From Here To…

One of the classes I teach is Composition and Literature, a cross-curricular course required of all majors to graduate.  I decided this semester to focus only on literature from the American South, as it is most pertinent to my own work right now.  It is the perfect opportunity to engage writing I should read, and analyze it with a group of people who are experiencing “the South” with me.  Selfish, yes.  But I also feel that I have a responsibility and a remarkable opportunity to help my students cultivate some self-awareness about where they are, why they are who they are as a result, while ingesting (and sometimes choking on) the writing that comes from only our part of the world, and why it is different and special, even if flawed.

I couldn’t have asked for a better geographical make up of students to teach this class, as Xavier retains many local students.  My class of 18 is almost half New Orleanian, with a few others from below the Mason/Dixon line, and the rest from elsewhere in the country – New York, Philly, LA – it’s a great mix for these conversations.

On the first day of class, we discussed the stereotypes and assumptions they believe people from elsewhere make about the South, and then also of New Orleans, and then looked for the overlaps between the two.  We sifted through what they felt was accurate and not.  You’ll notice there are many opposites between the two, which though not listed, are set up against even more opposites representing other parts of the country.  (Binaries included hockey vs football, snow vs swamp, we are slow in the South, whereas Yankees are fast walkers/talkers/etc.)  New Orleans was compared to places outside of the South when it didn’t match with “Southern” stereotypes, and was still deemed a standout every time, incomparable to any other city the students knew.

This is what our list looked like:

South:                                                                                   New Orleans:

Slow talkers                                                                         Slow service, thinking, action

Drawl                                                                             No drawl, but specific accent/dialect/inflections

Bible beaters/conservative/religious                             Party town/not conservative (this sparked debate)

Rural                                                                                     Urban

Soul Food                                                                             Soul Food, but better

“people think we country”                                                more diversity

Uneducated                                                                          bad schools

Naïve or ignorant                                                                Bad crime, unsafe neighborhoods

Families stay close together                                              Families can choose to be apart/together

Poor                                                                                 Either really rich, really poor, or “working too hard”

Everyone knows you                                                           You can hide here

Simple lives, simple people                                              “the women are more beautiful here”

Friendly, everybody cooking                                             friendly

We found exceptions to these stereotypes, and also evidence for those they felt were accurate.  It was interesting to see how they handled the pain of what they found insulting – mainly by laughing.  When one young man said, “Yeah, people think we country, like people axed me if I rode a horse to school!”  He laughed, the class laughed, but his body language betrayed his condemnation of the prejudice – crossed arms, a shaking head, the reclined posture of dismissal.  I asked him if he thought people had said that to him because they were curious about what his life was really like, or if they were making fun of him.  “Both,” he answered.  Then he bolted up and pointed a finger to nobody.  “They just wanted to look superior to somebody.”  I pushed him to tell me what the biggest difference for him was now that he lived in the city.  “Choice.  I don’t have to let someone into my business if I don’t want to.  I can disappear here.”

When I asked for a similar list about what defines “home” for them, one of the items was “feeling like I belong somewhere.”  It led to a long conversation about family, and how many of them missed their parents and siblings, and others were relieved to be away from them.  It made me think of my last post.  Who and how we care about others is what informs our sense of home.  And this student helped me begin to frame a mold for how we pour our identity into a place and have it sculpt us.

One cannot disappear after all, if they stick out in any way – racially, religiously, even in the most internal and therefore invisible ways.  A recovering alcoholic may feel like they have a spotlight on them if they walk through the crowd of their old regular haunt with a bottle of water in hand.

And yet, New Orleans is made up of weirdos, and I say that affectionately.  Those who are naturally eccentric do not receive a second glance here, and therefore can relax into who they are, enjoying the attention if they want it, or “disappearing” into the stream of other pirates strolling down Royal on a Tuesday morning.  We do not throw away Halloween costumes on November 1st, but stash the pieces in a chest for the next occasion to dress up, whether it be Mardi Gras, a Saints game, or a night out with friends.  We thrive on our ability to transform ourselves into someone else for a minute, and instead of being mocked or judged for our wigs, elaborate make-up, and cross-dressing, we are celebrated by amateur paparazzi.  If we go to the Quarter, tourists take pictures of us as if we are the sights to be seen, we are the show.

It may be one of the reasons that actual celebrities are more comfortable here than elsewhere.  When you are tired of dressing up and pretending, you’re allowed to disappear, because we understand the fatigue of pretending.  Of being the minstrel.

Moments of fame, almost of red carpet quality, are equally available to all who live here, more days of the year than not.  All of us have days to enjoy standing out, outdoing each other, while at the same time disappearing into a crowd of costumes.  We foster and encourage what it is we value – creativity, character, and originality.  It’s a complex and wonderful balance of individuality and common mores.

The 610 Stompers are a fantastic example – a group of men who tout themselves as “ordinary,” but it’s their moves, what they can do, that make them “extraordinary.”  They are just like us.  Even their uniform and matching mustaches and choreography offer little chance for individuals to stand out in the group.  But the group itself is an oddity not found, or understood, anywhere else in the world, as demonstrated by the reactions of the Today Show hosts, or at least Kathie Lee, in this clip a couple of years ago when they went to New York City for their first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

They didn’t get it, even if Hoda tried, you can hear in their banter through the performance, “I don’t know what they’re doing.”  Further, they weren’t given the chance to set themselves up successfully — poor lighting, poor staging, poor camera work.  And the Today Show came close to making fun of our guys, who were already making fun of themselves, so their mockery would have fallen flat.  It is a perfect, if not innocuous, example of our culture being removed from the parish, and it not translating elsewhere. It is true Hoda didn’t have time to explain the traditions of marching bands here in town, the generations of school-age tap girls and female dance troops, for America to understand that the 610 Stompers might at one time have had their tongues in their cheeks for a hot second, but now they are wagging proud.  When removed from the context of what makes them no longer a parody but an establishment, they don’t have the support their home, their place, their sense of belonging, gives them.

Like taking a recipe for etouffee back to Chicago and wondering why, even after meticulously following the instructions, it just doesn’t taste the same.

This is one of the reasons we guard and protect being “from here.”  It’s not just an act of cultural preservation, making sure certain buildings stay a certain color or particular stories aren’t lost.  In order to be able to step out and rebel as often as we do, to cut loose and change who we are and act a fool, there must be something to react against.  When disruption is routine – how many times have you been stuck in traffic behind a surprise second line? – it is natural to want to cling to reliable comforts, like flagship menu items at certain restaurants, or worse, steadfast power structures that insure the fabric of the city is not stretched or rent.  Is it not a classic manipulation of the oppressor to invoke protection as a reason to control?  Is it not impossible to lower a protesting fist in the air when a brass band approaches and pause to celebrate instead?

If home is about disappearing as much as it is about belonging, and our traditions are as much about control and protection as they are release and (re)creation – literally re-creating ourselves in costume or disguise for a spell – no wonder it is confusing for people who aren’t “from here” to understand just how complex our communities, our choices, and our traditions are.  We cannot trust all strangers to be open-minded or non-judgmental, nor can we believe they will respect the nuances of painful history that layer who we belong to, who we protect, and why.

When we ask, “Are you from here?” with a squint-eyed discerning look, it’s not necessarily one of exclusion.  It’s an evaluation of safety.  What we’re really asking is, “Have you been around long enough to understand that nothing here is what it seems?  Or are you just going to take things out of context, and whether you mean to or not, end up hurting more than helping?”

This is far enough I think for Part One on being “from here.”  More soon.

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