Last few words on Thanksgiving holiday food...Nice treat to have had my dear friend Ellen Sweets join in the conversation. Ellen was a foodie before the word became hip. As a good friend and former newspaper colleague, I've sampled coming and going many of Ellen's specialties at her delicious tables and parties in Dallas. Ellen loves to celebrate food, and in a roaring tribute to her friend, political commentator and newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, Ellen wrote a cooking book about her food adventures as sous-chef to the late Texas legend. If you've now recovered from Thursday's feast and are trolling for fresh food recipes along with very fresh attitude dishing on the side, or just plain need a fun read, Stirring It Up With Molly Ivins is available on Amazon.com.
I'm prejudice, I admit. I can't get past the look of the oyster, chestnut, fresh bread or and any other versions. Cornbread dressing upstages the bird on my family's table every Turkey Day. In my book, my mother-in-law's so hits the spot, I don't need the bird with it. The dressing, particularly in the Deep South, is so popular that Sam Sifton, author of Thanksgiving (How To Cook It Well), includes two versions in his well acclaimed work (available on Kindle for $1.99). Though, I do take exception to his listing the obvious first-place cornbread recipe second to Fresh Bread.
This is a dish, bias aside, that is steeped in my upbringing and culture. Lore and my grands and greats say recipes resembling the tasty side date back to slavery when poor black people made the most of the innards of the turkey left as scraps after the real feast had been prepared in the big house. Corn was plentiful , and the other main ingredients (onions, chives and celery) were grown in slave quarter gardens from leftover seedlings gathered by field workers during veggie planting time. My Grandmother Susie Thomas, the quintessential Creole cook, first told me about cornbread and rice (aka "dirty rice") dressings, the latter a staple side at many Louisiana holiday gatherings. My two families have honored these sides at Thanksgiving and other holiday times through generations.
That's my story. While we come from an assortment of cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and have many food stories behind our family beginnings, the one thing we share in this country this week is the celebration and customs of Thanksgiving Day. In the spirit of sharing and giving, I invite erace your isms visitors and readers all week to post their food traditions.
Right about this time on that day 50 years ago, the nuns at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School in Lake Charles, LA, headed by Sr. Maria Petra, principal, shepherded us children from the school building across the playground area to the main church and ordered us to pray.
I was a young black school child, and I was a Catholic. When sister gave us the news we all began to cry , not because of our politics (we were too young to have such), but because of the dual connection to the man who was our president. Not only was he regarded in our community as someone sympathetic, he also shared our faith and religion. On an even more personal level, though at the time I didn't have full appreciation, he was the first president my mother voted for.
Now he was gone. Amid our tears we did what born Catholics upon the death of a dear one are taught to do as soon as we reach age 7, about the point that reason kicks in. We prayed for the repose of President John F. Kennedy's soul.
Never forgot the tears and praying. Little more than 50 little black faces, as I recall, trembling voices reciting The Our Father, the Hail Mary, signing and ending with: "May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen."
I started out wanting this blog to be a "Politics-Free Zone". It's a fantasy, though, to buy in to the notion that you can have conversation about race without politics seeping in, particularly given who currently occupies the White House.
Honestly, my request to those who are still complaining about the office's occupancy is, "Please, move on." For the sake and saving of this generation and future ones? Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Presidency. Twice! Because there are many Americans still ill at-ease and still angry, politics sadly becomes very relevant in discussions about race and culture and isms.
There, it had to be said.
If you are a New York Times reader, you likely have seen the column this weekend by fellow journalist and Times columnist Charles M. Blow. Charles kept me sane with his brilliant commentary during last summer's circus of a murder trial in the death of Trayvon Martin. In his Nov. 15, 2013 piece "Disrespect, Race and Obama," Charles nails it in one of the more thoughtful pieces to date on how race is at the core of what I refer to as "The Washington Problem."
I like it when passion and culture are fused, and that's why I want to give a shout-out to the Church Mothers in the Mississippi Delta and to University of Mississippi photojournalism professor Alysia Burton Steele.
In the black Baptist community of much of the South, the church mother is the inspirational leader to young women in the congregation, comforter and counselor to all congregants at all times, organizer of church programs and an adviser to the pastor. It is the head pastor that selects the distinguished member to serve in the role. She may be asked to weigh in on church appointments and operations and always is a respected member of the general community. The time-honored position dates back to early 20th century, and often is a slot that faithful churchgoing women naturally evolve to. To preserve the rich legacy, the professor from Ole Miss has come up with a 21st century approach using an old-fashioned technique -- the art of talk.
For more than half a year, Alysia, a friend and former Dallas Morning News colleague, has spent countless amounts of her own dime and weekend time pursuing and documenting the stories of these women. Her project in progress, Jewels of the Delta, chronicles in beautiful black and white photography and melodic heart-to-heart audio the vibrant lives of 50 women known throughout the Delta for their directness, fortitude, beauty and sense of place in history. The grace through the emotional and sometimes witty conversation of the women, reverberate as they sit with Alysia for two or more hours at a time regaling her with their revealing tales of church life and beyond. With all due respect, the church mothers featured are authentic Drama Queens.
They remind Alysia of her grandmother, she told me in a recent telephone interview. That made talking to them easier. Though winning their trust took some doing. Without the help and coaxing of the pastor and very willing family members, she's sure many of her subjects would have turned her away. They guard their privacy, especially with strangers, Alysia explained. "It was interesting to see how their grandchildren got it. They so wanted to preserve their elder's legacy."
In a way, Alysia is preserving her Grandmother Althenia Burton's legacy, too. Alysia, who was born in Harrisburg, PA and is biracial, was raised by her black grandmother since age 3 . Her grandmother died unexpectedly before Alysia graduated from college, and like so many of us that have experienced the sudden death of someone close, Alysia lives with "If Onlys." She wishes she had more pictures, more videos, recordings of her grandmother's voice.
When the working journalist-turned-academic arrived fresh on the historic campus in Oxford last year, she had not spent much time in Mississippi. The region and life there brought back memories of her upbringing and that led her to her project. Her Presbyterian grandmother and Baptist great-grandmother were strict church ladies, and she learned a lot about what that means from them, she said.
Many of her students first year had had no exposure to the Delta region. She wanted them to learn photography and a sense of history. She included in their coursework the option to go on Saturday field trips to the Delta to shoot pictures. For more than a year, she and groups of students have been loading camera equipment and themselves in cars and traveling to the area. "There's so much to explore here. Many of my students have never seen or heard of the Delta.''
Almost every weekend, they schlep through the rural cotton country feasting on iconic images of nature and people and lifestyle during the day, and at dusk on the nightlife in historic Clarksdale, a Delta hub, featuring the renowned blues spot Ground Zero Blues Club, made even popular by its owner actor Morgan Freeman. The academy award-winning actor and his partners Clarksdale resident/businessman Bill Luckett and entertainment executive Howard Stovall opened Ground Zero to help preserve a part of Delta music history.
Alysia was inspired by the three men to push on with her project to publish the complete work and ultimately fund a traveling exhibit. Her target publication date is May 2014. She is about halfway through her 50 interviews and is not nearly talked out. "I love listening to these women. Telling their stories is such an honor.'' Turning again to her grandmother's memory, she added, "She wasn't thrilled that I was pursuing photography. She wanted me to pursue a field where I could make money. But, I think she would be pleased with my work.''
It feels wrong using "trash" to refer to a human being. In public and private discourse there seems to be no moral dilemma with calling a certain segment of the population white trash?
In context, the phrase by definition is prejudicial.
Meaning from Merriam-Webster -- usually disparaging: a member of an inferior or underprivileged white social group
Its usage dates back to the first half of the 19th century based on annotations and documentation from writings, most notably slave narratives, personal memoirs (Ulysses S. Grant) and formal works of writing (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
Legend and literature speculate that the plantation house slave likely was first to use white trash to dismiss any attitudes of superiority on the part of whites that were not landowners. Stowe, believed to be pro-abolition, was the object of backlash for her 1852 book depicting the rigors of slavery and graphic mistreatment of black people. In her follow-up work, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the author devotes an entire chapter to “Poor White Trash.”
A friend and follower of this blog recently suggested exploring the label for eRACE your isms. My friend, who is white and had used the term in the past as a descriptive for a certain lifestyle and behavior, wondered about a double standard. My friend had specifically been taught not to use the n-word. Why had there not been parental guidance on use of white trash?
The conflict is a valid one. I wasn't familiar with the term in childhood. Guess my parents, like my friend’s parents, figured from the phrase itself restriction is more than obvious if you learn the Golden Rule. As an adult, I have inexcusably on occasion spoken the words in conversation. What’s interesting is that curiously I first encountered its use among other whites. Did that make it OK?
From history we learn that folk of color were not and are not above using pejoratives for whites. Just as white trash probably came from plantation slaves, African Americans at the height of the 1960s black power movement and black militancy also created other terms of dis-endearment for the group they regarded as the enemy. "Honky" and "whitey", to pick a couple more print-palatable ones. And before that, remember cracker? (Though we learned from the Trayvon Martin killing through trial testimony by his friend Rachel Jeantel that "cracker" as a hate label has evolved and may not be a race-specific pejorative among black millennials.)
Throughout history, Americans have been very good at slurring their own. Along with the 19th and 20th centuries’ immigration wave of hyphenated Americans came rivaling and jockeying for ethnic hierarchy that resulted in name-calling. I was introduced to this practice in my early 20s when a first-generation Italian-American friend in Washington told a joke using the W-word. When I looked at her with puzzlement, realizing my innocence she explained how the word was common among her people and gave me examples of how Irish and Jews and others had similar words. “Do I repeat these words, or is it exclusively theirs?” I had asked myself.
In 2013, I suspect more than in any other period since its usage, whites that "fit" the definition of white trash proudly embrace it. The surge in acceptance of reality TV stars Honey Boo-Boo and Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, and show brands such as TLC’s Jersey Shore and A&E’s Duck Dynasty prove there is plenty of reverence or irreverence, depending on your worldview.
White trash celebrity ratings and their accompanying shows' numbers are through the roof. In real reality, stars and programs are beyond mere fodder for water cooler chat or a passing fad. Fans of phenoms Snooki and Honey Boo-Boo cross demographics. To the devoted both are legitimate iconic figures. (Snooki has close to 6.5 million Twitter followers.)
That’s television entertainment. In the printed medium and online, there's plenty of w-trash love to go around. Last week, in time for this post, author-commentator Charlotte Hays blog white trash(1) released her new humor title: When Did White Trash Become The New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question. Ms. Hays’ new laugh-out-loud book details the many ways white trash is not only pop culture but a lifestyle and state of mind embraced by poor and working class whites and multimillionaires too. (Read my review of her book.)
SO amid the just-published book and the culture's commercialization of white trash, I wrestle with the morality angle. Google white trash or type in the phrase at Amazon.com, and it is astounding. In the hunt are thousands of books alone (works include use of the phrase in title or texts and include revered literature such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.) Online search results include cookbooks, etiquette guides, how-to craft titles, romance, adult, joke and gardening selections. The general merchandise search also turns up practical items such as diaper pails and white (colored) trash cans.
While Ms. Hays' book, TV shows and related merchandising are sources of bemusement for the masses, and lively topics for entertainment and consumer writers, as well as other bloggers, I wonder if all this white noise is purely about smart economics. Find a captive audience, promote, and sell, sell, sell.
If money is motivation behind pejorative pride, it makes sense that the African American millennial and Gen X entrepreneur,poet, rapper, and artist, among others, argue for free speech and feel justified in using the same strategy/model to lay to rest n-word stigma. Isn't it doublespeak, if not hypocrisy, to be willing to bolster the case for the Hollywood and Madison Avenue marketing genius behind white trash, yet harshly judge commercializing efforts for creative use of the n-word?
I’m bothered by the conflating and conflicting ethos of what should be a glaring cultural no-no. Meanwhile on the business side of white trash already deep pockets grow deeper, and the money managers laugh all the way to the bank.
Readers may remember my audio interview late summer with Nate (n-word, the flip side), and how he struggles with what's the big deal?
I recently contacted Nate, 28, for his views on white trash. He’s now a first-time Dad to newborn, Ava. As readers that listened to my previous conversation with Nate might guess, Nate’s reaction was low-key. "Sure, I've heard people call themselves trailer park trash...Yes, I figure they are proud of it.
“I understand the pure ugliness behind n-word.” Nate continues to explain how he also understands the business and ethical motive driving black entrepreneurs "to put it out there. Why not? Whites came up with that word to make my ancestors feel like less than human beings. The word trash is not there. It's hidden. Which is worse.” When I asked Nate if "white trash" should be off-limits for blacks and others the same way n-word should be banned for whites, he was on the fence. "People should make their own choices. Based on their own conscience."
From the get-go with an eye-catching cover illustration of a vintage trailer parked and bedecked with colorful Christmas lights and a wisecracking dedication ("For my great-nieces Jenna, Julia, and Sarah -- hint hint"), Charlotte Hays' new book takes you on a hilarious ride of culture clashes, sarcasm and trash-talking 20th century history.
Chapter after chapter, Ms. Hays' timely When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? lays out a case for why the lifestyle begs to be validated. The author even includes "A White Trash Timeline," Bibliography and Index. Ms. Hays, who is white, spells out the culture, addressing topics with chapters such as "Why Obesity, Tattoos, and Velveeta® Cheese Prove that Arnold Toynbee Was Right", "White Trash Money Management," "Who's Your Daddy?" and "Bratz® and Brats." There's also a chapter called "White Trash Buddhists."
Pithy thoughts and fact-filled zingers await the reader. Page after page I learned something new about the culture. The timeline begins in 1936, marking the first Tampax print advertisement (wait til you read the relevance), and continues through the millennium. Ms. Hays charts Peyton Place's 1956 record-breaking New York Times bestselling standing, the Marilyn Monroe 1962 Happy Birthday rendering to JFK, Cher's 1969 public announcement of her breast implants and Gov. Ronald Reagan's '69 signing of the California no-fault divorce bill, to name only a few entries.
My favorite comes from 1970: "In an act of desperation, President Richard Milhous Nixon welcomes Elvis Presley to the White House, hoping that associating with the king of rock 'n' roll will make him popular with young people. Nixon grants Presley the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge that he covets...and the rest is history." From Jerry Springer and Princess Diana in late 20th century to Sir Mick Jagger and Kim Kardashian in the millennium, Ms. Hays appears to leave no worthy subject or incident out of the growing social circle that continues to prosper.
My only regret here is that I purchased the book for my Kindle instead of (a hard copy) for the coffee table.