Southern Slayer: Beyoncé’s “Formation”

Unless you were living under a rock or don’t pay attention to such things, Beyoncé released a new song yesterday called “Formation.” The southern setting (New Orleans), Bey’s reference to her roots in the Deep South (Alabama and Louisiana), the entire song’s southernnass is all there, layer upon layer. Some call the song “gritty” and ask if Bey is an “activist.” And hashtags for days. #ISlay #sheslay #hotsauceswag and #RedLobster

As a southerner and a southernist I am excited by this song and video, but I can’t do it the justice it deserves.  So, I am relying on the rich voices of others–black and feminist–to break it down for you. About its message and meaning and layers and importance. It’s a pop culture moment for the South, but so much more.

Read Zandria Robinson’s thoughts on “Formation” on New South Negress and in Rolling Stone. Regina Bradley writes about it at Red Clay Scholar. Both Drs. Bradley and Robinson also appear in a piece about “Formation” on NPR. And from New Awlins, Dr. Yaba Blay on Colorlines.

Read Awesomely Luvvie’s post, too.  She’s a humorist, but she’s making some salient points, too.

And, by all means, watch this video:

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Bidding Adieu to Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

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Jefferson Davis Monument, New Orleans.

In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past.  Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.

But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.  Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”

According to the ordinance:

They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.

This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices.  It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.

Yet much of what the ordinance says is true.  Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors.  They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.

Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.
Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.

When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.”  These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag.  In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”

But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.

Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.

So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?

If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?

Others will see this as a historic preservation issue.  As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances.  Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.

In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits.  She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?”  Not an entire room full.

The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.

How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?

 

 

 

Me and Jeff Davis, Part III: The Baptism over the Coffin

The Davis Family, ca. 1885.  Margaret sits to the far left. Varina holds little Jefferson Hayes.
The Davis Family and unidentified servant, ca. 1885. Margaret sits to the far left. Varina holds little Jefferson Hayes. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Of the many bizarre stories about Jefferson Davis, the one about the renaming of his grandson takes the cake and gets a creep factor of 9 out of a possible 10.

The story of Davis’s death and subsequent funerals is made even more unusual by the reaction of the white South to the fact that once Davis died, there were no more direct descendents with the name Jefferson Davis. And this would not do. Junior died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. So responsibility for carrying on the name fell on the shoulders of little Jefferson Davis Hayes, the Confederate chieftain’s grandson by his daughter Margaret Howell Davis Hayes.

Margaret Howell Davis Hayes. Date unknown.
Margaret Howell Davis Hayes. Date unknown.

The story of his name change captured my attention, particularly when I read Margaret’s obituary, which described how the young boy “receiv[ed] the name in baptism over the coffin containing the body of President Davis.” Let me repeat. The name change occurred in a “baptism over the coffin” of the deceased Confederate president.

When Davis died in 1889, his body lay in state in New Orleans, and it was here that the name change was made. According to the account in the Confederate Veteran, Margaret Hayes “begged” Mississippi’s Governor Robert Lowry and other state officials to legalize the name change of her five-year old son to honor the Confederate president and preserve the name Jefferson Davis by changing his name from “Jefferson Davis Hayes” to “Jefferson Hayes Davis.” “The child was sent for,” the author wrote, “and the Governor, taking him on his knee, explained in simple language what he wished done.” The account suggests that little Jefferson understood what was being asked of him and, after a moment of silence, “burst into tears” and told the Governor “I specs I’ll dess have to be named for my poor dead dranpa, who isn’t dot anybody at all named for him.”

Jefferson Davis Hayes
Jefferson Davis Hayes

What followed in this retelling reveals some of the more macabre aspects of the Lost Cause, as Governor Lowry took the young boy into his arms, and walked over to the “dead chieftain.” He then lifted the Confederate flag that draped the coffin and proceeded to swaddle the child with it before making his pronouncement: “I name you ‘Jefferson Davis.’” And, soon after, the State of Mississippi followed through on its promise to confirm the name change, doing so by an act of the state legislature.

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

In part IV of the serial “Me and Jeff Davis,” I’ll discuss the significance of Confederate hair.  Yes, hair.

Portraits of Aunt Jemima in Black and Blackface

Aunt-JemimaOne of the most iconic advertising images of the twentieth century is Aunt Jemima, and recently the heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington, just two of the women whose portraits were used as the “face” of the brand, are suing Quaker Oats for $2 billion and future revenues, claiming that not only did Green and Harrington portray Aunt Jemima, they were influential in shaping the recipe.  Attorneys for Quaker Oats are saying “hold on a minute,” Aunt Jemima might be the brand, but she was “never real.”

Yes and no.

The “biography” of Aunt Jemima was the creation of the J. Walter Thompson Agency based in New York. More specifically, it was the creation of James Webb Young, a native of Covington, Kentucky.  According to internal documents of the agency, the story of Aunt Jemima was that she came from Louisiana.  So, yes, the story is a creation.

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Portrait of Nancy Green by Arthur Burdette Frost.

Yet it is also true that Nancy Green, then a Chicago domestic, portrayed “Aunt Jemima” at the 1893 World’s Fair and made a career of doing so for nearly twenty years after the fair. More to the point, Green’s face was, in fact, the first image of Aunt Jemima to appear on the pancake box.  The Thompson Agency hired Arthur Burdette Frost, better known for his illustrations of Uncle Remus tales, to paint Green’s portrait.

If she contributed to the recipe, we may never know, but we do know that white women often took their maids’ recipes and passed them off as their own, a tradition that even Paula Deen maintained when she co-opted recipes from Dora Charles, a black woman who had worked in Deen’s Savannah restaurant for years.

It is true that several black women portrayed Aunt Jemima at various state fairs during the early decades of the twentieth century. They greatly assisted the brand by lending an authenticity to the product as being a particularly “southern” recipe.  This was in keeping with the character created by the Thompson Agency, whose story was that Aunt Jemima had been a slave and that she created the recipe that brought her such fame that it caused jealousy among other mammies.

But on radio, it was a different story. In a short program called Aunt Jemima Radio, which ran from 1930 to about 1942, she was portayed by several white women who were essentially doing a radio minstrel act. One of those women was Tess Gardella, an Italian-American actress from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Gardella had played “Queenie” in the stage version of Show Boat, and she parlayed that experience into performing as Aunt Jemima on the radio. She also played Aunt Jemima in a film short.  It is even on her gravestone.

Gardella's gravestone
Gardella’s gravestone
Tess Gardella as Aunt Jemima, early 1930s

Tess Gardella is also interesting because she filed a lawsuit against NBC for allowing an “imposter to broadcast as ‘Aunt Jemima,’ when as a matter of fact she [Gardella] had been using that name for years on stage and air.”  The actress further claimed that she had the right to use the name “by virtue of authority from the Quaker Oats Company.”  She won her lawsuit and nearly $116,000 in damages.

The heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington may have a difficult time in the courts because, unlike Gardella, they did not have a contract.  Still, their lawsuit brings into sharp relief the ways American companies have profited by using images of African Americans to brand their products.

*Some of the ideas expressed in this post are drawn from Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011), 40-41.

 

Freedom of Speech? Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson quacks about homosexuals and “the blacks”

Phil Robertson from A&E's Duck Dynasty
Phil Robertson from A&E’s Duck Dynasty

Duck Dynasty, the enormously popular reality television program produced by A&E, is under fire thanks to some eye-opening statements made by Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, in an interview with GQ magazine.  That’s Gentleman’s Quarterly, in case you were wondering.  And, the comments weren’t so, shall we say, gentlemanly.

Essentially, Daddy Duck equated homosexuality with being one train stop short of bestiality.  And, he seems to believe that “the blacks” who worked for white farmers in his home state of Louisiana were “happy,” going so far as to say “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” (from “The Gospel According to Phil,” GQ Blog, December 18, 2013).  Since Robertson quacked the truth, he’s been suspended indefinitely from the show.

No one should be surprised by this and it was just a matter of time before we were going to hear it, if not from Phil, then perhaps one of his sons.  We can expect religious conservatives to make negative comments about gays.  We can also expect a white southerner of Phil’s generation to refer to African Americans as “the blacks,” as though they are a separate species.  In that regard, he has something in common with Paula Deen.

Yet the focus has been on his statements about homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups like The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have been been quick to call Robertson out for what it says are “anti-Christian” views. That’s red meat for conservatives, who have jumped to his defense saying that liberals are “hysterical” (Rush Limbaugh), or “intolerants” (Sarah Palin), and that Phil was just expressing his First Amendment Rights (Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal).

No one seems to have taken much issue with A&E who has crafted a statement distancing itself from Robertson’s remarks.  Yet producers knew.  Robertson was quoted in the GQ article as saying “we’re bible thumpers who just happened to end up on television.”  The network understood this going into its contract (and re-negotiations) with the beards.  And anyone paying attention knows that the more popular Duck Dynasty has become, the more free the family has been about sharing its conservative values and, in Phil’s case, strict interpretation of the bible.

For what it’s worth, I believe that Phil Robertson has a right to his opinions and his beliefs. The problem, of course, is that he’s on an enormously popular television show with millions of viewers over whom he has tremendous influence.  And while he has since given a statement “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” what he fails to realize is that there are people who are fans of the show who would disrespect others.  Or worse.  And therein lies the problem.

Perhaps the profits for A&E have outweighed the risks. The network has certainly been down this path before with Dog the Bounty Hunter.  Remember him? People may have forgotten that Dog was recorded using the “n-word” and not too long after, A&E cancelled the show.  It may come to this, much to the chagrin of Duck Dynasty fans, but for now it will be played out as a culture war cast by conservatives as a battle royale between “defenders of free speech” and the “Gay Mafia.”

Let’s all grab some popcorn.

Duck Dynasty: Those Beards are Nobody’s Fool

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Image credit: A&E Television

The guys with the beards are back.  On reality television that is.  Duck Dynasty’s new season premiered last night and its legions of fans tuned in to see the latest happenings in the Robertson family, especially those of the hirsute men of the clan.

Duck Dynasty has become the most successful of the reality shows set in the South.  It’s part of what I like to call the “Louisiana genre” of reality TV that includes other successful show like Swamp People and Billy the Exterminator.  Though let’s not forget the lesser known Cajun Pawn or Cajun Justice.

What makes Duck Dynasty different, for me at least, is that the guys with beards are nobody’s fool.  So much of southern-based reality TV seems geared toward stereotyping people from the region.  Very often they are placed in ridiculous situations for comedic effect and their speech is accompanied by subtitles. This is most famously the case with the Thompson Family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  Not so with Duck Dynasty.

One gets the impression that Willie and the boys are very much in control of their show and while there’s humor, it’s the kind where we can laugh with them and not at them.  Uncle Si might be the one in the family who’s picked on, but “hey,” he and the rest are in on the joke.  Moreover, the show about these self-made millionaires, whose company Duck Commander makes duck calls among other products, seems more like a strategic move on the family’s part to further their brand.  And it’s worked like a charm.

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Uncle Si Robertson and his catch phrase on a T-Shirt

Now the brand includes the show itself.  The success of Duck Dynasty has resulted in sales of all sorts of items that have less to do with duck calls and more to do with the family’s keen marketing sense.  Products range from bobble heads of father Phil and his sons Willie and Jase to shirts and coffee mugs with Phil’s saying “Happy, Happy, Happy,” to images of Uncle Si and his catch phrase “Hey!” printed on t-shirts. The Robertson women are also in on the boondoggle with products of their own.

One of the reasons I enjoy the show is that I can see that the Robertsons are very grounded, self-aware, and clearly wise to the ways of the world.  When their fame dissipates, they will still be doing well financially.  Unfortunately, this is the exception to the rule when it comes to southern-based reality TV.  True, many of those stars may temporarily be enjoying some windfall, but they are not as savvy as the beards.  And that’s too bad.