Of Paula Deen, Scarlett O’hara, and Why We Should Give a Damn

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 Oh, fiddlesticks, Miss Paula, what ‘d you have to go and do that for? 

Until now I’ve found Paula Deen’s scandals to be kind of funny.  Remember when she got hit in the head with a turkey at a charity event? I know it makes me not such a nice person, but I couldn’t help but laugh about that one. Remember the accusations of hypocrisy she fielded when she announced she suffered from Type Two Diabetes?  Well, Duh. What did people expect with the way she cooks?  That she would be able to maintain a seventeen inch waist?

This time though, I’m angry.  This time there is no humor in her behavior.  I’m angry that she’s been cruel and bigoted.  It was wishful thinking, maybe, but I honestly thought this kind of behavior had gone the way of the hoop skirt.  It hasn’t.  I discovered while doing some research for this piece that cross burnings are still relatively common (and notably not limited to the American South).  I also stumbled upon more than a few white supremacy websites that contained language and images so violent they made the hair on my arms stand up, and brought tears to my eyes.  I’m angry I have to be reminded of the ugly truth.  The whole thing just ticks me off.  

 There is another reason I’m angry at Paula Deen. This reason is smaller and probably less valid than the other, but I’m angry nonetheless.  I’m mad at her because she has contributed, mightily, to the stereotypes assigned to southern white people.  You know the ones, that we are not very bright, and that we hate people of color.  For years I’ve been complaining that every time I see a southerner, male or female, in the media, they are ether acting stupid, or wearing a white hood.  As of now I’ve lived half of my adult life up north, and I see this alternate stereotype in practice all the time.  I am tired of acting as the ambassador whose job it is to represent compassionate/enlightened southerners up here.  And now, the “Lady” and her sons are perpetuating both stereotypes.  Thanks Paula, I appreciate that (insert sarcastic tone here).

Certainly the media, including Paula Deen, is largely to blame for making us look stupid.  Think Gomer Pyle.  Think Dukes of Hazard. I would be as rich as Paula Deen herself if I had a dollar for every time someone heard I was from Georgia, and said to me “Aren’t you the people who elected Cooter to congress?”  (I must answer “Yes”, although, to be fair, I hear he was a pretty good congressman).  How about Toddlers and Tiaras?  Don’t even get me started on Honey Boo Boo!   Not too long ago I saw a news report about a forest fire, and, of course, they interviewed a guy facing the fire on the roof of his trailer with a garden hose, saying in a decidedly southern voice, “I ain’t leavin’!”  Clearly this guy was not the brightest bulb on the tree.  Why do they air this kind of stuff?  Because the ratings are high, obviously.  And the ratings are high because people like to laugh at stupid.  Heck, I love to laugh at stupid.  The thing is, I’m sure there are idiots in every village as far north as Santa’s workshop.  Why oh why must they target the south?

Even southerners perceive people with a southern accent to be stupid.  I went to graduate school in Athens, Ga., and I was told that “all remnants of your ‘regional’ accent should be left behind because people outside the south might conclude that y’all, well…, aren’t very smart.” It’s a sad fact, this misperception, but it’s true.  In your mind, put a southern accent on the smartest person you know.  What happens, in your mind, to that person’s IQ?  See?       

It’s bad enough that people think we’re stupid.  It’s even worse that we are all assumed to be bigots.  Think of all the movies you’ve seen depicting racial violence and discrimination, like Mississippi Burning, The Help, A Time to Kill, and even Gone with the Wind, which is breathtakingly offensive to blacks.  Think of all the news clips we saw in September at the 50th anniversary of MLK’s dream speech, news clips of young men and women being fire-hosed, of white only signs above water fountains, of little girls in bobby socks and crinolines who needed police protection to go to school, and of similarly dressed white women (mothers!) screaming slurs at aforementioned little girls.  While these snippets of film have rightly exposed the history of the civil rights movement and the truth about how people were treated (back then?), they have also burned their cruel images into all our minds.  I think that to people who have no exposure to the modern south, those images feel current.  Think of the kindest white man you know, now dress him in a seersucker suit and a southern accent.  Can you picture him in a white hood?  Does he seem a shade sinister? See?  

Do not be mistaken.  If only half of the complaints listed in the lawsuit against Paula Deen, her sons, and her brother are true, she is a bigot, and stupid, and certainly NOT a lady.  According to Daryl K. Washington, a civil rights attorney and blogger at http://www.blacklegalissues.com , the lawsuit alleged that one of Paula’s sons asked a black employee if he would like to “rub the black off” to be more like him.  Offended yet?  I am.  It is alleged that black employees in her restaurant were only allowed to use one bathroom, and weren’t allowed to work the front of the restaurant, and were referred to as the “monkeys in the kitchen.”  Angry yet?  I am.   Ms. Deen is alleged to have asked for some “little niggers” dressed like lawn jockeys to serve at her brother’s wedding!  Her use of the “n” word, no matter when it was used, is blatantly offensive.  Bigoted is what it is.

Treating human beings this way was inexcusable in 1893. It was inexcusable in 1963, and it was more than inexcusable in 1993. It was illegal.  On top of the moral wrong she has done, any business person worth her salt would know that federal law prohibits racial discrimination, and said business woman would have run her business accordingly, to avoid expensive career-ruining lawsuits.  Ms. Deen did not.  Besides, according to the census bureau, about 12% of the population of this country is black.  In the state of Georgia, fully 30 percent are black. One would think Ms. Deen would understand ahead of time that racist behavior would cause a huge loss of profit.  Stupid is what it is.     

Conclusions about southerners being stupid and southerners being racist have become so intertwined that they can no longer be untangled.  But wait, maybe racism and stupidity are entangled for a reason.  Bigotry proves stupidity, no?  

I would expect people to be angry, like me, about Deen’s behavior in this politically correct day and age.  Instead many are flocking to her defense.  All summer there was a campaign of Facebook jokes and cartoons, and photos in the media of Ms. Deen wearing woebegone and tearful expressions, all in support of her.  It is now October and I’m still being asked to ‘like’ Paula Dean by my Facebook page because so and so Facebook friend likes her.  Well, I don’t like her, and I don’t think I’ll start liking her anytime soon.  I even saw Oprah excuse her on Entertainment Tonight, citing the passage of time. (Who’s the ‘lady’ in this situation?  Oprah is.)

I wish I could be as gracious as Oprah, but I’m not.  I don’t buy the claim that discriminatory behavior doesn’t matter because it was so long ago. The reason I think so is this: everyone knows nigger is a bad word.  EVERYONE.  Everyone knows it, and has known it for generations.  I knew it as a child growing up in Georgia in the seventies. I can think of examples of bigotry from my childhood, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember hearing the ‘n word’ being used, not by anyone, not ever, and I attended an elementary school where the Civil War was elegantly called the “War of Northern Aggression” by a specific fifth grade teacher I won’t name.  Margaret Mitchell knew ‘nigger’ was a bad word in the nineteen thirties, and she lets us know she knew it by having Scarlett tell us, who, if she was an actual person instead of a work of fiction, would have known it in the eighteen sixties.   The word was never, ever permitted, not by anyone.  It didn’t matter how bigoted a person was, or is; a lady does not use the ‘n’ word.  Paula Deen had to know twenty years ago that the word nigger was, and is, flat out unacceptable, when the smallest school child knew it.  Therefore, unlike the rest of the world, I choose to hold Ms. Deen responsible for her actions, even if it was 1993.  Think of where you were in your life in 1993.  Did you know nigger was a bad word?  See?         

It makes me mad to see Miss Paula’s crocodile tears.   I’d like to say to her the same words Rhett said to Scarlett: “you are in the exact position of a thief who’s been caught red handed and isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” I’m not convinced Miss Paula is sorry for her behavior, but I am convinced she’s terribly, terribly sorry she’s lost a large portion of her income.  All that hand wringing is lost on me.

I’ve never really been much of a fan of Miss Paula’s, or much of a customer. I’ve seen her show a few times, and I confess my daughter owns one of her cookbooks, but it was a gift. I do have a Walmart frying pan that had her face on the label.  These things were all fairly accidental, but now I’m going to make an effort not to do business with Paula Deen.  I want to send a message, and the message is this:  I give a damn about equality. I give a damn about equal protection under the law. I give a damn about fairness and cruelty and honesty.  I think you should too.  I’m going send my message with my pocketbook.  I think you should too.  If I find myself in Savannah, which isn’t at all unlikely, I’ll go to Mrs. Wilkes instead of to any of the Deen restaurants, so I can have a delicious and culturally rich meal.  I hope you do too.  Lord knows I don’t need any more cookbooks with high fat recipes, so I’m not going to buy any from Paula Deen.  I don’t think you should either.     

And speaking of the Lord, don’t get me wrong here; I’m all for forgiveness.  I certainly forgive Ms. Deen her offenses, and her offensiveness, but I don’t want to excuse her.  If she is excused, won’t she and others learn that bigotry is okay, that there is no negative consequence for inexcusable behavior, that there is no need for her (and the wide world) to think about what she’s done, that there’s no need for change?  If she sincerely apologized and genuinely changed her thinking about race, I’d be glad to watch her show and/or buy her stuff (converting the recipes to more healthful ones, of course), and in that case, I think you should too.

In the meantime, please know that most of us from the south aren’t like that. Please know that most of us try hard to be fair and just and defend the fourteenth amendment.  Please know that most of us understand that minorities are people who possess thoughts, feelings, desires, goals, needs and opinions, just like those of us with paler skin. Please know that most of us, if we should be offensive, don’t want to be and didn’t mean to be, and in that case, please know that we welcome correction.  Please know that most of us are open to suggestion and education and are willing to work for change.   Most of us have compassion.

Please know that most of us who are raised and churched and educated in the south are neither idiots nor bigots.  Most of us know the truth: that skin is only skin deep, but character goes all the way through.


Gone With the Wind


I first read Gone with the Wind when I was a child.  It was the summer between first and second grade.  It’s a huge book for a seven year old, I know.  I’m not sure how it came to pass that I got a hold of a 1000 page story of war and starvation, of unrequited love and true love, and of children wanted, unwanted, and lost, but I did, and I fell in love with it.  I read it over and over again throughout my childhood, so many times that when I let my old paperback copy fall open, I knew  at once which characters sat in the room where the dialogue was spoken, how that room was decorated, which character would speak next, and what he or she would say.  

The book served as a sort of travel guide to me, a guide to southern culture, and to the southern little girls with whom I played.  I needed a guidebook because I was the child of outsiders, New Englanders no less, who packed in the yad and had idears, instead of ideas.  Never did either of my parents “fix” to do anything, as in “I’m  fixin’ to go to the store.”  Nor did they “carry” people in their cars.  Instead they drove people.  They were openly thrifty, as New Englanders often are, which was considered tacky, if not downright immoral, in my social circle.  So you can see why I needed a little help to fit into what felt like, when I was only seven, a foreign country. 

The book was also a sort of How to Be a Woman to me.  Not only did it help me understand the differences between the people I lived with vs. the people I didn’t, but I think I learned who I wanted to become from the characters in the story.  I wanted to mix Ellen O’hara’s strength in the face of heartbreak with Melanie Hamilton’s ability to love and to trust despite overwhelming evidence that she shouldn’t,  add Scarlet’s drive and intelligence, and bake all that up into a me that was feminine perfection.  I wanted, and still want, to become a “great lady,” like so many of the characters in the book.

I hadn’t given the story even one teeny tiny thought for twenty years at least.  I had been criticized in my college literature classes, and later in graduate school history and sociology classes for loving the book because, they said, Margaret Mitchell was an unparalleled racist, and her story was rife with bigotry.  Never had I noticed this when I read it as a child, so enthralled I had been with the romance and the history of the novel, but I believed my learned associates.  I didn’t want to be guilty of bigotry by association, so I rejected the book and the movie too.  I stopped reading the book, but I never did get rid of it. So my hardback copy, scripted with my name inside the front cover in my adolescent handwriting, has lived quietly these many years on my bookshelves with the Brontes and the Janes, gathering dust, patiently waiting to be useful again.

But things were about to change.  I started to receive small, but unmistakable messages from the universe that it was time to reread my favorite novel of all time.

The first of these was in March when a writer friend of mine announced that he didn’t like the main character in the novel I’m writing.  “You know” he said, “I really don’t like her.”  He thought I should sweeten her up a little because readers (he said) won’t root for a character that isn’t likable.  “Can you think of a book you really liked that doesn’t have a likable protagonist?” he asked.  

I couldn’t, right then, but later I thought, “Well, duh. How about Scarlet O’Hara?” Scarlett is a self-serving, conniving, materialistic character with no sense of propriety, and yet generations of women want to emulate her for her strength.  Scarlett is loved because she is honest, real, and I want my Caroline to be that way too.  Scarlet isn’t likable, but is greatly loved.  The point is that the conversation put Scarlett back on my mind, banging around in my head like the memory of an old friend, lost in an aged argument you can’t remember the reason for.

There’s more.  In April my Dad recommended to me a book of essays called My Writing Life by Pat Conroy (the author of the The Great Santini and the Lords of Discipline) about books and events that have influenced his writing.  My Dad is a pretty good matchmaker between me and books, so I requested it from the library. I got to pick it up from my very own slot on the hold shelf in May.  Guess what I found in the table of contents when I cracked open the brand-new, cellophane-covered book?  A big fat chapter about Gone with the Wind!  (Apparently Conroy’s mother felt the same way about the book that I do, and his life and writing were greatly influenced as a result.) The message to me, though, was, maybe it’s time to reread.    

The messages followed me on our three week family vacation to Germany.  On one hopelessly rainy day, we decided to visit a German Shopping mall.  I was surprised to see that the book store there was dominated by a gigantic display of Gone with the Wind.  They had Gone with the Wind in hardback, Gone with the Wind in paperback, Gone with the Wind in English and German.  Huh?  Why in the year 2013 is a German book store pushing an American civil war Story, a racist American Civil War Story?  Later, when we were in the town of Fussen, the backyard neighbor to our bed and breakfast flew a rebel flag, not the retired Georgia flag or the Mississippi state flag that both feature the Stars and Bars, but the actual confederate flag.  What?  Why?  I couldn’t help but think it might be related to race. Some redneck found his way across the Atlantic to Germany, I thought.   I flew home still wondering.  Why does Germany care about Scarlett O’Hara?  Or is it that her presence there was an act of God for my benefit alone?

The messages got louder after I got home.  One day I turned on the TV and there was Carol Burnett with a drapery rod across her shoulders playing a silly Scarlett to Harvey Korman’s ridiculous Rhett.  Another day I turned on the TV and saw Kelly Clarkson in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are exclaiming in shock that her ancestor was a Yankee (gasp!) and then watched her spend the rest of the episode explaining why she was proud of him anyway.  A third day I turned on the TV and saw Vivienne Leigh resplendent in her own emerald drapery-made gown simpering at the always handsome Clark Gable, playing the exact scene Carol Burnett had spoofed the week before. This was getting to be too much. 

I turned off the TV and went to bed, but I lay awake for a while thinking about the way the red linen spine of my book peeked out from its more illustrious neighbors as if to say “you know you want to.” But I didn’t want to, not really.  My book list is a mile long and I didn’t want to fill my mind with all that racial negativity.  Besides,   I already felt worn out on the issue of race from the evening news.  I had been following the George Zimmerman trial for the racial profiling murder of Trayvon Martin, and Paula Deen had to go and call someone a nigger.  (Come on, Paula!  You must have known better).    

The day came, midsummer, when I could ignore the signs no longer.  The weather was hot and dry, and the kids wanted to go to the pool, but I hemmed and hawed and whined that my Nook wasn’t charged, so I would have nothing to read, and therefore did not want to go to the pool.  With no awareness whatsoever of the energy that had been passing between me and my beckoning volume , Angel #1 walked over to the bookshelves, surveyed what was available, and plucked Gone with the Wind from its place, and held it out to me.  She rolled her eyes and said “read this one. It doesn’t need charging.” It seemed that God himself wanted me to reread the book and now he had resorted to speaking through my children.

I threw my hands up in surrender and said to the ceiling,”Okay, Okay!  I get it!  I’ll read the damn book if you want me to!”  I ignored the she’s-really-lost-it-now looks I got from the Angels, and took the book, and the Angels, to the pool.   

It’s a good thing my children are strong swimmers because they could easily have drowned that day; for all that I was paying attention to them.  I was immediately immersed in an earlier time, a different geography, and an earlier way of thinking.  Just like when I was seven, I was immediately lost in visions of hoop skirts at barbeques, in relearning Scarlett’s rules for the effective management of men, and in smelling the smells of battlefield hospitals.  I was immediately mesmerized.

My colleagues in school were right.  It’s true that the story is remarkably offensive in regard to race.  In the first chapter there is a reference to “darkies, hanging from the rafters, popeyed.”   I lost count of the passages in which Mitchell compares her black characters to monkeys and apes, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of them.  There is a scene near the end of the book where Ashley Wilkes repeats to Scarlett the great white lie that slavery was okay because slaves were well taken care of by their families.  (Uh, I don’t suppose anyone checked with the enslaved to find out their opinion on that matter?)  The bigotry was so complete and horrendous; I’ve begun to agree with the theory that Margaret’s Mitchell’s “accidental” death while crossing Peachtree Street may not have been an accident after all. 

I find, though, after consideration, that I sort of forgive Margaret Mitchell her bigotry.  The copyright of the book is 1936, so it had to have been written even earlier than that, say 1933 or so, and the world was very different back then.  Like us all, she must have been a product of her time, and in her time the civil rights movement was still twenty-something years away, lynchings were common, and there were still living, still bitter, survivors of the civil war and the reconstruction era to influence her.  Segregation was in full force, so she most likely had very little exposure to the black civil war experience.  How could she have been anything but bigoted? 

Besides, I think Mitchell left at least one piece of evidence that she was not an unsalvageable racist: She wrote the character Rhett Butler.  I think we women writers create male characters that in our minds are ideal, that are our own idea of heroes.   I create tall, silent, pick-up truck-driving, fence-riding cowboys.  Diana Galbaldon likes muscled kilted outlaws who whisper love words in Gaelic, and Jane Austin fell in love with the heroic Mr. Darcy for his protection of her through his social graces. Margaret Mitchell’s hero is the swarthy blockade-running and modern-thinking Rhett, who strives throughout the novel to earn the respect of Mammy, Scarlett’s slave caretaker.  That element of the story alone is revolutionary!  Why would a rich white man care what an old, female slave thought?  Because he believed her to be human, with human feelings and needs, that’s why!  Isn’t it impossible for a complete racist to create a character so enlightened as Rhett?  Somewhere in her subconscious mind, through the fog of her time and culture, Mitchell must have had the beginnings of a sense of justice.     

Mitchell also makes points with me on the issue of feminism.  The Scarlett she created was a successful business woman, a woman with whom we, of our time, can relate.  She, like us, had to take care of her house, her family, her friendships, and keep her small business going, which was obviously more than one full time job.  She, like us, had to stave off foreclosure, pay the taxes, educate her children, and  attempt to keep her marriages happy, all the while being made to feel guilty about having a career.  Sound familiar? Mitchell created in Scarlett an independent woman, someone who took care of herself and did not apologize for it, and isn’t that what feminism is all about?  

What’s more, generations ahead of her time, Mitchell made Rhett Butler a hands-on father, which makes just about any man a hero.  She made him his daughter’s primary caretaker. This is unbelievably forward-thinking, especially in consideration that only in the current generation has father-participation in child care been widely utilized.   Rhett Butler was brought to life four generations ago.  Way to get the ball rolling, Peggy!

I’m so glad I gave in and reread Gone with the Wind.  I’m glad I’ve grown enough to be shocked and disgusted, since my last reading, at Mitchell’s treatment of blacks.  Just like at my first reading, the writing is beautiful and poetic, and I, of course, reveled in the story’s rich details.  I especially noticed this time the lessons of history, like the very current lesson of how terror organizations grow from government enforced poverty, and of how far we have come in the civil rights movement since slavery ended and how far we’ve yet to go.  

There are personal lessons too, about the true nature and men and women and love, and how to recognize the people who love you based on what they do, rather than what they say. (That Ashley Wilkes was a cad and a liar, I tell you!)  In this reading too, I added Mammy to the list of great ladies I want to be like, because she taught me a lesson in motherhood.  She gave everything she had to Scarlett.  She could have gone free, but she didn’t; she stuck around and took care of Scarlett.  Scarlett repaid Mammy’s devotion with a smart mouth and by ignoring her advice at every turn. That definitely sounds familiar. Even so, mammy raised Scarlett to be undefeatable.  I find consolation in that.

The long and the short of it is this: the last time I read the story I was a girl, like Scarlett on page one. Back then, the story was about a selfish, spoiled child who threw herself repeatedly at a man who was wrong for her, and manipulated people to get her own way.  I didn’t really like Scarlett back then.  I was embarrassed for her. 

Now I’m a woman, like Scarlett on page 1037, and the story is about so much more.  Now, I understand the demands in Scarlet’s life because there are similar demands in mine.  I understand that sometimes you can’t help who you love, especially when you are very young.  I understand the necessity of personal sacrifice to protect those you love.  I understand mistakes.  I understand loss.  I understand regret.  Mostly, I understand that a woman doesn’t have to be likeable to deserve love. 

I think if I knew Scarlett O’Hara today, maybe from the PTA or from the neighborhood, I’d admire her. I’d ask her to lunch and I’d pick up the tab, because I know that she’s afraid of being hungry and broke.  I’d tell her about who I loved that I shouldn’t have, and she would say “I never understood what you saw in that guy!” And I’d tell her Ashley Wilkes wasn’t worthy of her, and we’d laugh and have a brandy, and we wouldn’t bother to gargle cologne afterword.   And I would tell her that Rhett would be back, because he always came back, and she would sigh and say she hoped so, and have another brandy.

Welcome home old friend.  I really missed you.