Call me “Professor Swamp People”

Troy Landry, one of the stars of History Channel's "Swamp People"

I was recently interviewed by Cara Bayles at the Houma Courier in Louisiana about the flood of reality television shows that are set in Louisiana.  We had a terrific talk that lasted a good half an hour, but all that ended up in the paper was a couple of sentences, which you can read here.  Just before we hung up the phone, I asked Cara “How did you find me?” to which she responded “I Googled ‘professor swamp people.'”

When I set out to write Dreaming of Dixie, I had no idea that it would lead to my becoming some “expert” on reality TV shows set in the South, although “Professor Swamp People” has a nice ring to it.  It began with the op-ed in the New York Times, which led to an interview about “hixploitation” for the Louisville Courier-Journal(KY) and similarly-related articles elsewhere.

Ernie Brown, Jr. a.k.a. "Turtleman," from "Call of the Wild Man" on Animal Planet

It may seem a huge leap to go from an analysis on the impact of Gone With the Wind to that of Swamp People, but from where I sit the purveyors of popular culture have, since the early nineteenth century, simply decided to emphasize what it believes to be the South’s cultural distinctiveness–whether or not it applies to the broader region.

And yet, therein lies the problem. So often nonsoutherners (including seasoned journalists) who don’t know the region’s history and have not spent time in the South, will often buy into those differences they find in popular culture. And as long as they do, I will continue to answer to the name “Professor Swamp People” when called.  Choot’em!!

“What about The Help?”

For the past several weeks, I have been traveling to promote the publication of my book Dreaming of Dixie—a study that explores representations of the South in popular culture up to World War II.  Still, even after explaining the book’s time frame, I am regularly asked “What about The Help?”  (One woman, more pointedly said “You didn’t even mention The Help!). In other words, what do I think of that book and its representations of the South?  The first time it happened, it took me off guard, because I had not read it (yes, it’s true). Instead, I was prepared to discuss the impact of Gone With the Wind.   So, I punted and happily recommended Rebecca Sharpless’s fine book Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens and suggested they read it if they wanted a more historically accurate portrait. 

The thing about novels and movies that deal in history is that they so often get it wrong.  Gone With the Wind was a good story, and so is The Help, but let’s not kid ourselves that either makes the best history.  And yet, the success of a book like The Help means that historians will have to clear up the mistakes made in both the book and the film for a long time to come. (See, for example: An Open Statement to the fans of The Help from the Association of Black Women Historians.)

Still, I was curious as to what some readers of Stockett’s novel had to say.  As I write, there are more than 4,800 reviews of the book on Amazon.com, the majority of which are positive.  However, there are 261 readers (none who identify as historians) who gave the book less than stellar reviews.  It is clear that they, too, are concerned—not only by historical inaccuracies, but also the ways in which the book perpetuates stereotypes, specifically through the use of dialect.  As one reader put it (and very well, I might add):

“The way she presents it, the black vernacular becomes both abhorrent and belittling, particularly in that throughout most of the novel, Stockett avoided the use of the southern white vernacular when telling the story in the voice of the two main white characters, ‘Miss’ Skeeter, and ‘Miss’ Hilly.”

This particular remark seemed all too familiar to me, as I had read a similar criticism about Gone With the Wind when it was published.  In 1944, Earl Conrad, a vocal critic of Jim Crow, referred to writers who used dialect as “neo-Confederates,” because they used it to infer inferiority.  He considered Margaret Mitchell one of the worst offenders, because while she employed black dialect she never once used the nuances of language to illustrate a white southern drawl.  That book was published in 1936.  Stockett’s book—2009.

Seven decades after the publication of Gone With the Wind, it seems that a novel set in the Jim Crow South could and should move beyond the use of dialect.  As Conrad suggested, such writing “Jim Crows” African Americans by relegating them to the status of second-class citizens.

And that’s the “what” about The Help.

Taragate–A Gone with the Wind Scandal? Not exactly.

If you were to drive south on I-77 and exit onto Arrowood Road in Charlotte, North Carolina, you would eventually run across a development called “Taragate Farms.”  I had no idea it existed until recently, when I was invited to have dinner at a home in the neighborhood.

At first, I didn’t think too much about the sign that sets out in front announcing one is entering “Taragate.”  However, as I followed directions on my Garmin I started noticing street names.  Driving down “Scarlett Circle” my eyes were alerted to themes of Gone with the Wind and the Old South. In the same neighborhood, just off of Scarlett Circle is “Rhett Court” and “Rice Planters Road.”  “Julep Lane” intersects with “Pitty Pat Court.”  “Antebellum Drive” is just off of “Johnny Reb Lane,” and “Sherman Drive” (appropriately) crosses over “O’Hara Drive.”

Well, of course, I had to investigate.  It turns out that sometime in the 1980s, Ryan Homes created Taragate and, hold on to your hoop skirts, “Twelve Oaks”–two neighboring housing developments in an area that is so far south of the city, one might call it the Deep South of Charlotte.

I have no idea to whom they were marketing these neighborhoods twenty-five years ago, but today the residents reflect a far more diverse population than one would expect to be living in a development with attachments to the Old South or Gone with the Wind.  Indeed, my dinner hosts were African American, and their neighbors were both white and Asian.

On the one hand I was impressed by the extended marketing reach of the novel and the film, such that in the 1980s developers wanted to “recreate” Tara and Twelve Oaks.  Yet,  I also wondered what my dinner hosts thought about it–you know, with references to plantations and all.  But while I was fascinated, they seemed unfazed.

Clearly, Gone with the Wind has lost some of its relevance, despite the big 75th anniversary celebrations of the book going on this year.  Today, however, neither the book nor the film does the kind of damage it once did to the progress of race relations in the United States, even though the portrayals of African Americans remain offensive.  Although people around the globe will be commemorating Margaret Mitchell’s tome on the Old South in 2011, at Taragate and Twelve Oaks there will be folks wondering what the fuss is all about.