In my earlier piece on the Paula Deen racism scandal, and why it is important, I focused on questions of White nostalgia, black subordination, and human dignity. I want to develop that a bit more by focusing on the relationship between violence and Paula Deen's fantasies of slavery plantations and obedient servants.
There is at least one prominent African-American making excuses for Deen's bigotry, which he frames as a function of her "culture" and "upbringing".
Dr. Boyce Watkins is half-right. Yes, her childhood provides a useful context and lens for understanding Paula Deen's racism. However, Deen's upbringing in the heart of the former Confederacy is not an excuse. She is no victim, nor is her racism a "misunderstanding."
If anything, the casualness of Paula Deen's bigotry was in evidence at an early age. Consider the following story from her 2006 memoir:
“This one day she had brought her little girl to work, and that child had many big, fat blisters on her hand, probably from helping out her momma. Something about those blisters just attracted me and I remember hitting those little hands with a bolo bat, and it busted her blisters good. It was pretty satisfying.Deen's memoir also includes the following recollection:
I don’t know why I did it. I have a hard time thinking I did it out of meanness. But her mother—I can’t remember if she slapped me across the face or she spanked me or both—but either way, now I know I sure had it comin’.
Well, still I was heartbroken and I went running to find my Grandmother Paul and Granddaddy and my momma. And my granddaddy had the woman arrested for hitting me. The little black girl’s momma went to jail.
All this time it’s bothered me. It was me who deserved to be sittin’ in that jail for breaking a little black girl’s blisters in 1957.”
In the book, Deen, who was born in 1947, frankly wrote about her youth in Albany, Ga., where she “never thought” about the fact she was living “in the mix of what was fixin’ to be a huge social change.”Paula Deen's nostalgia for Jim and Jane Crow is a yearning for a world that was based upon legal violence and casual cruelty towards black Americans.
“It was happening right under our noses: our local African-Americans were claimin’ their right for fair and equal treatment and some white folks were inspired to rethink old ways,” wrote Deen. “Still, I hardly noticed.”
The lynching tree, terrorism, harassment, the KKK, racial pogroms, and economic, as well as social exploitation and exclusion, were a function of a social arrangement where Whites could visit violence, as individuals and a group, (almost) at will on people of color.
Deen's use of the phrase "our local African-Americans" is potent. As always, language does political work.
"Our" is a description of a set of historical material circumstances wherein whites quite literally owned black people as human property. "Our" also sketches out the boundaries of controlling one's own personhood and liberty--black Americans were denied this right from slavery through to the end of Jim and Jane Crow in the South and elsewhere.
Deen's "our local African-Americans" can be abused and violated in an arrangement more akin to a White racial fiefdom than a proper democratic polity. If white folks felt benevolent they could also offer protection and defense to "their negroes" from those other white people who would do them even greater harm. Both arrangements robbed Black Americans of their agency and freedom.
In total, White racial terrorism and White racial paternalism are both the product of White Supremacy and an inherent belief in black inferiority.
Paula Deen could beat a black child with a stick. But, it was the black child's mother who is sent to prison for daring to protect her little girl: this was a normal arrangement, the natural order of things, for her Deen's Jim and Jane Crow upbringing and (now) adult fantasies.
When I think about the casual cruelty of Jim and Jane Crow America, I return to the powerful narratives of day-to-to black life and resistance in the South offered in historian Leon Litwack's essential book "Trouble in Mind".
The following story is rich and evocative of a social milieu in which race determined life outcomes, and White Supremacy stunted dreams and hopes.
As detailed in a review of Trouble in Mind by Barry Goldberg that appeared in New Politics:
Charlie had struggled hard to escape the perennial indebtedness of black (and white) sharecroppers and tenant farmers. One year he sold his tobacco and settled with his landlord and actually came out ahead. When "the man" called him back and told him he had miscalculated, Charlie could not contain his anger. He hit him. Charlie was fortunate: he lived and served a year on a chain gang. He had learned a sobering lesson. As he recalled, " . . . I knowed it wasn't no use for me to try to ever make anything but jist a livin'."Of course, this is not America in the Age of Obama. But the not so past world it describes, one of necessary black submissiveness and deference to White Authority, remains operative in the dreams of folks like Paula Deen, the racists in the Tea Party GOP, George Zimmerman, and those others who simply cannot accept a country where a man is President who happens not to be white, and in which African-Americans have become too "uppity."
But while he had been kept in his "place," he thought his son might go farther. Willie not only graduated high school, he continued his education, eventually getting his degree from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro. But following the advice of Booker T. Washington and success manuals for blacks did not help Willie improve his lot.
In fact, Charlie later recalled, that "was when de trouble started." In spite of his education, Willie had no more opportunities than his father, and even less patience. Willie started "settin' around and drinkin' and gittin' mean." One year, already angry at the previous day's visit to the tobacco warehouse, he returned with another load. Told that his son had been in a fight at the warehouse, Charlie arrived in town to find his son lying on the ground, his bashed-in skull surrounded with blood. As Charlie remembered, "Dey was tears runnin' down my cheeks and droppin' on his face and I couldn't he'p it."
Charlie had made a fatal mistake: he did not impart the lesson he had learned or the advice his slave-born grandfather had given him years earlier as they sat fishing one day. "Son, a catfish is a lot like a nigger" the older man told him when he was a child. "As long as he is in his mudhole he is all right, but when he gits out he is in for a passel of trouble. You 'member dat, and you won't have no trouble wid folks when you grows up." But for good and ill he hadn't. After his son's killing, he would never forget. His other children lived, but none went to college. "Dey don't hab much, but dey is happy," he said.
Charlie Holcombe's tragic tale spanning four generations of Holcombe males reveals how difficult it is to offer a typology of accommodation and resistance. Charlie was born into freedom and tested its limits. He could not temper his anger. He learned a hard, but fortunately non-fatal lesson. Still he encouraged his son to climb out of the "mudhole." But after he paid for his son's unacceptable aspirations he retreated and counseled caution. He had become an "old Negro," but instead of simply sharing folk metaphors, he took younger restless blacks to his son's grave.