The Weirdness Continues!

The new(-ish) editor for the Oxford American emailed me and made nice! Y’all, I am off the Oxford American’s shit list! Eight years of nonsense, gone by the wayside. So, that’s nice, especially because I really like them and this year’s music issue–The Blues–sounds awesome.

Y’all remember when he wrote the Scene to make a snide comment about me? Lord, that was one of the weirdest things that has come my way.

Last night, The Last Waltz was on PBS and I watched the whole thing because I’m only human. And I have to tell you, I never put two-and-two together that the reason it has always felt to me like the movie stalls out after Muddy Waters is not just because the Muddy Waters segment is so fucking amazing, but also because I loathe Eric Clapton. After he plays, the movie picks right back up with being deeply enjoyable.

I think I might even be okay with it if they’d just flipped his segment and Emmylou’s.

Like I said on Twitter, I especially love the Van Morrison part because he looks like someone’s dad had a couple of beers and decided he could sing. But then he really can! But still, when he finishes up his song, he looks surprised and excited that he didn’t die out there. It is one of the moments where it feels like a real person is present.

Which is not to say that I don’t love that movie. And I love The Band, even The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which should be terrible and embarrassing but somehow feels like the truth, but the combination of stoned/drunk everyone is and the awareness that they’re being filmed and that this is the end of things, there’s a performativeness to it. Which is fine, but it makes the moments of genuineness, like Van Morrison’s relief and delight, really stand out.

I keep trying to decide what it is about Muddy Waters’ performance I find so compelling, though. Because I watch that song and every time I feel like I’m seeing a truth about America I don’t know how to put into words. First, it’s the sense that he’s truly plugged into something transcendent and that you can see his connection to it grow as he performs. There’s not a good non-corny way of talking about it. But he’s in a groove and, as he realizes he’s settled into a familiar and powerful groove, you see a mix of confidence–he’s been here before, he knows what to do–and delightful surprise–“I got back here again, somehow? All right!” I just feel like performing, and performing masterfully, is doing something for and to him.

Also, this time, I was struck by how much eye contact he makes with the audience (or at least, how much eye contact he appears to be making with the audience. It’s hard to know how much he could see with the light in his eyes.) which isn’t really present in the other performers. They’re looking at the camera or at each other or out at the audience, but Morganfield looks like he’s looking at someone. I think part of this may just be his age and performance style–in other words, he came up playing at a time and in places where audience participation was a given so you had to learn how to work it and work with it–but it also goes to creating the sense that something is happening to and through him to us when he’s performing.

And I also can’t shake loose what it means for him to be standing on that stage, the 60s barely over, asking “Ain’t I a Man?” “I am a Man” on a sign in Memphis means, “See me as a citizen and a worker and someone with the inalienable rights our country was founded on. See me as your equal.” But Morganfield is up there singing about sex and erotic power and cocky assuredness and pleasure, at a time when we see black men’s sexuality as a threat for which they need to be constantly monitored and punished.

I definitely think one of the biggest threats posed by the blues and r&b is that there’s a long history of the importance of women’s pleasure and the joy men take in it. Once you stop to look for it, you’ll see it everywhere. The “black” version of a song includes women’s fun and the “white” version focuses on men’s pleasure or men’s suffering at the hands of women. So how could there not be anxiety on the part of white society, the fear that white women will gravitate to the men who enjoy their pleasure. You can even see how the Jezebel figures into this, white America trying to set up a dichotomy where black people are, yes, more passionate and sexual, but there’s no thought behind it–that’s just what they’re “for.” And good white people are the opposite of that.

So, you can see the claim Morganfield is making–“I know what I’m doing and I know you’ll like it”–and how it went against white views of black people.

It’s a less blatantly political claim and yet, just as important a one. So, there you have this guy, who makes this amazing music that most people who are in the movie love and have ripped off, who is risking and has risked more to perform  it than they have, and, for me, the contrast between what he’s doing and what Clapton is doing is just so great it kind of repulses me to have them back to back.

Uncle Walt, No Help

Maybe I should have turned to Mark Twain. I reread Song of Myself last night and it was no comfort. Walt’s ability to find value in everyone is moving and his desire to embrace everything–good and bad–is a challenge in the best way.

But this time through I felt troubled by his insistence that everything that was happening to anyone was happening to him. I wonder about the impulse to believe that one can know everything there is to know, that one can appreciate the plight of someone else without experiencing it. I go back and forth on this. I think empathy is important. I think imagining ourselves in others’ situations is important. I also do think we all would be better off if we watched each other as if we all have value and listened the same.

But I still come away from it feeling like the 29th bather part of the poem is the honest critique of the poem’s approach. You can observe. You can imagine yourself splashing in the water. You can even feel connected to the other bathers. But what connection do they have to you?

A good poem changes meaning as you change. Song of Myself is still one of my very favorite poems. I remember reading it for the first time in college and being blown away by it. I didn’t even know a poem like that was possible. I didn’t know something “that old” could be so interesting and invigorating. I remember stanza upon stanza just breaking my brain and I loved talking about it.

I loved reading it again in grad school, with a professor who would spend the whole class discussing one word choice, the implications of that particular word, as if we could reach transcendence by thinking hard enough, by cracking the poem open.

And I survived my first lonely months in Nashville by reading it out loud to myself. I’ve loved it every time I’ve reread it over the years.

This time, though, I realized what a profoundly lonesome poem it is. Which, I suppose, is an insight for our troubled times.

Remember Reagan?

The truth is that I don’t, really. I remember being afraid we would die in a nuclear war he started. I remember thinking that there’s no way he’d let Genesis air that video more than once. I vaguely remember him being shot. I don’t have a sense of what it was like for adults. To what extent did people know he was suffering from Alzheimer’s? I mean, obviously, no one said it. I can’t even remember if we had a word for it, then.

But I don’t have a sense of how public the fact that he couldn’t do his job was. Any my impressions and again, based on me being a child, is that it wasn’t apparent at least, not until his second term.

I have been thinking a lot about my dad, lately, seventy-one years old. He’s not senile or anything. He’s just an older version of himself. He worries a lot about dying. If you talk to him too late at night, he sometimes isn’t very with it, though I am not either, so fair enough.

Everything else aside, conflicts of interest, whatever, if my dad were president and there were a way for me to sit in on his every meeting to make sure I knew what was said, I would. Especially if I saw my dad surrounding himself with some of his friends. And my dad and I are on the same side politically! I think my dad would mostly support and advocate things I liked.

But I’d be in there because I don’t think he could cut it and I know he wouldn’t dare tell me I couldn’t be.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot over the past day or so–from which direction the push to have Ivanka sitting in on meetings is coming. What it means about Trump’s ability to do the job. What that means for us.

Resistance

I think the thing that kills me–and it kills me about myself, too, so I’m not sitting on a moral high ground here–is everyone’s talk about resistance, about fighting, about standing up to this. And I have to say that it reminds me of all the gun nuts who “need” guns because they need to be able to stand up to the tyranny of the government.

And I just don’t see how it’s supposed to work, the fighting. There is no authority to appeal to. No one recently elected who can be shocked into changing their ways. We don’t even know if we will have a government like we are used to having or if Trump will be an autocrat with no respect for traditions (very likely) or if he’ll get bored and/or overwhelmed and go play golf while Mike Pence runs things (also seems possible) or what.

I don’t know. I think it’s important to just say “no.” But I also think that there are types of pushing back that grant legitimacy to the thing you’re pushing against. Think of it this way. Say your neighbor builds a high concrete barrier in your back yard to keep from having to see you. Is standing there all day trying to push it down effective? Or is seeing that it’s only six feet wide and going around it effective? I mean, obviously, the barrier is a problem that needs to be dealt with, but there has to be some balancing on our parts between addressing it and getting on with our lives.

Since the wall is on your property, you can spray paint “Fuck you” on the side of it that faces your neighbor’s house. Make them sorry they put the wall up every day until you get it taken down.

I guess what I’m thinking about is that this election is supposed to be a punishment for a lot of us. We are supposed to be sorry we crossed the Trump voters and we’re supposed to get ready to be a lot sorrier.

I think then the most important thing is to not be sorry, to not accept our punishment as something we “earned,” to not try to appease the punishers by trying to figure out what we’ve done wrong and to promise to never do it again. Or to even give the appearance of doing that.

Wanting to marry the person you love is not wrong. Not wanting to marry anyone is not wrong. It’s not wrong to want to use the bathroom in public. It’s not wrong to move away to go to school. It’s not wrong to not speak English. It’s not wrong to be poor. It’s not wrong to need medical care. It’s not wrong to be fine and excited that we had a black president. It’s not wrong to be sad that we didn’t get a woman. It’s not wrong to be appalled and disgusted that people voted for the guy endorsed by the KKK who now don’t want you to see them as racist. And on and on.

The Obama years and the social gains we made during them are not evil and we are not wrong for enjoying them.

I feel grim. I feel angry. But solemnity is a proper response to seriousness and we live in a dreadfully unserious moment. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be mindful, but I keep thinking that taking this so serious grants a level of legitimacy to it that it has no right to.

We have to laugh in the face of this. It’s our civic duty.

Well…

I guess the things I want to say are this: this isn’t the fault of third-party voters or lack of minority turn-out or discontent with the economy. This is the government white people–men and women–want. It’s one they enthusiastically at every level have voted for. And that I think the rest us white people need to face honestly and squarely.

For as long as I’ve been an adult, most people I know have scoffed at the idea of whiteness being an affirmative identity in the United States (by “affirmative” I just mean something that people recognize as being a definable thing). It was “invisible.” It was “the default.”

At the same time the people who participate in the general public discourse were advancing this line of thinking–and I don’t think they were completely wrong. I do think that one trait of whiteness is that white people can be steeped in white culture without having to consciously decide that’s what we want.–racists and white nationalists were talking about white culture and defining it and shaping it and their ideas about what it means to be white permeated out into the broader white culture. Whiteness defined by white racists.

So, the lesson I take from this is that every white person was raised up, to some extent, in a white culture heavily shaped by white racists and, since those of us who would like not to be white supremacists have stupidly neglected to think that whiteness was anything other than a non-thing, we don’t have a way of understanding ourselves that isn’t racist (though, in fairness, it’s hard to imagine with white America’s history, what that could have looked like). And as such, now is not the time for me, a member of the group that wants this, to run myself to the front of the parade that doesn’t want this. Obviously, part of white supremacy is believing you should be a leader, that your proper place is at the front of any movement. We should resist that urge.

I am afraid.

I have fielded calls in the past from dear friends, from my own mother, asking me if this comment or that comment at Pith was a veiled threat, if I was in danger. And I have said that I don’t think that’s the majority of people and I don’t think anyone would act on that.

But it is the majority and they will act. Am I important enough for them to act against me? No, probably not. But am I an easy enough target? That I don’t know.

And even in typing that paragraph, I want to cry and roll my eyes at the same time. It seems ridiculous. We don’t live in a country where people bother with third-rate pundits at the alt.weekly. At least, that’s what I think. But I didn’t think we’d elect Donald Trump and here we are. So, I don’t really know how to process this, except to be afraid.

And I am afraid for my friends who will lose their health insurance and who could see their marriages broken up. I’m afraid for the people who will be assaulted and brutalized. I am afraid of the mob. I am afraid of the fever dreams of white Christian America and how they will play out for me and the people I care about.

And I feel despair because I see so many people who are like “We’ll just do the work and hold the line” and I want to know to what authority you’re appealing when you think the work matters or the line matters. The people that hate us?

Which, also, please, don’t tell me now is the time for coming together and healing. You don’t get to hate me and then expect me to love you. You can hate me, but I will hate you back.

I know this happens. I know it happened after Reconstruction. I know my great-grandmother was a star athlete in high school and my mother was told if she ran more than two miles, her uterus would collapse. There’s always backlash. This is backlash.

It still stings.

Here We Go

I remember watching the election in Charleston, South Carolina, and how anxious I was. I ordered room service and the woman who brought it up to me, a black woman, seemed surprised to find that I was hoping Obama won. They weren’t allowed to talk about the election where guests might overhear.

When he won, a small group of hotel employees came to my door and we quietly cheered.

I doubt I was the only Obama supporter in the hotel, knowing the conference I was there for, but I was the one they knew about.

I am nervous for today. But I try to keep in mind that the view from my window is not the only view.

The Last Debate

At this point, I am left feeling like I get why people can’t vote for Clinton. But my god, I don’t understand who is left who can vote for Trump. It boggles my mind. It requires such self-delusion and an utter unwillingness to engage with reality. I mean, he can’t even speak in full, coherent sentences. Forget who he’s running against, just the fact that he’s running makes me feel like our country is off the rails.

But one thing I noticed is that he did appear to be trying to make the arguments liberals usually have the most trouble refuting. I think he did kind of prepare for this debate. But the trouble with him is that, I think, someone gave him that list of arguments and he studied them, but he doesn’t understand why they’re compelling. He’s just been told they’re compelling and he believes it.

As terrifying as this is, in a lot of ways it kind of reminds me of Campfield (and maybe Durham), where it’s easy to imagine how unstoppable they’d be if they could just hold their shit together, but we really dodged a bullet because they couldn’t hold their shit together.

But, and I guess this is obvious, someone with these same ideas is going to figure out how to appear smart and thoughtful and not dangerous. If these are test runs for how to popularize and normalize this stuff, well, this test run is really close to winning the White House.

Get Through

I’m not saying that I’ve been mildly depressed for much of 2016, but I have realized how much I’ve told myself, just put your head down and get through this. Enough to have realized that you keep your head down because if you look up and see how much more terrible stuff there is to go, you will die of despair.

But what can you do? Such is life.

I find this political season utterly depressing. I’m not in love with Hillary for reasons that only matter if both major political parties are even semi-committed to trying to come vaguely close to appearing like they took Civics and understand our political system. But when it’s “experienced politician with whom I have some fundamental disagreements and, oh, by the way, dynasties are bad for a democracy” vs. “It’d be fun to be a strongman and jail my enemies and appoint a goat to the Supreme Court and run this country like a flamboyant dictatorship,” well, you have to go with the person who’s not trying to set himself up like a super villain.

We’re coming way too close to electing a terrible second-rate super villain.

It’s Hard Not to be Down

The other day we caught part of Kevin James’ new sitcom and then we watched the debates and some doofus congressman was complaining that Clinton too much like his bitch wife/mother.

Kevin James’s sitcom is also about a man trying to live with a bitch wife.

The only reason I can see that someone would continue to live with a woman he hates is that he does like the way she takes care of him. In other words, I don’t believe the slash in “bitch wife/mother” is as differentiating as we might hope.

The assumption is that you get to bring someone into your household who will meet all your needs in exchange for…what? That’s the part that confuses me. You bring this woman into your house and…is it just housing? You give her a place to live, a little money, social status, and in exchange, she’s supposed to meet all your needs and give you the illusion that she does in a state of ultimate bliss?

And I get that there are religious worldviews in this country that try to raise women to want only that, to expect only that. And to fear being the bitch.

But usually, if someone comes into your house and improves your life 100%, it’s because they’re getting something out of it, not because you deserve it.

I’m being somewhat inarticulate, but what I mean is that it seems like a lot of men think they “deserve” a certain kind of woman and then resent and hate the real person who can’t meet that ideal. But I’m fascinated how “deserve” blinds them to the fact that, if they got the perfect wife/mother who made them feel good all the time and met all their needs, clearly, that would be someone with an agenda that might not match up with the dude’s. Like, expecting that kind of woman sets you up to be disappointed in normal women and taken advantage of by the women who can maintain the illusion of pulling it off.

And then, once they grow hateful and resentful of their wives, why stay?

Do these guys never look at their guy friends in relationships with women that function and are between two regular people and wish they had that? Like, why are you stuck in a dynamic you hate? Why don’t they just leave their wives and find someone who’ll be kinder to them?

Watching that Kevin James sitcom, I didn’t feel like “Ha ha ha, we’ve all been there with the cute but unreasonable harridan who runs our lives and does things to us and our households we don’t like but isn’t it funny how we deal with it?” I felt like, dude, get a therapist and a divorce lawyer and buy a chair you like to sit in and sit in it.

I couldn’t watch it. It wasn’t funny. It felt like propaganda to reinforce to men that relationships are miserable and you should expect misery and propagate misery in order to maintain some balance.

But looking at Trump… clearly, his appeal in part is that he knows how to make people who feel like they deserve something they’ve not gotten feel like this is their opportunity for revenge.

And I wonder how many people out there are motivated by that. I’m frightened that it’s a lot.

What Can Be Done?

I think one of the things that gets me down about America is that I don’t see a good path through. I say this as someone who loves to lecture, but lectures aren’t going to work. People’s pain doesn’t seem to work. These snuff videos don’t seem to work.

Oh, lord, that’s a genre whose meaning has changed. Do you remember–and maybe you don’t if you’re young enough–the fear of the snuff film? Had anyone ever made a film of someone dying? And I’m not sure what was supposed to differentiate this from news footage, maybe that it was artfully rendered? But the point was that someone could watch someone really dying for their entertainment.

It’s hard to imagine this being something so taboo it was mostly rumors and urban legends, since it’s an entertainment so freely available to us now.

One thing I keep hearing floated is the disbanding of police and the eradication of prisons. I keep thinking of Fish and Gacy, though. Maybe I should just be thinking of that guy the Nashville police shot the other day, who had been terrorizing his ex-girlfriend and whose family came out in support of the cop who shot him. Obviously, someone who’s a minor level drug dealer can be reformed. Someone who vandalizes a house could be made to understand how much that sucks through some kind of restorative justice. Maybe even three-fourths of folks like the Vandy rapists could be made to understand how what they did was wrong and hurtful and destructive. Maybe you can talk a lot more people into not being fuckers than we’re currently doing. I can believe that.

But I have been a woman since I was born and if there’s one thing you learn in a body like this, it’s that a lot of people enjoy the suffering of people like me. If a person commits a crime against me and it’s not motivated by need–like, sure, you can probably reform the person who steals and pawns all my band gear for drug or food money–but by the pleasure he takes in my pain, what does getting us together and sitting around discussing how much pain he caused me do but confirm for him that his goal was met and that, bully for him, he’s still causing me pain?

And why does your committing a crime against me create an obligation in me to fix you?

I like a lot of the ideas I’ve heard about restorative justice and I see how it could sometimes work in circumstances where everyone was committed to not ruining lives and to having positive outcomes.

But, like I said, I’ve been a woman a long time. I know the tremendous pressure we’re put under now to not jack the people who’ve wronged us up. I don’t see how this won’t be more of the same–where we just bear all of the pain and suffering and suck it up so that the community is not disrupted. It seems like a good situation for bad people. And a free trip to the candy store for people whose goal is the continued suffering of their victims or their victims’ families.

I could be more convinced that we should just do away with the police, but we didn’t used to have police and, when we didn’t, you had to find the person who wronged you or hire someone to do so. And possibly things are so bad right now that this arrangement wouldn’t change things, but I just think this ends with poor people literally never getting justice.

Here, I think, is the problem. Humans are self-serving, fucked-up messes and the institutions we create reflect that. We look at something as deeply fucked up as America is right now and we imagine that the solution is to burn it down and build something better in its place. But it’s us. The same fucked up people who are doing this thing. How are we not going to create new unfair systems?

I genuinely don’t know what a solution is here. I have been one who has spent twenty minutes untangling a terrible knot in yarn and I have been one who just cuts the knot out and goes on with less yarn. And a lot of times, there’s no difference to the end afghan. But I’ve never been in a situation where, when there was a difference, I didn’t wish I’d spent the twenty minutes to get the yarn unknotted, rather than coming up short when I needed it.

Charlotte and Such

One point that both criminal justice reformers and people opposed to the growing surveillance state have made is that, under close scrutiny, everyone is an outlaw. In other words, we all break laws every day, often without realizing it, and almost all of the time, nothing comes of it.

The number of people who drive over 30 miles an hour down Lloyd for instance is nearly everyone because of the hill. If you don’t ride your breaks, you’re going down the hill at 40. On an empty stretch of road, it’s very easy to decide it’s not that important to ride your breaks down the hill.

But the thing is, there’s always something. All of us have done something wrong in the past few days, weeks, months. If we’re subjected to enough scrutiny, the things we’ve done wrong will come out.

So this is the situation the State has developed into (I don’t want to say “set up” because one very troubling aspect of this is that it’s not directed by anyone. It’s not a plot by a person you can point a finger at [or not that alone]. Often it seems to rise up organically because, somewhere in our collective unconsciousness [ugh], we believe this is what authority does, so, if we have it, we do it.) is one where every citizen is also mildly criminal. Sometimes, not even criminal, just potentially criminal, but I still say, dig hard enough and there’s something.

Therefore, when the State needs to justify violence against us, there is always something they can use.

One thing that deeply troubles me–and I swear we’re still talking about Tulsa and Charlotte, but follow me here–is seeing CNN debating whether the guys who tried to bomb New York “deserve” due process. I mean, we should have seen this coming with Guantanamo, but here we especially are–this idea that, in order to have rights, you have to be a good person. Being spoken in the mainstream, being normalized, while we just blithely ignore how few of us, under close scrutiny, look very good.

In order for the State to disguise the giant rights-grab it’s doing to all US citizens, it relies on racism, on the belief held by many non-black citizens that black people are just more criminal, badder and more dangerous than the rest of us, when really, as studies have shown time and time again, they’re just under more scrutiny. But if we accept that black people are likely bad people, then we don’t question why the State is killing people who’ve called for roadside assistance or who were sitting in their car reading books or who got pulled over for having a tail-light out or who didn’t speak with the right kinds of deference, or who were sitting next to a dude with autism, or who ran away, or who failed to run away and on and on and on and on and on.

Is it escalating? That I don’t know. We didn’t keep track of police shootings. We didn’t have activists shining a light on things that used to be hidden and swept away. But it also does feel like the State’s response to a segment looking more closely at what its doing is to respond more violently.

I don’t know what a solution looks like. But America has always been at war with its black people. We call it ancient history, but here it still is.

Fake Park?

Yesterday, I went down to Murfreesboro to wander around the wetlands that used to be Black Fox’s camp. I don’t think I’m nuts for trying to do this. I came across a few pictures of the area where it appears people go hiking. I found a brochure someone had done for the city about the area.

But it turns out it’s just a wooded area behind some houses in a subdivision. I couldn’t even figure out if there was a place to park, let alone if there were real marked paths.

I felt so dumb.

I wish there were more ways to learn about Nashville’s, and Tennessee’s, Native American history. I’m just not finding the resources I want. Like, I don’t know what questions I have, but I know the stuff I find doesn’t satisfy them.

I also find it really frustrating that the conventional understanding so clearly makes no sense. Like, if there weren’t people here to trade with, why was Timothy Demonbreun here?

But more than that, when you say Jean (or Charles or whatever his name was) Charleville came from New Orleans before New Orleans existed as a city, how do you explain how a Frenchman coming from the south–Creek territory–was accepted as a trader by their enemies, the Shawnee? Like, we all know the Creek and the Shawnee fought and we all know the French intermarried with everyone. So, wouldn’t a French guy coming up from the south have been seen as Creek or Creek-allied?

I’ll tell you why we don’t. Because we’re so committed to the “no one was here” narrative that we don’t learn basic Native American history (which is also not our faults because finding basic Native American history is not that easy). We don’t think of Nashville being able to become Nashville because of what was going on in the Creek Nation or the Cherokee Nation or with the Shawnee or whatever, so we don’t look.

But it matters.

True Confession of the Stellar Kind

There’s a point in The Serpent and the Rainbow where the author claims that Venus used to be visible to people during the day, we’ve just “forgotten” how to see it. This has stuck with me over the years because on the one hand, it kind of seems plausible to me–that Venus may be bright enough for you to see it in the daytime sky if you know where to look and it’s not near the sun–and on the other hand seems stupid. You don’t forget how to see something. Seeing something is not a matter of remembering to see it.

But I keep reading things about how most people in the US can’t see the Milky Way and soon it will be impossible for everyone in the US to see. And, in fact, just now, I read something about a guy from out east going on vacation to Yellowstone and being blown away by the Milky Way.

And I don’t mean to sound stupid here–like maybe I need to travel to Yellowstone immediately–but do they just mean that they’re able to see it so much clearer in Yellowstone that it’s really stunning and surprising (which I can believe) or do they genuinely not see the Milky Way when they look up in the night sky ever? Because I mean, it’s right there.  I can see how, in cities, you might not be able to make it out, but I live right outside of a big city and I can stand in my front yard and see it on clear nights.

So, now I wonder if you can lose, somehow through forgetting, something like a star.

I don’t know. I find it baffling. Can you forget how to see the Milky Way?

Share you thoughts on cockapusses below.

Thinking Last Night About Elvis

I overheard a conversation by some young Nashville music people–white–about how Elvis was racist. And it’s been bugging me.

I’ve been thinking how in Elvis’s time, white society looked at black culture and said “That’s trash. Don’t touch it.” and how Elvis was like, “Holy shit. I found some awesome stuff here in the trash. I’m going to wear it. I’m going to shake it. I’m going to sing it. Look, look, guys. Look what I found here! It’s fucking awesome.” And how a bunch of white kids were like “Wow, yep, that is awesome. Show us more, Elvis.”

When black people say, “Hey, that’s not trash, you racist fucks; that’s our culture,” they have an absolutely legitimate complaint. Elvis wasn’t rooting through trash and it is structural racism that made it seem so.

But the complicated thing about American culture is that Elvis could have been doing something racist at one level that was also anti-racist at another level. Because saying to white kids, “No, you’re wrong. This stuff has value. This stuff is awesome. The people who made it have some cool shit it’s worth it for you to check out.” was and, sadly, still remains revolutionary.

Okay, so I think that’s clear. The same act can be both racist and anti-racist because this is America.

But here’s what I’ve been thinking about, why it really bugs me when white progressives dismiss Elvis as racist: because white racists in Elvis’s time did not want kids listening to Elvis, because they didn’t want white kids finding value in black culture and they didn’t want black kids to see their culture being valued by white culture. Elvis was an intersection–an imperfect intersection, yes, god, yes, so imperfect–that white racists did not want kids to meet at.

So whose work is being done when white progressives discourage white kids from listening to Elvis?

Slaves Built the White House

I have to tell you, I just don’t believe that people didn’t know this. I believe that people didn’t have to think about it and they resent being made to think about it, that they’re uncomfortable with how deeply something they don’t have to think about at all affects someone like Michelle Obama, who can’t not think about it. But I don’t believe people didn’t know this.

I think a “gift” we give ourselves as a country is a life-sized map of lies that drapes over the landscape of the nation and lets us not see what’s right there in front of us. And then a lot of us spend a weird amount of time demanding everyone see the map as the actual landscape and becoming alarmed and outraged when people are all “Oh, hey, there’s some truth under here.”

I also, however, based on the widespread gossip about Bill O’Reilly, imagine it is very difficult for him to empathize with terrorized people whose children were stolen from them.

Transgressions (No Pun Intended)

One of my favorite writing podcasts is Brian Keene’s The Horror Show. Last week he had on Hal Bodner and at about the one hour mark Hal starts talking about gay culture. It’s really fascinating. My perspective is that I’ll call you what you ask me to call you and otherwise, I just don’t think too much about it.

That’s not true. When I do think about it, I resent the fuck out of feeling like I have to have some kind of label and then act in accordance to it. The literal last thing I want to do is talk to strangers about my sex life or my sexual preferences. Call me old-fashioned. Call me Midwestern. I fucking hate it. If you want to know if I’ll sleep with you, the answer is probably no.

And I can just imagine even that getting turned into “Oh, well, then, she must be asexual.” No, god damn it. I don’t want to be sorted. That’s exactly what I’m objecting to. Coming up with the proper term. Sticking it on people. Holding them to it.

How’s this? Keep your eyes on your own fucking paper.

I did once pretend to be a lesbian to get my play into a contest, though, so I’m a fucking hypocrite. Kind of. I guess I don’t feel that bad about it, though.

I guess I have been thinking of myself more and more as a spinster. I’m not married. I’m not getting married. I have no social value and no stake in having a social value. I could be up to secret things or not, but you don’t get to know.

Anyway, wow, I had feelings about this I didn’t realize were so intense.

So, Bodner’s discussion of gay culture is really fascinating as is his irritation at younger GLBT people calling him out for using terms like “trannie” and “queen.” Even his hatred of the term GLBT, as if there’s some monolithic GLBT culture, is really interesting. And I found his concern about the decline of gay culture to be really interesting. Something is lost when you gain mainstream acceptance, there’s no doubt about that.

The thing, as I see it, with any movement for social justice is that it has to contain within it the seeds of its own destruction. Once the movement has remade the world to suit it, then of course there are going to be people on the older end who feel like you’ve undermined or devalued their work and people on the younger end who think your work is stupid.

Like, for instance, think of gay marriage (talking specifically about gay male culture here). Part of what made gay culture so liberating to you as a man was that you could spend every weekend in an orgy with a disco beat and part of what made AIDS so devastating was that you knew, KNEW, you were being left to die not just because you were gay, but because being gay was flouting so many social norms, not just the one about who you could love. AIDS was a cultural genocide. Not at first, of course. It was just an illness. But it was ignored and left undealt with when its victims were mostly gay men precisely because it got rid of gay men, which destroyed gay culture.

What, then, is gay marriage to you? Is it nice? Sure, of course. Fuck yes. That’s a hard lesson gay men learned during the AIDS crisis–that this terrible thing could happen to you and your loved ones could be kept from you because your relationships weren’t “real.”

But doesn’t it also feel like it’s taming and tamping down on gay culture? Of course it is.

It’s a victory, but you can see how older gay men might feel like they still lost, for good, something that was really wonderful about gay culture before AIDS.

And young people are pansexual and omnisexual and genderqueer now. Marriage is for old people. They don’t want the victory gay marriage activists worked so hard for. Or maybe that’s not quite fair. But the world has changed enough that they don’t see the importance of getting married. To most of them, the idea that they could be kept from their boyfriend’s hospital bed sounds like a terrible story from a long time ago.

Which is a good thing! It’s a victory gay marriage brought.

But, like I said, the victory contained the seeds of its own obsolescence.

Anyway, interesting stuff to think about.

The Octagon House

On Saturday, we went to the Octagon House and the Shaker village. The Octagon House is the kind of place that you’d think wouldn’t exist any more. It’s too…too…exactly what it is, reeking of tobacco smoke and lost causes. And yet, what became clear to me walking around it is that a lot of the horrors of history get lost when the preservers of those horrors learn to be ashamed of the preservation.

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This is the back of the Octagon House.

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The Confederacy is not dead inside. Which, I think, is fitting, since the owner was a huge confederate sympathizer and hid guerrilla fighters in his house and in tunnels leading from the house.

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But this, this I had never seen before and did not know was a thing. These are the metal tags–literally dog tags–that slaves who often had to leave plantations wore so that white people would know where and to whom they belonged.

The Dark Things We Won’t Admit

As I’ve been thinking about Elias Napier, I’ve had a really hard time with the fact that he kept his grandchildren enslaved. I don’t know why, out of everything I’ve read, that’s just the place I can’t get to, but that’s the place I can’t get to. Your own grandchildren.

I thought a lot about that this weekend.

I think one of the things that makes it hard to understand slavery is that we start from a position of slavery being evil and then the humps we have to overcome are things like “How could these people who I love do this evil thing?” and then we get stuck with these untrue but heartfelt beliefs that it wasn’t really that bad or that our slave-owning ancestors were the good ones or that they just didn’t know better. And all of those things are, sadly, demonstrably untrue.

Here’s the truth, though: slavery was awesome for the enslavers. That’s why it persisted, even flourished. That’s why men who didn’t own slaves fought for the right to own slaves.

Once we admit that owning people was awesome, we can start being honest about all the corrupting ways it was. All the labor around the house you didn’t have to do. All the labor on the farm you didn’t have to do. All the “sex” (what we would call rape) you could have or watch others having.

I mean, just think about all the darker impulses we have. Say you have a fourteen year old at your house who refuses to do the dishes. You may feel an impulse to beat the shit out of her, but you do not, because it’s wrong. But let’s be honest, in the moment, it would feel good to smack her around. Later, yes, you might feel terrible. But in the moment?

Now think of all the people who watch sports and, when the athletes express displeasure, complain because “They knew what they were getting into” or “look at how much money they make” as if there’s some level of recompense that makes watching someone’s bodily destruction your right.

Is the pleasure of the slaver really that foreign to us?

Your enslaved child will never grow up and move away. No matter how old he or she gets, they have to follow your guidance. Your enslaved grandchildren can never be too busy for you. Your enslaved family has to love you (or fake it so well you can ignore that it’s fake) in ways your free family doesn’t.

We’re supposed to understand Elias as generous or good for freeing his family at his death, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the value they had for him was so private, so personal, that he could not believe they retained that value after his death. Setting them free in a way kept them his and his alone. No one else could have them like he did.

We Will Not Save Ourselves

I read this, about Louisiana’s true coastline, a while back and found it interesting and depressing. I was reminded of it again when I read this, about how Florida is drowning, this morning.

I was struck by the idea in the article about Florida that, if we can just hang on, someone will fix this problem in a few decades. In a state where they’re not even allowed to use the term “climate change,” they’re assuming someone will still study the unspoken problem, find a solution to it, and implement it in a place that doesn’t even want to admit what’s happening.

We will leave people to lose everything, possibly drown, rather than be honest about the scope of the problem.

I don’t know. Obviously, I’m not a science person. But it’s hard for me to imagine how an engineer could design a solution to a problem when some part of the problem is unknowable. “Design a levee that will hold water back.” “How much water?” “We won’t tell you.” “How much needs to be protected?” “Not that much (but really, a lot, but not an a lot we’re willing to admit).” “Where should it go?” “On the coast.” “Okay, then, where is the coast? Is it where firm ground is? Is it the first bit of land beyond high tide?” “The coast is where the map says the coast is.” “But that’s under water.” “Yeah, we want that back.” “With a levee?” “Oh, good, we’re all on the same page.”

We just can’t get done what we need to get done if we can’t be honest about what we need.

I mean, I was looking at that map of Louisiana and laughing ruefully at how much the Butcher and I love speculating about what would happen if the Mississippi changed its main channel and flowed down the Atchafalaya. But that is water already. If the river won’t go down to the Gulf that way, the Gulf will come up to the river.

Anyway, I wish I lived on a hill.

In Which I Make You Work for Me

I’m still thinking about King Kong.

I read this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he talks about a “heritage of rape.”

The this article by Charles Pierce about how a lot of white people think they now face the same kinds of discrimination, at the same levels, that minorities used to face.

Then this blog post by Bethany Liston meditating on how it’s fucked up for women to act like, when men do stuff around the house, they’re “helping” the women out, as if housework is women’s work and men doing it is a special treat for women.

I’m starting to believe that the truth at the core of the funhouse mirror of America is that we believe that anyone who can dominate another deserves the labor (all sorts of labor) of the dominated person. Of course, it’s hard work to dominate someone. You have to keep it up all the time.

Unless you can get the dominated person to believe that their proper, natural role is to be dominated. This is what America wants from racism, classism, and sexism–for the dominated to understand that what’s happening to them is natural. That’s the work those -isms are supposed to be doing.

And it works. Women internalize the idea that it’s their job to keep their house clean. Black people internalize the idea that violence is some problem their community intrinsically has. And so on. Sometimes you don’t even notice the ways you’ve internalized this bullshit, mistake the funhouse mirror for truth.

I don’t want to sound like I’m downplaying the terribleness of racism, sexism, and classism. I just want to be clear that they are more funhouse mirrors. In our case, a great tragedy for us as a country is that they’re the funhouse mirrors that sit closest to the truth, that obscure the truth most thoroughly, so they are reflected in the most surfaces, spread the farthest in ugly, damaging ways.

But the truth at the core is the seducing power of theft–I can take what I want.

And there are very few people immune from the charm of the idea of being a thief.

What can you take from another person without them stopping you? How ostentatiously can you display what you’ve stolen from them and still have the support of your peers? How can you keep what you’ve stolen in the face of a crowd of angry victims? Are you powerful enough to pass down the fruits of your stolen labor? Can you teach your children to steal? Can you convince them that their theft is natural?

There is no other real question in America other than “Can I take what I want from you? Am I powerful enough to keep it without getting in trouble?”

Every sick fuck thing we do to each other culturally has this question at its heart. Every sick fuck thing we do to each other is that so many of us perceive answering no to either of these questions as being some kind of insult we can’t live with.

King Kong

King Kong has been sitting in the back of my mind for a few days. I don’t know why. But I’ve been thinking how King Kong is probably, if someone wants to try to understand the fucked up way America works about race, the perfect movie.

King Kong is racist as shit. The big black ape who wants to possess the beautiful white woman as his own, even though he doesn’t really know what to do with her or, if he did, it would destroy her to have it happen. His abduction of her is a sexual abduction.

So, there you have the deepest white American fear–these animals are coming for our women and they’re dangerous and powerful and scary. Fortunately, we can outsmart and outgun them.

But from the minute audiences started watching King Kong, they started sympathizing with Kong. His death felt like an unjust tragedy. Clearly, it’s supposed to feel like a victory–We’ve defeated the monster and rescued the damsel. But, as evidenced by the fact that they rushed a Son of Kong into theaters also in ’33, people didn’t want Kong dead. They wanted to see more of him.

That, right there, is fucking America. That’s the bitter twist at the heart of minstrelsy, too. The racial stereotype designed to reinforce white America’s worst beliefs about the talents and abilities of black Americans leaves white Americans screaming for more.

The argument we make to ourselves that justifies our treatment of black people ends up encouraging sympathy for black people in some abstract way. But, as complicated as that is, it’s also too easy. Because it’s not sympathy for black people, but sympathy for black people as we imagine them. Which is why our sympathy, throughout American history, doesn’t necessarily result in improvements for black people.

There’s a special effect here, at the heart of American culture, a trick of light and sound, a series of mirrors reflecting back to us a misshapen view of reality. We act as if those misshapes are real. Sometimes our acting on them has devastating consequences. Sometimes they have unexpected good consequences.

You can’t predict how things are going to come through the fun house.

But it’s important to acknowledge that the fun house is there, I think.

From Fact to Legend and Back Again

One of my favorite things, though I’m also often really frustrated by it, is how facts become legends that then get cemented back into untrue facts.

Take this really awesome thing about the 11 weirdest places in Mississippi and scroll down to The Witch Dance. You may remember the reference to this in my story about Little Harpe.:

First inhabited by Native Americans, the area of Witch Dance soon became a meeting spot for witches. According to local lore, the witches would perform ceremonies that included dancing. It is said that wherever the witches’ feet touched the ground during these dances, the grass would wither and die, never to grow again. Believed to be bad luck, these barren spots were avoided by Indians, travelers, and traders; however, there was someone who wasn’t so lucky. Local criminal, Big Harpe, was told to stay away from the unusual spots, but he ignored the warning and was later found with his head nailed to a tree. Many believe that a witch ended up taking Big Harpe’s head and using it for a special potion.

There are facts of a sort in here. The Witch Dance was a site the Native Americans knew about. But it’s not clear that it was ever associated with witchcraft or bad luck before white settlers got there. But holy shit. Big Harpe was in no way a local criminal and there’s nothing to indicate that he ever even went to Mississippi. This kind of insinuates that the witches nailed his head to a tree, but we know it was the local Kentuckians warning other river pirates. Weirdly enough, there is a Kentucky story that a witch took his head.

Poor Little Harpe, who actually went to Mississippi, gets kicked out of the legend all together.

An Accident

I got rear-ended yesterday morning on my way to work. We pulled into a parking lot and the driver of the other car asked me if I was okay. I said I was. I got out. I looked at my bumper. The extent of the damage was that some of the grime on my car had been removed. I was so relieved. Not for my car. It’s almost a decade old and paid off. I’m hoping to get two more years out of it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it got totaled.

But I realized I’m really nervous about involving the police in things lately. I saw the other driver and thought, compared to me, a middle-aged white woman, this dude is at a serious disadvantage if the cops show up. And as lightly as he hit me, I’m pretty confident he stopped in time but slid into me. Yes, he was at fault, but deserving of having the shit scared out of him so that he’s more careful in the rain, not deserving of having the cops involved. And he was scared shitless, scared that he had hurt me. So, from my end, everything seemed resolved how I would have wanted it–undamaged me, undamaged him, undamaged car, he’s a little more cautious in the future.

But it made me feel weird about our country that I was afraid to involve the police.