Monday, August 31, 2009

A Night in Nacoochee

"This used to be a sundown county," the director responded in answer to my question.We were standing around talking with the designers and some of the cast after the opening night performance of an original community based play. I heard the comment, clearly I did because it resonated with me as the conversation kept moving along without me. I'd asked a question, the director answered it and my brain just went on vacation. It kept rambling around in my head, like hearing a piece of music or a song that just keeps repeating over and over in your mind, "This used to be a sundown county."

Seriously, for a moment I thought maybe it meant something else. It couldn't mean what I thought it meant, surely not? Maybe I misheard him, misunderstood him.

My colleague and I had driven a couple hours north for the pre-show reception and opening night performance of a play about this gorgeous little community in the mountains of northeast Georgia, not far from the Tennessee line in the Appalachian foothills. It was a very pleasant drive up, the higher up we went the cooler it got, the heat and humidity began to melt away; the houses were spread out, there were working farms, horses, cows, and other assorted wildlife and cattle. (I love looking at cattle and wild life while in a heavily armored moving vehicle.)

I've seen community centered original plays before but was especially interested to see the work of this playwright who has been doing this work for twenty years or more. Unlike traditional plays, this work begins with collecting stories from the community, working with them to figure out a through line that connects all the stories together, and the playwright weaves the stories into a play, a story about the community. Most often a professional team of directors and designers will come in to handle production elements. The community is the cast, the banker, the teacher, mom and grandpa, rehearse for weeks and weeks remembering lines, learning blocking, and everyone in the whole town is excited to pitch in and help however they can.

When we drove into the yard that afternoon for the pre-show reception, we were at a beautiful old house turned into a restaurant with big porches and a full house of people; folks were milling around outside, and all throughout this rather large expansive house. As we wandered around saying hello and introducing ourselves to the local arts council board and staff, and guests, I could not help but note that I was the sole person with a permanent tan. (And as I stood out, they noticed me too. "So, who are you with?")

As we drove in a caravan to the cultural center for the performance, I passed a black woman driving in the opposite direction. I wasn't totally alone. Yes!

As the auditorium began to fill though, I could see that I was going to hold the "only" award that evening. The play was quite lovely, some of the stories were really interesting, especially the piece about moonshiners in the mountains, how that line of work came to be, and how they took care of each other when the "Revenuers" came calling. There were ghost stories, and fabulous puppet work by a puppet maker from Minneapolis. There was a young kid in the cast who clearly was either Native American or from Central or South America, singing with a quartet of young men serving as sort wandering troubadours.

Of course when the lights came up and I've just spent two plus hours watching a play about the community, with community members in the show and in the audience, and there were no black people in the cast, I had to ask. "What happened to the black people? Why weren't they part of this? There are black people here, aren't there?"

And the answer to that question was, "Well, this used to be a sundown county. There are about 800 black people in the town."

If I could my head would have spun around on my neck like that chick in the Exorcist. 800??? (Yes, I know, I was focused on the wrong piece of information.) 800? You mean 8000, right?

There are approximately 20,000 in White County. Yes, White county. (You can't make this stuff up, I tell you.) This pretty little town is unincorporated. A census update for 2007 says that the African American population in White County is 2.17 percent, and the population of Hispanics, Latinos is 1.15 percent. Given that White County covers a pretty big territory with two other fairly good sized towns, it is a safe bet that the number of black folks for that little town is indeed, 800.

So where the heck did they go? Well, as they must have been told often enough over the decades and throughout that period of strict segregation, "Don't let the sun set on your ass in White County," I suspect that they took it to heart.

Before heading to bed that night in White County, a dear friend and colleague opened her home to us so we wouldn't have to drive back down the mountain in the dark, you know I kept returning to this issue. (If there was a nit to pick here, I picked it. I really wanted to understand.) We stayed up late into the night talking about the facts of life living in the south today, four southern white women and me. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that the cultural center tried to reach out to the black community but were rebuffed. It seems that there is a white woman in town, she's the gatekeeper to the black community and she was not amused nor inclined to assist. I flashed back to a weather beaten little structure on the grounds of the cultural center. It was little more than a shack that had been moved to the grounds of the cultural center over the past year, work was underway to try to document and preserve it. "That is the only remaining slave cabin left in the county," I was told.

Before I fell off to sleep I wondered what it must have been like for black folks in White county not too long ago, then mused about the fact that they would have been knocking down the doors and dragged all our happy butts off to jail or worst. Our hosts are a gay couple! What a day what a day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When They Tell You Who They Are...

Because I don't know who said this, but I think it was Maya Angelou, let me say for the record that I am quoting, or maybe misquoting someone. If that someone happens to read this, please forgive me and understand I fully got the essence of what you were saying, enough so that I remember what was said. "When someone tells you who they are, believe them."

"I'm not good enough for you." "I am weak." "I drink too much." You can fill in the blanks for yourself. We've all heard stories about friends, or it happened to you, where someone tried to tell you who they were and you said, "No, it's okay." Or, "You don't really mean that," better yet, "No, that's not true. I know you and you are much better than that." (Subtext here, I know you better than you know yourself.)

What does this have to do with Musing on the New South, you may ask? Let me ask that you stay with me a minute as I try to connect the dots for myself.

The nation seems to be experiencing a serious case of apoplexy about the President, hidden behind a political meltdown about health care, which is really a trojan horse for the right wing to kill the President's agenda in an attempt to retake the house and senate in 2010. (You would think he was elected by a thin margin rather than the beat down he gave his opponent.) But I digress.

At any rate. Everyone knows that for the past thirty plus years, the heart and soul of the Republican party, their little people salt of the earth base, versus their big people big money base, has been based here in the South. These are the folks that will send their last twenty dollars, or five dollars when their cages are rattled with lies of "Death Panels," "Your tax dollars paying for abortion," "Your tax dollars paying for illegal immigrants," and heaven forfend, "He wants to take your guns away from you." Since the 1970's the envelopes with money just came pouring in.

It grew out of their Southern strategy that married money to divisive social issues that would, they thought, give them a permanent majority in Washington. That's not speculation on my part, in their hubris and arrogance, and complete disregard for people because it is all about winning at any cost, they stated publicly, loudly, and often, that they now had a permanent majority.

There is a cowboy element to Southern culture, as least as it has been promulgated by the media. (As with anything in media, take it with a huge pillar of salt. If more folks took that attitude about images of Black folks in the media...) But I digress. There seems to be a part of the culture that is steeped in guns, the bible, and militarism. So when someone says, "I am a proud right wing terrorist," in a public meeting, and the congressman elected to the US congress, sworn to uphold the constitution nods, smiles, and cheers the guy on....WTF (This is one of those down the rabbit hole moments.)

It happened at a town hall meeting in California last week. In an earlier post I noted that California is both one of the most progressive and regressive places all once. (It is a very schizophrenic state in fact.) But it could just as easily have happened here. And I have not one iota of doubt that the guy in California voiced what many gun wearing, rage filled, lost in the wilderness what the hell happened to my place in the sun, scared, mainly white men are feeling.

And as I think Maya said, "When someone tells you who they are, believe them." I believe that guy. I hope that the FBI, or Justice, or whoever is tracking all of this stuff, with all the billions of dollars we spent on computer programs, and hardware and software, and satellite tracking, to know every piece of information about everyone, (remember the Total Information project as part of the Homeland Security act?), I hope that someone shows up at this guys door. Tomorrow morning. First thing. Do not stop, pass go, straight to his home. You don't even have to look hard because his name was made public already.

If Timothy McVeigh had stood up and shouted, I'm a proud right wing terrorist, in this environment he may have been given a parade with a marching band and all. Hell, Rush Limbaugh would probably give him the keys to the city. Really, I mean it. And what does that tell you about how far the right is willing to go?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It Ain't All Bad Here

As we slide slowly toward fall, we are coming to one of my favorite times of the year. My two favorite seasons are spring and fall. Never more so than now however, now that we're living in the South. Let me tell you, as the heat and humidity eke away and the leaves begin to fall, we'll still be wearing shorts and flip flops well into November.

The South has a long growing season, and short winters. Oh my, when its eighty degrees at Christmas, I could hurt someone singing about White Christmas, just beat them over the head with a wet noodle! If I never see snow again, ever, in this lifetime or the next, it will be too soon. If we never have to shovel snow, drag out the salt, worry about ice storms, and cold snaps not meant for humans to do anything but huddle around a fire, or stock up on perishables like we are preparing for an ice age, I will still be a very very happy camper.

Winter will really arrive in January, and by March it will be over. I LOVE IT!

As I started writing this blog about living in the new South, a number of friends have noted that they considered moving here but the fundamentalism of the bible belt, the political conservatism, and issues of race and racism are just barriers they could not overcome.

Clearly I understand, or as my girl in DC would say, I "overstand" their concerns. Having acknowledged that though, as one who has lived in New York, Massachusetts, California, Chicago, D.C., and New Jersey, there are trade offs no matter where you go. That's life.

Here is what the South offers that ain't bad by half. I love drive through everything, at the dry cleaners they see you pull up and they go get your clothes without the ticket because they know your name and your car. They bring them out to your car, put them in nice and neat, you pay and go. I've never seen so many drive through coffee shops. And a drive in movie that shows first run movies for $7 dollars thank you very much.

One of my daughters friends lives in Houston, she has her favorite drive through Daiquiri and Margarita place that she can hit on her way home from work. They have about twenty or so different flavors they'll mix up for you, put it in a plastic cup covered with plastic wrap so that you, wink wink, can't open it until you get home. Riiight!

Even though you can't buy wine and beer on Sunday in Georgia, the drive up liquor stores are a hoot and on some Saturday nights, it may be quicker to go inside the store than sit in line at the drive through. Of course restaurants do a bang up business on Sunday as you can get all the beer, wine or whatever you want at your local watering hole and favorite eatery!

When we first moved here, going to the grocery store was an experience. (Unfortunately I now take it all for granted.) They are so well laid out, clean, well lit, and I couldn't understand why everyone kept asking did I need help finding anything? Did I need help with my groceries, getting them out to the car? (No tipping allowed.) And there are the little things like canisters of hand cleaning wipes to wipe down the handle of the cart.

So there is an ease and civility here that helps to gloss over the other stuff. But hey, I was born and raised in New York City, and there are places in the big city that black folks just don't go. Think Howard Beach. Remember Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismand and Abner Louima? If you've read the book or saw the documentary, Traces of the Trade, about one of the largest slave trading families in the US based in New York, or saw the exhibit at the New York Historical Society, Slavery in New York, then we understand that America's peculiar institution wasn't peculiarly limited to the South.

And although there are many things I loved about northern California, there is no place with more natural beauty, there are also earthquakes, mud slides, and the annual fires. And I remember how Oscar Grant was murdered in San Francisco on New Years day. People tend to think of flower children, and free love and liberalism when they think of California, but it one the most progressive and regressive places all at the same time.

Chicago, oh but it is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, truly. Standing on the sandy beach at the lake you can really think you're at the ocean. The downtown is gorgeous, it is one of the few American cities with a functioning livable, walkable downtown. Between May and October that is. After that it is all over, forty five degrees below zero with the wind chill factor is usual. Take your battery out of your car on bitterly cold nights and bring it inside. There are a host of tips and tools you collect to survive winter in Chicago. And there are few northern cities that were as strictly segregated as Chicago.

Someone joked that you could go for days and days on Chicago's South Side without ever seeing a white person. It was one of the few places that Dr. King was unsuccessful, the racism was that deeply entrenched.

There are trade offs, no place is perfect. Not Chicago, New York, not the west or New England.

Here's what I know, the South is the bogeyman, our doppelganger for all the ills of our nation. It is an easy whipping boy or girl, a place in our national psyche that seemingly embodies all that is wrong, cruel, mean, spiteful, unforgiving, wrapped up in patriotism and blessed by the bible. And although it is many of those things, even most of those things, it is also a place where there are pockets of people who are doing the work of reconciliation around the difficult issues of race. It is a place where many people are running for their lives away from unthinking fundamentalism, seeking spirit, questioning authority, free to think.

Yes, there are issues here, but there isn't anything so different, or unique, or beyond the pale that happens only here. If there are a thousand stories in the big city, there are a million here. And I find that some of the absolute best story tellers live right here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Now on to the Anti Black

This post is part II of my Glen Beck and the Anti Black posted on Friday. And I will try hard not to turn this into a rant. Seriously, if I find myself going in that direction I will reel myself back in, promise.

A couple of people had the same response as I did when they read my post, "What does that mean? He's the Anti Black?" This much I know, it sent my finely tuned antenna thrumming like a narcotics trained dog catching the scent of grade A prime "stuff." After all, when someone is called the Anti Christ you know there isn't anything good about that. (I have been known to call Dick Cheney the spawn of Satan but never the Anti Christ.) In fact the Encyclopedia Britannica says that the, "Antichrist and precursor of Antichrist have been, and remain, terms of the most intense opprobrium." Intense opprobrium, bottom of the barrel soul sucking, nail to you the wall bad. (Try a search and see what comes up under Antichrist Obama. Boy we'd need an hour just to begin to decipher and unravel all the symbolism, under currents, twisted logic, and sheer craziness he evokes in some folks.)

Even Antiheroes who are bad guys, or gals, who become the protagonist, the central character in a movie or book, (think Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men) are failed, highly flawed characters. One source I checked said this about antiheroes, "antihero - Protagonist who has pronounced personality or character defects or eccentricities which are not usually associated with the hero archetype."

Words have meaning, and I love language. I was destined to be caught up in this almost Gordian Knot of symbolism and signs in the simple well meant statement, "You're the Anti Black."

At the heart of the matter, bottom line, there isn't anything good about being told you're the antithesis of blackness; not when it was meant as a high compliment! As I write that it makes my head hurt. Following this logic then, Blacks who achieve through hard work, education, dedication, perseverance, determination, by dint of their will and willingness to succeed; Blacks who are polite, mannerly, well spoken, thoughtful, we are the anti-Black, the antithesis of blackness.

And Black Americans who don't succeed, (and I will not go down the rabbit hole of all the things, reasons why, issues and crap that could cause one to fail as a Black person in this culture, just won't go there) all things that are dysfunctional, and sad, and tragic are therefore the "pro-Black."

Chew on that one for a moment. Because the person who made that comment to my nephew is one of the coolest white men he's met in the South. The guy thought he was paying a compliment, he was saying to this young man not quite thirty who owns his home, is married, not a hard partying person, resourceful, responsible, smart, grounded, terrifically hard worker, you're not like the average black man. You're the anti-Black. What he illuminates then is his impression, belief, understanding, his perception of Black Americans, that the average Black person, what he perceives of as the standard if you will, are those in jail, on drugs, selling drugs, and the litany of other dysfunctions. It makes me go straight to crazy that for too many people, this is what decades of struggle have come to. And the beat goes on.

But before I go, just one little itty bitty question. So is this guy, and all the well meaning, grounded white Americans who understand issues of race and racism, those millions of white citizens who put aside their fears and voted in one of the most historic elections in our history, does this mean they the anti-white? Just asking.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Anti-Black and Glen Beck

I tell you there are days where stuff just comes looking for you, you don't even have to leave home to find it! Let me say right here, this may be a little controversial for some folks. But it landed in my lap and, being me, it's been noodling around my head all day and I have to get it out. Based upon the title you know I'm talking about race. Not because it was at the top of my topics for the day, but because someone told my nephew he's the Anti Black, and a neighbor in my subdivision wants our book club to read Glen Beck's book, Glen Beck's Common Sense. (My nephew lives in North Carolina by the by.)

Let me begin with the latter, Glen Beck. When I read the list of proposed books for the upcoming year and got to the bottom of the list and saw Glen Beck, my mouth dropped open. I was hoping against hope that it wasn't the same Glen Beck, opinionator passing as commentator, muckraker, bottom feeding agitator, crap disturber passing as nut job, on Fox News. (Talk about an oxymoron, Fox and News, like a free market health care system, but I digress.)

Alas, it was the same person. I considered for about five minutes letting it pass, not saying anything, hoping that some other brave souls will vote it out. But I was just undone. (All it it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. I really believe that.) As the only person of color in my book club, in a sub division where there are but a handful of us, it just upset me to no end to find Glen Beck on the list. Here's why. I believe that the right wing are out to incite riot, mayhem and murder. After inciting the mob they will wring their hands, moan and groan and pretend they just don't understand, "He acted alone, we abhor violence." Oh me oh my!

What's my evidence? How many people showed up to Bush's public meetings carrying loaded weapons? When Bush's actions and policies actually were treasonous, how many people showed up to public meetings shouting Traitor?

I fired off a note to the book club coordinator voicing my dismay. I can't abide Fox news and since the right wing have shown that they will go to any length to destroy President Obama, have been seriously considering boycotting their non news programs. Yes, I know, this means 24 and House, and a slew of other shows, but that is for a later discussion. All of this to say, I refuse to watch their "opinion masquerading as news programming." But Glen Beck's remarks about President Obama after the Skip Gates brouhaha sent me right over the edge. (Huffington Post, Salon, NY Times, Bill Maher and others covered it.) In case you haven't heard he said that the President has shown that he has a deeply seated hatred of white people, and in fact is a racist. WTF!

I don't know if my response, or having a provocative book on the list violates some kind of book club etiquette, but there it is. Let me be clear, I am making no assumptions here about the reason, cause, or political leanings of the book club member who proposed this book. Here's what I do know for certain though, we would need a facilitator for that discussion, we would need to actually read Tom Paine's Common Sense in order to fully understand his philosophy and thinking in order to put Beck's book in context. (Beck claims his book is based upon the principles, thinking and philosophy of Tom Paine.) And given Beck's own statements, we would have to talk about race and racism.

And then a white guy told my nephew he was the Anti-Black. What a day what day!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Following the Food

"Is the iced tea sweet or unsweetened?" I was sitting in a midtown restaurant in New York and had ordered an iced tea. It was habit to ask if it was sweetened or not. The waiter lifted his eyebrow and pulled his head back as though I had spit in the tea or something! "It's unsweetened," he practically hissed, overly dramatic to say the least in response to a simple question. It may have been a "No Duh," to him but I needed to know.

My bad, I forgot where I was. Here in the South when you order an iced tea there is no question that it will be sweet. If there is a question it will be the degree of sweetness; crack your teeth sweet, mix it with water sweet, and just right. (Here's a hint, when in a restaurant in the South ask if they have unsweetened tea, otherwise you'll never know because you aren't often offered a choice.)

I got to thinking about food in the New South while making a pitcher of iced tea at home this afternoon. We don't sweeten our tea at home, if you want to add sugar no problem, it's available. Often we have a simple syrup chilling in the fridge which makes sweetening iced tea easier.

Then I flashed on the scene at the restaurant in New York, and that led me to fried pickles at a Stone Mountain restaurant. It's called Aunt Sally's Front Porch, or something to that effect. The name of the restaurant really isn't important, it was the fact that after placing our orders they brought us a basket of hush puppies and fried pickles. Piping hot, right out of the hot grease, and hmmm they smelled good.

Of course I recognized the hush puppies, and as always wondered where the heck the name came from? But the other item was unrecognizable. I was thinking it might be a weirdly shaped green tomato, which are quite tasty fried. A friend sitting with us took pity on me, leaned over and said, "They're fried pickles, dill, I think."

My eyebrow went up like that waiter in the restaurant in Manhattan. My neck flew back like someone had waved a snake in my face. She may as well have said it was a fried grasshopper or something. " Fried pickles? Why? Who would even think of something like that?" I asked. Seriously, I really wanted to know. Did someone have a craving for something fried one day and the only thing on hand were dill pickles? Or maybe it came from the imagination of someone deep in pregnancy, jonesing for something fried, and something sour?

I'm an adventurous eater, one who jokingly says I am an omnivore. I have eaten Bambi, and Thumper, and Kanga, too. There are only a handful of foods that I really don't like. And before I declare something beyond the pale, I at least try it.

We had been in Georgia all of a month or so when we had this outing to Stone Mountain, a location made famous by Dr. King in his I Have a Dream address. Who knew there were rides, and fireworks, and all manner of fun things for kids and families to do now? We've come a long way Baby!

But this fried pickles, and snickers, and mac and cheese, and other assorted fried stuff was freaking me out. Someone had jokingly said about well known Georgia chef and restaurant owner, Paula Deen, "She'd fry butter if she could!" Well, yes, I believe that to be true now.

I feared for my arteries but plopped a pickle anyway. Not too bad, not worth doing more than once but, not too bad.

Since my Stone Mountain experience three years ago, I have discovered a few incredible, amazing international markets that all but shriek, New South right here! The first time we went to the Dekalb International Farmers Market I all but lost my ever loving mind. The produce section was the largest I have ever seen, anywhere. If there is a fruit or vegetable, herb or spice from anyplace on the planet missing, then it's probably inedible. You want fresh fish, there are tanks with the fish still swimming, choose one. There were probably 100 different kinds of cheeses, and fresh meats, including goat and chicken feet, and dairy, (fresh organic milk from an Amish farm) and teas, coffees, and I could go on and on but it would make you as exhausted as I was after my first trip.

A little over a year ago while getting my nails done, my favorite nail tech told me about the Super H market, about twenty minutes north from my house. It is Asian owned and they are opening five more in the area. When we pulled into the parking lot any questions about authenticity went out the window. Just mercy, Super H is so large that they have foods sectioned by country, Thai, Viet Namese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Phillippine. Got all your regular fruits and veggies, and at amazing prices, including a ton of stuff I have never heard of, then head over to the fish section and choose, dead or alive. (Beats fishing.) If you shop on Friday, Saturday or Sunday you can taste your way to fullness as they offer you steamed dumplings, and soups, and appetizers galore.

But, most importantly here's what I know, if we follow the food, at least here in the Atlanta area, then you can see a possible future for the New South and it doesn't look anything like the past. And I for one am thrilled.

Being the

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Singing on the Porch

I know the title sounds funny, a little like Singing in the Rain without all the special effects and dancing, but it totally encapsulates what was one of the most blissful days in memory. As you may know I just got back from spending a week in the woods in the mountains of North Carolina with about two hundred plus incredible performing and visual Southern artists.

So bear with me for a minute and I promise I will tell you how me, the one who loves to sing way out loud, often forgets the words and have been convinced I have no voice, ended up in the middle of a fabulous jam session with some serious singers! Yes, this is a New South story.

It was Saturday morning and I slept in late after hanging out until 2:30 in the morning listening to music, dancing, and hearing these young spoken word artists from all over the South, whose words and imagery all but took my breath away. It was hard hard hard, I tell you, to pull myself away and do the responsible thing. Yes, I lost my mind and thought I was a fully grown adult or something.

Sleeping in meant that I missed breakfast but praying to St. Mattress was more important than food at that point. So sleep won out. Once I finally crawled up from the abyss, I began to smile. I had an appointment for a massage!! This was the first pebble in the bliss filled pond.

If you ever come to Atlanta for any reason, build in thirty minutes or so for a massage. I will happily put you in touch with one of the best masseurs I have ever met, bar none. Just Mercy, incredible body work, I practically melted off the table. Patrick is gifted, believe me. Then I had a little lunch with more music and wonderful conversation. This was the second pebble in the bliss filled pond.

Leaving lunch I was trying to figure out how to bump somebody off, well not seriously but you get my drift, so that I could take their place on Patrick's already filled dance card and squeeze in another massage before we had to leave the next day.

The cafeteria has two huge porches off a dining hall that could seat four or five hundred. I think we could as easily have eaten on the porches as inside. (But of course, you run the risk of being eaten alive before you could wolf down half your meal.) Our retreat in the mountains is a really nice camp about ten minutes from Ashville, NC. What a lovely beautiful setting. One of things that I most appreciated is that there must have been literally hundreds of big comfy rocking chairs on the porches in the main areas, scattered around all the patios near the pool, in front of the resident buildings, and in front of each room in the buildings where porches lined the walkways to your room. But I digress.

(We took every opportunity available when in small group meetings to head outdoors to the rocking chairs, look at the mountains as we talked, surrounded by trees and quiet. It was such a relaxing way to have a meeting. LOL)

Walking out of the dining hall that day, someone said, "Come on, let's get together and sing." Well, sure, I thought, I'll sit for a minute and hear them before heading out to a workshop or something. There were maybe six of us, we grabbed some rocking chairs, made a circle and they began to sing. Operative word, they. Now I knew two of these women can sing, I've heard their music, seen them perform, they can blow. Then there was my girl Linda from Carpetbag Theater in Knoxville, TN, a fellow New Yorker transplanted to the south about forty years ago. I know she's an actor, writer, and director, but I'd never heard her sing.

She started things off with this huge voice that just blew me away. And they began to rock literally and figuratively, and I began to join in, I couldn't help myself. I hear music and my voice just runs away from me. Nobody gave me dirty looks or anything. So I really joined in. Then three more women came to join us. Then two more, then one more, then three more, before we knew it we had over fifteen women singing our hearts out and having an absolute ball.

People were coming from all over the camp to hear us because in the mountains sound travels. We had four and five part intricate harmonies going. Our chairs were just rocking in rhythm, and we had a tambourine, and our feet for percussion, and hands clapping in syncopation. Linda's feet finally ran away with her and danced her up out of her chair! That's when we really took off. I was practically levitating out of my chair.

It was an hour or more of sheer unadulterated joy as we raised our voices making music. It was unscripted, totally off the cuff, and such an incredible moment of sharing, teaching each other the notes, or the melodies, passing off the lead as you were so moved. And crawling around in bliss at our feet was little Ziah, maybe eight months old, such a gorgeous sweet tempered little girl, who was passed from one to the other as we sang, and her mother took the lead. She sang the lead in Spanish, and then English, she was magnificent with a soaring poignant voice that just dug deep inside you.

I looked around me at this fabulous array of Southern women singing on the porch and recognized that we represented the New South; we were black, white, Latinas, older, middle age, young, gay and straight, tatoos and locks, straight hair and curly do's, from rural communities in Alabama and Kentucky, and cities like Charlotte, or Atlanta. It took all of us to raise the roof, we each brought our own special, unique gifts to the party. And what a party it was. I would do it over again in a heartbeat.

That was third pebble in the bliss filled pool, I may not be able to sing lead but I can sing background like a pro!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I'd Have Picked My Own Damn Cotton

These are connected musings about signs, signals and symbols in the New South. That was the thought that woke me up this morning, what have I noticed over the past three years? So I began thinking about what I've seen since being here in ATL. Here goes:

1) Symbol: My daughter and her family bought their first home about a year and a half ago. They are almost an hour north of Atlanta in the town of Cumming, GA. I have no rational explanation for the fact that literally weeks went by as I was going and coming in and out of her subdivision before I finally noticed it. It isn't like these homeowners were trying to hide it or anything.

Then one day I guess I slowed my New York-fast- roll, long enough to look, to see. There it was in the front yard of a small house, right across the road from the entrance to her subdivision, flapping in the breeze, proudly flying high, a confederate flag.

2) Signs: Slightly over two years ago while visiting family in Columbia, SC, heading merrily on my way to the mall to see what's what, I noticed what became one of my favorite bumper stickers. I was directly behind a big ass pick up truck waiting to make a left turn on a hugely busy street, (I know it already sounds enormously stereotypical, but I can't help it, I didn't buy the thing he did) and along with the gun rack and a couple of confederate flags, there was the bumper sticker. It read, "If I'd known it was going to end up like this, I'd have picked my own damn cotton." Really, it did. Clever, funny even.

3) Signals: Those of you who know me, know that I love good BBQ. And have tried BBQ from one end of the country to the other, and many points in between. (Well that might also be because we have lived on both ends and many places in between. LOL)

But I digress. At any rate, for years when driving into the Columbia, SC area there were these mega billboards advertising Maurice's BBQ. There were at least eight of these things surrounding the highways with a nice big picture of Maurice with tantalizing quotes from satisfied customers, and all the wonderful things you see on billboards, and- a confederate flag! Really, saw it with my own two eyes.

If you bet that we have never eaten at Maurice's, you're a seer, quick, head to Atlantic City. I have absolutely no desire to give Maurice my money. And I am under no illusion but that he would have smiled, taken my money and said, something to the effect, "Don't forget to come back now, hear." Not in this lifetime.

No, not my money when, clearly, he was nostalgic for the days of free labor, mint juleps, and cool breezes scented by magnolia trees, aided by the tired arms of said free labor vigorously fanning.

Then over the past year while my dad was in the final stages of his illness and it was beginning to feel like we could put the car on automatic pilot and it would navigate to SC on it's own, I noticed that Maurice's billboards no longer had the flag! Say what? And the house across the way from the subdivision in Cummings? No more flag!

This is good, right? I imagine that someone may have knocked on the door of that home one day and said, something to the effect, "Listen, we are trying to sell some homes here and your flag is causing a little bit of a problem. It's giving our community a bad name."

I hear that Maurice's BBQ had received numerous complaints over the years. Capitalism apparently trumped ideology? Finally, I guess, something pushed him to the edge, he reached the tipping point maybe, and decided to call off the dogs, or hogs and lay the flag to rest.

The guy with the pickup truck and the funny bumper sticker, haven't seen him again but, my response sitting there reading his bumper sticker that day, "I wished y'all picked your own damn cotton, too." Mind you, at the time I saw his truck, I don't think Barack Obama had even announced his candidacy. So that wasn't the trigger for the guys frustration. No, that was just his every day, "I don't believe this crap, where I am in my life and I want to blame someone," angst.

But I digress. See the point I really wanted to make here was that in a strange way, I preferred knowing that the flag was in front of the guys house, and on the billboard, because it sends a really clear and unambiguous message. I get it, and most folks of color, especially black folks in the South, understand.

So without the symbols, signals and signs, some poor unsuspecting unknowing person may show up at the front door of that house in Cumming one night, with a broken down car looking for a phone, or help with a tire, (Yes, I know that's not a good idea but they always do this in the movies so I thought I'd try it here, it's creative license) and end up with a rude shock.

Although my short term memory is shot to hell, I am blessed or cursed depending upon your point of view, my long term memory is great. And I remember the story of Yoshiri Hattori, an exchange student in 1992 who was shot and killed in Louisiana because he mistakenly went to the wrong address while on his way to a fellow students Halloween party. A twitchy homeowner "thought" the kid was there to do him harm. There was a big brouhaha, and a lot of hand wringing and outrage, but the kid was dead and the homeowner was acquitted.

Here's the deal, really, I want to know. If you have a loaded gun in every room, and two in the bedroom, and you really are prejudiced, then hang the damn flag, please. Hang the flag, put up a sign, even one of those "Protected by Smith Wesson," that people use instead of ADT or Brinks. Trust me, I will not knock on your door. And no, I still won't head to Maurice for BBQ while in Columbia. Same man, same restaurant, same food, with the flag in the back room somewhere. Pass it on to unsuspecting drivers.

What isn't okay is state sanctioned, government enforced laws that codify prejudice as was once upon a time in our not too distance past. The Maurice's of the world, flash your gang signs so that we, the rest of us, know who you are.

But I digress. :)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome to the New South

It's been three years and one month exactly to the day since we sold our house and moved to Georgia. We arrived in Atlanta, GA July 17, 2006, after a nine year sojourn in New Jersey, Newark to be exact. As urban cities go, it doesn't get much more urban than Newark. It has everything that people think of when they think of Newark, and a whole lot they don't know about as well. We lived in a great, wonderful neighborhood in the North Ward called Forest Hill, one block from beautiful Branch Brook Park that had been designed by Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park. Our neighborhood was hugely diverse with a significant Spanish speaking population of folks from all over Central and South America, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with many of the original Italian and Jewish owners who didn't, wouldn't or couldn't get out when the neighborhood began to turn over, and black folks. (One of the houses on our block was the exterior used for Uncle Sonny's house in the Soprano's. I have a fond memory of sharing wine and beer with the crew one night during and after a shoot.)

We left a place where, even though it cost $6 dollars to cross the bridge or tunnels into Manhattan and we did so frequently, we could be in Manhattan within twenty minutes. Yes, that is twenty minutes with no traffic. And when was there not traffic? At 11 pm when we decided we wanted to hang out in the Village, or head uptown for a night of music and food; New York is a food lovers heaven for cuisine of any kind or ethnicity. A very very expensive densely crowded kind of heaven.

We left a state that had an Amish farmers market with fresh fabulous meat and produce, and the tiny college town of New Brunswick with six amazing restaurants within walking distance of each other, including the wonderful Makeda's for Ethiopian food that was our home away from home, our personal Cheers. Newark and surrounding communities had old line Italian bakeries that had to-live-for pastries and breads, and a gazillion diners, and community block parties galore. There was a growing downtown scene happening in Newark, and the famous Ironbound district with its historic Spanish and Portuguese community, and truly wonderful clubs and restaurants.

And then we moved to Georgia, the metro Atlanta area. My husband, Harry, and I are both big city people, born and raised in Chicago and Manhattan respectively. Southside for him, Harlem for me. We don't have dreams of a house in the woods with wide open country spaces with lots of trees to get lost in. (Besides there are creatures and critters in the woods.) That's what Central Park, or Branch Brook Park is for. When you need a tree fix, or want to see wide expanses of grass, go to the damn park. If you want flowers, I planted them in my back yard and that was more than enough, thank you very much. Very pretty, lots of work, hard on the knees, but worth the price of admission.

We are not hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, backpacking kind of folks. Thinking about camping makes me itch. Been there, done that. Got the t-shirt and a gopher under my damn sleeping bag, knocking against my head to wake me up because he wanted out for his morning potty break or something.

And I must have hot running water for a shower, and a comfortable bed. Okay, I'll spill the beans, when I travel I really am a hotel kind of gal. I love hotels, the little travel size shampoos and conditioners, room service, thick towels and comfortable beds. And did I mention room service?

See what working for a living does for you, because that's why we are living in Georgia. They made Harry an offer that we just couldn't refuse. And we would be really close to family. And there's an arts scene, and it is a fairly big affordable city. Friends frequently ask, "What is it like living in the South?" That's what this blog is for. To tell you what it feels like living here through the lens of an urban refugee, and a damn Yankee one at that.

Here's a taste for you, it is the moment I felt like we'd gone down the rabbit hole, and was being asked to believe six impossible things on an empty stomach.

Last year, in response to the deep drought situation, two years of little water that almost led to war with Alabama and Florida, coupled with an economy rapidly headed toward the ninth circle of economic hell, our illustrious governor, Sonny Perdue, (what kind of name is that for a governor, anyway?) decided that what Georgia really really needs to increase tourism, and bring money to the state, what we really really needed was...hold your hats boys and girls, a damn Trout Fishing Contest!!!!! And the state will happily invest money to facilitate this event. WTF?

I swear to goodness and God. That's what our esteemed governor announced, had a huge press conference and everything. "Governor Perdue will make a major announcement this afternoon to assist Georgia's ailing economy," intoned a serious news commentator in a deep sonorous voice. For a little bit I got interested, wanted to hear what he was going to propose for us.

So you know I was so flummoxed, so totally taken aback that my mouth hung open for fully five minutes as my brain tried to compute and make sense of what I'd heard. "Is he serious," I wondered? It would bring in millions and millions of dollars to the economy as serious fishermen from all over would come to Georgia for a chance to win, whatever the prize was. I'd stopped listening after hearing that a fishing contest was going to revive our economy.

And that is the moment that I knew for certain that I wasn't in Oz any longer, no Toto, no witches, no yellow brick road. Where are a girls ruby slippers when you need them? Not at DSW for certain.

So this blog will be about learning what it means to be a Southerner and living in the "New South."More tales and reflections to come soon.