The Addictive Appeal of Southern Gothic

The Addictive Appeal of Southern Gothic

One of the first short stories I remember falling in love with was A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner. There were countless things that fascinated me from the narrator seemingly being the town itself to the descriptions of old southern decay. As a woman who grew up in the south, right as economic downturns and outsourcing devastated the textile industry the aesthetic of southern gothic had an intrinsic appeal to me.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are some genres you can’t help, but fall in love with from the time you are young. For some people this happens with fantasy or romance, and often it can happen again as you grow older. Certain genres have always had an appeal for, but  southern gothic and southern based literature always finds it way back into my life with vengeance, leaving my kindle full and my bookshelf ready to explode. In short, the southern gothic genre is Addictive, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. Despite the genre often being left out of everyday conversation it manifests in some of the most remembered cultural icons of our era, even as it goes unrecognized.

Southern Gothic is a classic and often under appreciated genre with infinite possibilities in text and on screen. When it shows up it shows out, whether through Beyonce’s Formation video, or stirring controversy through The Beguiled. As a little girl, I caught a few glimpses of the movie Beloved based on the novel by Toni Morrison (amazon link below) and ,though I utterly forgot I’d seen that movie until one day I saw it on the screen, imagery of it remained in my mind. A house full of ribbons. A daughter trying to save her mother from the burdens of guilt and the history of southern slaves and freedom. A woman, nude and screaming in giggling unnatural tongue before a prayer circle. The images stuck with me as fascinating concepts for years to come even as they faded to the back of my memory.

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Fall of The House of Uscher, a great example.

The south, post-civil war, is a place where hairstyles are always twenty years behind; where rocking chairs to over look your property are sources of pride passed down through generations; where tradition and culture is complex and divided; Where people prefer to say southern history is embodied by confederates while other southerners l(ike myself) look on and know they’re much more embodied by the slaves; where people watch meth ravaged communities scream “the south will rise again” while others try to move forward; where kids can run around the neighborhood alone and often find their friend’s door unlocked and fresh brownies waiting for whomever arrive.

The south is welcome and warning; it is where long standing tradition meets long standing decay. Where the past is present, and the present is always past.

This is why I love to write it, and why I’m currently finishing a six chapter short story called The Hell I Burn Through in the genre. Mind and Frost, turned out to be a bigger project, and I’m letting an associate go through it as we speak, but in the mean time I need something to work on when not finishing up Five Days with the Stranger, so I began to ponder something to write about in-between chapters of Five days rewrites. Suddenly, a vista of pine and river came to my vision, old houses with cared for porches, children playing beneath old water towers in the summer heat, and the streets of my own childhood cast in the intense pallor of Southern Gothic filled my vision. I opened a word document and wrote a six page outline for a novelette. Within the day I had 6,000 words written, characters who I completely fell in love with.  It feels like coming home.

And yet my relationship to the southern is complicated. Perhaps this is why I love the genre in the first place.

Gone with the wind

If you were born below the Mason-Dixon it can be hard not to romanticize the south. Gone with the Wind is a racist nightmare to many modern day black folk, but even still it has a glorious and sweeping appeal. There’s something wonderfully addictive about the south’s attitude of genteel welcome. By that same measure there is something wonderfully addictive about the south’s decay. The hypocrisy of that southern style kindness v.s normalized prejudices is part of why To Kill a Mocking Bird has lasted in the public mind. As a black southern woman, I experienced southern fried racism from a young age. No one ever called me the n-word, but there were times I was followed in stores, witnessed my incredibly intelligent parents being patronized, had visited restaurants with my friends families only for us to be stared at and glared at the whole time we were there because I was there. There were things I did not understand, but came to understand as I grew older and realized “Oh that wasn’t just weird people. That damn near a whole restaurant full of old white folk and their families who don’t like that I ate there, and didn’t understand why I was with that nice white family“. The darkness of the south wasn’t something I could ignore, and it wasn’t something my parents hid from me either. Some of the nicest, well-mannered, and polite people you will ever meet are old fashioned southern racists. Unlike the north –where racism is often excused as “at least we’re not them”(them being the south)– the south continues to have a lot of normalized bigotry and ignorance that contributes to that darkness. Knowing this, despite my love of Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias, the inclusion of decay in southern society rings true to me. The romanticism still exists, but it exists alongside southern shadows I, as a black southerner, can’t escape from. Truthfully I don’t want to.

7f51e86dc6e27c3edf633bef8e3c3c2dNo matter the media the aesthetic of southern gothic is fascinatingly beautiful and distinctly American, whether a story is set in a bayou, the eastern shore, or urban buzz of Atlanta. The swamps of the bayou and foothills of Georgia all have a unique and poignant natural beauty. Fields of collard greens go for as far as the eye can see, creating unique visuals amidst fields of grass green. The physical beauty of approaching a grand old house fascinates us when confronted by the old slave cabins not quite hidden by the trees. We walk down former main streets lined with businesses with faded paint from the 1960s and 1970s, whose owners still maintain the place with pride, knowing if their grandchildren will ever come back to mind the store. Those grandparents leave and drive old pick up trucks and sedans to lovely little houses on quite, safe, streets. They sit on the porch, have a coffee and way at their neighbors as they come home from school. It is both idyllic and decaying.

A decayed and perpetual beauty. In a way the south is an atmospheric vampire; perpetually the south and yet slowly, beneath a beautiful though tarnished surface, filled with unknowns and entropy.

eves20bayou20posterWhen I was eight years old, I first saw the movie Eve’s Bayou, and that movie has stuck with me even when the name left my mind, only to return years later. The imagery of well-to-do southern blacks in their communities, struggling with position without power; with creating the illusion of southern manners against the reality of small town gossip and misunderstandings leaves a permanent impression. That film laid a similar ground work that Toni Morrison did in her novels such as Beloved or The Bluest Eye; exploring the complex and taboo world of the secrets below the Mason Dixon. Those stories, though darker than others, create a space for black diversity in fiction. Wealthy blacks, poor blacks, root workers, pastors, and people just trying to get by create a complex reflection of black history and life through the ages. Eve’s Bayou situates the audience as a little girl about to lose her innocence, with her we learn those secrets and her own strength. In that film, we learn the reality that not everything is as it seems is one of the greatest southern narratives ever told as far as I’m concerned. It’s a change from every novel, person, and genre that assumes “urban” without “fantasy” or “paranormal” attached is inherently the black experience.

Southern gothic is and always will be a genre that feels natural to me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by recent media, like Resident Evil and True Blood, truly capturing that aesthetic and culture in exciting ways. Video games and HBO? Wow. It’s spreading. But we can always do with more…and bring more attention to the power of this tantalizing genre. Then again I may just be looking for another fix.

How do you feel about the Southern Gothic? Do you read these books often or not at all? Do you prefer movies with the aesthetic? And isn’t Formation a perfect video?
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Recommended Reads!

6 Elements of Southern Gothic, an excellent post breaking the southern gothic down!

The Evolution Of Southern Gothic

Lit Reactor’s Southern Gothic Primer, must reads for the genre

My Favs?

Kindred by the phenomenal Octavia Butler, check her out (rereading atm)

The Bluest Eye and Beloved by Toni Morrison, one of the best author’s in the genre

Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a personal favorite.  Tennessee Williams captures the genre in so many plays.

 

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Short Story Collections:

Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South

Southern Gothic Shorts

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Poem: Glass

Poem: Glass

Bitter memories frolic across my mindscape,
Filling it to the mid point
And then threatening to raise the tide over full,
Overflow,
Love and love’s past explode between my ears,
With fears materializing into loneliness,

But hey the glass is half full,
Loving many means loving alone,
Because no one wants a beggar,
“Alms! Alms for the poor”
And love. Don’t forget love.
No one wants.
No one wants to look through the colored glass of your soul,
And see pity.
Pity
Pity
Pathetically crawling, scratching,
Spilling everywhere over all your insides,
On
to
Them.

The Woman Without Shoes

The Woman Without Shoes

It seemed funny at first…
Immediately as she crossed the street,
Bright blue socks, with yellowed feet,
Dressed well in denim dress,
Shoes in hand “No…yes?”

No.

Immediately we said,
As she scratched her head,
“Drugs” and gave dry little laughs,
Continued on our homeward paths,
But then we wondered as she crossed the street,
Why 3 social workers,
Outside the social work school,
Can do nothing,
In the richest country in the world.

How to Love a Man.

How to Love a Man.

How to Love a Man,
I do not know,
But I know how I try,
So let me try to help you,

You love a man,
When he’s too busy to check his phone,
By reminding yourself he just fell into the zone,
That you’re just looking for,
Or to make,
A show,
And the feeling of suffocation,
Gives you a youthful rosy glow,
When he feels like it,

You love a man,
By patching up his pride,
With patience,
By keeping hope alive,
Swallow your frustration,
And wait for that pin to drop,
Because he’ll either destroy himself within,
Or pop.

You love a man,
Why?
Why do you love a man?
Because he’ll drive you mad,
Hell make your rhyming scheme turn bad,
He’ll make you need and want and more,
And always he could go out the door,
You’ll wrap each other in insecurities,
And you’ll think of hanging from a tree,
He’ll say stop,
And you’ll say go,
And then he’ll treat you like a ho,
And then you’ll like it,
Yes, you’ll see,
When he holds you close or lets you be,
You’ll want to stop and do not know,
Where the hell you’ll fucking go,
When he doesn’t treat you like a ho,
When he makes room for you,

And tries to show he likes you, loves, you
“Don’t you know?”
He’s crazy about you and you’ll go
“Love me slow,”
And, yes, he’ll do it.
Yes I know,
I’ve lived it twice,
I’ve been let go,
And you’ll like it, patience or no,
And you’ll take whatever to go with the flow,
And just so you know
That is how you love a modern man,
With your time,
With your hands,
With your mind,
With all that makes you good and kind…
And then you’ll love a man.

Quirky or Cosmic: An Ode to Soft, Magic, Nerdy, Alternative Black Girls

FeaturedQuirky or Cosmic: An Ode to Soft, Magic, Nerdy, Alternative Black Girls

I often wonder why,

People do not like me,

You’re happiness offends me,

You challenge concepts,

You cannot be,”

And I wonder too,

What must they do,

When I weave roses through my hair and do,

A dance across the living room,

In rainbow crochet braids,

Or a violet afro hairdo,

And they say,

You can’t do these things

This can’t be you.

Too dark,

Too big,

Too tall,

Boohoo black girl,

Boohoo, that is all you’re good for,

That is all you should do,

Boohoo,

And I laugh,

Cause I’m the original petty,

Softer than a brown little teddy,

In my teddy,

Getting ready for a night out,

Or the lights out,

With the right mouth,

But I digress,

Because my happiness can show in every breath.

My sorrow raises seas,

My pain rattles the breeze,

My love topples mountains,

My wit so sharp I.Q takers are still counting,

And where I walk the ground splits open,

Head held high to do more than just coping,

The trees bare fruit and you hear satyrs on the lute,

And Yemaya and Oya and Hera,

And Mary,

And Maya,

Sing,

Because black freedom ain’t just one thing.

 

It’s cosmic tonic curing wounds,

And making them,

Giving breath,

And taking them,

Reading comics,

Writing poems,

Bedazzled in lisa frank,

Or leaving nothing to imagination,

But the bones.

Black girl magic to be caring and carefree,

A cosmic swimmer of femininity,

A cosmic start that’ll forever be,

Brown, black, and beautiful as an open smiling sea,

So what must those people think of me?

 

After all aren’t most people afraid of eternity?

 

*******

Being an alternative black girl in any way shape or form results in critics. It’s not us being over sensitive. It isn’t that we’re all lying, as some suggest. It’s the fact that people are afraid of black women. Across the world we’ve been through that which would break most, and we survive. Wounded and hurting, we survive. Men think they’re entitled to us, other men want to degrade us, and use excuses to justify their internalized racism. Women openly mock us while copying our hair, our nails, and the features that once landed black women in zoos and keeps so many from not being on magazines or billboards. We’ve been taught to hate each other and be suspect. The world has been taught to put us in a box, to keep us oppressed and control what the very concept of blackness is or should be.

And we laugh in their faces, and as more and more soft, original, punk, afro-centric, nerdy, geeky, brilliant, and beautifully soul’d black women support each other we’ll just laugh harder. We’re not black enough? I make my own blackness, and how dare they try to define it for me or anyone else. I’ll put color in my hair, I’ll read my comics, dress up as She-Hulk, write my stories, read about technology, date a white, date an asian boy, date whomever I please, and all the while I’m still black.

All the while I and all the other black girls who embrace themselves and their loves are still cosmic.

 

*Artist will be tagged on request…namely because google won’t back search

On Black Cops in America: From a Daughter

On Black Cops in America: From a Daughter

In light of recent events I wanted to take the time to talk about my father, a former police officer, and a black man in the United States of America. Over and over again I hear the same resistance, and the same arguments. I hear blanket attacks on cops, reflecting passion and the same blanket offenses. To me these are understandable reactions, but there is one question that cuts through both in many ways…”What are the experiences of black cops, of black men who work public safety as more than just a bouncer?”. Another way of wording this question: “Does being a cop protect you from other cops?”. When these officers take off their uniforms do they get treated like other black folk do? I’ve known an officer of the law since I was born, and that officer taught me repeatedly that no matter what people will see your skin color before they see anything else about you. Black folk have to prove a world educated in anti-blackness wrong, so we work twice as hard to get just as far and do everything everyone says we should do. Some of us grow up to work in law enforcement, the military,  public service…but when has that stopped us from getting killed or injured? When has that stopped people from assuming the worst of black people and fearful of black bodies?

I don’t know, but I do know this…my father was a black man before he every put on a badge and that badge didn’t change his color.

People talk about cops like somehow being one erases blackness, and while there obviously some very vocal cops who think that way (of all colors) my siblings and I were taught how wrong that was by watching and listening to our father. He was a cop from 1972 to 1990, worked contracted security (Nascar tracks and other places), he worked for the county sheriff from the late 90s to the earlier 2000s, and now he works security for the federal government. That’s 45 years of combined security and safety work from D.C to North Carolina and back. He always liked to have two things on the car…a sticker indicating he was a retired police officer and a free mason symbol. My dad is one of those guys who loves repping his teams so to speak. He still has an old Cowboys jacket we got him for Christmas over a decade ago because of it (and sentiment). But one day not too long ago, soon after he got his new truck, he told me that the reason he always had those emblems on our cars was that he was a black man in America.

No one was going to stop and ask if he was a “safe black man”, no one was going to assume he had his gun because he was a former officer, no one was going to assume he had a gun because he was a lawful citizen, and even as a member of the NRA my father knew they wouldn’t do shit for a black man whose rights were infringed. After all he knew his history. He knew what pushed gun laws and reeled in the NRA was black people with guns stating they had a right to defend themselves, and defend themselves from injustices committed under white supremacy. He knew the internal racism of police departments, of which black. latinx, and other minority officers thought they could join the old boys club by being just as or harder on blacks and latinxs. He’s seen other retired and active cops be yelled at by white officers while trying to assist potentially different situations. He’s been stopped between NC and D.C, and god knows where else and questioned about why he needs a gun by white officers who have literally refused to accept he was an officer in another state or D.C.

He knows being a black police officer will not protect him, or afford him the immediate response of kinship other lighter officers may receive. He was a black man in America long before he was cop, and very few officers raised in a racist society taught by an institution dripping in current and historical racism will automatically assume he is someone who protected the public. These days they may see an older black man, and maybe his age will protect him, but that’s if they look at his face. These days they may see the patches on his favorite vest and see he has some ties to law enforcement, but they have to get close enough to see it. These days my dad knows that his smart and sarcastic son and his bright anxiety filled daughter are too old to automatically get a sympathy (not empathy) from an accosting officer from dropping “Oh my father was a cop” in conversation.

Over my relatively short life I learned all sorts of things from my father both good and bad, both things he meant to teach and not. He’s mellowed in his old age. The man who once said don’t bring a white boy home, smiles warmly at my white boyfriend and enjoys taking the both of us out to eat (If you’re reading I could go for a steak soon by the way, daddy, or an Eddie Leonard’s fish sandwich in the near future). He tells us about the supreme court justices and judges he protects. Nothing much just that they are nice and funny people. We talk about the news and politics a lot more these days. He can’t stand that Sheriff Clark, and says most black officers he’s known can’t either. Every time his face comes on the TV “I can’t stand him” or sometimes “That Tomming asshole”. It usually makes me laugh cause he’ll stop talking and get this sour look on his face, and even interrupt our other conversation. Now sometimes he’s even nice and listens to him talk to reporters, essentially say all black people but him are liars(including other black officers with differing opinions), and that asking for justice reform means you hate cops because apparently demanding them to be accountable is too much. Daddy will roll his eyes, say “Please” while rolling his eyes, grab the remote, and usually turns it something else. Sometimes QVC, but more often the History Channel.

It’s funny to remember that daddy used to be one of those rare creatures, the illusive black republican, a phase my mother still groans about. I can remember that phase too and it was eerily adjacent to his bolo tie and cowboy hat phase. Even then he couldn’t stand officers like Clark, blacks who didn’t just have an opinion(that’s their right), but who silenced other officers and repeatedly were paraded by white higher ups like a willing praised poodle. Why? Because they always claimed there were no problems, that the police needed uncritical support, and that if other blacks just “did right” things would change.

These officers of color say they integrated and flew right, when really they just assimilated, and began believing they were special snowflakes while other blacks were brainwashed and ignorant. They keep their mouths shut when they see injustice, or don’t see the injustice at all because they believe they’re cops first. Hell some of them believe with their white wives/husbands, their pats on the back, and their willingness to readily agree with white officers that their uniform is the only protection they need out in the world. After all they assimilated into white culture, and feel successful under white supremacy. They have their opinions, and consider every other black officer is uninformed. That is their right(and a dangerous one), but when they come out of the side of their mouths and begin to say that all police officers everywhere leave racism at the door? When they say that in light of internal emails, texts and more from fellow officers cracking jokes about black people, our black former president and first family, and about other black officers? No, they say, nothing is wrong. All those racists disappeared when they came along. Much like all those grinning white folk you see in lynching pictures they vanished and turned off every racist comment, belief, conversation and lesson. They’re not anyone’s superiors, teachers, parents, friends, and family. No, to Sheriff Clark and his ilk police officers are without racism or justified in it. So holding cops to a higher standard to ensure they protect everybody isn’t needed, and cops protect all other cops no matter what because racism doesn’t affect justice. We know this isn’t the case, a fact reinforced by the Philando Castile verdict by that officer’s non-sensical words. Justice isn’t and has never been colorblind. Justice isn’t and has never ignored ethnicity. Justice isn’t and has never ignored gender, sexuality, or plain old personality. I wish that was the case, but unlike these officers of color and white officers my family, my play-uncles, play-aunties, friends, etc. can’t afford to pretend it does. Maybe if you get on TV every time your superiors need a cop-friendly brown face you can, but I don’t know many cops like that.

To my father and to me when they say that nothing is wrong in light of entire police departments all over this country being 70% to 90% white with an exceedingly disproportionate arrest rate for blacks and latinx, when crime rates are so deeply skewed because of an inability to pay bail, when again and again black people young and old are murdered regardless of whether they listen to an officer, employ their right to bare arms, or are a cop themselves…they are choosing to believe that they are exceptional black people because they have done everything right, because they disagree, because they’re cops and no cop ever threatens, harasses, or shoots black cops without cause right?

Tell that to the officer shot in St. Louis.

In April 2015 I went to protest in Baltimore in a march I’m 90% certain you didn’t see because it was one of the many peaceful marches in 2015 where reporters stood around looking irritated by how peaceful it was. I chanted for reform in police departments, that black lives mattered, told people that I wondered about having kids because I didn’t know if I could take it if they were as dark as me and they came into a path of a officer whose first instinct was to assume they were dangerous criminals. I marched because I believe in justice and because I care about the black community. I marched because I love black officers, and know their lives and jobs would be better without entrenched racisms. Citizens who want change and believe in the better natures of their people, while still knowing the worst, get involved anyway they can in changing society.

I didn’t tell my parents about the protest. They’d worry, and when they found out…they were more than surprised to say the least. Despite that daddy was proud because he spent years telling his children that black lives did matter and that we couldn’t trust the world to see it. We had to make the world see it. We had to be willing to fight, to be both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and learn the lesson he taught us without ever having to say it:

You’re black long before you are ever anything else.