The Prancing Elites: Navigating the Landscape of Love and Hate

The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama
The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama

When I moved to south Mississippi in 1991, I joined a diverse community of gay people.  One of the most fascinating individuals I ever encountered was a black man known throughout the community as Miss Bootnanny.  She stood 6′ 5″ tall and when I saw her, it was usually at the little gay bar in Hattiesburg called Le Bistro–affectionately known as the Cha Cha Palace or simply “the Cha Cha.”

Taken circa 2000.
Taken circa 2000.

The ‘Burg was not a large enough city to have segregated gay bars–by gender or race–so we ALL went to the Cha Cha. Miss Bootnanny’s story, the little bit I gathered, was that she had been a drum major at Jackson State University, that out of drag she worked for a local garden center, and on any day you might see her twirling her baton on a public street or in the parking lot of the Sunflower grocery store.

While I never actually saw Bootnanny during the day to confirm the latter, she left no doubt that she had once led a marching band and knew how to twirl batons.  Her talent extended to fire, as I learned when I watched in amazement as she twirled flaming machetes, an impressive talent, to say the least. On a “normal” weekend at the Cha Cha, though, she always made an entrance.

One night, it went like this:  I was standing around chatting with friends when all of a sudden there was a commotion and we all stopped to look, because Miss Bootnanny had arrived. In she walked, dressed in a sparkling, sequined onesie, carrying one of those flag corps flags. She marched her way around the entire bar hoisting it into the air like the Pied Piper of Fabulous, which she was. (Note: Currently seeking a photo of Miss Bootnanny to add to this piece.)

And yet, I know that her life could not have been easy despite those moments of pure joy. Growing up black in America is difficult enough. And while I have written elsewhere that gay acceptance can be found in the rural Deep South, I know very well that there are limitations–particularly when LGBT expressions are further complicated by race and evangelical religion. To say nothing of poverty.

Having one Miss Bootnanny in a small community makes her eccentric, one of “our own,” and “non-threatening.”  But when more than one come together, much less five, and demand to be seen, that’s another story entirely.

Enter the Prancing Elites–the subject of a new reality TV show currently airing on Oxygen.

prancingelites

The Prancing Elites Project follows a dance team made up of five openly-gay black men who live in Mobile, Alabama, and model themselves after the J-Settes–the all-female dance team that performs with the Jackson State University marching band. The Elites wear make-up and dress like the J-Settes, too.

The Prancing Elites live to dance–whether that’s in the stands while a marching band plays, being part of a parade (any parade), or performing for a New Year’s Eve party full of white folks. The latter has elicited some harsh criticism on YouTube, which makes one long for the voice of Langston Hughes to offer his critique of the ways of these white folks.

You may have also seen The Elites on America’s Got Talent or a talk show called The Real.  Yet in their new reality show on Oxygen, the realness is not just the love showered on the Prancing Elites from across the nation, a result of the media attention they’ve received.  It’s also the hateful responses from both black and white members of their local community and, in some cases, even close relatives.

And while they put on a brave face, and even regard their passion for dance and being openly gay as part of a longer tradition of southern civil rights, one can quickly discern that navigating this landscape of love and hate can be difficult for these young men to endure, as they must carry the added weight of being black and gay in a region that so often despises both.

When I watch the Prancing Elites, I have several reactions.

I fear for their safety.  I feel the pain of rejection of a  community that uses religion to justify its hate and disapproval.  And yet, I admire their courage to stand up to the bigotry of racists and homophobes.

I cheer them on in their bid to change the world for the better not by leaving the South, but by remaining here and trying to make a difference for those who want to follow in their dance steps. And I am buoyed by their confidence and the positive reactions they get from the same community.

I hope they squeeze all they can from the fame rollercoaster before the cameras go away and, in the process, help to make a better way for those like Miss Bootnanny who, all those years ago, simply wanted to be herself.

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RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7: All Hail the Southern Queens!

Ginger Minj, cross-dresser for Christ.
Ginger Minj, “cross-dresser for Christ” from Leesburg, Florida.

I’ve written about RuPaul’s Drag Race here before, exploring the fabulosity that drag queens from the South bring to the larger drag world.  Southern queens are pros at drag performance, because they’ve often had great role models in straight southern women who also love big hair, wear tons of makeup, and compete in pageants.

Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas.
Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas.

On this season’s Drag Race, there are two southern standouts–Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas, and Ginger Minj from Leesburg, Florida, who proudly proclaims that she’s a “cross-dresser for Christ” and recently told the Orlando Sentinel that she based Ginger on “strong, funny, outgoing churchwomen I spent my life around,” adding “She’s very Southern.”

Both are talented performers in their own right (Kennedy Davenport was a contestant on America’s Got Talent), but I live for the unadulterated comments they make during interviews out of drag. It’s very often the humor, or simply a turn of phrase, that fellow southerners who enjoy drag instinctively get.

I’m biased, but I believe the southern queens on RPDR are often the most talented, funniest, and polished.  Last year’s winner, Bianca Del Rio, hails from New Orleans.  One of the most popular contestants from the show has been Alyssa Edwards, also from Texas. And she didn’t even win the contest!

Regardless of who becomes the next Drag Superstar, we all win when southern queens are in the mix.

Note: All told, there are actually four southern queens. Violet Chachki, is from Atlanta but does not present herself as “southern.” Jaidynn Diore Fierce, is also on the show. She hails from Nashville, Tennessee.

 

For Whom The (Southern) Belle Tolls

The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland
The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland

It seems fitting that after posting a blog about pop culture’s southern gentleman that I should talk about his counterpart, the southern belle.  What follows is an edited version of an early blog I wrote for another site.

A few years ago TLC, the channel that still airs Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, brought us a show called Bama Belles.  It seems unlikely that “belle” is an appellation anyone would apply to women who don camouflage to hunt or are ready to start a bar fight. Still, the conscious decision by the show’s producers to make “belles” part of the show’s title offers an opportunity to consider the evolution of the term that is now used to describe the women on this show. (Update: Bama Belles was cancelled after only a few episodes.)

“Belle” was originally applied to white women of the southern planter class and a woman who was classified as such was as much a creation of antebellum sentimental literature as she was real.  During the nineteenth century, authors North and South placed her at the center of the plantation legend and idealized her as one who was as delicate as she was strong, and as feminine as she was a dominant figure of the plantation.  Novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, too, have made the southern belle central characters in their narratives.  The most famous of these was Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone with the Wind.  Scarlett, however, was more modern than her predecessors, which is one of the reasons women around the world found her appealing.

Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.
Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.

Mid-twentieth-century southern debutantes also donned the title of “belle.” No longer plantation mistresses, these belles were still members of the South’s white social elite. For its July 9, 1951 issue, Life magazine featured Charlotte, North Carolina, debutantes with the caption that they looked “as gracious as any ante-bellum belles,” a clear reference to their Old South antecedents.  Being a debutante or a pageant queen has often qualified southern women as belles, and no fewer than a dozen southern contestants were crowned Miss America between the 1950 and 1980, which in its own way helped to perpetuate the image of southern women as belles. Then, in the 1980s, debutante and pageant queen came together in Delta Burke’s portrayal of Suzanne Sugarbaker on television’s Designing Women.

Delta Burke's Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle
Delta Burke’s Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle

Over the last several years the term has been partially stripped of its “whites only” racial affiliation, illustrating how the term has evolved.  Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who referred to the students at Bennett College (a private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina) as “belles.”  Their student handbook is known as the “Bennett Belle Book,” their email is “Bellesmail,” and campus updates come in the form of “Belle Alerts.”  Admittedly, it was the first time I had heard the term applied to black women, but it made sense given the socially elite dimensions of the term.  It certainly applied to the fictional character Whitley Gilbert, an African American southern belle played by Jasmine Guy on the show A Different World (1987-1993) in a sitcom based on the fictional Hillman College.  The tradition of the black southern belle continues with the most recent addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, attorney Phaedra Parks.  She, too, is a self-proclaimed southern belle.  On the one hand she is modern in her approach to “belledom,” and yet she has more traditional belle credentials, such as her participation in beauty pageants and her membership in Atlanta’s Junior League.

Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.

Some folks might be surprised that men, too, can be belles. Throughout the South they exist in the form of female impersonators. In fact, there are numerous regional pageants whose competitions are just as fierce as those held for women.  I served as a guest judge for at least two such pageants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, including one for “Miss Dixie,” and can vouch for the seriousness of the contestants to offer their best impression of the southern belle.

The one feature of the southern belle that seems to have remained consistent over time—regardless of race, class, or gender—is that it is largely a social performance.

Given that, the belle clearly tolls for anyone who’s interested in the part.

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Faith and Conviction in Southern Appalachia: The Death of a Snake-Handling Pastor

Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Just this past weekend the news came down from the hills of Kentucky that Jamie Coots, the pastor of a snake-handling church in Middleboro, had died after a bite from a timber rattler while ministering to his church.  This is a scenario that has been repeated for generations in this small sect of Appalachian congregations, most of which exist in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. Yet what sets Coots’ death apart from the others is that he was the star of a popular series on the National Geographic Channel called “Snake Salvation.”

I admit to having my doubts about what National Geographic was up to when I first heard about the show.  I even wrote a blog in which I pondered about this being another retrograde reality show on the region.  I worried about the fact that the pastor’s last name was “Coots,” because I’m sensitive to the fact that people might poke fun at what they saw as a “hillbilly named ‘Coots.'”  I’m originally from Appalachia, so I know the cruelty that people bestow upon hill people.

So, I watched several episodes of “Snake Salvation.”  With a cynical eye at first. But my cynicism gave way to sincere interest and even appreciation. Because what I saw was a show that took seriously the faith and conviction of Jamie Coots and his family and of his protegé Andrew Hamblin, the pastor of another snake-handling church in nearby LaFollette,Tennessee. The series, I believe, helps viewers better understand their religious beliefs, which are similar to Pentecostal sects throughout the South, save one difference–the emphasis on Mark 16:18 on taking up serpents.  And unlike TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Coots and his family do not act like, nor have they been made to look like, buffoons.

Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Pastor Coots wanted the viewers of “Snake Salvation” to understand that, as people, they were more than about hunting and handling poisonous snakes. And while the show emphasizes that part of their faith, one also can surmise that these are people who love and care about one another and who have daily challenges beyond finding snakes for a church service. Theirs is a deep conviction, and while I personally do not hold their views about religion or snakes (or the role of women, for that matter), I can respect what makes us different. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

In the few days since his passing, people have cast harsh judgement on Pastor Coots, his family, and this sect in the most insensitive way imaginable. Read some of the comments on the NPR post about this story and you’ll see what I mean. They don’t bear repeating here.

National Geographic will air a tribute to Pastor Coots and I encourage you to watch it and consider what I’ve written here.  And if you are so moved, read Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.

The story of this man’s death should not lead people to judgement, but to a better understanding and respect for differences in faith.

“Party Down South” and “Southern Charm”: South Carolina’s Turn at Reality Television

When I first wrote about the South in reality television a few years ago, it seemed like a disturbing trend that would hopefully die a quick death. But no. Today, the reality shows that exploit the region have expanded from a trickle to a flood. And even within this genre of programming there are state “franchises,” so to speak, with Louisiana being the best example.  Nearly every state in the region has served as a backdrop for a reality-based show, but not all. South Carolina? It’s your turn.

Mark Sanford's declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.
Mark Sanford’s declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.

The state usually takes it on the chin for its conservative politics, or more pointedly, conservative politicians who draw the wrong kind of media attention. Think of former governor Mark Sanford’s tearful display of love for his mistress after he went “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.”  Or of Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Even the Democratic Party was put to shame when Alvin Green–an unemployed veteran indicted for showing pornographic pictures to a female student at USC–became the party’s candidate for Senate.  And on it goes.

This spring, however, South Carolina is being showcased in two new reality shows, making this a total of three for the Palmetto State. It is already the site of TLC’s Myrtle Manor, a show that covers the hijinks of people who live in a trailer park in Myrtle Beach. But, I digress. The new shows include CMT’s “Party Down South,” filmed in Murrells Inlet (near Myrtle Beach), and Bravo’s “Southern Charm,” featuring a group of poorly-behaved Charleston socialites, a show locals have condemned to no avail. Hint: there’s nothing charming about this bunch.

The cast of CMT's "Party Down South"
The cast of CMT’s “Party Down South”

“Southern Charm” will be out in a couple of months, but “Party Down South”  (PDS) has already cranked up.  The show is produced by SallyAnn Salsano, who is the “mastermind” behind MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and it does what MTV’s “Buckwild” couldn’t manage to do, which was to create a southern equivalent with characters like Snooki and the Situation.

The gist of the show is that the cast (most of whom hail from Deep South states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) is staying at a rented house near the beach, where they share bedrooms, go to bars nearly every night, get drunk (a lot), fight (this goes with drinking), have sex, eat meals together “like a family,” have a “job” by the marina, and show their collective asses. Sound familiar?

So what is southern about the show?  Essentially, the setting, the accents, colloquialisms (“pop a squat,” “cooter,” and “coon ass”) and some good ol’ redneck fun, which usually involves trucks and mud.

CMT has become the primary network for redneck television and “Party Down South” is one in a long line of shows that hit the same tired notes of southern-based reality television. The formula involves working-class southerners, in this case young ones, as imbeciles willing to do anything for a little cash and attention. Being on the show is likely going to be the biggest thing to ever happen to them, and producers know it.  No doubt there were several hundred “hopefuls” who wanted to be on the show.

The thing is, I knew people like this in high school.  Girls that drank too much and got into fights. Guys that would do anything for a laugh.  Many of my classmates may have found them amusing in the moment, but they also felt embarrassed for them. The difference today is that the cast of PDS may never be able to escape their immature past, because it is forever preserved on film and has been shared with millions.

The cast of Bravo's "Southern Charm."
The cast of Bravo’s “Southern Charm.”

CMT and SallyAnn Salsano are the real winners here, as the network may boost its youth demographic and Salsano her financial portfolio. The losers, of course, are South Carolina and this cast.

Bravo promises a different group of southerners in its series “Southern Charm,” but don’t expect much different from what’s on over at CMT.

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.