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.
Immigration from Mexico is very relevant to our understanding of the contemporary American South. It’s also been a political hot potato. To help us understand the history of Mexican immigration to our region, Pop South talks with historian Julie M. Weise, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon, about her new book Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910.
PS: For general readers, why does your book begin in 1910?
Mexican-origin people have been a significant part of U.S. history since 1848, when the United States took what is now the U.S. Southwest from Mexico and made those who were living there into U.S. citizens. But 1910 is when the major narrative of Mexican American history shifts from conquest to immigration. The Mexican Revolution began that year, and the upheavals it caused kicked off the first major wave of cross-border migration; this only quickened due to demand for Mexican labor during World War One and the Roaring ’20s. Most people think of this migration having gone only to the Southwest; scholars have explored it also for the Midwest. But when one looks back to sources written at the time, it becomes clear that Mexican migrants were really everywhere in the U.S. during the 1920s — from Alaska to Pennsylvania, and indeed, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. These latter migrations are the subjects of my book’s early chapters.
PS: How has the culture of Mexicanos added to the culture of the American South?
The influence of Mexicano culture on Southern culture has, at least until recently, been experienced at the very local level, and at times has even been deliberately hidden; this is part of why it has taken so long for their story to be told by historians. Mississippi’s signature Hot Tamales were most likely first brought there by the thousands of Mexicanos who lived and worked in the Delta in the 1920s-30s; yet, those Mexicano descendants who remained in the Delta deliberately assimilated into the white side of the color line and seldom acknowledged, let alone celebrated, their Mexican heritage. So until recently, the tamales were not closely associated with their original purveyors. Across the river, black and white people who lived in the Arkansas Delta in the 1950s –many still alive today– have vivid memories of the exciting cosmopolitan influence that Mexican workers brought to their small towns during that decade.
PS: What makes the experience of Mexicanos in the South similar/different from other regions of the United States?
During the Jim Crow period, Mexicanos struggled economically everywhere that they worked as low-wage, mostly-rural laborers; the South often provided them a bit more economic mobility than elsewhere but at other times, their economic conditions there were worse. However, the limits placed on Mexicanos’ life chances specifically by race were much less significant in the South than in the Southwest. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) was interpreted by courts to guarantee Mexicans’ legal classification as white, but Southwestern locations like Texas and California found workarounds and still solidified Jim Crow exclusion of Mexicanos from the privileges of whiteness.
By contrast, Mexicanos were oppressed by a distinctly non-white racialization in early 1920s Mississippi, but by the 1930s had successfully challenged that status and eventually assimilated onto the white side of the color line. Interwar New Orleans is perhaps best compared to Chicago or Los Angeles, urban locations that also had growing black and European immigrant populations in that period. My research shows that New Orleans is unique among these cities, the only place historians have yet uncovered where Mexicanos’ racial experiences were much closer to those of European immigrants (not just off-white Italians and Jews but even German and French immigrants) as opposed to their Mexicano counterparts elsewhere.
PS: In the current debate over immigration, there is tough talk about building a wall on the southern border of the U.S. to keep Mexicans out. Historically, how has the U.S. South evolved in its thinking about Mexican immigration to where it now includes support for a wall?
From the 1960s-90s, Mexicanos became an important rhetorical symbol for white conservatives in Southern agricultural towns. Mexicanos came to be seen as a not-black minority with whom white conservatives and Evangelicals could “build bridges” across race lines without directly confronting slavery and Jim Crow. This was an opportunity to make amends for their opposition to civil rights for blacks, while at the same time having a convenient foil with which to criticize blacks’ work ethic. In that sense, the growing population of Mexicanos in conservative parts of the South shaped particular local cultures of pro-immigrant conservatism, which defied (and often butted heads with) national trends in anti-immigrant politics during the late twentieth century. For example, local white conservative legislators would regularly do everything they could to prevent immigration enforcement, and white Evangelicals invested disproportionately generous resources ministering to Mexicanos as opposed to white or black poor people in their communities.
Paradoxically, the South’s integration into the nation, and the adoption of California-generated images of Mexicanos as unworthy consumers of whites’ tax dollars, has made local conditions and policies progressively harsher for the South’s Mexicanos since about 2005. These movements have been based more commonly in the region’s least “Southern” spaces–suburbs and exurbs–rather than its traditional rural areas, though that may be changing as we speak thanks to forces unleashed by the campaign of Donald Trump. While some say the Southernization of U.S. politics accounts for its rightward turn in the 1980s, it’s the Westernization of Southern politics that accounts for the South’s recent turn to the right on immigration.
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Writing Corazón de Dixie while teaching courses on global migration, I began to notice intriguing parallels between the ideas of Mexican workers and their government officials about what migration was supposed to accomplish for Mexican men in postwar Arkansas, and the ideas about migration held by migrants (Spanish, Italian, and Turkish among others) who worked in northern Europe, particularly Germany, during the same period. I am excited to be now learning German and perfecting my French so that I can study the ways these discourses moved across the Atlantic, and perhaps the Pacific as well, in the postwar period.
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.”
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.
The Prancing Elites Projectfollows 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.
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.
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.
Since 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Richmond, Virginia, has hosted an annual ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.” The event, held each June, commemorates the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is the one time each year that the UDC opens its doors to the public, and in my many research trips to the city, I was told that it would be interesting for me to attend this event.
In 2000, my curiosity led me to Richmond to find out what massing of the flags–Confederate style–meant. As I approached the headquarters I saw men in reproduction Confederate uniforms and women in dresses that cascaded over hoop skirts. It was a sign of things to come.
Entering the building, one walks into the large central room where the ceremony is held. Stretching along the wall directly opposite the entrance is a row of chairs, reminiscent of Masonic chairs, which at one time likely hosted the officers of the Daughters’ general organization. Above the chairs on the wall is the UDC motto “Think, Love, Pray, Dare, Live” represented on a five-pointed star with a cotton boll at the center.
I took a seat on the right side of the aisle and waited for the day’s activities to begin. Leading the audience in prayer, the minister did what Lost Cause devotees of a century earlier had done—paid homage to Jefferson Davis by likening his sacrifices for the South to those of Christ for humanity. Another speaker led the crowd in a rousing rebel yell, followed by the singing of “Dixie.” The day’s speech, like every year’s ceremony, focused on some aspect of Davis’s life and career. Then, I learned about massing flags.
State by state (not all of which we know to be Confederate, like California) was represented by a man and woman dressed in period attire. The man carried the state’s flag, as commentary about the state’s sacrifices, commitment to, or sympathy with the Confederate cause was read aloud.
Chests swelled with pride and the ceremony was observed by many others dressed in period attire, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs as the parade of flags passed by. Lest you think this was a ceremony of the aged, the Children of the Confederacy (the UDC’s official youth auxiliary) was also represented, just as in commemorations past.
This particular commemoration was marked with a speech by June Murray Wells, then president-general of the entire UDC organization. A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Wells’ presence at that year’s massing came on the heels of the fight over the Confederate battle flag that flew atop the South Carolina State House in Columbia, which was subsequently removed.
In her speech recounting the year’s battles, however, Murray stayed true to Lost Cause form and painted the eventual outcome as a moral victory for Confederate organizations. She noted with pride that the flag, no longer flying out of view on top of the capitol, now appeared more visible to the state’s citizens, as it waved from a thirty-foot flagpole that stood directly in front of the building. “The pole is lit at night,” she told the enthusiastic crowd, and, she chuckled “should anyone try to remove the flag, it has an electric charge.”
That day Jefferson Davis’s birthday was marked in true Lost Cause fashion. A man who was a white supremacist was honored through modern day racist rhetoric. The NAACP, whose members Wells referred to as “that crowd,” and its boycott of South Carolina was, for those gathered to honor Davis, about “us” versus “them,” of white versus black.
And in their minds, the Confederate forces had won.
In Part VI of Me and Jeff Davis, I’ll talk about living on Jefferson Davis Highway.
One 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.
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.
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.
Q: You aim to explore “where Southern food ends and soul food begins.” What’s the difference between the two?
A: Inside the South, the distinctions between the two are so subtle that it almost seems meaningless. In my experience, black Southerners are just as quick to call soul food “home cooking” or “country cooking.” I found that the Southern diet, particularly after the Civil War, is demarcated more by class than race. In other words, blacks and whites of a similar socioeconomic background pretty much eat the same foods. That said, I find that soul food dishes tend to have more intensity than their counterparts in Southern cuisine. They’re sweeter, more highly spiced and tend to have a higher fat content—all the things that one would expect from a cuisine using a lot of bland starches and lesser cuts of meat. Then there are the differences in preparation. Soul food joints and home cooks tend to have more bone-in meat selections (neckbones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) and hardcore offerings like chitlins.
Q: You’ve structured your book around the dishes that might be found in a typical soul food meal. Was it difficult to select what to include?
A: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard, especially after I did my national soul food tour. Once one gets out of the American South, the soul food offerings at restaurants are pretty uniform. I thought long and hard about okra. It’s such an iconic food item, but I just didn’t see it on many soul food menus in the North and West even though fried okra is popping up at many more mainstream restaurants as a standard appetizer. It’s been more challenging to tell people what makes up my representative meal. As much as I say that I endeavored to describe a general meal that a soul foodie might eat at any time and at any place in the world, they think I’m whacked because I didn’t include their family favorite. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see a trail of smothered neckbones across the country.
Q: Who are two or three of the most important figures associated with soul food?
A: If you’re expecting me to name a famous chef or TV personality, it’s a no-go with soul food. There really isn’t a Julia Child for soul food. I’m tempted to say Edna Lewis, but she was adamant that her cooking was Southern and not soul food. There are some notable figures out of New Orleans like Leah Chase and Austin Leslie, but I think Creole cuisine is different than soul food. The only person who comes close to being a soul food icon is the recently departed Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Thanks to her business savvy, New Yorkers and tourists from around the world have made her cooking synonymous with soul. Otherwise, soul food’s most important figures are the cooks who carried on culinary traditions by making Sunday dinner and holiday meals for their loved ones time and time again.
Q: Why are red drinks such an important component of a soul food meal?
A: Throughout our history, African Americans have made red drinks the beverage of choice for social occasions, especially big communal gatherings. There are some popular red drinks in West Africa such as bissap (known as hibiscus tea and agua de Jamaica in the U.S.), and some in the United States such as red lemonade and red soda pop. In present times, it’s hard to imagine a soul food meal without a red drink, whether it be a powdered drink, a punch, or a carbonated beverage. Walk into any soul food joint or fast food place with a primarily black clientele and you’re going to get offered a red drink. I know this is controversial, but I think that red Kool-Aid is soul food’s official drink.
Q: Are you optimistic about soul food’s future—both among home cooks and as a chef-driven cuisine?
A: I am optimistic! There’s so much interest in food now. I know a lot of people who are into watching cooking shows on television even though they will never actually cook. What’s gratifying is that more and more people are in search of and eager to explore bizarre foods, comfort foods, healthy foods, regional foods, unusual foods, and vintage foods. Soul food has all of those elements! I think this interest will move people to cooking instead of just watching TV and visiting a restaurant. The irony is that unless soul food’s stigma can be mitigated, culinary adventurers of all types may end up discovering more about what soul food has to offer than African Americans.
(Interview courtesy of Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2013.)