Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Category: The American South (page 1 of 2)

Pizza Delivery Man for Senate: Delete All the NSA’s Files

Sean Haugh is sitting at the bar in jeans and a t-shirt, holding court about the problems in Washington. Occasionally, he pauses to take a big gulp out of a pint glass emblazoned with a picture of libertarian economist Murray Rothbard. It’s a scene you might not expect to come across at a bar in Durham, N.C., where Haugh lives. It’s also at least slightly bizarre for a campaign ad in a tightly contested race.

Read the rest of this article at Al Jazeera America …

The Burden of Southern Identity, Part III

A one-room school house in West Virginia in 1921

A one-room school house in West Virginia, 1921

IT was a gorgeous, warm, light autumn day, and I’d just had a lovely walk through Back Bay, one of my favorite parts of Boston. I had come to the neuropsychologist after my first year wading through readings and constantly fighting distraction at Harvard, wondering if I might have an attention disorder. (I didn’t.) Now I sat waiting the results of his evaluation. He called me into his office cordially. “First, I want to say how impressive it is that you’ve made it to graduate school at Harvard,” he began, “coming from where you come from, without a good education system.” Later that night, my girlfriend, who’d moved with me from Athens, Georgia and was working part-time as a teacher, told me how she couldn’t believe that schools in Boston only have one fine arts teacher per district. The public high school I graduated from—the worse of the two in Athens—has an entire fine arts building, with two full-time teachers for visual arts alone.

• • •

The thing I find most personally frustrating about being a southerner living outside of the South—in Babylon, I often joke—is the common presumption that wherever one comes from must be a much worse place than wherever one is now. Near strangers will not hesitate to assume that the people back home must be poorer; the politics must be more conservative; the society must be more backward; the schools must be poorer, in both senses of the word; and the race relations . . . well, you know. The specifics of location are usually unimportant.

Of course, poverty, conservatism, and illiteracy are neither ubiquitous in the South nor absent in the rest of the country. Comments like the one my neuropsychologist made are most frustrating not because they imagine that this isn’t true, however, but because they shut down the possibility for nuanced thinking. Even when the South does live up to its stereotypes, those stereotypes prevent us from seeing the whole picture.

Take, for example, my alma mater, Cedar Shoals High School. In 2002, the year that I graduated, its retention rate was roughly fifty percent—even lower among black and Latino students. That’s terrible, but so is taking that statistic as evidence of the South’s failings in education. Doing so reduces a complex topic like education to a single measurement, ignoring the many ways in which my high school was exceptional; it also misses the fact that seventy-five percent of my school qualified for the National School Lunch Program—in 2002, that meant living on $33,000 or less for a family of four—and some 25% of Athens-Clarke County lived below the poverty line. Chalking my school’s poor retention rate up to a generally poor southern education system misses the good in my school, ignores the varied and nuanced reasons for the failings it does have, and turns a blind eye to the many problems of schools outside of the South.

I’ve written before that “there are Wal-Mart parking lots in Maine and California where racist good ol’ boys drive large pickup trucks,” and that “there are also financial districts in New York where equally racist good ol’ boys are driven in large sedans.” That’s true of all southern stereotypes, but it’s also true that the South sometimes lives up to them. Pretending we know something about the South—pretending, even, that there is such a thing as the South that can be known—keeps us from seeing how and why, and from ever being able to do anything about it. Nothing could be less impressive.

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The Burden of Southern Identity, Part II

Ricky Thompson

Ricky Thompson, photographed by The New York Times in a Wal-Mart parking lot north of Mobile, Alabama. Copyright 2008 by The New York Times Company.

MY classmate—a scholar of Hindusim from the west coast—told me flat-out that she’d never liked the South. The people there were racist, she said, and backwards. I didn’t understand how anyone could presume to know such a vast swath of land full of so many different people just by passing through.

A couple of weeks after we first talked about it she emailed me a newspaper article—Adam Nossiter’s “For Some, Uncertainty Starts At Racial Identity,” from the 14 October 2008 New York Times. Above the link she typed, “This is the South I know.” The article, on racist objections to Obama in the South, interviewed what seemed like mostly working-class, white southerners in small-town churches and Wal-Mart parking lots; the only picture that accompanied it was a good ol’ boy with a goatee in a John Deere cap standing next to a giant red pickup truck. It was so ridiculous I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

•  •  •

There are some stereotypes that it’s no longer OK to use in public. An article about black people that relied solely on interviews done in liquor store parking lots or in fried chicken restaurants would provoke an outcry, and rightfully so. What’s disturbing is how it is OK to say almost anything one wants about poor white southerners with complete impunity. Part of the problem is that we tend to see oppression in almost exclusively racial terms; class and region go largely ignored. Because of this, there is no NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, or Council on American-Islamic Relations to lead a public outcry against the sort of group character assassination described above. White ethnic pride has been co-opted by the white supremacist fringe to such an extent that the very phrase itself carries supremacist connotations.

Another part of the problem is that many of the gross stereotypes about southerners are pushed—or, at least, endorsed—by southerners themselves. There is a sort of southern self-parody that often tips into self-hatred and minstrelsy. So, Waylon Jennings had few qualms about either The Dukes of Hazzard or “To Love and Die In Dixie,” the egregious 2001 Family Guy episode that parodied it. The sins of southerners like Jeff Foxworthy—who, as the college-educated son of a computer executive, is disingenuous nonetheless—ought to go without saying. Even Nossiter himself is a native of New Orleans. An awful lot of southerners seem to have taken their inspiration from Stepin Fetchit.

No group deserves to be defined by its worst members, those who fit its most hurtful and insidious stereotypes. The devastating thing about being a southerner is that one is made to answer not just for the worst aspects of the South, but for the worst aspects of America and, especially, of poor white America. No doubt there are Wal-Mart parking lots in Maine and California where racist good ol’ boys drive large pickup trucks. No doubt there are also financial districts in New York where equally racist good ol’ boys are driven in large sedans. The question is whether when we see this we still say, “This is the South I know.”

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The Burden of Southern Identity, Part I

I SHIFTED uncomfortably in the hard lecture hall seat, bored and barely even listening. The professor was explaining the importance of context in religious studies to the relatively small, mostly undergraduate class. Suddenly, something he said made me bolt up rod-straight in my seat: “So, for example, my context is going to be very different from the context of a snake-handling Pentecostal in Alabama.” My hand shot up like a bolt. “Excuse me, professor, but snake-handlers are called signs-believers and aren’t part of the Pentecostal or Holiness movements. Also, signs-believers are limited to the Appalachians, which never make it into Alabama, ending, as they do, in Georgia.”

The professor had begun a halting apology when another hand shot up at the back of the room, this time from one of my Divinity School colleagues, a Lutheran gay rights activist from the midwest. “I’ve traveled in Alabama before, and I talked to some Pentecostals who I think handled snakes.” I didn’t even know where to begin . . .

• • •

My professor was right, of course. The various denominational and nondenominational churches that believe in signs—i.e., handle snakes, and, in some cases, drink poison—are located roughly within the Pentecostal Holiness movement. One branch started in Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee with George Went Hensley; the other started independently in Sand Mountain, Alabama with James Miler, both around 1910 or 1920. What’s more, the Appalachian Mountain Range does extend from Georgia into northeast Alabama, though the Appalachian Trail ends at Springer Mountain, Georgia. I was very wrong, and more than a little self-righteous in the process. It was not my most graceful moment. Still, both my professor’s comments and my unfortunate reaction can show us something about southern representation and identity.

There are signs-believing churches as far north as Canada and at least as far west as Ohio. True, they started, and probably have their highest concentration, in the South; however, I also think that there is something else at work. It is the same thing that is at work when poor white characters on My Name Is Earl have decidedly southern accents in the middle of New Jersey, or when someone asks me if Ohio or Kansas or Indiana is in the South. In the popular American imagination, southern has become a convenient shorthand for poor, white, ignorant, and conservative, no matter where poor whites—be they ignorant and conservative or not—actually happen to live. In short, the American antithesis of my professor’s context had to be in the South because the South has become the American antithesis of every other American context. It has become a scapegoat for the body politic, a nation within the nation, an Other.

Of course, for southerners to consistently see themselves, and by seen by others, as representative of everything that is wrong with white America—southerner are almost always means white southerner in the popular imagination, after all, no matter how many blacks actually live in the South—is bound to breed resentment, defensiveness, and hyper-sensitivity. To constantly be the butt of the national joke—indeed, the only acceptable one in polite company, as Ed Wood pointed out—is bound to leave many southerners with a chip on their shoulder. That doesn’t excuse my brashness and arrogance, but it does go some way in explaining it. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, a way of viewing the South that makes understanding impossible will make being reactionary inevitable

The professor in question is one of my favorites, someone whom I consider both an academic and a personal role model. I do not believe for an instant that he holds any personal prejudice toward either poor whites or toward the South. I also believe, perhaps naively, that my own intentions are usually pure. The most insidious thing about isms is how they can operate and endure even among the intelligent, the self-conscious, the sincere, the good-natured. Hurtful and destructive ideologies are so woven into our ways of acting, speaking, feeling as a society that they need no conscious prejudice or ill-will on our parts.

Fortunately, while our actions, words, and feelings might be formed by society, they are not determined by it. My professor can re-imagine snake-handling, Pentecostalism, and the South; I can be less reactionary, less defensive, less self-righteous; and together, we can create a society in which it is easier for everyone to be better about these things, “a society,” as Peter Maurin said, “where it is easier for men to be good.” We just have to know where to begin.

Note: The title and first two paragraphs of this entry come from an earlier, deleted, entry, “The Burden of Southern Identity: Vignettes of Anti-Southernism, Part I,” originally posted on 1 June 2010. I am grateful to Andrew Merz for his helpful criticism.

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Emotional Topographies

ON my last trip home to Athens, Georgia I ate dinner with my family in our favorite pizza restaurant downtown—the one where REM and The Clash blare from the jukebox on the wall and the waitresses’ shapely, tattooed legs all end in faded out Converse All Stars—then decided to take a drive. I started out on Oconee Street heading east from downtown, where the hill the University of Georgia sits on slopes down steeply toward the Oconee River.

Before getting to the river I took a sharp right, heading back up toward UGA and crossing under an old wooden railroad bridge. That’s when I spotted the boxcars, swung into the parking lot next to the tracks and turned off the car.

One boxcar was open and had some dingy clothes and bedding scattered around inside, evidence of the people that’d probably slept there the night before—either young gutter punks traveling between hip little towns with flop houses or old drifters meandering aimlessly. The latter are the reason why my alcoholic granddaddy used to spend so much time down by the railroad tracks when he was on a drunk. The other boxcars had some decent graffiti, but nothing incredible. Pictures, then back in the car.

Boxcar with things left inside by drifters, Athens, Georgia

Boxcar with things left inside by drifters, Athens, Georgia

From the parking lot I took a left down Campus Drive. To the west it passes behind the massive edifice of UGA’s Sanford Stadium, where I once stood on the field and saw near-riotous fans rip the goal posts from the very ground that held them; to the east is Oconee Hill Cemetery, the ground that holds several of my step-granddaddy’s people.

I took an impulsive and too-sharp left down River Road, wanting to get as close to the river as possible. Momma told me over dinner the night before about an old foot bridge near here that use to lead to a massive, round Boy Scouts tree house, and it’d stoked my curiosity. On one side the narrow road skirts the Oconee’s reed-covered banks; on the other it juts up dramatically before ending in old fraternity houses that always look too big to be real. The road ends in a complex of labs and office buildings owned by the University, and it’s impossible to get a decent view of the river from here. I turned around.

From Williams Street I headed east down Oconee Street, swooping up sharply onto Carr’s Hill as Oconee does instead of staying “straight” on Oak Street. During my year in AmeriCorps I used to work up here, at ACTION, Inc., which is located in a historic, dilapidated black schoolhouse. Next to ACTION, down in a hollow, is the Boys and Girls Club; across the street is Oconee Street Methodist Church, where my maternal grandmomma and granddaddy—Jeannette Lester and Claude Owensby—were married. Now people line up there every day for free meals at the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen. I continued past them, trying to get as far up Carr’s Hill as possible to see if there was a good view of Athens available.

George Cooke's View of Athens from Carr's Hill (1845)

George Cooke's View of Athens from Carr's Hill (1845)

Sixteen year old Clinton Bankston Jr. murdered three women on Carr’s Hill with a hatchet in August 1987, a grisly fact momma always recalls whenever anyone mentions the hill. For as long as I worked there I never really explored the area. From Oconee Street I took a right up Carr Street, still trying to get as high as possible. To my right were projects—those unmistakable square brick apartments with slack laundry lines out back; to my left were high student apartments, still cheap and poorly kept but somehow less desolate. Carr’s Street dead-ends in a double gate, weeds poking through the few yards of paved no-man’s-land in between. On the other side I was shocked to see gravestones—part of Oconee Hill Cemetery’s newer extension off of Oconee Hill itself and on the opposite (east) side of the Oconee River.

I drove around a bit more in the maze of poor black housing and student ghettos on Carr’s Hill before coming out next to the Waffle House on the corner of Grove Street and Lexington Road. Then I headed east down Lexington, which cuts through lush thickets of oak, pine, mimosa, and kudzu interspersed with houses, strip malls, box stores, and the county jail. It was on one of these blind curves that Jack—a young whittling buddy and neighbor of my great-grandaddy Harold “Zip-Pop” Thompson—was killed pulling out of a bait shop when someone t-boned his pickup truck.

By the time I got to Cherokee Road things still weren’t out of my system and I decided to continue straight into Winterville instead of turning into my family’s neighborhood. I passed a new subdivision for horse owners—an “equestrian community,” they call it—and the renovation of Winterville Elementary School before hitting Little Five Points and heading down Main Street. After crossing some old rail tracks I came to Winterville’s town square, which includes the historic train depot, the tiny public library, the tiny city hall, the tiny bank, the tiny police department, and several other frankly tiny buildings, all of which is fitting. Winterville’s one of those ubiquitous old southern towns that one risks missing completely if one happens to blink while passing through them.

Winterville Train Depot, downtown Winterville, Georgia

Winterville Train Depot, downtown Winterville, Georgia

After parking the car and exploring for a while I got back in and shot down Dozier Street, which becomes Robert Hardeman Road. On the left, just past the intersection with Beaver Dam Road, is one of the old Lester family cemeteries, where a lot of my mamma’s mamma’s people are buried. To the right is the trailer park where momma and I lived for several years. I turned down its sycamore-lined main street, taking the crumbling speed bumps too quickly as I did. We’d lived close to the entrance, in a nice, large if single-wide trailer with lots of fake wood paneling. My most vivid memories of the place are going out back at night with my mom to get kerosene for the kerosene heater out of a big tin on the back porch, and mom planting red tips in the front yard. (They’re gone now.) The trailer park is much less nice than I remember it, much more reflective of poverty. It’s hard to tell if my memories have improved or if the place itself has degraded. I circle the little man-made lake at the center of the trailer park quickly and head home.

• • •

In The Geography of Nowhere, James H. Kunstler argues that America has become a landscape of homogeneous, mass-produced strip malls and suburban developments. “To me,” Kunstler writes, “it is a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere . . . .” Against this “geography of nowhere,” in which Topeka, Washington and Charleston, South Carolina become the same vast swatch of big box stores and vinyl siding, is a different sort of landscape, an emotional topography. It is, as the back cover of Kunstler’s book puts it, a community “worthy of our affection.” A given street might be one where my grandmomma and granddaddy met, or where my grandmomma’s momma’s people are buried, or where some ancient news my momma use to talk about when I was growing up took place. The very soil itself is unmistakably local—the so-called “Georgia red clay,” colored bright copper-red from high levels of  iron oxide and silica deposits.

It pains me to think that most Americans used to live with this sense of place—used to feel that the physical spaces they inhabited held memory, lineage, and custom—but are now relegated to the nowhere places of post-World War II American consumer capitalism. As a student of Tibetan and Chinese history, the mindless destruction of the Cultural Revolution always makes me shake my head in astonishment, but here in America we’ve had a cultural revolution of our own—slower, it’s true, but no less thorough. Driving through Athens is like spending time with a member of my family; no matter how much we disagree, how bitterly we argue, we somehow belong together, inextricably. Peter Maurin was fond of proudly announcing, “I am a peasant. I have roots.” Driving through Athens, it pains me to think  that we might have abandoned those roots for the privilege of being called middle-class. It is hardly a fair trade for such a mess of pottage.

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