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“South is South”: Writing about Race in the South


When writing a piece of fiction set in the South, race looms a specter in the back of the writer’s mind. The subject of race makes people uncomfortable, but without a frank conversation about how racial tensions and violence contribute to southern culture and history, we cannot hope to write about the true south in any meaningful way. What makes the discourse more difficult, however, is measuring progress: how far have we come as a society? Many people pose that we’ve entered a post-racial phase of history, though the people who claim such things don’t experience aggressions based on racial difference every day. Because racism doesn’t exist as it did during slavery or Jim Crow does not mean that racism doesn’t exist; racism is the skeleton in the closet, the unspoken sentence in a conversation, something that pervades all of our governmental institutions and workplace processes despite lack of discourse. In order to better deconstruct how to incorporate a consciousness of race in your stories, I will speak about the vehicles of race that became most prevalent in three eras.

Slavery Era South Carolina

At the last Juneteenth Celebration in Aiken County, a man arrived with a booth of artifacts from the South Carolina slave trade: these included bills of ownership, neck claps, shackles, and whips. When Charlestowne was settled in 1670, the slave trade already boomed in the West Indies and found a new market in South Carolina. The port city is built upon marshland perfect for growing rice. Subsequently, rice plantations, as well as tea, cotton, and tobacco plantations, spread throughout the Low Country. Work in the rice fields involved grueling labor, slaves often up to their waists in pluff mud. Because of Charlestowne’s popularity, over 40% of slaves passed through Charleston.

Fiction set in South Carolina should be embedded with an understanding of this history. More importantly, books set in this era should embrace this history. Too often books written about the era focus more heavily on the romantic beauty of the Antebellum South, ignoring that the grandiose wealth had been built on the backs of the enslaved. Often depictions of slaves rely on what here we’ll call the Aunt Jemima/Uncle Ben Problem: women are happy to care for their white masters’ children, men happy to serve their masters.

images                During this era, how was race constructed? In fiction, one sees the most commonly philosophies of race related to hierarchical race: white is civilized and good, black uncivilized and bad. This is perhaps the most commonly understood conception of racism, though the complexities of relationships between white and black communities should be explored in a more nuanced way. For example, white women often viewed their black female slaves as young non-sisters, someone to educate and take care of. Never mind that black enslaved women raised these white women; their white civilized superiority offered an easily paternalistic relationship to exploit. Intimacy plays an important role in this discourse of dominance: white male slave owners often raped young female slaves. But they called these women their “mistresses,” implying a mutually-consensual sexual relations; I assume that the realities of the master-slave relationship made it difficult for slaves to actively defy these men and so were seen more often as submissive.

These relationships often resulted in mixed-race children. “Colored” slaves occupied a different place in the imagination of the white south pre-Civil War. Consider how gradations of race affect the individual’s ability to engage with either white or black communities.

If you were interested in writing a book set in the Antebellum South and interested too in depicting the lives of slaves, I would shy away from assuming the easy character tropes. Especially prevalent are narratives of slaves complacent with their condition, and I think this comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of enslavement. If your characters are struggling for dignity, imbue them with the dignity they deserve, even if the white characters do not. Above all, keep in mind that each day is a struggle for claiming the validity of humanity.

Jim Crow South

jim_crow2                “Jim Crow” refers to a set of laws that prevented black Americans from voting and created the adage of “separate but equal.” Not only did these laws disenfranchise black Americans from engaging in civic life, but they also promoted job discrimination, inferior schooling, and substandard public facilities. During this time, the white populations of the South generally constructed race in a similar way as they did before the Civil War. Blackness was a sort of a marker of inferiority, a social stigma worn tight around a person’s skeleton.

During this time, however, as the number of mixed-race individuals grew, the distinctions began to be blurred. This did not preclude mixed-race people from the experiences of discrimination and often violence. Being black came with a deep consciousness of being black during this era, coupled with limitations on that person’s liberty. Race was something more concretely learned through the segregated places that whites or blacks inhabited.

Violence pervaded this era. Most commonly we speak about the organized violence of the Ku Klux Klan and other images (1)white-supremacist groups, but there existed also a more personal violence. For example, boys were often taught that they needed to be ready to “fight back” in case any black man attacked them; race was tied intrinsically to expressions of masculinity. White men became afraid during this time of black sexuality, the possibility of black sexual dominance, and so response through violence. The organized violence of the Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, found its causes rooted in fear and dominance. As the lot of African Americans approved (more land ownership, increases school enrollment), they became fear of what possibilities these new citizens manifested.

Modern South

What about writing about race in the modern South? To understand where we are now, we must consider the Seneca-South-Carolina-e1277147978526-1024x861collective history of African Americans in South Carolina, the legacies of slavery of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Racism persists, but wears a new face. Aggressions occur on a more personal level, played out in job interviews, street interactions, and trips to the grocery store. Blackness is construed often as criminal, connected today with many expressions of blackness including attire and hair style. Through naming these attributes, most commonly associated with black youth, criminal, the South now seeks to equate blackness with criminality. Therefore, a fear or prejudice against someone seems not to stem from race but instead their perceived criminality.

If writing about the modern South, the writer must be conscious of these new vehicles of racism. Furthermore, one should be conscious of the narratives surrounding the criminal justice system, how systematic incarceration disenfranchise young black males through disproportionately imprisoning them for often non-violent crimes. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan persist, but they do not wear their racist titles as proudly: instead, they operate under crusades for morality, family values, and traditions.

In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I wrote about a fictitious southern-tradition group called the Knights of Southern Heritage. In the story, one of their members is accused on lynching the black ex-mayor, though his guilt remains uncertain. One of the ideas I wanted to express was that despite the obvious racist undertones of this group, they were not the most dangerous people in a rural southern town. Who become more damaging are the people operating under the guise of tradition, those that rail against progress or development for the sake of clinging to nostalgic beliefs.

Who become more dangerous are the everyday people: the football team that makes light of depicting black-majority downloadschools as apes (True Story), the man in the grocery store following your son around because he expects your son to steal, the teacher who assumes failure for the black student, the couple that crosses the street when approaching a black homeless man, the woman who touches your hair without asking and thinks it’s so weird, the woman who calls you pretty for the black girl, or the fearful police officer who approaches a black boy for suspicious behavior. These actions tend to have more effect on our lives than the actions of any organized hate group—at least their bigotry is worn proud on their sleeves.

When writing about race in the south, we must observe the invisible barriers, the walls that creep between us like kudzu, and the assumptions we construct based on media-proliferated images. We must be careful not to paint with too broad a brush either about black southerners or even the people who discriminate against them, lest we ignore the ways in which people are most often disenfranchised. We must avoid these generalizations, lest we forget that the characters we’re writing must be human: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might forget that despite our shared humanity, our experiences based on our race differ not because we ourselves are intrinsically different, but because people treat us differently.

Review: Lion King in 3D

Some may say that this is a ploy to empty your pockets for the sake of nostalgia, only in 3D. I think it is more of an opportunity to introduce the children of today to the wonders of Disney’s past.

While we waited through the opening trailers, I remembered what had gone wrong with Disney. Showing soon was another movie about hamsters and yet another Air Buddies film for the incredibly long saga of sequels following Air Bud. This marks the fifth straight-to-DVD spin-off of that series.

So, to rewind back to the good ole days when Mufasa ruled Pride Rock on the silver screen, it was quite a treat. If any readers here want to feel especially old, you should know that The Lion King was the first movie I ever saw in theaters. It came out before I had turned one years old.

The Lion King, being one of my favorite movies, cannot fail but be good. I’m rather glad I hadn’t seen it in a while (years), so a lot of jokes returned fresh to me.  Just so you know, I will not recap the movie for you. Whether you like it or not, The Lion King is a must-see. I shan’t waste time recounting the plot. So, go watch it. Bonus points: if you’ve ever read/seen Hamlet, imagine that with lions and also a gassy warthog.

Watching it as an older human being, I realized a few things about the movie:

1.) Mufasa, while being such a great father figure, is sort of a jerk to his brother. I mean, imagine how much abuse Scar had to put up with before finally deciding to kill Mufasa? Also, at one point, he forces Zazu, his Tucan companion, to act as a target for Simba’s target practice. Now, I cry too every time Mufasa topples into the stampede of wildebeasts, but now at least I understand what embittered Scar so much. So, basically, even if you hate for me for saying this, Scar wasn’t so bad. Oppressed under his brother’s rule, the runt of the family, maybe his actions were at least understandable.

2.) The hyenas, portrayed as evil, comical minions to Scar, spoke with accents different from the rest of the cast (American or British). I read that this may be an underlying message of racism, to cast African Americans to voice the ignorant, evil characters.

3.) GASP! Sexual innuendos? Yeah, pretty much.

I’m glad, yet not glad The Lion King has been released in 3D. On one hand, it gives today’s children a chance to experience the movie as if it were only now coming out. With the avalanche of crap kids’ movies, this is a welcome revival.  Arriving in the theater, I was actually surprised that more children than teens my age had come to see the film.

The 3D was underused and horrible. The scenes “in 3D” were just pathetic. They could have marketed it as a normal movie and that would have been fine, but they insisted on 3D. So, basically, I had to pay an extra four dollars per ticket for lackluster 3D. I am obviously not a fan of 3D. In this aspect, the decision seemed simply to make more money on The Lion King‘s re-release.

If you have a child who has never seen the film before, I suggest you take them out to see it in theaters, to experience its full impact.

If you, like me, simply want to revisit your childhood, just pop in an old VHS, because it may not be worth the money.

What do you think about the film? Is it good to bring back old masterpieces to cinemas? Or is this just a ploy to pillage your purse?

The Lion King returns to theaters after being long dead. I guess, that’s the Circle of Life?

Media Travesty: {The Story of Troy Davis}

I have been thinking a lot about how we present media information, because Yahoo! happens to be my homepage. First, I thought about how we use headlines, but pondered on what news we tell.

On Tuesday, Troy Davis received the death penalty in Georgia, to die yesterday on Wednesday, September 21, 2011. He has now been executed. Before the trial ended, the defense’s case had all but fallen apart. Seven of the nine witnesses recanted or contradicted their testimonies, and one who didn’t was a man also convicted. Troy Davis received the death penalty for killing a police officer in 1989.

Now, this story began streaming on Yahoo! on Thursday morning, the day after he was put to death. The only reason I was kept up-to-date on the trial was because of Facebook. What bothers me is that the media doesn’t want to cover something until after the “thing” is over. What about yesterday when people were gathering outside of the prison? No news story for that? Instead, they put out stories about exorbitant muffins, Starbucks t-shirt designs, and houses built for cats.

What is less important about this trial than that of Casey Anthony? With so little evidence, the court still moved forward to execute this man. It was law, they said. It needed to be done, they said. I’m undecided on the innocence of Troy Davis, because I have not studied his case extensively. I do, however, believe his trial was handled with very little tact. The evidence fell apart. In the end, Davis was asked to “prove his innocence” rather than have the prosecution “prove his guilt” (something it could no longer do). This was a clear failure of our legal system.

Not only did we convict a man with little evidence against him, we killed him. We locked him in prison for 22 years, then killed him. As far as the death penalty goes, how can we even judge that other men can die? Simply: it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper to kill someone than keep them in prison. And so we twist arms and leap through loopholes, pushing men toward the execution chamber.

So, this post is affronting two things: the fairness of our legal system and the philosophy of media. Although the story was generally well-known, or even because it was, perhaps the story should have been featured in detail days ago, when first the spark began. When first Davis’ death sentence was being signed. I mean, there are people like me, not even born when this trial took place originally.

What are your thoughts on the Davis’ case? How do you think the court handled it?

Would You Read This?