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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Prejudice And The Cotton Plant

When I was eight years old a patient of my father’s and a family friend who had moved to Texas sent me a cotton plant.  It was one cotton boll on a brown, dried stem with a few shiny black seeds caught in the fibers.  “This”, said my father, “is what your shirt is made of”.

How could that be, I wondered.  I knew that everything was made from something else, and I knew that clothes were made from sheep’s wool, silkworm thread, and flax. But,I had never thought of cotton growing, let alone in delicate white blossoms.  Or was this a blossom? Or a leftover, a dried flower on a huge plant that had been missed by the cotton gin? But if it was a flower, then where were the petals? My mother always had bouquets of dried flowers over the kitchen sink – blue thistles, purple lavender, and marigolds; but although they were dried and long-ago picked, they were bright and colorful.  They were still flowers; but this was not an old, dried flower but more like a cat-o’-nine tails that had burst.  The cat-o’-nine tails wasn’t a flower either, so cotton must be more like a marsh reed, and when the seed pod bursts, the cotton comes out like out like butterflies out of a cocoon.

I kept the cotton plant for years, long after I read about King Cotton and saw pictures of the cotton plantations in the Delta, long after I had learned about slavery and the Civil War, the Three-Cornered Trade, the Cavaliers, Southern gentility, and antebellum manor houses in Columbus, Eutaw, and Greenwood.

When I was ten my family took our first trip to Florida, an overnight train to Miami. I couldn’t sleep and thought that the white sand of the Georgia pines was cotton, vast fields of white cotton bolls.

I still remember that first trip – no cotton but warm air, orange blossoms, palm trees and saw grass – and knew that the South was different, far different from the cold, snow, and grey of New England.  I could smell flowers, salt air, and the rich, black soil.  Like the cotton plant that arrived in an old brown box, I had never imagined that there really could be orange groves, palmettos, and flat swampy plains.

Ten years ago, I decided to return to the South and mapped out a road trip that would take us from Memphis to Natchez and all the small towns of the Mississippi Delta between.  We drove through cotton fields that extended for what seemed to be miles in every direction, expanses of uninterrupted white fields.  Everywhere there was a scent of earth and the rich black alluvial soil. I had seen acres of yellow mustard plants in Bangladesh, miles of green rice plantations in Indonesia, fields of lavender in Northern California, acres of clover in Montana, rivers so thick with water hyacinths that even the Congo and Zambezi could only be imagined like the mythical Saraswati which joins the Ganges and the Yumana in Allahabad. But I had never seen endless white stretching to the horizon.

At the first cotton field near Indianola, I stopped to pick a plant, one that was identical to the one sent to me as a boy by Mrs. Helander.

Before taking my first trip to Mississippi, I was warned that I shouldn’t go there. I would be affirming and endorsing a racist, retrograde, unreconstructed, and unremittingly evil place.  I would be abandoning all my liberal ideals.  I would be going into the maw of the beast that Northerners had fought for 150 years.  How could I?

When I returned with tales of cotton fields, elegant antebellum mansions, and a welcoming and hospitable South, I was told that I had been duped.  I had been taken in by a revisionist view of history.  It was unconscionable that I could have stayed in the homes of slave owners, picked souvenir cotton from fields where blood had been shed, and walked the streets of Selma, Birmingham, and Greenwood.  I was a moral renegade, a turncoat, and a traitor.

At my office I was told to remove my cotton plant because it was offensive – an aggressive, thinly-veiled racist statement.  My credentials were suddenly suspect, my moral rectitude challenged.  My principles and liberal convictions questioned.  How could I have been so insensitive?

It was then that I realized that real, deep-seated prejudice is more at home in the North than the South.  Of course the lingering resentment of what Southerners call ‘The War of Northern Aggression is not far beneath the surface in the South.  So are the memories of the Civil Rights era – the Second War of Northern Aggression; and so, finally, are the interventionist policies of liberal Democratic administrations.  These are all understandable if not always justifiable reactions. 

The South has still not recovered from its past.  Mississippi ranks at the bottom of all socio-economic indicators, poverty is endemic, and religious and political conservatism are the rule rather than the exception; and some resentment of ‘government’, the symbol if not the source of many of the South’s historical troubles persists.  Most Southerners I have met are tired of this now fatiguing struggle and want what every American wants – economic opportunity, social mobility, respect, and recognition.

It is the North which persists in its hardened and vitriolic hatred of the South. Those who are supposed to stand for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the disinherited – progressives – are the most prejudiced.  They are the most unwilling to understand the historical and cultural antecedents of the South, to look with an unbiased eye at Reconstruction, to experience the radically different and in many ways more congenial and less hostile relationships between white and black.  What is prejudice if it is not a blind rejection of whole region of the country?

These Northern critics conflate the best Southern traditions – religious conservatism; traditional families and middle class, small-town values; and a healthy circumspection about big government – into a bolus of animosity.  It is this very American conviction about freedom, enterprise, and faith that have been turned by Northerners into something twisted, corrosive, and anti-American.

The knee-jerk reaction of many people is that the South is prejudiced; and while there is no doubt that racism exists and will for many generations, real prejudice is alive and well in the North. 

I once asked a liberal friend of mine if he could accept the conservative religious beliefs of the South – Creationism, for example, or received Biblical teaching.  Could he not just tolerate, but acknowledge that those who questioned Evolution or who followed what they felt were Biblical injunctions against gay marriage might have a point.  “No”, he said. “I could not”. There was no give in his answer, nor hesitation, no reflection on real diversity.  “Absolutely not”.

I have now spent many months a year in the South over more than ten years; and I have just begun to scratch the surface of this very unique, distinct, and complex region.  The South is more than just a geographical region – the name Mississippi is not neutral like Iowa or Nebraska.  The only way to understand American history is to understand Southern history, and there are few Northerners, it seems, who are willing to do so.

I have been accused of being a cultural relativist, unwilling to take a principled moral stance on anything from the caste system to the Islamic veil, child labor, historical imperialism, religious nationalism, and Reconstruction.  Perhaps so, and perhaps the accusation is justified; but it is hard for any student of history to make ex post facto judgments.  History is what is – a grand mechanism, a perpetual motion machine fueled by human nature.  There should be no surprises.  And whether or not one believes in human perfectibility – the classic argument between Tutzenbach and Vershinin in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters – the study of history and its fictional interpretations (Shakespeare’s Histories, War and Peace) is essential.

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