20 April 2012

Midnight in the Garden at High Noon



Expatriate American author Gertrude Stein played as much a pivotal role among the Lost Generation of expat authors, poets, artists, and musicians in Paris during the 1920’s as she did, in the form of Kathy Bates, in Woody Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” as mentor to hopeful author Gil Pender, portrayed by Owen Wilson. 

Visitors to Stein’s salon in the Notre-Dame-des-Champs section of Paris and her other associates included such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Aleister Crowley, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Sylvia Beach, Henry Miller, Igor Stravinsky, Coco Chanel, Sergei Diaghilev, Thornton Wilder, and Sherwood Anderson, along with her brothers Michael and Leo and her lifelong partner, Alice Toklas.

The same folks also frequented Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop, which served as a lending library and bookstore in addition to gathering place.  Joyce nicknamed it “Stratford-on-Odeon”.  It was closed in 1940 during the Occupation; after Beach died in 1964, George Whitman’s “Le Mistral” on the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) near the Place Saint-Michel changed its name to Shakespeare and Company

Justifiably renowned for her contributions to the arts (she and brother Michael had collected works by and supported some of Europe’s finest artists), Stein suggested in 1934 that Adolf Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Her statement at the time was heavily laden with language that could be interpreted as irony, but in 1938 she spearheaded an effort to convince the Nobel Committee to do just that.  During the Spanish Civil War, she publicly endorsed Francisco Franco and the Nationalists and during the Second World War compared Vichy leader Marshal Petain to George Washington.

What’s wrong with this picture is that Gertrude Stein was both Jewish and gay. 

In the South, we’ve long been accustomed to such contradictions as of a Jewish lesbian supporting a foreign political leader who was both anti-Semitic and homophobic.  Reading about Stein reminded me of a demonstration in Atlanta several years back against then-Governor of Georgia Roy Barnes.  Representatives of the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans showed up in their re-enactment uniforms at the same time as a group of family members of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Shortly afterward, the local chapter of the New Black Panther Party showed up. 

These three disparate groups stood together to protest a governor they detested, even though the Black Panthers weren’t overly thrilled with the Confederate-uniformed SCV members and neither they nor the King family contingent were comfortable with each other either.  Only in the South.

I remember in particular one day I substitute-taught an American history class at Howard High School, whose student body was 99.5% black. 

The class was studying the Civil War period, and I was excited because I had just recently turned up information about the First Colored Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland based in Chattanooga and about the comparatively large number of black officials both the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County had well into the early 20th century.  I also had information about black soldiers who had fought for the Confederacy, including quotes from Frederick Douglas’ letter to Lincoln on the subject and accounts of the all-black (including officers) 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards of the Confederate Army.

Of course, I met with the teacher for whom I was substituting beforehand and showed him some of the materials I wanted to bring in.  It proved to be one of my favorites days of substitute teaching. 

What was really interesting about it was what I discovered during the “planning period” while looking at the wall outside the classroom.  As part of getting his students to see history from the point-of-view of its participants, the teacher had assigned them a writing lesson in which they would take the part of a soldier writing to his sweetheart back home or vice-versa.  They could choose for themselves whether to be Union or Confederate.  I found it quite interesting that nearly all, with two or three exceptions, chose to be Confederate.

Take the case of the black student Byron Thomas, freshman at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, to hang the Army of Tennessee Confederate battle flag in his dorm window.  For the record, what is commonly called the Confederate battle flag is actually that of the Army of Tennessee.  Those of Northern Virginia and Trans-Mississippi, along with some of the smaller regional commands, had their own battle flags.

I know that may sound totally bizarre to those outside of or only recently relocated to the South.  Probably as bizarre as the fact that a Jewish lesbian supported Adolf Hitler, but not very much to anyone who’s from around here.

None of these Howard High students were what some deride as “Uncle Toms”, to use an alternate term for what Malik el-Shabazz called a “house Negro”.  In fact, many of them were associated with progressive, even radical organizations.  They saw themselves simply as citizens of Tennessee, which happened to be in the Confederacy at the time of the Civil War.  The choice wasn’t about politics, it was about soldiers, and about home.

They were all pleasantly surprised to learn of the Union’s Department of the Cumberland’s First Colored Brigade, however.

Speaking of the term “Uncle Tom”, it is misused.  In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the 2nd best-selling of the 19th century, behind Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and ahead of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887), Uncle Tom is rather a courageous figure, beaten to death for refusing to himself beat another slave.  The opposite of how pop culture likes to portray him, which is in the mold of Malik el-Shabazz’s (Malcolm X) “field Negro” collaborator who fawns over his/her Master.

Another term oft-misused as an epithet is “Ugly American”.  It derives from the 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American.  For most of the world, an “Ugly American” means those loud, overbearing Americans who live overseas, particularly in what used to be called the Third World, staying inside their “Golden Ghetto” (as the book calls it), treating the locals with condescension, patronization, and outright contempt. 

In the novel, however, the central figure you meet in the chapter “The Ugly American” is actually very respectful of the nationals in his host country, with he and his wife living in one of the village with the same amenities as their neighbors and treating them with mutual respect.  The only person more heroic and more in tune with the local people is “The Ugly Ugly American”.

There can be no doubt that the original seven states of the Confederacy (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded to preserve slavery, pure and simple.  So much for the “noble” Lost Cause.  That is why even though I am qualified several times over for the SCV’s Military Order of Stars and Bars I will never join.  In addition to Confederate military veterans, the MOSB allows descendants of former Confederate officials and legislators, the very slave-owning planted aristocracy which brought about the War Between the States in the first place.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), on the other hand, is a different story.  The SCV is solely for descendants of Confederate military veterans, though there is a provision for associate members that permits nearly anyone to join.  With seventy-three qualifying lineal and collateral ancestors, I have been a member (though long inactive) for a decade and a half.  I am even adjutant emeritus of the SCV’s now-defunct Sam Bennett Camp.  The SCV isn’t about politics (except for the League of the South faction from South Georgia to which I am bitterly opposed); it’s about soldiers.

Another fact of which there can be no doubt is that tens of thousands of blacks, both slaves and freemen, served with the Confederate armies.  While the number of those who actually fought as combat soldiers may be in dispute, Frederick Douglas is among those providing witness to what might seem to some contrary to common sense.  

After the war, Douglas  joined one of the American sections of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s International Workingmen’s Association, which he left in 1872 with others to form the Equal Rights Party.  That same year the former slave ran for Vice President as running mate to Virginia Woodhull on the party’s ticket.  Woodhull, not Shirley Chisholm nor even Belva Ann Lockwood was the first woman to run for U.S. President just as Douglas, not Chisholm, was the first black to run for executive office.

For the students at Howard High, the question when they were choosing with which side to identify was not about politics but about home, their city and state, about belonging where they lived.  Not in the sense of being an “Uncle Tom” but rather of claiming their right of citizenship by birth.  Which was the same reason so many black men fought for the Confederacy in defiance of what makes sense to 21st century politically-correct minds.

Regarding Gertrude Stein, she was a lifelong Republican and very much anti-leftist, in spite of the company she kept.  More afraid of Communism than its alternative, she saw fascists such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco as the best hope for keeping the Bolshevik horde at bay.  However, unlike Coco Chanel, Stein’s collaboration never went much farther than translating several speeches by Vichy president Marshal Petain into English.  She even compared the German army occupiers to the Keystone Kops.

As for the designer of fashion extraordinaire, inventor of the LBD (little black dress), and matriarch of modern melanoma, Coco Chanel actively spied for her German friends, and though the Americans and Brits salivated over her designs once she started back in production, the French despised her for the rest of her life and still do to this day.

To those outside the American South who think they understand the South…you really don’t understand anything.  To those from the American South who think they understand the South…you need to wake up.



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