being a girl

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Stephanie, Mark’s wife, is a dancer who splits her time between New York and Lake Village. (Mark grew up in Mississippi, but went to school at CUNY and Stony Brook, and we had met once in NYC a while ago.) She threw herself into this adventure with great aplomb! On Thursday, we took a good bike ride to explore north of Lake Village, where there’s a channel marked on the map as the Old River. We were looking for possible put-in points for a paddle, but the Army Corps maps don’t cover all the back channels of the Mississippi, since the maps are optimized for barges and towboats, not for kayakers who prefer the back ways and side trips. We rode past a huge dam out in the fields, and near it is a perfect boat ramp, completely empty and unused. I’ve been avoiding the main river when I’m traveling alone: my vision of this journey does not include drowning, or even capsizing. So every chance I have to get on the river these days feels like a wonderful gift, and the back channels down here are strange and mystical places. Towards the end of our leisurely paddle Friday, which we treated more like a float, I noticed that there is a back channel to this Old River, which is of course already a back channel of the present Mississippi, so I left Stephanie and paddled around the long way, which must once have been the main river, because the state line is drawn along this tiny back slough. We met up again at the pullout, and retrieved cars and kayaks and headed home for a quick shower and then over to Winterville Mounds, where Mark works. We got there in time for Mark to show me around a bit before dark, and he told me a great story about the Native Americans accosting De Soto’s people in huge canoes each painted in a different primary color, and the paddles and the men themselves painted to match the canoes. Can you imagine how terrified De Soto’s troops must have been to see these brightly painted warriors paddling out into the main river, with their drums and their fierce songs?!? They didn’t kill De Soto’s band, but would come up to their boats and rock them until they tipped over, basically messing with them, hazing them, before disappearing back up the Deer River to Winterville. De Soto’s people decided soon after that to forget about the gold and treasure they had been seeking and just go home. De Soto himself was already dead and consigned to the river: legend has it that he was buried in what is now Lake Chicot, the lake Mark and Stephanie’s house is on.

We drove up to Rosedale for dinner at a good restaurant with very slow service, so we were late to the show at Po’ Monkey’s, a storied juke joint way out on a farm road sort of near Cleveland. A group of electro-acoustic musicians had taken over the place for an evening jam, which Mark had been asked to join. None of the regulars were there, apparently last year’s version was enough for them. And I’ll tell you, I mean no disrespect, but the whole scene rendered me almost inarticulate with despair. Here’s this whole group of musicians and composers from all over the country, who have shown up for a festival of electronic music, and they come down and jam badly for one another, jamming after all not being exactly what they are skilled at, and they congratulate themselves for playing in a juke joint, despite the fact that no-one from the actual community, not one regular is in the place. And then I overhear one guy saying to Mark Snyder, the festival organizer, that another guy is “being a girl” about getting up and playing: he keeps saying he’ll join in after the next song. And to Mark Snyder’s credit, he called the guy on it, claimed not to know what he meant, asked for clarification that had the guy sputtering a bit. But sitting there as one of three women in the whole place, electro-acoustic festivals in general and this one not exceptionally being something of a boy’s club, I was not exactly offended, I think a better word would be heartbroken. In this day and age a full-grown nominally educated guy actually casually and unthinkingly derides someone by calling them a girl?! Are you kidding me?!? I don’t know that guy, he might be an otherwise lovely and talented human being, but I hope women steer clear of him for the rest of his natural life.

But Mark Snyder’s sly and effective response really got me thinking. I have had occurrences in the past couple of weeks where white people have said things I regard as racist. And I struggle really hard to know how to calibrate my response. I remember being in a cab once in New York with my friend Juliana, and the cabdriver said something racist and she immediately said something like, I don’t agree with or accept your way of talking, and please do not speak that way while I am in your cab. But that’s a slightly less complicated situation: Juliana did not have any relationship with the cab driver beyond an economic exchange. But when people are hosting you, or doing you favors, or being generous to you, how do you indicate your dismay and disagreement with the language they use, the attitudes they express? My answer so far has been to think more like an anthropologist: I’m trying to understand how people are rather than judging them or arguing with them. And perhaps my way has some tiny impact, however inconsequential. The person who made the most racist statements I’ve had to listen to also noticed and commented on my interest in black music and culture, and told me some useful information about the history and geography of black music and musicians.

The discussion at the BB King Museum the other night was full of talk about the complicity of the North in racism, claiming that Northerners, even abolitionists, didn’t actually like black people any more than Southerners did, and in certain ways understand black culture far less than Southerners do. Martin Luther King said he was more scared of the white racists in Chicago than he ever was down South. And of course, there are proportionally so many more black people down here than up North, and I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities. That man has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life. Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.

But it’s easy to be shocked. I am definitely not at home. Black or white, rich or poor, in one way or another, I am aware that I am an outsider, I do not really fit in here anywhere. Which is why hanging out with Mark and Stephanie is very welcome right now. It feels like a break from constantly negotiating my own otherness.

10 thoughts on “being a girl”

  1. I recently told someone that if you’re not sure if you’re saying something offensive (e.g., “you wouldn’t get it — you’re a girl!”), try substituting “Jewish” or “black” or “Mexican” for “girl.” Still funny? No? Then keep it to yourself, pls!

  2. Oh, Eve, this is another great blog. So very often I have struggled with what to say or do — just as you have described! It’s difficult not to be self-righteous; we are blind to our own sins.

  3. Hi Eve,

    Welcome to the South. When I first moved here, it was a proverbial clashing of cultures – or rather – an immersion experience. It has taken me a full two years to adjust.

    I feel I have a unique experience in this at my job as a nurse. I have seen and am familiar with this culture in a way that most are not. I see the treatment that my African American peers are treated and I see their gracious responses and overhear their frustration. I have also seen instances of mistreatment in terms of patient care – a long story…

    However, despite the surface appearance of race, I also have to consider that this seems to be more of a class issue. I have seen just as many Caucasians treated differently simply based upon their appearance – whether physical or “financial” – it’s distressing how differently some patients get treated based upon the box on the face sheet that might say, “Medicare”.

    Which reminds me of a story further illustrating class (and gender) issues I have observed. I don’t remember if I told you this or not when you were here – when I was working in ER at a different hospital in the city, an African American woman came in with a huge contusion to her left upper arm. She had been beaten with a baseball bat at her home. I was concerned that her arm might be fractured, or that she might have vascular compromise due to the injury. After the assessment, I assumed that the patient would receive the standard x-ray to rule out a fracture. However, the doctor denied ordering an x-ray, stating that the woman was positive for cocaine. He said, “I’m ordering 650 mg of Tylenol and we’ll discharge her.” I was aghast. I simply said, “No x-ray?” His reply was, “No. She’s a crack head. She’s just looking for pain meds.”

    Oh, did I mention the doctor was black?

    Take care, very good care, dear one.

    Shawna

  4. Well, dear Eve, you seem to have stumbled upon a bit of the truth regarding race in this part of the South. It is, indeed, complicated, and not just to people from another region not quite so apparently bedeviled by it. I wouldn’t claim to understand it any better than you do, and I’ve been here all my life.
    And it has always seemed to me even more cruel in the Mississippi Delta, on both sides of the river, than in the hill country and piney woods sections. I would argue that there is more than a little class conflict masqurading as race matters. I have many friends who grew up as poor boys in Greenville, and who chopped and picked cotton in their youth side by side with black people. They may have been paid the very same two dollars a day as the black kid in the next row, both of them being equally exploited by their employer. But those same white boys grew up hating black people, and they still hate them, with a passion that I simply cannot grasp. It has to be about more than race, more than class. Something truly dark, truly terrifying is, has to be, collapsed into those emotions, whatever they are.
    Now, don’t condemn them for it. What you are witnessing is the burden of Southern history. Was it Walker Percy, or Flannery O’Connor? – one or the other of them, being asked to explain the flowering of Southern literature during the first half of the last century, said: we lost the war. What was meant was that the South had experienced defeat, and thereby understood that darker side of history as other Americans did not; we were obliged to consider, among other things, the guilt and shame of human slavery, much in the same way that Germans of my acquaintance have had to consider what their fathers did in the war and take it personally. Quite simply, no intelligent southerner of my generation – and mine may be the last generation to feel that obligation – could deny the worm in his own apple: like the poet, nothing should be foreign to us, we know we are capable, but for the grace of God, because our own blood participated in that history, of any kind of barbarity.
    People from other parts of America, who did not grow up so haunted by history, often claim pieties they have not had to earn by the hardest as some of us have had to do. Not even reading Faulkner will put you inside our skins. I’ll tell you a very personal story in that regard.
    When I was five years old I was with my grandfather at the Exchange Club in Brookhaven, Mississippi. There was a sort of political thing going on that afternoon. One of the featured speakers was one, Blowtorch Mason, a perrennial candidate for governor – no body but his kinfolk ever voted for him. In truth, he was just a bloviator; running for office just gave him the opportunity he needed to run his mouth with an audience. (In our day such bloviation has become a real money-making venture. Rush and Glenn Beck sort of call old Blowtorch to mind.) My grandfather lifted me to his shoulders so that I could watch the show. I will never forget what I heard. He asked of his audience a rhetorical question: Have you ever been bit by a blue-gum nigger? Evidently, I learned, such a bite was supposed to be as poisonous as the bite of a water moccasin. As my grandfather and I made our rounds that day – he did the grocery shopping for the family, and would drive all over town to save twenty-five cents at one store or another – I watched the people we encountered with that concern in mind.
    My wariness tickled my grandfather for some reason, not because he was in any way a typical racist. In fact, I can only recall him using the N word once in my whole life. He had only been out of the South once in his life, as far as I know. He was in France during WWI, even spent a few nights sleeping in Napoleon’s stables. But in those days anyone of his race and class not using the N-word might have been regarded as peculiar. The only time I can actually recall him using it was when I became “free, white, and twenty-one” and voted in my first election. I held my nose and voted for Hubert Humphery in 1968. By that time 34 of my African-American neighbors has also gained voting rights in that particular box in beat three, Lincoln county. Mr. Humphery got 35 votes in that box. The next day my grandfather was reading the results in the local paper. He looked over and me, chuckling, and observed that “they never will figure out where that other nigger came from.”
    Now, I was only five years old. My society in those days was only my own family and a few neighbors, some of whom were black. And the black ones were to me by far the most interesting people in my life, and I doubt that I made much of a distinction among them all, family and black neighbors. You know, even now I can still recall the laughter Mason’s cruel joke elicited among all those good Christen Mississippians that day. It has taken a very long time for me to truly understand how hateful and cruel it really was to hold other human beings in that regard, as more animal than human.
    The truth is, such very public cruelty was, always has been, and still is, a commomplace. We tag certain words as forbidden, but easily find substitute codes. When the republican candidate for president went to Philidelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, he didn’t have to use the N-word to get his message across. He just had to pointedly not use it, and instead talk about all those lazy people you hard-working folks are having to support on welfare, talk about the damage done to public schools by busing, and so forth; they understood him just fine. In fact, finding new codes for old attitudes has worked something of a political revolution in the whole country. You can hear it on every news program on television or radio. The solid South is as solid as it ever was, solid about the same issues, the same emotions, the same fears and hatreds. They just vote for a different party these days. And everyone understands the code. Southern politicians even use it the same way their predecessors did. All evil old Jim Eastland ever had to do to get elected in Mississippi was stand on a stump and holler “nigger, nigger, nigger”. He could then go back to the senate and vote any damn way he wanted, nevermind how hurtful his vote might have been to the crackers he left at home. The weakest and the most vulnerable serve the same purpose they did 50 years ago, the only difference is, the stress is bit more on class than on race, and not just in the South. Anyone can stand in place of the Other.
    I’ve rambled all over the place, and I doubt that I’ve brought any clarity to the matter. These things come to us like Mother’s milk, like the air we breath. Just get the hell out of there before they start spraying the cotton. I really ought to get down there, when you get to Vicksburg and Natchez. Things will seem a bit more civil once you leave the Delta, is my opinion. Civil but watch out for weird. d.

  5. Oh, by the way, being a “girl” is also to assume a certain Otherness, hereabouts. Let’s not even discuss matters of gender identity.

  6. Introspection and self judgment. Seemingly can not be avoided and actually must not be avoided to be human? Your excellent writing twice mentioned ‘self laceration”. While an emergency physician I had occasion to treat patients that physically self lacerated themselves. Only with great difficulty did I come to accept that pain was an important and even necessary way for them to feel needed relief and release. We (they) must just try to not cut to deeply, in what ever fashion we do it. We must also rely on others to let us know that we (YOU) are a good person worthy in our sight and in God’s.

  7. “I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities.”

    Eve, my dear, by suggesting to reconsider his choice of words you’ll probably won’t start the final and all-decisive battle against racism, for sure. But you’d make a difference. An important difference. Even if a certain situation has developed a complexity way beyond our comprehension, what good could it do not to speak up if you’re convinced what’s happening around you is profoundly disagreeable?

    Racism is one of the most abominable mental diseases of mankind, without any rationale (except from greed), whatever the local, historical, cultural or whatsoever circumstances may seem to suggest. So shouldn’t we all try to be strong and not to falter whenever confronted with the ugly face of racism? Or should I say whenever faced with stupidity?

    I do know how very delicate an effort it can be to politely make people understand you do not at all consent to their way of thinking or talking. And I often failed or didn’t even try, for what I feel ashamed. But still I’m convinced to the very core that it must be done.

    Much love and be save,

    Kai

  8. Deep thanks and appreciation, Eve, for the thoughtful post, and to everyone else for creating this great thread. I’m learning a lot from you all.

    Ed

  9. Remember those simple days on the upper river. Think of how the river carries those meanderings, day after day with banks closing in from either side and growing wider only gradually, by a matter of feet or yards, not as now by quarter-miles and sections. It seems impossible the river you write of now, the people, the clashing cultures could be wrung from the same land. The scale and consequence in your writings now seem too massive, too primal and pervasive that one could ever change any part of them. Should one confront offensive speech? Should one be fearful? Shold one paint one’s face a primary color, tipple a bit of moonshine and disappear into the backwaters? For sure one should paddle and pull hard. Backwaters, headwaters, life and breath, we all depend upon it. You are reaching into the heart of who we are as a people, by turns warm and hospitable and biased and violent, and beautiful and hurtful. You write words and elicit others we seldom speak, the truth. Few see it so well, fewer still write of it. It is painful. Thank you for your sacrifice, for seeing and writing and centering, for being a girl and woman, fully human. There is always home for you now, in this river. Peace girl. Nick

  10. Dear Eve,

    Thank you so much for sharing such a thoughtful entry, and also for having so many deeply thoughtful friends. I feel enriched not only by your words but by the moving responses of your friends as well.

    I have absolutely no wisdom at all to share with respect to issues of racism, classism, and all manner of other-isms. This is an area in which I am humbled daily by my lack of competency. I do however have some quick thoughts about managing discomfort when a visitor to an unfamiliar culture.

    In psychotherapy there is the “two of us in the room” concept, which includes the ongoing challenge of negotiating needs within any relationship which may sometimes, even often, be in conflict. Many of us default to prioritizing our own needs, or to prioritizing the needs of another, rather than successfully managing the symphony of multiple, concurrent needs kept on the table to be ever acknowledged and negotiated.

    It is perfectly reasonable to take shelter in the role of anthropologist. Isn’t that part of your goal in this project? At the same time, standing in the anthropologist’s shoes prevents you from being authentic, expressing your own needs and deepening your relationships.

    An alternative to your answer of thinking like an anthropologist is to simply say, without judgment, “It’s hard for me to hear you say that.” This can be followed by statements such as, “I know that I’m the stranger here, and can’t even begin to understand your experience, but this is really different and difficult for me. You have been so kind and generous to me, and yet I’m so unaccustomed to hearing comments like the one you just made, and I’m feeling sad and uncomfortable right now.” If you’re feeling especially brave you can follow with, “Can you tell me more about how you came to feel this way? I really want to try to understand.”

    Silence is easy and seeks to effect the anthropologist’s goal of not interfering with or changing the course of that which is being observed, or to at least partially minimize the impact of that act of observation. There are times when it is important for each of us to withhold our perspectives and understand that there is room for many different points of view. There are also times to be authentic without being judgmental. By remaining silent you will likely miss the opportunity to learn more about this deeply disturbing element of American culture, and those who meet you will surely miss the opportunity to learn about you and your values. All concerned will miss the opportunity to deepen a relationship no matter the differences between/among you.

    Dear Eve, I would not underestimate the power to affect change by quietly and compassionately expressing what is true for you.

    I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!!
    xxxxx

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