I’ve been reading Descent: Poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer. It was published last year by LSU Press (which despite the perennial financial problems of the Louisiana state legislature still manages to produce quality works year after year). Byer, a native of Georgia, studied at the University of North Carolina with Allen Tate and Fred Chappell. Chappell is one of my favorite writers.
Her poems are “writ Southern.” Southerners of a certain age and understanding will recognize them. Think Flannery O’Connor. Some critics described O’Connor’s stories as “Southern Grotesque.” Being born and raised in the South, I read them as family history.
The South of legend and myth as already beginning to vanish when I was child. Today, it’s possible to be raised in Atlanta or Raleigh or Charlotte and not have a Southern accent. (It might still linger on in Charleston, Birmingham and Jackson, though.) Television and American homogenization have had their impacts.
My father drapes his battle flag across
a back-room window. If I tried to tell
him why I wish he wouldn’t, I’d have hell
Reading Byer’s poems is to read some of my own childhood and family history. My father didn’t sport Confederate battle flags; he was a died-in-the-wool U.S. veteran and patriot. But my grandmother, his mother, still spoke of the “War of Northern Aggression;” her mother had suffered through it as a child, and everything about “the cause” was carried forward, down to me.
My father talked his paternal grandfather with pride – the one who had been a 15-year-old messenger boy in the Civil War, who returned home after Appomattox to find his family in Mississippi dispersed somewhere in east Texas.
In 1960, historian C. Vann Woodward published a book, The Burden of Southern History, a collection of essays about how “The South” had come to be. I read it when I took Louisiana history in college; it was a kind of regional bible for young Southerners to understand the South. There was much we had to understand, because so much was changing so dramatically and so fast.
…Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
My father was from Shreveport; my mother New Orleans. My father grew up in the two-case system of Shreveport – one of race and the other of wealth. He lived on Fairfield Avenue, then the most exclusive street in the city. Except he lived across the street that divided Fairfield into rich and poor, across from where the wealthy lived.
My mother grew up in an integrated neighborhood in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. White and black families living there had one significant thing in common – they were all poor. And yet there was a significant difference.
However poor we are, we aren’t black,
said a neighbor. That was bedrock. Solid ground,
the core of our identity. The one unyielding fact
Segregation was a fact in my childhood eyes. I remember the water coolers at the A&P grocery store marked “white” and “colored.” I remember the separate restrooms, separate restaurants and separate hotels, and separate sections of the movie theaters. I was 10 when the schools in New Orleans integrated, amid massive protests. Three years later, in my last year of middle school, the high schools in our suburban Jefferson Parish integrated. The high school where I would be attending had so many fights and so much violence that federal marshals were stationed there every school day.
Trapped in your eyes I see Sherman
march through here all over again.
The year I started, everyone feared a repeat of the previous year. Yet nothing happened. The federal marshals were able to leave. The students figured out how to make it work, and it was no longer the overriding issue dominating everything. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King when I was a high school junior cast a pall over all of us. Few of us really understood it then, but we had all lost something with his death.
The South I grew up in is gone. Some of it I mourn – the manners, the civility. Some of it I don’t mourn at all – the race hatred, the violence, the downright meanness. But it was all of a piece, and the whole piece was going to have to change.
I don’t know how long names can last
if there’s no one to care where they live.
(All the lines of poetry above are taken from Byer’s Descent.)
Photograph: New Orleans 1950, by Robert Frank.