Politics and Social Justice Archive

Southern Comforts

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

The South, repatriated ex-slave Ned Douglass lectured his Louisiana neighbors in Ernest J. Gaines’s novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is “yours because your people’s bones lays in it; it’s yours because their sweat and their blood done drenched this earth.”

The latest U.S. census confirms that the grandchildren of the Southern diaspora are going home: American blacks are returning to their ancestral region. The revenants include novelist Gaines, 78, who now makes his home on the plantation on which his people have lived and died since the days of slavery. As a boy, he picked cotton on that land. He also wrote letters for his mostly illiterate elders, a training in dialect and dialogue worth a dozen MFAs.

Despite years in San Francisco exile, Gaines has placed all his fiction in rural Louisiana, never venturing even as far as New Orleans. “I picked my own back yard—and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “After all, Yoknapatawpha County was good enough for Faulkner,” with whose volumes Gaines’s masterwork, A Lesson Before Dying, deserves kinship.

“My folks have lived in the same place for over a hundred years in Pointe Coupee Parish in South Central Louisiana. I can’t imagine writing about any other place,” Ernest Gaines says. “Everything comes back to Louisiana.”

Including its native sons.

Gaines is said to have pictures of Faulkner and Booker T. Washington on his walls. His characters sometimes kick against what they view as Washington’s conciliatory, even acquiescent, advice, but they live the classic Washingtonian injunction to “cast down your buckets where you are.”

Booker T.’s harshest black critics were condescending graduates of elite colleges who were embarrassed by their Southern brothers and sisters in the sticks. In contrast, Washington, writes Robert J. Norrell in his rich Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, “had an emotional connection to the unlettered freed people of the rural South and a deep appreciation of their speech, music, humor, and religiosity.” Washington’s annual Tuskegee Negro Conferences brought together black farmers and teachers, for he insisted that the “uneducated” men and women of the countryside possessed wisdom and talents that no book could impart.

Ernest Gaines had his own model of rural endurance: Miss Augusteen Jefferson, his crippled great aunt. “Until I was fifteen years old, a lady raised me who never walked a day in her life,” he says. “She crawled over the floor as a six month old child might do.” Miss Augusteen cooked, washed, sewed, gardened, and whipped miscreants, without benefit of ambulation.  “My aunt never felt sorry for herself,” Gaines says, and one doubts that with the memory of that fortitudinous woman, the adult Gaines spent much time on the usual writerly whining about being blocked or broke.

Gaines, who says he talks to God “between rows of sugarcane,” has restored the tumbledown church of his youth. He and his wife also care for the cemetery in which sleep his people, his community—those who make up his past and his imagination. His colleagues Marcia Gaudet and Reggie Young describe an annual rite at the Mount Zion River Lake Cemetery in Cherie Quarters, Oscar, Louisiana: “[I]n late October of each year, when pecans cover the cemetery grounds, shortly before All Saints’ Day, [Mr. and Mrs. Gaines] lead a gathering of family members and friends … in a special beautification ceremony dedicated to honoring the dead by cleaning their final resting places and offering them a gift of communion from the living.”

The recovery of abandoned cemeteries and neglected graves is a noble act of African-American cultural patriotism evident today in, for instance, the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project. Among the grandest such efforts was the 1973 journey of Alice Walker to a weed-choked cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida, burial ground of the great novelist and folklorist (and Taft Republican) Zora Neale Hurston, whom Ernest Gaines says is “the only Black writer who has influenced my work.” (Hurston, who called FDR “the Anti-Christ” and Truman “the butcher of Asia,” had spirit and she had genius, which is why no one still knows quite what to make of her.)

“I was born in the South, I have lived and labored in the South, and I expect to be buried in the South,” said Booker T. Washington.

He was. So was the resplendent Zora, and so was Miss Augusteen Jefferson, whose unmarked grave is in the cemetery her great-nephew tends. Mr. Gaines is receiving the Cleanth Brooks Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers this spring—for his novels, to be sure, but his homecoming and ancestral piety merit awards all their own.

Read the original article at The American Conservative.

byebyemissamericanempire Bill Kauffman is the author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.

California Times Two

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

These days I care more about the results of local sporting events than I do national or out-of-state elections, but I was pleased that Golden Staters put Jerry Brown back in the governor’s chair.

Brown’s austere unhipness has always appealed to me, despite the soporiferous Linda Ronstadt, despite his “explore the universe” vapors, despite his failure as attorney general to defend his state’s electorate in the Proposition 8 case, even despite the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles,” in which President Brown unleashes the Terror:

Now it is 1984

Knock knock at your front door

It’s the suede denim secret police

They have come for your uncool niece!

Jello Biafra, who yawped that lyric, changed his mind about Brown, as did the great Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who dubbed Brown “Governor Moonbeam” but later realized that the Californian’s eccentricities masked—or maybe revealed—a curious, undogmatic, and bold politician.

To me, the California governor is redolent of those politically halcyon mid-1970s, when Democratic primaries were dominated by pious peanut farmers, pro-Second Amendment exposers of CIA skullduggery (Frank Church), and the quicksilver Brown, while neocon dreadnoughts like the SS Scoop Jackson sunk blessedly of their own terrible weight.

Jerry Brown was the last populist to make himself heard in a Democratic presidential primary, when in 1992, advised by the wise old republican Gore Vidal, he thumped the tub for a flat tax and peace and against NAFTA. Later, as mayor of Oakland, Brown encouraged local poets and painters and dancers to render their city in all its peculiar glory.

He was ridiculed for such pronouncements as this: “I want to emphasize place. Re-inhabit, going back, learning what was before, what is, what isn’t, what could be because of its physical location, its place in the economy, its fauna, its flora, its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.” A syntactic smashup, perhaps, but what’s so funny about Brown’s meaning?

Continue reading the full article at the American Conservative.

byebyemissamericanempire Bill Kauffman is the author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.

The Other Eisenhowers

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mother was a pacifist, a breed common in the Middle America of yore, before war became the national religion. Her son left Kansas to climb the martial ladder of the Department of War, whose motto, suggested Declaration of Independence signatory Benjamin Rush, should have been “A Widow and Orphan making office.” It was also the greatest deracinating force in American history; Dwight, unlike Dorothy and Toto, never returned to the Sunflower State.

Old men grow sentimentally pensive, and one wonders if President Eisenhower’s sober and remarkable Farewell Address counseling vigilance against the “military-industrial complex”—delivered 50 years ago over the televisions that even then were addling America—echoes, however faintly, Ida Eisenhower’s Mennonite convictions. It surely is redolent of his older brother and frequent correspondent Edgar, the Tacoma attorney who in most Eisenhower biographies gets a walk-on as the crusty reactionary pestering the moderate Ike to repeal the New Deal and support the Bricker Amendment, that last gasp of the Old Right.

The president’s son John, in his memoir Strictly Personal, writes affectionately that Uncle Ed “considered President Roosevelt a work of the devil.” No jingo chickenhawk of the sort whose squawk dominates today’s Right, Ed tried to talk John out of a career in the military: “he declared that I should forego any ideas of becoming a ‘professional killer’ and go to law school at his expense, later to join his law office.”

This language—“professional killer” —marked Edgar Eisenhower as an anachronism among the placeless technocrats who were busy engineering the Empire of Euphemism. Organization men like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy could no more understand Edgar Eisenhower than they could dig Jack Kerouac or Paul Goodman.

In his new study of Ike’s valediction, Unwarranted Influence, James Ledbetter places the Farewell Address within a thematic range that stretches from North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye’s 1930s investigation of the “merchants of death” to the power-elite analysis of C. Wright Mills and his idealistic admirers in Students for a Democratic Society. Speechwriters Malcolm Moos and Capt. Ralph Williams—perhaps younger brother Milton Eisenhower, too—crafted much of the address, but its concerns were those of the president, who later wrote in Waging Peace: “During the years of my Presidency, and especially the latter years, I began to feel more and more uneasiness about the effect on the nation of tremendous peacetime military expenditures.” (How many Republican members of the 112th Congress would nod assent: ten, at most?)

The somber dignity with which Eisenhower left office ought not to obscure his administration’s disgraceful interventions abroad (Iran, Guatemala) and at home (the Interstate Highway System, the National Defense Education Act). For those who preferred the American Republic to the American Empire, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft was the GOP choice in 1952.

Yet Ike was the last president confident enough to name, and even sometimes take on, the military-industrial complex. He lamented the “appalling costs” of the war machine and worried that a “garrison state” might arise in freedom’s erstwhile land. He was justly furious to be reproved as soft on defense by such hawkish Democrats as the Pulitzer Prize-winning PT boat hero and devoted husband John F. Kennedy.

In his twilight, my old boss, Sen. Pat Moynihan, a Kennedy loyalist, was unsettled in Eisenhower-like ways by the seeming permanence of the national-security state, enshrouded in its miasmic secrecy. The new collection Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, contains a Sept. 8, 1990, letter to Erwin N. Griswold, former dean of Harvard Law School, in which Moynihan grandiloquently—that is, characteristically—announces, “I have one purpose left in life; or at least in the Senate. It is to try to sort out what would be involved in reconstituting the American government in the aftermath of the cold war. Huge changes took place, some of which we hardly notice.”

Two months later, in a letter to constituents—which Moynihan, unlike most members of Congress this side of Tennessee’s Jimmy Duncan and my late friend Barber Conable, wrote himself—the senator “wondered…whether we any longer knew how” to be a “nation essentially at peace with the rest of the world.”

We do not. Since 1941, war has warped American life. Only the doddering and the dotards among us have lived in an America that is not armed, aggressive, and perpetually at war. If you would seek those who know what an America at peace is like, visit the nursing home. If you would hear the sounds of America at war, walk the corridors of a veterans’ hospital. Listen to the shrieks and sobs—the keening for the lost America of Ida and Edgar Eisenhower.

This article is part of a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and the military-industrial complex.

Read the original article at The American Conservative.

byebyemissamericanempire Bill Kauffman is the author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.

American Graffiti

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

My lovely literate wife Lucine—“Armenian for Darlene,” I type out of habit, and wince at the thought of the shoe flying across the room—recently reviewed for the local library one of those pop-anthropological books in which a big-city reporter spends a few weeks in a small town and lives to tell the tale.

I’ll withhold the book’s title, since Lucine said the author meant well, and besides, when a really egregious target waddles into my sights I’ve become like my dad hunting deer—I shoot wide and low and let it lollop away. When I was a mere stripling I’d blast the bastard, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

The latest Margaret Mead in Podunk committed this sentence: “It’s easy to spot someone who grew up in a small town and got out: they have a breathless air about them, their expressions somehow startled and dreamy.”

Talk about the shock of unrecognition: What the hell does that mean? My wife teased a few laughs from its sheer obtuseness. And if anyone can spot the startled dreaminess of exiles from Elm Street it ought to be Lucine, a Southern Cal gal turned rural Yorker who stubbornly resists my kindly efforts to compress her into the John Mellencamp line: “Married an LA doll and brought her to this small town / Now she’s small town, just like me.”

Actually, as town supervisor and emcee of the Onion Queen Pageant, she makes me look like a regular boulevardier, but I suppose as a native I can be identified by some hidden Lovecraftian nodule.

Where this latest tourist among the rustics goes wrong is in not crediting the stay-at-homes with the capacity to dream and in not noticing that some of those who “got out” dream of returning—a return barred, so often, by the poisonous assumption that success in America can be measured in the distance one has traveled from home.

My friend Patrick Deneen, who teaches political theory at Georgetown, has written on the decentralist website Front Porch Republic of interviewing at a college (much less prestigious than Georgetown) near his hometown in Connecticut:

I was inordinately excited at this possibility, thinking that it might work out that my wife and I and newborn son might be able to settle close to family and childhood friends. When asked about accommodations, I proudly informed the college that I would be staying in my bedroom that night—my childhood bedroom, that is. During the two day interview I related in every conversation that I was native to the area and had a longstanding relationship to the campus, having attended its plays, movies, and used its library for many years. I believed my local connection would make me an especially attractive candidate, sure in the knowledge that a school would be attracted to someone who already had deep roots in the community and was likely to build a long life and career in that place.

In fact, Patrick writes, “this proud display of my nativeness went over badly.” The American professional class does not just accept rootlessness as the cost of achievement—it positively fetishizes it. And so it is befuddled—startled, even—when confronted by a Deneen.

Levon Helm of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, drummer for The Band and a great American, described a cotton-farming guitar player from Elaine, Arkansas, named Thurlow Brown: “He could have been famous, but he didn’t like leaving his farm, so he never broke out of our area.”

My hero!

Thurlow Brown of Elaine is worth every deracinated novelist who ever took a table at Elaine’s. But how do we convince young Thurlow Browns to ignore the synthesized drumbeat that tells our children that to stay at home is the act of a loser, and that if you’re not in NY, LA, or DC you’re nowhere?

When another Front Porcher, the reprobate wit Jason Peters, cracked open the treasury of Augustana College a while back to have me out to hector his students, we did a little post-lecture proselytizing in the Quad Cities.

Midnight settled on Davenport, Iowa, home of the late 19th-century local color novelist Octave Thanet. Fearing that her tones had been forgotten by the town she never forsook, and wondering just how I might interest the rantipole youths and roistering blades of Davenport in their native daughter, I took to decorating the men’s rooms of that fair city with obscene graffiti about Octave’s amative practices.

Forgive me, Octave, baby. I didn’t know what else to do. Lacking the “breathless air” of those who “got out,” you and Thurlow and I dream on.

Read the original article in the December 2010 issue of The American Conservative.

byebyemissamericanempire Bill Kauffman is the author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.