Knowing Their Place: Three Black Writers and the Postmodern South
Ramsey, William M., The Southern Literary Journal
The year 2002 must have been an enigma to professional Southwatchers. On December 5, celebrating South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, Mississippian Trent Lott uttered words that soon led to his resignation as Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate. Noting that in 1948 Mississippi had proudly voted for segregationist Thurmond in his presidential bid, he added that if Thurmond had won we "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." According to Lott's hometown newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the words echoed what he said on November 3, 1980: "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." Homespun toast-making though it was, Lott's speech seemed a throwback to a pre-civil rights era South that many assumed and hoped no longer is.
Yet even as Lott was embroiled in this controversy, H. K. Edgerton, a black North Carolinian and former president of the Asheville NAACP, was halfway through his 1300-mile, self-proclaimed March Across Dixie from Asheville to Houston. Setting out on October 14, dressed in Confederate military uniform and carrying a Confederate flag, Edgerton was marching in support of the message "Heritage Not Hate," of the rightfulness of the Confederacy's cause, and of southern symbols long believed by critics to condone racial exclusion. Interviewed earlier in the year by Ron Holland, editor of the Dixie Daily News, he explained: "if we Southerners don't stand together we will lose our culture, heritage, religion and region to outsiders who sadly have no appreciation of the unique culture of being Southern" (Holland). Young blacks, he bemoaned in the Asheville Tribune, have been wrongly taught about their history, including the institution of slavery: "God and his infinite wisdom brought these people here. He brought about a love between master and slave that has never happened before.... the only one who cared about the African was the man in the south" (Davis).
How then, in the year 2002, was one to read the postmodern South? In a retro manner of 1865 (Lott) or as a contemporary, hyperreal fantasy (Edgerton)? Despite their apparent differences, Lott and Edgerton had something in common. Each man seemed to inhabit a South of his own construction, personal memory having diverged from public history most dramatically. For his part, Lott was puzzled that his off-hand, convivial praise of Thurmond's segregationist campaign was offensive to anyone. His was an astonishing lapse of memory, dismissive of the white burden of defensive self-consciousness about the South's pained and tragic history. Emptying language of substantive historical reference, Lott believed his remarks could not be offensive simply because he said they weren't. Edgerton, for his part, enacted a stunning appropriation of traditional white cultural symbols. The Confederate flag and uniform, with their origin in defense of states rights (including the constitutional right to own private property such as chattel slaves), once belonged to a cultural system of meaning that was fixed and hierarchical, excluding blacks from social, political, and economic power as the marginalized Other.
Whatever Edgerton's motives, his appropriation of Confederate history evinces a postmodern impulse to construct rather than explain the culture of the South, to replace once stable symbols with their simulacra, or false copies, once the original no longer exists in its first purity. As a consequence, that objectivistic and abstract entity we call the idea of the South has collapsed. No longer anchored to a collective public tradition, it no longer binds us with a monolithic narrative. Expressed as individual social creation, as seen in Lott's vacuous and Edgerton's revisionist constructions, the South is not so much a place as an amorphous cultural space where history yields to symbolic simulations that have no stable correspondence to reality. If one recalls the controlling power the idea of the South held over Strom Thurmond in 1948, or in the symbolic axe handles promoted by Lester Maddox in the 1960s, Lott and Edgerton both show that public symbols of the southern past no longer rigidly organize individual perception.
The implications of this postmodern shift are of course evident in literary representations of the South. For black writers, the issue of the South is especially intriguing because monolithic perspectives only recently have altered. For white writers the story was different. Scholars often have argued, somewhat simplistically, that a monolithic southern consciousness (i.e., white consciousness) started to crumble in World War I, when southern thinkers like Faulkner were pulled into contact with modern culture and then self-critically challenged post-bellum representations of the Old Order. But because long after the advent of the Southern Renaissance southern society continued a segregationist agenda of racial oppression, black perspective remained firm and nearly univocal--the South seemed rigidly, aggressively monolithic to black citizens disadvantaged in it. The black literary tradition aptly reflected that view. Updating the slave era view of the South as a hell of bondage, writers from the time of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes to Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker took as a given that the South was a land of oppression. Only in writers emerging during the last twenty to thirty years does the idea of the South show subtle shifts and altering perspectives.
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA, BORN in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and winner in 1994 of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, has written considerably of core personal issues that are rooted in his southern sense of place and familial heritage. This southern core, I argue, is integral even to well-known poems such as "Facing It," about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington's mall, where he seems to seek a national, nonracial posture rather than a regional one. Here, where a displaced southerner faces his pained memories of the national catastrophe in Vietnam, his deep ambivalence toward America is, akin to Quentin Compson's shock at the modern world, a southern response as well as a deeply black and subtly postmodern one.
Like Quentin's, Komunyakaa's response to his family and regional past is deeply ambivalent. This perspective is intensively explored in the 1992 book Magic City, where searing family tensions are vividly recalled. In the poem "Venus's-flytraps" the five-year-old narrator says, "I know things / I don't supposed to know," then, hinting of running away, imagines, "I could start walking / and never stop." The poem concludes with this disclosure: "My mama says I'm a mistake. / That I made her a bad girl." He is just starting to glean the family troubles because "My playhouse is underneath / Our house, & I hear people / Telling each other secrets" (Pleasure Dome 258). Komunyakaa's father was an intelligent but illiterate carpenter, whose disadvantaged situation in the Jim Crow era may have contributed to his abuse of his wife. The marriage failed, and "My Father's Love Letters" recalls poignant scenes in which the father dictated to Yusef letters to the mother pleading for reconciliation: "He would beg / Promising to never beat her / Again." Suppressing anger toward the father while feeling protective love for the mother, the poet reveals, "I was happy / She was gone." The father's use of abstract love sentiments is ironic: "Words rolled from under the pressure / Of my ballpoint: Love, / Baby, Honey, Please." But these are undercut by the harsh and ominous concreteness of the milieu: "We sat in the quiet brutality / Of voltage meters & pipe threaders," and Yusef grimly wonders what his mother does with the letters, "if she laughed / & held them over a gas burner" (293).
Intertwined with the emotional violence of family is the region's racism, which mangled countless black lives in both physical and psychic ways. In "History Lessons" Komunyakaa as a youth receives from his mother three lessons that are a necessary part of his black southern heritage. The first is her recollection of a black man's lynching, twenty-five years earlier, at a picturesque poplar on the cleanly mown and manicured courthouse lawn. In …
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Publication information: Article title: Knowing Their Place: Three Black Writers and the Postmodern South. Contributors: Ramsey, William M. - Author. Journal title: The Southern Literary Journal. Volume: 37. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2005. Page number: 119+. © 1999 University of North Carolina Press. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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