"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Freedmen and South Carolina Trailers– All Thanks to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman

I have been living in Seabrook, South Carolina for two months and have noticed that there are more trailers here than any other place I have visited in the South.  Double-wides, triple-wides; ramshackle, beat-up, mold-stained single-wides on cinder blocks or gussied up with geraniums on the windowsills.  Everybody here in the Low Country seems to live in a trailer.  There are single trailers on large lots, multiple trailers on small lots, trailers on marshes, creeks, and Interstates.

There is such a thing in the Low Country called Heir Rights which dates back to the Civil War. Sherman took no pity on the whites who started it all at Fort Sumter, and burned and ravaged his way through the state; but he felt that former slaves deserved consideration.  Forty Acres and a Mule was never followed to the letter, but he did parcel out former plantation land to freed blacks, and their descendants are still living on land granted to their ancestors over 150 years ago – in trailers on the flat lowlands from Savannah to Charleston.

It makes perfect sense if you are a distant cousin of Mabel Washington of Seabrook, SC to buy a used trailer, plunk it down on the Washington Family Heirs Rights land, pay few or no taxes, and live simply but well.  The legal status of these plots is so complicated; wills and contracts so rare that most trailer-ites fly under official radar.

When we first settled in to our vacation rental overlooking the marshes of McCalley Creek we were a bit unsettled by the trailers at either end of the lane, and by the double-wides up and down Stuart Point Road.  Coming from Northwest Washington, DC we were used to a residential uniformity.  White people to the West of the Park, black people to the East.  Pukka white frame or colonial brick housing in Ward 3, nasty row housing in Ward 8.  

Columbus, Mississippi is a small city in the northeast part of the state not far from the Alabama state line.  It has enough classic antebellum houses to be on the ‘Pilgrimage’ circuit, and although struggling economically like many cities in the South, is holding its own thanks to an Air Base, a small state university, and an enterprising community college. Interested in a possible move there, we were taken around the city by a real estate agent who showed us a number of houses which fit our bill – old Victorian or antebellum residences with gardens, trellises, flowered walkways, and a certain Southern charm and gentility.

Each of them, however, was around the corner from some very sketchy-looking blocks.  Not Anacostia slums by any means, but still rundown areas with broken tricycles on the porch, ripped awnings, scruffy brown lawns, plastic-sheeted windows, and potholed driveways.  At each house shown to us by the realtor we remarked how nice the house was but how – and here we struggled for words – the neighborhood was, well, undesirable.  Finally, she shrugged and said, “This is the South, honey.  Get used to it”.

After a few weeks, I realized that living in trailer-town was not unusual at all.  After a few weeks I was waving to Mr. Thomas who walked the perimeter of his quarter acre of Heirs Rights land every morning, stopping to chat with Amos Andrews and his three cousins drinking beer under the cypress tree behind the trailers of his two aunts, and hailing the bandanna-ed lady in gypsy skirts who traipsed up and down the road between the creek and the elementary school.

I was living a part of American history.  Messrs. Andrews and Thomas were descendants of slaves freed by General William Tecumseh Sherman, my hero, the Nietzschean Superman who slashed and burned his way through Georgia and South Carolina to punish the first rebels in fiery retribution and vengeance.  Sherman was a Biblical giant, burning and wasting, bringing the enemy and their families to their knees in supplication.  He took pity, however, on the slaves who had endured the whip of Southern apostates, faux-genteel aristocrats, and weak and craven overseers.

At the same time, I missed the collegiality of my peers – Sunday morning coffee at Le Pain Quotidien, drinks at The Willard, sushi at Makoto, and brunch at the Four Seasons.  I was getting bored looking out at the marshes of McCalley Creek and waving to my black neighbors on the way to town.

I was living in a diverse, racially integrated, economically heterogeneous neighborhood, rich with American history, and I was bored silly.  America is full of cultural accidents and surprises; and my living tooth-by-jowl with black Southern ex-slaves was certainly one; but it was a parallel experience, not an integrated one. 

Chekhov wrote extensively about the contrasts among the sophisticated urban intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie, and the peasantry. Wealthy Muscovites longed for a pastoral life, its simplicity, its proximity to nature, and its quiet beauty.  At the same time these sophisticates found that the life of the peasantry was brutal, harsh, and unremittingly poor.  Peasants got drunk, picked their noses, and slept with their animals. There was no such thing as social, cultural, or natural harmony.  Although boredom was the by-product of familiarity, one was always better off sticking to one’s own kind.

I have friends who upon retiring sold their houses, gave away their dogs, and moved to Santa Fe.  They left the nettling diversity of Washington to live within the perfectly homogenous upper middle-class community of the Southwest.  They would go to concerts performed by local musicians, support Saturday markets, art fairs, and literary festivals.  The weather would be moderate and uniform as would be their lives.

Chekhov felt that the real tragedy of Russian lives was their inability to leave the comfortable worlds of their upbringing.  Masha, Irina, and Olga of Three Sisters were unable to accept that society was changing.  The aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and peasantry were not longer static positions, but were being dismantled, reorganized, and revolutionized, and they were ill-equipped to adjust to the changes.

One must fight against complacency, he wrote, and work for a better, more egalitarian, and promising future.  At the same time he never criticized those who were left behind, who were unable to keep up with the rapid changes happening around them.  In fact he wrote appreciatively of those who embraced the arts, literature, and philosophy.

One of Chekhov’s best short stories is The Man in a Case, a story about a man who wrapped himself and everything around him in a protective sheath.  Even his pen had a cover, and he slept with the blankets over his head. He was afraid of the surprising, unexpected, and different; and became more and more afraid to leave the confines of his predictable home.  Friends tried to entice him out of his familiar corner, encouraging him to socialize and to marry.  Such attempts were not only in vain, but intolerably invasive.  The outside, unpredictable world was perilous, frightening, and unnecessary.

Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, courageously tries to leave her secure fantasy world to meet her gentleman caller, but is mortally disappointed and retreats to her glass world.  Amanda in Summer and Smoke finally escapes the domineering influence of her minister father, but finds that her world of idyllic love is an illusion and turns to a life of prostitution.   Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire can never escape the conflict between The Harlot and The Cavalier as Williams described the dilemma, and goes mad.

‘Diversity’ is as an illusory a concept for us today as Belle Reve or Mississippi for Williams’ heroines was. We are fascinated by ethnic, racial, cultural, and socio-economic difference because it tantalizes us, gives us the hope of enlivening our routine, predictable worlds.  Diversity adds luster to monochromatic lives. Yet none of us is capable, let alone willing, to make the leap, jump the arc, or cross the line.

I don’t mind living with trailers across the street as long as I can have Shakespeare at the local theatre, gros grain salt and foie gras in the market, and debates about being and nothingness at the local branch of the university.

I have spent my whole life looking for the perfect balance between Chekhov and trailers and have never found it. The closest I have come is Columbus, Mississippi – a small town in a state often vilified by Northerners. “How could you live down there?”, I have been insistently asked.  I was going into the maw of the beast, the mother lode of evil.  I was a traitor to liberalism, enlightenment, and justice.

Columbus seems to have accepted its white Southern history and its post-War racial unrest. There are white blocks and black blocks, white neighborhoods and black, but it only takes minutes to cross the color line.  The South has managed somehow to deal with race far better than the North.  There are no marginalized, dysfunctional Anacostias in Columbus, nor in Seabrook, South Carolina.  Poor, often desperate neighborhoods, yes; but not far from view.

I have gotten used to the trailers on Stuart Point Road and no longer find them threatening or intimidating.  They are part of the Low Country landscape.  Part of Sherman’s legacy. 

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