WHIPPIN’ SLAVES AND PICKIN’ COTTON …Down on the Ole Plantation, Good Times Are Not Forgotten

| May 26, 2012 | Comments (0)

An astute observer of the  Old South once said that Dixieland could be summed up in the following sentence:  “On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”

I take strong exception to this sweeping characterization of my birthplace, the homeland of my ancestors. How can one presume to present such an incomplete picture of the Old Confederacy leaving out those elements so familiar and dear to every Southerner ? Where are the grits and fried pies ? Where is the hypocrisy, the double-dealing mendacity, the delusional fantasy and more than a splash of racism, not to mention the loquaciousness ?

Let’s start with loquacity. Southerners must be the most talkative tribe on earth. First there is the story-telling.  I doubt there is a (white) southern family that does not have its slaves and plantation tales. Even white trailer trash can participate in this Southern Gothic fantasy, claiming that Uncle Willie Shifflett was overseer on the “back eighty” of the old Dawes plantation. And is there an upstanding Southern family that does not have a member who played poker in a New Orleans bordello betting stacks of chips against the slaves he claimed he owned ? And then lighting his cigar with a hundred dollar bill when he had raked in his winnings for the night ? That tale has been passed on for generations over bourbon, told to grandchildren who would be better off not knowing such historical prevarication.

My late grandmother, rest her soul, and she WAS a good, dear soul, was the foremost practictioner of  non-stop conversation at all times. Talk had to be maintained, at all cost, to ward off  that horrible void  called silence. Silence was not golden, as I had been taught in the first grade of grammar school. I recall talking to a classmate during a lesson and being shushed by the teacher, who must have been a Yankee, who told us, “The Lord said:  Silence is golden.” The next time I transgressed God’s Silence Rule, I received several smart wacks on my rear-end with a ruler.  So for me  a conflict developed between what grandmother said and what I was learning in the outside world.  In her life my grandmother had several golden rules,  foremost among which was that conversation had to be constantly  engaged in no matter what  circumstances prevailed. Wordless quiet to her was a wicked virus that had to be chased away with the soothing patter of sound.

When relevant conversational subjects had been exhausted, thank goodness for fall-back topics like the weather and recently deceased relatives (“I remember how nice Aunt Maude looked laid out in that velvet coffin of hers; her face was pretty as wax….doncha think ? Sammy, are you LISTENING to what I just SAID? I’m talkin’ about your sweet old Aunt Maude. Now you remember your Aunt Maude, doncha ? How she took care of you when I was away and spoiled you like you were the only chile in the world, her very own off-spring. ‘Course Aunt Maude had no children of her own. Poor thing, she never married. Bless her heart, she was plain as a fence post, could never catch a man. Mean old Horace  – and I know he’s burnin’ in Hell right now – he used to say Maude woulda walked the streets naked if she thought a man woulda looked at her. But that was plain unkind cuz Maude DID have beautiful eyes. Her eyes were what I would call LUMINOUS…that’s the word, LUMINOUS. Sammy, why are you telling me to be quiet and not talk ? You sound like your Daddy, Sam Sr ! Being quiet is not friendly. Talkin’ is cozy and brings people together, makes us love one another more, you hear me ? Families hafta stick together, chile. Blood is thicker than water !”)

As much as I thought about that ” blood being thicker than water” sentence, I could never make any sense of it. Did she mean that people who were NOT your relatives did not have blood in their veins, that their arteries were filled with water ? The value of aphorisms and proverbs is destroyed when their logic and sense cannot be determined. Hence grandmother’s case for constant conversation came crashing to the ground when my 7 year-old brain could not fathom water-filled veins.

My mother, when she joined the conversation circle, had her own spin on  how to keep words rolling. One of mother’s  talking techniques was the constant compliment. Mother maintained that each day one should tell one’s friends something “nice”. Mother also had the habit of using over the top nominatives of address when speaking to people. The objects of her comments were never spoken to by name. It was always Dream Boat or Honey Darlin’ or Sweetie Pie as in “Dream Boat, that dress you’re wearing is to die for and I’d kill for it right here and now !”

Mother also had a  disconcerting conversational habit which she thought cute and funny, that involved invoking the death of the object of her remarks, as in “Bertha, Precious Thing, I just LOVE that clock on your mantelpiece. Darlin’ will you put that in your will for me ?” The reaction to this “funny” will request was mixed, to say the least. In at least one case, I know it resulted in mother being written OUT of the will of  an old and wealthy aunt.

The two strongest influences in my life have been the Old South, warts and all, and the Island of Java in the Southeast Asian country of Indonesia. In both of these societies – and let’s suspend our memory of the horrid racism that  reared its hideous head in the South until quite recently –  social confrontation in polite society is utterly taboo. One doesn’t say what one thinks; one is POLITE in dealing with fellow humans. Polite to the point of being two-faced. Following this  code is not easy when an “in your face” place like New York City is your home, as it is in my case. My first decade in Gotham found me being trampled on by native New Yorkers. Today, having adopted an overly compensatory defensive response as a non-native New Yorker, I fancy myself tougher than even the most hardened denizen of the South Bronx where I live.

Which is not to say that a streak of crazy, kind spontaneity is absent from the  mean streets of New York City. While I haven’t had many – or any – strangers stop me on the sidewalk and invite me home for a bowl of Creole Gumbo, as used to happen in my native New Orleans, I was told by a fellow passenger on the crosstown Manhattan bus last week  that I could have HER seat when she got off at the next stop. Unfortunately I was a bit slow  taking her up on her offer; the seat was quickly filled by a skinny  skate boarder dude wearing head phones, his buttocks protruding over a pair of grimy jeans.

Maybe I should get on a Greyhound bus and return to where I came from. You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy…


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