it came up on a local news website, the comments against the removal were almost inevitably from non-New Orleanians, and usually ginned up the standard Louisiana complaints about New Orleans: out of control crime, poverty, crumbling infrastructure. But all of those things were also true when the city was segregated and operating under Jim Crow; anyone who reads New Orleans history knows that the city was always a hotbed of crime and sin and debauchery.

Lords of Misrule opens with the attempt by the city council in 1992 to desegregate the krewes; my first-ever attendance at Carnival was a mere three years later, and people were still talking about it. The result was three old-line krewes (Comus, Momus, and Proteus) decided to stop parading rather than desegregate (there is a krewe now parading under the name of Proteus again; I don’t know if it is actually the same, original Krewe of Proteus or a newer krewe who took the name). Opponents of the ordinance claimed it would kill Carnival, which is now one of the primary economic engines of the city; nearly thirty years later we can attest that didn’t happen. Modern Carnival attendees don’t now about those krewes and they aren’t missed. But Gill uses this battle at the city council as a jumping-off place to examine the history of the racial politics in the city, and throughout, he uses Carnival–and how racist events in the city, such as the Battle of Liberty Place–to illustrate and illuminate that history.

It’s an enjoyable read, a little eye-opening in places, but a good read, and he also does an excellent job of exploring how Comus was not only  Confederate, but later, if not directly tied to, then definitely sympathetic to the Klan and the cause of white supremacy. Some of these civic leaders who would be, or had been, King of Comus or King of Rex also were leaders of the rebellion, the Klan, and so forth.

And it isn’t until the final chapters that any bias on the part of Gill becomes even remotely obvious; I got the distinct impression in the final chapters that Gill opposed the desegregation of the krewes–but he never comes out and says that; the final chapters simply read that way to me. I could be wrong.

But I do recommend it. It’s a good, interesting read, and sheds some important light on forgotten parts of New Orleans history.

Dueling Banjos

Writing about the rural Deep South is difficult.

I’m from the deep south, yes, but I didn’t grow up there. I spent a lot of time there, my parents were Southern, and so a lot of my values and mind-view for a number of years were patterned in the Southern mindset. I draw from my memories of summers in the rural backwoods of the mid-central-western part of the state, about seventy miles from the Mississippi state line or so, but there are also so many attitudes and mentalities and stereotypes and tropes about the rural Deep South that it is easy to become lazy and fall into those. I am trying very hard not to do that, but as I said, it’s hard. Stereotypes and tropes exist for a reason, after all–they weren’t created from nothing; there’s always a core kernel of truth in them, whatever they’ve become once the seeds were planted–but the key is to burrow into them to dig out the core kernel of truth to build upon, so you’re telling the truth. But I worry, as I continue to excavate into this book, that I am relying on negative tropes and stereotypes.

I think I was thirteen when Deliverance was released; we saw it at the drive-in, which was something my parents loved to do with us when we were kids. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the movie–it was the kind of macho bullshit I loathed as a child, a loathing that has only somewhat lessened as an adult, so I stopped paying attention to it and I think I may have even dozed off. But I did see the scene early in the movie which has forever cemented into people’s minds a link between the backwoods South and redneck morons–“Dueling Banjos.” The open notes of the song are all that is needed to reference a joke about passing from civilization into the land of the uneducated, probably inbred, backwoods hillbillies; it has come to symbolize moonshine-makin’, overalls-wearin’, cousin-marryin’, dangerous rural Southern people. I’ve made the joke myself from time to time–driving through the Southern countryside at night, “You can almost hear the banjo notes, can’t you?”

Deliverance and “Dueling Banjos” are such a part of our zeitgeist and popular culture that the book and film have become kind of shorthand Southern references–even for people who don’t know the origins of the references. I’ve never read the book, but I bought a copy a few years ago because I heard one of the references in something–a talk show, a book, a film, a television show; I don’t remember which–but I thought it was time for me to read the book and possibly watch the film in its entirety; that there was a possibly an essay in both about masculinity, rape culture, and the American male. (For those of you who don’t know, many male-on-male rape jokes were born directly of Deliverance.) I never did get around to reading the book or watching the movie; to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about them and the essay idea until recently. I also never got around to reading the book because I’d heard bad things about James Dickey, who wrote the novel. Dickey was primarily a poet, and considered one of the better American ones of the second half of the twentieth century by the Academy, and Deliverance was his only novel. I knew people who knew Dickey, and the reports back on him were terribly unpleasant, if not surprisingly so. (American letters has produced some horrific examples of toxic masculinity with its iconic, deified authors.)

Southern people are masters at grievance; they’ve been aggrieved for quite some time now–probably as far back as when the rumblings in the northern states began against slavery.  Everything is always someone else’s fault; even that language from the 1960’s came back to haunt Alabama during the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate: “outside agitators.” That was always a favorite fallback of Southern white supremacy; people of color in the South were perfectly happy with the way things were set up, with not voting or having opportunities, and being segregated away from white people, until “outside agitators” stirred them up against their kind, genial white overlords. Outside agitation goes all the way back to slavery; Southern politicians and leaders railed against “Yankee agitation on the slavery issue.” It’s all there, in black and white, in the history books–if you know what to look for.

The politics of race in the South have always been problematic, but nothing is more irritating to me than white apologia fiction set in the South; in which the white people aren’t racists; those nasty lower class white trash people are the real racists, not the educated whites. I’ve seen this in any number of books and it never ceases to irritate me when I come across it; this historical revision that relieves the guilt of Southern white people is kind of like, as my friend Victoria says, how after the Second World War  no Germans had really been Nazis and everyone in France was a resistance fighter.

Bitch, please.

I guess all those southern white civil rights activists were working undercover, because they sure weren’t public in their opposition. (And yes, I know–not all Southern white people; but I sure don’t see any white faces in any of the footage from the civil rights marches and school integrations that weren’t in military uniform…or certainly not as many as novels and fictions would have us believe.) To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic to me in that I don’t believe for a minute that the sheriff and the cops in Maycomb, Alabama, were worried about the rednecks from the county lynching Tom Robinson and gathering up some of the good white people from town to defend the jail; history shows that the police were often Klansmen, or at least more sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy than they were to civil rights. That scene, while powerful, doesn’t ring true to me–it again divides Southern whites into the educated professionals and the uneducated racist rednecks, and I am not certain of the accuracy. The publication of Go Set a Watchman upset a lot of fans of the original work with its depiction of Atticus as a segregationist; they felt betrayed that the heroic white champion of racial tolerance and justice from Mockingbird was turned into a segregationist…but it was honest and real and rang true to me.

And seriously, I highly recommend anyone interested in looking at how Southern white people viewed civil rights during the 1960’s dig up The Klansman by William Bradford Huie.

This is, of course, part of the problem I am having with writing this first draft of a book set in the rural South that deals, in part, with issues of race in the modern rural South. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, nor do I want this to be another oh look another white person discovers how terrible racism is book, nor do I want it to be another “white savior” book; there are plenty of those already. But I also want to be honest; and how does one do that? There are always going to be those who criticize such a book for failing, or trying too hard, or some such. Southern racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny do exist, and having an openly gay teenager with roots in Alabama spend the summer there helping take care of his dying grandmother, while dealing with some other issues that arise during his visit, seems like a good lens to view all of these things through.

Or at least, seems to be one, at any rate.

I think this is one of the reasons I am having so much trouble writing this book and getting this draft done; I am so worried about being offensive or crossing some line as well as wanting to do it well and do it right that I am overthinking everything, and it’s like I have this incredible overwhelming sense of confidence about my abilities as a writer. But I am going to press on, all the while worrying…but I must needs remember: I can always fix everything in future drafts.

Part of my goals for the weekend are to finish writing a promised essay, to get three chapters of the book written, and to finish reading Steph Cha’s amazing Your House Will Pay. I also need to reread everything I’ve written for Bury Me in Shadows, and make notes as I go.

Heavy thoughts for a Friday morning, Constant Reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

IMG_2015

O Say Can You See

The 4th of July; the supposed birthday of the United States of America, aka Independence Day.

It really isn’t the nation’s birthday, but rather the anniversary of the day that the thirteen English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard essentially said enough, and declared themselves to be free of the yoke of what they saw as royal and parliamentary tyranny; the war against the English had been going on for just over a year at this point, and the troubles between Mother England and her thirteen American daughters for just over ten years at this point.

As Constant Reader is aware, Gregalicious loves him some history. The United States did not spring into existence on July 4, 1776; the very concept of a “united states” was neither broached nor discussed during the process of the development of the Declaration of Independence, summarized in the previous paragraph (which leaves out, and/or ignores some very pertinent and important details).

The creation of the United States occurred eleven years later, in 1787, with the development and ratification of our true founding document; the Constitution. How the Constitution came into being is beautifully and intelligently described in one of my favorite books of history, Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen. Bowen’s book describes the painstaking process through which our government was developed, written, and agreed to by representatives of the thirteen independent states, and the lengthy, seemingly endless debates, held over between these extraordinary men during the oppressive heat and humidity of a Philadelphia summer.

In the centuries since the Constitutional Convention, those Founding Fathers, those colonial Americans, have become rather deified in histories and common parlance; a pantheon of truly American gods whose names and reputations should never be besmirched or discussed in  human terms. But remarkable men as they were; they were also men, and they were, as such, just as flawed and complicated as any modern American. Thomas Jefferson had a slave as mistress, who also bore him numerous children; John Adams was not only vain but petty; and so on.

Of course the Constitution did not outlaw slavery, one of the country’s original sins; the repercussions of which are still felt today. The debates over slavery, the debates over the power of government and the freedoms held most dear, make for fascinating reading, even if one most always keep in mind the white supremacy that absolutely and positively drove almost every delegate at the convention. The United States was formed with only concerns for the rights of straight white men of European descent, and almost every freedom for the individual put into the document was for the benefit of straight white men–i.e. predicated on what they saw as abuses of their rights and privileges by the British government during the colonial period.

The ideals of the country, as set forth in this founding document which is still the basis for our government some two and a half centuries later, are most impressive; we have, as a nation, failed to live up to those ideals regularly. The founders’ compromises on slavery, their determination to make horrific compromises in order to forge a nation, unfortunately directly led to the sectional strife and divide that led to our bloodiest conflict, the Civil War, less than a hundred years after the Constitution was ratified. But even that conflict didn’t resolve the issues of white supremacy; racial conflict and strife continue to this day. The Constitution didn’t give women the right to vote or participate in the government; that didn’t come until 1920, and the equal rights of women are still not enshrined in the law to this day. Women are also still playing catch-up when it comes to representation in government either. All of our presidents have been men, and most elected officials to this day are primarily men. Racial equality is still a dream, an ideal, that we are still struggling to achieve; LGBTQ+ Americans also still are not seen as full citizens in the eyes of the law just yet.

And yet I love my country, despite its many flaws, despite its inability to live up to its founding ideals and the years of  floundering when it comes to equality for everyone un the eyes of the law. Our system is flawed because human beings are flawed; and we still have a ways to go before we are finally the nation of free people envisioned by those men in Philadelphia in 1787.

Here are the words Jefferson wrote in 1776, stirring words and ideals that we as Americans must continue to strive to achieve.

In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

“Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

“He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

“He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

“He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness of his invasions on the rights of the people.

“He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

“He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

“He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

“He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

“For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

“For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

“For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

“For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

“For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

“For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

“He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

“He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

“He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

“Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Happy 4th of July to all.

IMG_4531