I don’t mean white-washing atrocities or making up glories that never existed for the sake of local pride. This is a far more personal, individual venture–person to person, reader to reader. In the last twenty years, let’s say, there’s been a mini explosion of creative works–poetry, fiction, drama–based on historical people, eras, movements, secrets.
For me this contemporary rush to redress the past in passionate, alluring, and yes accurate costumes begins with sitting upstairs in my mother’s house, in the turquoise bedroom that used to be my sister’s, and in the evening reading The Blue Flower. This book by British author Penelope Fitzgerald (1997) concerns the young German poet Novalis, and his strange attachment to a young (I mean really young) girl. The novel is a model of concision, with brief chapters that show us various aspects of the family life, poor yet aristocratic, mother downtrodden yet insightful, friend amazed at the helter-skelter of drafty manor existence. The father is dictatorial yet sympathetic; the wealthier family of the young girl is hospitable and easy-going; the young girl’s operation of the lungs–all crisply and sympathetically portrayed until the reader feels satisfied enough to credit young Novalis’ intense love for this rather common wisp of a girl–named by the author after the blue flower of German romanticism.
As a teenager, Charleston, South Carolina, on the cusp of the civil rights movement, I loved historical romances set in the antebellum south. My father was a history professor at the Citadel, but I hardly credited his rantings about states rights, interposition and nullification. For me, history had to mean romance that made the heart sing, or at least transported me over the moon. Then came the marches and the night-stick-wielding police with their snarling German shepherds. Though I felt in my bones the wrongness of segregation, I didn’t know enough history to have predicted this nonviolent, determined effort to create political change.
As an outsider Yankee in South Carolina, I neither truly penetrated white southern culture, nor had any real contact with African-Americans. By the time I’d made my way north, first to college in Baltimore, then to graduate school in New York, then to marriage and more graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I had read my way into historians of slavery, reconstruction, the great migration. I was ready to create my own historical novel called “Effluvia,” suggestive of the tidal waters that bathed the oyster beds of the black oystermen I dared to create, and the southern whites who, like me, were shaken and educated down to their roots by the Civil Rights Movement.
My mother, a librarian at the Charleston County Free Library, helped me with research for this novel, which I wrote for my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota (along with a 200-page bibliographic explication–heaven help me!) But the minute I mentioned that I was trying to publish it (I had worked at Doubleday Anchor Books in New York and knew something of the publishing world) my mother had a fit. She wrote a two-page typed argument against such a thing. “If you publish this, it will kill your father. He’ll never let me forget it.” I was furious, of course, but also clear-headed enough to enjoy (in a sardonic say) the contradiction she supposed: if my father were done in by my publication, how could he “never let her forget it?”
In fact, there was no publication, in part because I gradually gave up and turned to poetry, thinking, “My mother will never understand this!” Meaning I’d be free of her interference. Not to mention that I intended to tell her almost nothing about anything I ever published.
Race as a subject in the southern United States still evokes controversy, secrecy, and fear. A few weeks ago, I visited the two dear friends I still have in Charleston. They are natives to Charleston, but they are quite aware of the inequality, meanness, and repression still practiced by whites against blacks. Much has changed since the 1960s, we all recognize that, but that the anger of white men at any hint that their prerogatives might be threatened still lashes out. In their case, at them, as white women who dare express what I’d call liberal views. And this hatred directed at them comes from middle-aged men in their own family–sons, brothers, cousins.
No wonder they lower their voices to a whisper as we sit in a crowded restaurant. Some black couples sit at adjacent tables. Black and white servers take our order and bring our food. But it’s very clear there remains a highly charged atmosphere around privilege, race, and (this is where the outsider is stunned) around white women who dare to insist on their freedom of expression, their freedom to disagree with unquestioned white, male privilege.
There are and have always been white southerners who work for equality. Who abhor and resist the ugly and subtle expressions of white power–lynching, KKK cross burnings, beatings of black men in back alleys by gangs of whites, and the silence and whispers across a meal. For my money, the novel Help, and the movie made from it, go right to the heart of how cruel white women have been, can be toward the black women in their kitchens.
As a teenage girl in love with the romance of the south, I had no idea of the system of repression and dominance I was unwittingly adoring. Now I do. Whatever work I might write today about the south would
have to address it.