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The Paula Deen Mess

I don’t care one bit for the Paula Deen persona. I hate her cooking, and to me, her sugary, buttery Southern shtick is like eating icing from a can. If she mistreated black people in her employ, then she should be made to answer for that. But am I supposed to think she’s History’s Greatest […]

I don’t care one bit for the Paula Deen persona. I hate her cooking, and to me, her sugary, buttery Southern shtick is like eating icing from a can. If she mistreated black people in her employ, then she should be made to answer for that.

But am I supposed to think she’s History’s Greatest Monster because Deen, a 66-year-old white woman who grew up in a small Georgia town in the Jim Crow South, admitted to having used the N-word and held certain prejudices? Really? The daintiness of our popular culture in some areas, its extreme willingness to take umbrage over language, and its refusal to offer grace to the repentant, is one of the more depressing aspects of modern life.

I think the linguist John McWhorter, who is black, has the most sensible take. Excerpt:

Deen was already a twenty-something when the old racist order broke down; her world view had pretty much jelled. How could she have a perfectly egalitarian take on race growing up when and where she did?

People of Deen’s generation can neither change the past nor completely escape their roots in it, anymore than the rest of us. They can apologize and mean it, as Deen seems to. They also deserve credit for owning up to past sins, as Deen did candidly when she could easily have, shall we say, whitewashed the matter.

The taboo on the N-word, and associated attitudes, is appropriate. It’s certainly smarter than the goofiness of the 1800s when the terms white and dark meat emerged to avoid the possible sexual connotations of referring to breasts and thighs. However, we’re less smart when we turn taboo enforcement into implacable witch hunting, which is not thought but sport.

Deen is old and she’s sorry. She should get her job back.

I agree with this. When I was a young man, I was full of moralistic ardor to condemn my ancestors on this topic for their sins and failings. Much later, though, as I read more history, I reflected on how insulated I would have been had I grown up in my own hometown under segregation. Before you even consider the question of whether you would have had the courage to stand up to the racism as a white person, you have to consider whether or not it would have even occurred to you as a white Southerner to have ideas about race so advanced that you refused to say the N-word, even though every white person you knew said it, and the social and legal order into which you were born treated black people like second-class citizens, or worse. How would you have done this given the fact that there was no such thing back then as national broadcast media providing a sustained counternarrative to the norms inculcated by your culture, and in most cases the Southern white churches were so compromised and morally feeble on race that they didn’t make a stand?

As you know, I’m reading A.J. Liebling’s book The Earl Of Louisiana, about the infamous Gov. Earl K. Long, and the election of 1959 (when Paula Deen was 12 years old, by the way). It’s really a book about Louisiana’s political culture of the era. Hell, I live in Louisiana, and it’s like reading about another country. Just tonight I read a passage about how every gubernatorial candidate pledged to be rock-solid in defense of segregation. You could not hope to be elected if you didn’t. It was the same way in the Georgia in which Paula Deen was raised. In context of their time and place, the Longs — Earl and his older brother Huey — were effective race liberals, though pledged to defend segregation. A couple of anecdotes Liebling tells explains how this worked:

“Earl is like Huey on Negroes,” Tom said. “When the new Charity Hospital was built here, some Negro politicians came to Huey and said it was a shame there were no Negro nurses, when more than half the patients were colored. Huey said he’d fix it for them, but they wouldn’t like his method. He went around to visit the hospital and pretended to be surprised when he found white nurses waiting on colored men. He blew high as a buzzard can fly, saying it wasn’t fit for white women to be so humiliated. It was the most racist talk you ever heard, but the result was he got the white nurses out and the colored nurses in, and they’ve had the jobs ever since.”

Another story, this one involving Earl. The white supremacist leader State Sen. Willie Rainach was making a speech on the floor of the Legislature, defending the purging of blacks from voting rolls, and denouncing Gov. Long for planning to “sell Louisiana down the river.” Here’s Liebling:

Long, grabbing for a microphone — probably he had no legal right to be in the argument at all — remonstrated, “I think there’s such a thing as being overeducated. Scientists tell me there’s enough wrinkles up there” — tapping his head — “to take care of all kinds of stuff. Maybe I’m getting old — I’m losing some of mine. I hope that don’t happen to Rainach. After all this over, he’ll probably go up there to Summerfield, get up on his front porch, take off his shoes, wash his feet, look at the moon and get close to God.” This was gross comedy, a piece of miming that recalled Jimmy Savo impersonating the Mississippi River. Then the old man, changing pace, shouted in Rainach’s direction, “And when you do, you got to recognize that niggers is human beings!”

That statement helped convince many people that Uncle Earl had lost his mind, and they had him shipped off to an asylum in Texas. Liebling was a shrewd enough judge of politics that he describes Earl Long as “the most effective civil rights politician in the South.”

Why do I bring this up in the Paula Deen matter? Because it gives you a sense of what it was like in the Deep South during Deen’s childhood. If a Southern white person of Deen’s age told me they had never used the N-word, I wouldn’t believe them. The word had not the slightest element of taboo at the time.

We should all be grateful that those days are past. But I think it unrealistic to believe a white person raised in that culture would never have used its expressions, or thought the way nearly all white people of her time and place once thought about that word, and about black people. Standards change. Leaving aside the race issue, how many 66-year-old Americans have never used anti-gay slurs?

If Paula Deen has a history of racist employment practices, that’s a different matter, and a far more serious one. But destroying her career because she has spoken in terms that, however morally ugly, were completely uncontroversial in the culture that formed her? I agree with John McWhorter: that’s witch hunting.

Watch this two-minute clip from a 2012 New York Times interview with Deen, in which she talks about race. Deen is squirming in the way many Southern whites of her generation would squirm if asked to talk about race. I get where she’s coming from. I think she’s being totally genuine — even when she says, “We didn’t think of ourselves as prejudiced.” Ta-Nehisi Coates has a less charitable view of her performance here than I do, though we probably agree more than we disagree on what it is reasonable to expect of a person raised in a culture that was so thoroughly racist.

I once interviewed an older Southern white woman who was at the time deeply involved in an effort to save a black community institution, and who began the interview by saying, of the town, “We have always been good to our Negroes.” Where do you even start with that? The pathos in that statement is the woman’s need to believe in her own racial innocence, even as she asserts a jaw-dropping paternalism. Yet this woman was going to great lengths to defend black people whom she saw being mistreated. Did she fall short of the ideal? Absolutely. But to have expected a woman born and raised in the Deep South in the 1930s and 1940s to have been free from common prejudices of her era would have been not only a childish kind of angelism, but would have blinded me to the actual effectiveness of this woman’s work on behalf of a black cause.

I’m reminded too of a talk I had in the 1980s with Father Jaak Seynaeve, a Belgian Catholic priest teaching at LSU in Baton Rouge. Father Jaak, who died six years ago at the age of 91, told me that when he first started coming to Baton Rouge, back in the 1960s, Protestants and Catholics didn’t mix with each other much. He spoke with satisfaction about how he and other clergy members, both Catholic and Protestant, had worked hard to break down barriers between the communities. I remember expressing surprise to him that it had been that way in the city only 20, 25 years earlier, but he assured me that it had been so. I believed him, of course, but it was stunning to me, the beneficiary of the culture that Father Jaak and others had worked so hard to change, to believe that Baton Rouge Christians had ever thought in such separatist terms of each other. But they did.

Again: times change, and people change. We should grant them grace if they ask for it, because we ourselves, being human beings and not angels, will surely need it one of these days, when our grandchildren turn on us and demand to know how dare we have ever said this thing or thought that other thing?



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