Bullets in the Dining Room Table and Such

by Sara Mayeux

Maureen Dowd began her Sunday column yesterday by setting up a paradox: the problem with our first black president is that his administration is just not black enough. But read further and it seems Dowd's real concern is that the administration is just not Southern enough: "unlike Bill Clinton, who never needed help fathoming Southern black culture, Obama lacks advisers who are descended from the central African-American experience, ones who understand 'the slave thing,' as a top black Democrat dryly puts it." Which perhaps explains, even as it renders all the more lamentable, the administration's unfair treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who, as TNC pointed out last week, brought to her government work, among other assets, a deeply personal knowledge of "the lay of the South."

One thing Southerners never tire of pointing out is that for all the terrors of Jim Crow, life was not exactly a picnic for blacks everywhere else in the country. True indeed. But as Jamelle Bouie points out by reproducing a harrowing litany of Southern violence, it seems clear from this summer's inane conversations about race that much of the country has all but forgotten just how much of a terrorist Jim Crow really was.

Who really understands--who really remembers--the South? The historian David Potter called the region "a sphinx on the American land," and Peter Kolchin borrowed that title for his lectures on Southern history at LSU several years ago. Toward the end of Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin Compson's Harvard roommate laments his inability to grapple with what Dowd calls "the slave thing":

I'm not trying to be funny, smart. I just want to understand it if I can and I dont know how to say it better. Because it's something my people haven't got. Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We dont live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves (or have I got it backward and was it your folks that are free and the niggers that lost?) and bullets in the dining room table and such, to be always reminding us to never forget. What is it? something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens' children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge at Manassas?"

"Gettysburg," Quentin said. "You cant understand it. You would have to be born there."

However, as the conversation continues Quentin takes on a less confident note:

"Would I then?" Quentin did not answer. "Do you understand it?"

"I dont know," Quentin said. "Yes, of course I understand it." They breathed in the darkness. After a moment Quentin said: "I dont know."

I think about native Southerners like Faulkner, and C. Vann Woodward, the dean of Southern historians, observing that the South was exceptional in America because unlike the rest of America it was unexceptional in the world, with its history of 'quite un-American poverty' and 'equally un-American ... submission." Speaking in 1953, prior to the military misadventures and urban upheavals that would define the second half of America's twentieth century (though interestingly, after Korea), Woodward could observe that the South had undergone an "experience that it could share with no other part of America---though it is shared by nearly all the peoples of Europe and Asia---the experience of military defeat, occupation, and reconstruction." Conversely I think of Hannah Arendt, who admitted that she had little interest even in visiting the South and whose sheer inability to grasp what Little Rock meant to the South has been so mind-boggling to scholars that it has spawned entire academic conferences. Arendt spoke loftily of freedom of association and federalism, but on a more emotional level she simply could not understand what kind of parents would send their children onto the front lines of a battlefield:

My first question was: what would I do if I were a Negro mother? Under no circumstances would I expose my child to conditions which made it appear as though it wanted to push its way into a group where it was not wanted. ... Moreover, if I were a Negro I would feel that the very attempt to start desegregation in education and in schools had not only, and very unfairly, shifted the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of adults to those of children. I would in addition be convinced that there is an implication in the whole enterprise of trying to avoid the real issue.

Was her problem, like Quentin's roommate, that she would have had to be born there?

I was born in Atlanta in 1983, and in my lifetime the South has come to seem less distinctive: my hometown joined with cities farther west to form a glittering Sunbelt, attracting the legions of soccer moms and executive dads who fled the Rustbelt to the land of cheap housing and brand-new office parks. When I was a child you could drive half an hour or so outside the city and still see some scattered farmland; now you see the same mini-mansion subdivisions and mega-sized grocery stores you'd see outside Las Vegas or Phoenix--and it's funny to think of Atlanta, which literally rose from Sherman's ashes and so takes as its symbol the phoenix, twinned with the city of that name, which we imagine to have so much less history, even though, of course, there have been people in the Sonoran Desert for longer than history can record. In Atlanta I know I am in the South but feel it less--despite the roads named for battles and the carefully preserved Victorian home in which was born one Martin Luther King. Driving through Alabama and Mississippi towards my father's hometown of Baton Rouge I always felt more strongly that I was in the South but I didn't grow up in those places. Does it take a native-born Southerner to understand "the lay of the South," or can't Southerners themselves understand it? To me, this summer's tempests over race (teapot and otherwise) suggest more than anything that we are all of us still puzzling through the riddles posed by "the slave thing," that enduring "sphinx on the American land."