Southern Gothic

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The Old Country Store Restaurant in Lorman, MS

On US 61 halfway between Vicksburg and Natchez sits a sagging shack under a rusting tin roof. As you speed by on your way to someplace important you might wonder why dozens of cars are crammed into the packed dirt around it. There’s no sign visible from the highway. No explanation of what this place is or why anyone would want to be there.

The Old Country Store in Lorman, Mississippi offers a potent introduction to the Southern way of life. The past, present, and even the future of the South are tucked into the unpretentious corners of this little institution. Simultaneously fulfilling and defying the stereotypes of what it means to be Southern, this unassuming little restaurant delivers a tantalizing peek at a hopeful new Southern identity struggling to be born.

Behind that uninviting exterior hides the best food you may ever experience. No effort is lost on pretense. As a structure, The Old Country Store is exactly what its name describes. Remnants of the building’s earlier mercantile life still linger on shelves that were never cleared out. An untouched, abandoned past surrounds the diners who scarcely notice. The building serves little purpose other than to hold a roof over the owner, Arthur Davis, while he and his colleagues work. My four year-old gleefully caught a lizard in the men’s room.

Arthur Davis labors away through a particularly uncomfortable moment for Southerners. We are watching the Confederate battle flag lose its last minimal claim to legitimacy and seeing Southern religious values displaced from their dominant cultural and political place. Yet, neither of these is the core of our discomfort. Central to the crisis of Southern identity in our time, white, black, or other, is the death of denial, that blanket of mysticism and myth that generations of my ancestors used to cushion themselves from the realities around them.

Southerners are justified in their aversion to self-awareness. Our celebration of the stubborn, insular simplicity of places like the Country Store has meaningful roots in our history. As capitalism opens the South to a wider world a degree of self-examination is inevitable. Arthur Davis’ simple, but amazing work demonstrates the power of Southern culture and identity and how it may endure.

Davis is black, a recent transplant to Mississippi drawn there by opportunity. He is performing work once done by slaves and later by nominally free, violently oppressed black subjects. Where previous generations had their art and labor appropriated, he now owns his own business earning a living from an art form with roots in Africa, honed and perfected under subjugation. His art and the profits it produce belong to him. That little shack by the side of Mississippi’s Blues Highway sits squarely in our past while pointing to a hopeful future. With eyes wide open, freed from the burdens of denial, the South may yet rise again, as much an economic and political force as it always been a cultural powerhouse.

I

Ours is a history punctuated with nightmares. The soaring promise of the American Revolution hovers like a distant mirage, ever present yet offering no relief. People lived here, black and white, cheek by jowl, long before air conditioning in a place where a walk in the night air feels like bathing in stew. There was nowhere to hide, no private space of any consequence or security. In small communities entwined in knots, real privacy could only be found inside your own skull. Nothing was more prized than the sovereignty of the individual and nothing was more persistently elusive.

Friendliness there seems almost compulsive, emerging from a frustrated desire to achieve some real peace amid the relentless, simmering tension of oppression. That tenuous peace could be and regularly was interrupted by horror.

At any moment, an ill-tempered or drunken outburst by a white man or an open expression of futile resistance from a black man could cascade into sickening violence that most everyone felt powerless to suppress. Living under that pressure created an aversion to candor, a willingness to compromise justice for calm, and an almost manic attachment to outward expressions of emotional warmth that still defines us now.

Amid these forces emerged a culture of awesome beauty, a social force so powerful it has come to define almost everything we think of as “American.” Blocked for so long from access to the commercial and industrial engines of capitalism, the South reveled in music, food, art, literature, sex, religion and sports. Almost every emotionally compelling and enduring expression of popular art in American life has its roots in the South.

Music we consider emblematic of places like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland were born in the Delta. The South gave our food its spice, our movies their sass, our literature its humor and its darkness. Twain, Faulkner and Ann Rice rendered Southern culture into American legend. That heritage is as powerful and vital as ever.

At a time when Americans across much of the country must watch a TV show to learn how to cook the simplest items, most Southerners, male or female, can still prepare an individually tailored dish as complex as gumbo. Most Southern families produce someone who sings or plays an instrument, perhaps not to mastery, but enough to entertain a party. Art is so innately bred as to go unrecognized as a concept separate from life itself.

Southern players dominate nearly every major American sport. In food, music, literature or any other expression, Southern art revels in a lusty embrace of flavor. If Southern religion seems obsessed with sexuality, we come by it naturally. Our evangelical or “charismatic” religion is just as soaked in the pleasures of the flesh as the rest of the culture.

A mainline Protestant religious service in the North possesses a soothing order, contained and quieted by ancient liturgy. Such domesticated religious expression was always difficult to sustain in the South and rarely took root. Even if all other distractions could be suppressed, and vain efforts were made to suppress them, any calmly-ordered worship would be hopelessly disrupted by the sensual aromas wafting from the kitchen as the church ladies prepared their after-service “dinner on the grounds.”

For every well-ordered Southern congregation there were ten more that surrendered to the wider culture. Services were defined by the quality of their music and even their dancing. In less domesticated areas congregations indulged in faith healing, speaking in tongues and other tribal expressions of supernatural enthusiasm. As it has done in other artistic genres; Southern religion has gradually swallowed the rest of American spirituality. As the civilized West enters the post-Christian era, a rollicking, passionate, sensual Southern religion, separated from our pagan heritage by a tissue-thin theological veneer, is about all that remains of Christianity.

II

Radio and recorded music exploded as popular entertainment in the period after World War II. A unique niche developed around “race records,” recordings by black entertainers. Despite their growing popularity, major outlets would not sell or play them, limiting the earning potential of writers and performers.

A producer at Sun Records in Memphis made a name for himself by reproducing black hits with white artists. He got his big break when a handsome young white singer named Elvis Presley recorded “That’s Alright Mama.” The song had originally been written and recorded by Arthur Crudup, a black blues musician from the Mississippi Delta.

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup

Crudup continued to work as a field laborer and bootlegger and died in poverty. Mr. Presley, on the other hand…well, you may have heard of him. Crudup’s story is one among millions. Life under the oppressive conditions of the South fostered a rolling pattern of theft, theft of labor, of art, and ideas.

From Al Jolson to Elvis to Paula Deen, the cultural expressions that have moved Americans most have usually emerged from the South. And in so doing, they have born with them the burden of appropriation. This is the richest vein in America’s cultural mountain and its wealth has been consistently extorted from those who actually produced it. That systematic theft is an inherent trait of Southern culture and its removal is critical to a more hopeful future.

Even among the black community which suffered most deeply from cultural theft, there is a strange pride in the larceny of outsiders. After all, no one bothers to steal music or food or poetry from New England. Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones never bothered to rip off Minnesota’s music culture. When U2 wanted to capture the soul of American music they didn’t go to Los Angeles. They went to Memphis.

As the South slowly sheds the burdens of violence and oppression that defined it, something beautiful and truly unique is emerging. Houston’s ramshackle glory offers a picture of a revitalized America, disorderly, vital, exciting, rich and almost insanely free. Stirrings of new life, freedom and wealth in Nashville and Atlanta and Charlotte are promising, but they are only a shadow of the possibility ahead of us. To seize that promise we must grapple with something troubling that still lurks beneath the muddy water.

In the shadows, there is a Gothic darkness to much of Southern art. Faulkner defined it in his novels, but that edge is inescapable in our music, religion, even our politics. It is inseparable from our history, carrying the weight of a political and economic structure built on violence.

Peace in Southern life, such as could be found, was secured through denial of the horrors that haunted our margins. Southerners developed a resistance to honest assessment as thick as the summer air. A culture steeped in denial and built on oppression lay chronically vulnerable to fraud. From the borrowed dignity of “gentlemen” whose fortunes were planted and harvested by sharecroppers, to the mystical finesse of faith healers in the camp meetings, right down to the unpaid vigilante thugs who took upon themselves to make sure no one stepped out of line, Southern culture evolved into a great circular grift. Insularity and distrust formed a hedge against theft. Smiles were free and ample, but trust was hard-won. A potent cocktail of denial and fraud bred spasms of public paranoia that still ripple through the culture and warp Southern politics. Denial bred darkness, and trouble lurked in that darkness.

Facing the great grift, our white ancestors accepted a corrupt deal that allowed them to be exploited just a little bit less than those we chose to define as “black.” Any prosperity, any security was bought at the crossroads at midnight in a deal cloaked in darkness and protected by lies. Hiding from the past to protect those lies is a Southern cultural obsession.

III

More than any other element of our culture that bargain, and the determination to conceal it, continues to define us. We can reject that deal. Perhaps the most counter-cultural, liberating act we can take in our time is to acknowledge that our fates are inextricably tied, black and white together. Our potential will be stunted until both sides openly grasp it. This may be the most distressing and crucial truth for all of our communities – to acknowledge that black and white neighbors are, to a degree systematically repressed and denied by our forebears, our extended family.

As they have done with our food, our music, and the rest of our culture, black Southerners are offering yet another contribution to our heritage – an opening toward honesty. If we can find the courage to resist our innate, inherited resistance to candor, we can begin to own everything we deserve. Some are reluctant to take ownership of that “box of chocolates.” They would prefer to keep the past quietly concealed rather than open it up and risk discovering what we all deserve.

Balcony of the Lorraine Motel where MLK was shot
Balcony of the Lorraine Motel where MLK was shot

This Southern culture, one of America’s greatest gems, can be truly ours with all that goes with it if we recognize our kinship and confront our history with open eyes. We can be the first generation of Southerners, liberated from white and black, from fear and violence; the first generation of Southerners to truly breathe free. This is no mirage. That legacy is waiting for us. It is ours for the taking.

Recognizing our shared roots in a uniquely American nightmare is an act of supreme rebellion, a liberating political and artistic expression. With Grandpa’s flag and cape no longer hidden or denied, for the first time we can all own our culture for ourselves. We have a chance to discover that definitions of “black” and “white” were lies. That race was a tool that oppressed us all, that made it possible for a few to steal what we created. Though powerful, such recognition is not as simple as it sounds.

Honesty offers powerful benefits, but it will come at a steep cost. It will kill our cherished delusions. It means never again seeing Gone with the Wind in the quite the same romantic light. For many of us who benefited from oppression, it will cost us a measure of our pride. Being Southern means being an heir to a stolen legacy, the great wheel of grift. It is cultural wealth coupled with a frightening burden. Watching that flag relegated to its true place in history means watching the myth of white supremacy laid bare, revealed as a lie. For some that may be too much truth.

IV

Being Southern means living with a rich and painful legacy. Despite that legacy, we are the bearers of America’s greatest expressions of vitality and life and hope. We produced Elvis Presley and Rosa Parks in the same era. Our epic and still incomplete struggle to plant freedom in this hot, damp soil defines much of the best and worst of what it means to be an American. Without us America might be as gray and predictable as Canada. Without us, America would be boring.

We cannot claim that wealth and all that it means without bearing its troubling weight. Southern culture is a rich stew defined by its bitterest herbs. Leaving behind the security of inherited fear to embrace an identity beyond black or white is an opportunity toward which few dared aspire. That dream now looms as a genuine possibility. Like the coded messages that guided escaped slaves north, there are clues in our culture that could lead us to a better place.

Without trying, Arthur Davis may have built a model for us in his Country Store, a guide to freedom written in the walls and the smells and the flavors. All over the country you can find post-ironic renditions of Southern cooking complete with faux-shabby décor. Highly talented chefs with years of intensive training work to recreate dishes our grandmothers produced by rote. There’s always something missing in their often respectful and even adoring mimicry.

In an interview, Mr. Davis once said this about his food, “My chicken is truth. You become successful by truth.” He does not see himself as an artist or a cultural icon. He makes a living preparing chicken in a manner he learned from his mother and grandmother. Unpretentious. Unconsidered. Unintentional. Without irony or sleight of hand. You become successful by truth. Simple, disruptive, counter-cultural advice.

This can be the generation to “Come and Go to that Land.” It can be done. Building a New South that preserves the best of our heritage starts and ends with truth; simple, elusive and often terrifying. The banners, the flags, the songs, the heroes both legitimate and pretended, they must find the place that they authentically deserve in a full story of our heritage, white and black and beyond. We have an opening to build something beautiful and unprecedented if we are bold enough to honestly embrace our history. All of it.

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17 Comments

  1. Great post!!

    That Southern music is the source of American music is indisputable. That said, the musical innovations of the past 40 years haven’t originated in the South– disco, punk, house music and hip-hop mostly come from New York, as well as Chicago and Detroit to a lesser extent. I think this is partly because the South refuses to evolve, at least among the white people, sticking to nostalgia. “Make America Great Again” is a pretty good expression of that.

  2. Chris, this is my favorite post of yours. I grew up in this area and have so many memories just like those you shared. Looking back, it’s easier to see the double standard that existed for different races and classes, still, people managed to survive and share a rich culture of music, cuisine, and family. The various gumbo recipes, maque Choux and so many traditional southern dishes were passed from generation to generation and between the races. Even though vestiges of racism remain in the politics and culture of the region, it is getting better with time. I predict the gumbo and maque choux traditions will endure and thrive.

  3. Very interesting (if depressing) post. The fate of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup was particularly sad, I was embarrassed that I had never heard of him. Do you think that we could even blame Presley and other specific individuals who more directly benefited from this appropriation or is it pretty much entirely the fault of the wider culture that made it basically inevitable? Both? Neither? It’s an interesting question from a moral point of view.

  4. As a refugee from the Deep South, I really wish there were a way to get Southern culture without Southern politics. I live in California now and I love here too, but there’s always a pull for the food and architecture and music you grew up with. It’s so depressing to visit my parents where all these interesting and friendly (to me) people say and believe these horribly bigoted things.

    1. I was just mentioning to Chris about the Drive By Truckers on Twitter, and he can speak to them better than I. I’m no southerner, but they come highly recommended from Chris and from southern-Virginia-raised SF luminary William Gibson.

  5. EJ

    A very moving picture of a land you love very much, Chris. Thank you for reposting this piece. I can see why you’re proud of it.

    I’ve heard it said that one of the reasons why white Americans have such difficulty admitting to themselves that they have behaved unacceptably towards black Americans, is that if they did then they might start considering the historic crimes against red Americans. Do you have an opinion?

    1. You had to go there…

      That’s a complicated subject and I have complicated opinions about it. It seems to me to be a lot like when the Vandals overwhelmed the Romans, or the Mongols took over China. Unfortunate. Wish it would have happened differently. But two competing systems of organized living found themselves in conflict and only one was going to prevail in that territory. And in all of these cases, the more potent culture prevailed regardless of military outcomes.

      1. The Normans conquered the Anglo Saxons but in the end the conquered assimilated the conquerors. Part of the fear of immigrants , especially Hispanics is that could happen to the old white stock. Ridiculous as Hispanics are eagerly and rapidly assimilating into our culture. Our ideas are very potent as is our culture. My wife is part Cherokee and old stories of my mother’s family (westerners) suggest that I also have Native American ancestry. The Indians are still here in us more than in their original tribes. We are a very ethnically mix and culturally rich country. This is our greatest strength not a weakness. Unfortunately many people are not ready to release tribalism and move up to the next level. But I think the majority of us are.

      2. Speaking of “You had to go theres”…
        As a citizen of the second largest nation on earth, and your northern neighbour, I guess it’s boring and predictable that I’m gonna call you on that sideswipe. Why not pick, say, Minnesota, or Montana? Because picking any State achieves only disgruntlement and shifts the focus until every northern map speck is shouting its uniqueness.
        I wish you hadn’t written yourself into that corner. We most certainly aren’t y’all, that’s very true, but we might phrase the comparison…differently. Of course, being Canadian, I’m too polite to actually say it out loud. 😉

    2. EJ

      You can certainly take the view that says “violence occurred, and the group which was better at the violence ended up in possession of whichever land and material goods they chose to take.” This is not false, and (as you point out) has a long historical precedent. Brennus’s famous statement “vae victis” is something that we forget at our peril.

      You could also, of course, apply the same view to the institution of slavery: white people were better at the constant violence which was required to keep a subject nation in chains, and as a result ended up benefitting enormously from doing so (and still benefit, via inherited capital.) On one level this is true: had they not been able to apply that violence, there would have been no slavery. On another level this is also a neat sidestep of the very concept of morality.

      Once one starts applying morality to the issue, it gets a lot more complicated. It is difficult to reach any sort of reconciliation without that; and as you point out very movingly, it is difficult for a nation to come to terms with itself unless it starts thinking of its own history in moral terms.

      I’m not going to pretend that there are any easy answers here; but that’s probably the case for any question worth considering.

    3. EJ – To say we are all the progeny of the victors is banal, so I’ll avoid it. The infinite regress of historical blame and guilt-seeking is not useful.

      Further somewhat to Stephan’s comment, do you feel regret being an ancestor of the Normans? Or English, Portuguese, French, Spanish or Dutch slave traders? I hope not. Should Black Americans hate their African ancestors who sold them into slavery in the first place? Absurd. In the case of American native peoples should they, (and with acknowledgement that the vast majority of cultural devastation was caused by disease, rather than directly or intentionally by the hands of European conquerors), be troubled by the fact that they are the last of the conquerors of a succession of tribes before them?

      The issue of race in America, as we attempt to remove the last bits of prejudice from the heart of the nation, is a difficult, and complex process. It is not helped by the dilution of effort of including specifically every group we can think of, from Norman to Navajo, in the process. Now, this doesn’t mean we should ignore or deny our nation’s historical impact on native peoples. It’s simply my view that one can make the tent so big it collapses under its own weight.

      1. EJ

        I certainly feel regret at being German, given the conquests we’ve attempted.

        (We failed, yes. But had we succeeded, would it have become morally acceptable? Is morality drawn entirely by the victor?)

      2. EJ

        Adding:
        From the South African part of my heritage, I feel deeply ashamed about the Apartheid era; not only the denial of voting and property rights, but the massacres, forced population transfers, dispossessions and land seizures. I wish that it had not happened, even though my ancestors benefitted from it and therefore I have indirectly benefitted from it.

        Finally, from the Jewish part of my heritage, I will beg leave to disagree with you when you say that we are all descended from the victors. Every defeat leaves survivors.

      3. EJ – With all due respect, shame for the sins of our fathers is a useless emotion. It’s as toxic as the notion Original Sin. (Same thing, actually.)

        And no, morality is not determined strictly by the victors. Indeed, some victors from history held some pretty twisted notions of what is and is not moral. Slave holding had been considered moral by virtually every civilization you can name until fairly recently. I won’t even touch on the Islamic world.

        Finally, the Jews were once victors, and I’d add they were every bit as barbarous as their contemporary Bronze and Iron Age cultures by modern standards. So yes, we are the progeny of both the victors and the vanquished, and neither are necessarily a reliable moral compass.

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