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Saturday, April 30, 2011


yo, sambo

Milly Richardson just now brought my attention to what I wrote yesterday about the South. This is one of the bonds Milly and I have, our love for the South, the irrational as well as the rational of it, from the very meanest and worst to the most generous and best, the entire picture in between, like on a Japanese fan. The one thing somebody from West Virginia has in common with someone from Mississippi is they are both Southern, and in that way share the same culture, as people from the West Virginia mountains have in common with people of the North Carolina mountains is the culture of the Southern Appalachians. Above the Mason-Dixon line, old-time music was played a different way. It had no black influence in it, or next to none. The banjo is the fusion of the black people's ways of playing the music and the ways of the white people. White influence came from the British Isles.

The black influence came through white old-time music, filtered through African sensibilities, into music the musicians could play together. More than likely slave musicians played for a lot of white square dances. Uncle Dave Macon, the first Grand Ole Opry banjo comedian, came from central Tennessee. By age 14 he was picking a banjo. He met a black man who picked banjo. They taught each other new licks. This was the case with a number of the early white banjo pickers. Clarence Ashley of Mountain City, Tennessee, learned licks when he was young from a black banjo picker. The banjo, an African instrument, was probably made among slaves by somebody kidnapped into slavery who had been a maker and player of the instrument. It went through changes this side of the ocean, like old-time music went through changes this side of the ocean, which the slaves learned from the white people that were everywhere. Young white boys who had music in them were drawn to it in the minstrel shows of white guys in blackface, the banjo known as the black instrument. I expect the white boys that picked up the banjo, the ones that really got into it, sought a black man to show him how it's "really" played.

And the Yankees accuse us in the South of not liking black people. For every Yankee who would say, I don't think that way about Southerners, there are Southerners who like black people very much simply for who they are, friends. There is at least as much interracial friendship happening in the South as in the North. I can't say there is more or less, because I have no idea, but I do know that in the Southern white middle class, nigger is the most unacceptable word in the dictionary. Even worse than fuck. You don't get lectured and pointed at for saying fuck. And if you're a bred and buttered Confederate redneck of the flag waving variety, whose greatgreatgrandpa fought in the Civil War, that's the password. It's more the shock value and statement of a separate status from the white middle class that looks down on them. It's a working class Southern boy's middle finger to the condescending middle class, the management class, the boss. Fuck you. And the horse you rode in on.

That's it for what's left of Southern racism. To start with, not hardly all Southerners were racists, and there is less racism as time goes by, as older generations die out and younger generations come in. It's going away of its own, because it's simply not practical anymore. It was of another time. And where collective guilt for slavery is concerned, slavery just makes us members of the international community. Slavery is an African institution from Bible times to the present day. An ongoing international slave trade is alive an well. The Bible justified it for the colonists. It was the  European colonists buying slaves from Africans that got the New World slave trade going. When the American colonies broke free of "the Crown," we were left to do with this situation we did not create the best we knew how. There is no rational or irrational to what followed. American history. Bombs from the sky on the Iraqi people. If you're going to blame Southerners for the plight of the black people, remember to blame all Americans, black and white and in between, for the plight of the Iraqi people, for the plight of the North American Indians.  

Later on, you have the Allman Brothers, Southern Rock knee deep in the Delta Blues. In turn, there was white influence in black music, perhaps to the same degree. It's a complex weaving of the ways white people think that are particular to white people, racial arrogance for one, and the ways black people think particular to black people, a minority consciousness. Both are prime in decision-making and make very different cultures based in the same culture, subcultures that share the bigger culture. I get really tired of people from outside the South accusing Southerners of racism and sympathy for slavery. I do not allow that Southerners are expected to feel guilty for being Southern. Yankees had slaves too.

And when it comes to racism, there is plenty of it in the South, to be sure, but it's not universal by any means. And there's plenty of it in the North, Midwest and West. None of the great Southern writers were racist, Eudora Welty, John Crowe Ransom, Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, and a great long string of others. Elvis was a Southern boy. Before he started recording, he was finding his style as a singer in the black clubs of Memphis. He was as black a singer as any white man could sound. Then you have Chuck Berry of Memphis singing like a white man. Jerry Lee Lewis singing like a black man. Rock and roll. Minstrel shows again.

AP Carter drove around the mountains of the Blue Ridge looking for songs in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, traveling by car for weeks and often months at a time. His companion was a black guitar player and singer, Leslie Riddle. Through Riddle, AP had access to the black homes as well as the white. No distinction is made in the songs of the Carter Family for whether they came from white community or black. The Carter Family, the essence of mountain music, was another fusion of black music and white.

I absolutely reject the notion that a white Southerner is automatically guilty of historical racism. There are aplenty of racists outside the South. The song Billie Holiday sang, Strange Fruit, the story a lynching and hanging of a black man from a poplar tree. The first line, Southern trees bear strange fruit. The lynching the song was about and the writing of the song both took place in the state of Indiana. Google Indiana and see if it's in the South. It's what we call 'round here a Yankee state.


1 comment:

  1. Once said it better than I, but hit on so many familiar themes....I can add that the most bloody school desegeration clashes took place in Boston, MA., during the draft riots in New York City, 1862, blacks were lynched, an orphanage for indigent blacks was burned by an angry mob....the KKK was deadly in Ohio and Indiana....
    thank you for showing why we are proud to be Southern by the Grace of God....