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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American Roadside: The Mammy of Natchez

Mammy's Cupboard is located on Highway 61 on the outskirts of Natchez, MS
Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, MS

mammyhead

Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town.  For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.

Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store.  It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.

Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.

White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning.  By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country.  She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach.  For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.

Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s.  In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:

Weston
Edward Weston’s photo, 1941.

“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place.  My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning.  Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate.  Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”

In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.

mammypostcard
Postcard, 2013

Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark.  It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What do Boy George and Mississippi in 1870 have in common?

As I sang and danced to the 1983 Culture Club hit “Karma Chameleon,” I was completely unaware of the Pop South associations that I would totally get today if the song were new.  Recently, I watched the YouTube clip of the music video “Karma Chameleon” and was astounded when I saw “Mississippi–1870″ claimed as the video’s setting.  Clearly, I hadn’t paid attention when it was shown on MTV. That is, when MTV really meant “music television.”

Filmed in Weybridge, England, the video features blacks and whites dancing together (not possible in 1870s Mississippi) dressed in all manner of costumes that are not necessarily of the period. The Chameleon, in this case, was a Mississippi gambling boat souped up to look like a nineteenth-century steamboat. Of course, Boy George looks like he always did, like Boy George–in makeup, colorful clothes, braids,and his signature hat. About the only thing reminiscent of the South might be the harmonica riffs, yet even those are far from bluesy.

It’s just a small reminder that what passes as “southern” has long been a favorite trope for the producers of popular culture.  It was also fun to watch again.

Republican Candidates in the South: A Confederacy of Dunces. So, too, MSNBC’s Martin Bashir & Co.

Oh, for goodness sake!  The Republican candidates for president went South and the next thing you know Mitt Romney touted “cheesy grits” and practiced saying “ya’ll,” and Rick Santorum adopted a hick accent and told people “I got kin here in Mississippi.  I’m not sure. . . (don’t say “what I think about it!”). . .I’m very proud of it.”  Shew!  That was a close one.

I think that Kathleen Parker hit the nail on the head in her opinion piece in the Washington Post that southerners deserve better from their candidates.  The one thing that she missed, however, is that Santorum, Romney, and even Newt Gingrich aren’t speaking to black southerners (or Latinos who represent the fasting growing population in the South) AT ALL.

What made it worse, for me at least, was how MSNBC covered the Republican campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama–particularly Martin Bashir and company–as they chuckled their way through a discussion of the candidates.  Believe me, there is a lot to chuckle about when you hear the gems that fall from Romney’s mouth, but that shouldn’t let Bashir off the hook.  His show began with the banjo theme song from Deliverance followed by his opening statement “Oh, my goodness, it is a deep fried primary day down in Dixie.” Really? Hush yo’ mouth!  And then, between the graphic about Good Ol’ Boys (with the faces of Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich superimposed over a former Dukes of Hazzard logo), describing the Deep South as the “Cracker Barrel circuit” and then pondering what will happen “down in Faulkner country,”  Bashir did as much to perpetuate an image of the South as moonshine-swilling, varmint-eating, backward region as did the candidates themselves.   In sum, the national media is often no better than the candidates themselves in understanding the complexities of the South and the people who live here.

And this is what we are in for people, when the Democratic National Convention comes to Charlotte.  Because the media pundits, who are supposed to be “informed,”  will be looking for what makes this a southern city, and will likely miss what makes it as American as apple pie.