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Being Julia Sugarbaker by Meredith Hammons April 1, 2010

Posted by Skippy in Culture.
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Note: this is a post by one of my best friends (and queer facilitator!) Meredith Hammons on being a Southerner in a place like California…or any place not designated “the South.”

Last night, I attended the first meeting of the Peninsula Book Club, which I found on meetup.com (a site I highly recommend, by the way). We were reading “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, which I thought was a terrific book. The book is set in civil-rights-era Jackson, Mississippi and is told in three voices, Skeeter, a white woman fresh out of college who is puzzled when her beloved African-American maid, Constantine, disappears, Aibilene, an African-American domestic worker for Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, and Minnie, an African-American domestic worker, with a tendency to speak her mind, which often gets her into trouble with her employers.

I knew it was going to be interesting, to say the least, to discuss this book as the only natural born Southerner in a group full of people living in Northern California. In the back of the book, Kathryn Stockett writes that one of her motivations for writing this book was the fact that, when she lived in New York and told people she was from Mississippi, she got some responses along the lines of, “Aren’t you glad to be out of there?” If I had a nickel for every time someone had said that to me out here in California, I could pay off my student loan debt. The perception seems to be that in Northern California, or really the whole state, there is no racism or prejudice of any kind. Despite the fact that a) I work in a library system of over 100 employees that has exactly one African-American; b) Prop 8 passed; c) one of my co-workers told a story just yesterday of traveling to Death Valley with her son and his African-American girlfriend, in which idiots called out racial slurs to the girlfriend as they drove down the road and the whole group was harassed in a bar.

Anyway, the book club had about 20 people and when we went around to introduce ourselves, we had to state our name and our connection to/feelings about “the South.” Well, that right there irked me because “the South” is not a monolith. There are vast differences between Mobile, Alabama and Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance. But I digress. Of the 20 people there, I’d say there were about 5 who had ever been to the South (one woman asked if Ohio counted – it doesn’t. Neither does Florida).

The first thing I’d like to point out is that there were no African-Americans in this group of 20 people, which is what caused me to crack up when one woman talked about how diverse and inclusive the Bay Area is. While it is a diverse place, African-Americans are not the ethnic group with the most representation. It’s one of the things that Roger often points out – racism in the South is very often in your face, but outside the South, it’s much more subtle. People might not be making racial slurs, but they aren’t hanging out with anyone outside their ethnic group either.

Second thing, someone asked what the response to this book was among “the black community.” I’m going to ask Roger, since I’m sure it was discussed at the last meeting of “the black community.” Yet another example of “subtle” racism: the assumption that all members of a group think exactly the same way.

My favorite moment was when someone asked if racial discrimination has existed outside the south, and there were myriad examples of from the Bay Area in the 60s of homeowner’s association and even housing titles that prevented the selling of houses to African-Americans and disallowing African-Americans from spending the night in certain parts of town. It’s the thing that I always want to point out to non-Southerners: yes, the South has a legacy of racism and Jim Crow laws were unconscionable, but there are racists throughout the country.

The other issue which challenged this group were how issues of class, money and gender affect race relations everywhere. One female white character in the book, Celia, grew up in Sugar Ditch. If you are from the south, just from the name, you can tell that, despite marrying into the right family and having money, Celia had about as much shot of joining the Junior League as her African-American maid, Minnie, did, though Celia didn’t realize it. I had to explain that for her, in Sugar Ditch, the goal was acceptance in the Junior League and the assumption is that money and the right connections would get her there. Also, Celia’s outsider status made it easier for her to connect with Minnie, across racial lines.

You can enjoy the book if you aren’t from the south, but for some of it, you’ve got to be from the south, you have to have experienced trying to straighten your curly hair in 100% humidity, or had someone’s mama (not even necessarily your own) exerting some pressure on you to act or dress a certain way. I think those things help in not seeing all the Junior League women as stereotypes. Once you’ve seen Elizabeth’s mama, you understand exactly why she is the way she is.

The other issue that came up was why Hilly, the ringleader of the Junior League, was so invested in getting all her friends to build separate bathrooms for their “help”. As a southern white woman in the 60s, Hilly’s only power was among the Junior League, so she exercised as much power as she could in her own little realm. These power issues, again, are not unique to the South or to the civil rights era. I pointed out that in San Mateo County, the 2nd wealthiest county in California, by the way, many people have Latina “help”. If one could hear the stories of those women, would they be much different? Or the book “The Nanny Diaries”, where the author of that book is in the same ethnic group, but not the same financial situation, and the families she encountered certainly exerted as much power over her as they could. It was really easy for some of these folks from liberal California to want to distance themselves from “those racists over there in the South” and assume that no one they knew would ever be racist, but when you peel back the layers, to illustrate the interrelationship between class, financial status and race, it’s a lot more difficult to pretend it is not a part of your own reality.

One of my favorite discussions did come up on the issue of voice. The author is a white woman who wrote in the voice of two African-American women. A woman who had an MFA from the University of Georgia mentioned that in her classes it had been acceptable for African-Americans to write in the voice of whites, but not vice versa, on the basis that African-Americans “lived in the white world” and could thus speak to that experience while whites did not “live in the black world.” The author’s response to the question was that a world in which we could not put ourselves in the minds/places/perspectives of another person would be a poor world. Her point is valid one, but does not end the discussion about the impact of telling another person’s story.

One thing I appreciated about this group was that is co-ed (three men out of twenty). Of course, that led the way for this 20something kid who introduced himself as “a historian” (read: grad student in history) to spend a bunch of time spouting stuff he’d clearly just gone over in some theory class and mispronouncing words like “deus ex machina” trying to sound smart. It took every ounce of strength I had not to insist he call me “Dr. Hammons” and to tell him to get out of the classroom and go experience the real world.



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