Paula Deen and the Myth of the Happy South

WARNING: OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE

The most damning moment about race in the Paula Deen
transcript took place during a long discussion about her brother’s wedding
plans. Deen had been to a restaurant in “Tennessee or North Carolina or
somewhere” that had an extremely professional wait-staff of middle-aged black
men, dressed in white jackets, black trousers, and black bow ties. She was
asked if she had referred to them as “niggers,” by accident, and she said, “No,
because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing
a fabulous job.”  As others have noted,
the answer suggests that she would quite possible refer to non-professional
black men, or black men not doing a fabulous job, as “niggers.”  Such an attitude would not be atypical for
American white southerners, or indeed for many other people around the country
of many different races, but still exposes a celebrity like Deen to charges of
racism. 
To be fair to the plaintiff, Lisa Jackson, who is
suing Deen, claimed the celebrity chef said, “Well what I would really like is
a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and
black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance
around.”  I actually find that kind of
unlikely, but it’s anything is possible.
I think the focus on racial epithets, while
understandable, misses a complex subtext. In memoriam, we’re still fighting the
Civil War.
Perhaps I should have written, “The War of Northern
Aggression,” the oddly complex mouthful 
that many southerners have adopted as their preferred terminology (the Wikipedia
entry
on varied names is pretty useful). 
The name focuses on the north as the aggressor, the wrong-doer, with the
south simply defending themselves and their “way of life.” The incoming head of
the N.R.A., for example, talks about the war
of Northern Aggression
as a reason people need firearms.
But Paula Deen calls it the Civil War. Here’s a long
excerpt:
Q
Do you recall using the words “really southern plantation wedding”?
A
Yes, I did say I would love for Bubba to experience a very southern style
wedding, and we did that. We did that.
Q
Okay. You would love for him to experience a southern style plantation wedding?
A
Yes.
The deposition continues:
Q   Why did that make it a — if you would have
had servers like that [the black waiters], why would that have made it a really
southern plantation wedding?

A Well, it —
to me, of course I’m old but I ain’t that old, I didn’t live back in those days
 but I’ve seen pictures, and the pictures
that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.

Q Okay.


A And I was in
the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south.
 
Q Okay. What
era in America are you referring to?


A Well, I
don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.

Deen has fully embraced the romanticized version of
American southern history. The blacks worked in the house, serving the whites,
with great professionalism and care. In her praise for the black waiters, she
reveals herself a player in the ongoing struggle to re-write American southern
history as anything but a slave-based empire.
This vision requires admitting that slavery existed,
which Deen does later in the transcript, but suggesting that it really wasn’t
all that bad, that blacks who worked for good masters found life pleasant as
part of an extended family. This narrative embraces the myth of the
paternalistic system that yes, involved slavery, but the slavery was so much
better than in other parts of the world. And it’s true – in the Carribean,
where slaves were imported regularly, conditions were worse. In the American
south, you needed slaves to be able to breed, because children had monetary
value. At any rate, historians have debunked the myth that slaves were not
treated cruelly and didn’t rebel. One could look up Loren Schweninger’s work
for starters. Slaves fought. They ran away. They tried to escape their
conditions. And they were punished for it, often brutally.
Another part of this myth embraces the idea that
although NOW we know slavery is bad and all people are humans, we didn’t know
this in 1800 or so. This is not true either, although the equality of blacks to
whites as a general principle took a long, long, time to develop (and witnessed
first the birth of scientific racism). As England outlawed slavery, norms were
shifting long before the first shot of the Civil War.
And then finally we get the Civil War, not as a war
about slavery, but over states rights. And yet, if you unpack each and every
document of secession, they all explicitly mention the “states rights” to keep
slavery legal as the cause of secession. It’s inconvenient for southern nationalists (people who
see Southerners as an independent people who should have the right of
self-determination) and defenders of the Confederate culture (and flags) to
focus on slavery, so they argue against the evidence. The evidence, however, is
clear – the civil war was about slavery.
Alas, it is very hard to change people’s minds on articles of faith, no matter
how overwhelming the evidence is.
One fascinating off-shoot of this is the question of
black confederate soldiers. They didn’t exist. A Virginia
textbook
claimed they did until a professor noticed (and read that whole
link; it’s riveting, and has lots of good links). What’s so interesting here is
that there was a faction in the Confederacy that argued for freeing and arming
slaves, as they knew they had a manpower issue. They were outvoted until the
final year of the war when things were desperate, and even after a few slaves
were enlisted, not a single one saw combat (here’s the book
on the topic, by an Illinois professor).
And yet, despite all the evidence, the myth marches
on. At the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference last
March, at a panel
on minority outreach
, an audience member reacted to the idea that Frederick
Douglas had forgiven his former owner. “For what?” said Scott Terry, “for
feeding him and housing him?” There was some applause and cheering. Terry later
claimed to be a direct descendent of Jefferson Davis.
Paula Deen does not deserve to lose her job or
sponsors for being nostalgic for the era of slavery and Jim Crow. The idea that
she is being “lynched,” as claimed by the horror/romance author Anne Rice, or “crucified,”
a word I am seeing all over the conservative blogosphere, seems to betray a
certain lack of historical awareness on the part of the writers, or maybe they
are just being ironic.  To me, it works
like this: Deen said some disturbing things. She’s a public figure whose
earning depend on people liking her. Now fewer people like her. Therefore, she’s
worth less money as a spokeswoman or on TV. This is not about free speech or “lynch
mobs,” but is the price of fame-based and personality-based merchandising.
But I refute the idea that her romanticized view of
the south is harmless. From her visions of black men in bow ties serving whites,
of  plantation culture, of the charm of southern
life “After the Civil War. During the Civil War. Before the Civil War,” we go
straight to Scott Terry, to the author of a Virginia textbook, to the very
people who right now are undermining the voting rights act claiming that the
blacks of yore were proud of their relationship with their paternal masters, to
the people hanging confederate flags from courthouses. It’s not harmless when
anyone holds these ideas and certainly not when it comes from a self-made icon
of the South.
Anyway, if you’re not from the South, don’t feel so
smug.  We all try smooth away embarrassing truths out of our histories. It’s the job of the historian and of
the informed citizen to resist that impulse, because the abrasion of rough edges
might, just might, keep us from replicating the sins of the past.

3 Replies to “Paula Deen and the Myth of the Happy South”

  1. Margaret says:

    Nicely put — the true secessionists dreamed of an agrarian empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific based on slave labor! I'm not sure all Southerners shared that dream but they sure didn't refute it.

    Margaret

  2. Irish girl says:

    One of the Restaurants Mrs. Deen was referring to still exists on St. Simons Island Ga. Bennie's Red Barn.. The other one that is closed now was The Old Plantation Supper Club and was owned and run by a black family.

  3. Jean says:

    I enjoy reading your blog., Mr. Perry I think that discussing things rationally and pointing out historical truths is a good technique for people that are rational. But racists are not rational. They are deliberately obtuse. Economic and legal sanctions against them might work because reasonable
    arguments have failed over and over.

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