We Don’t Give a Damn, Scarlett: Jonesboro, Georgia
Living Unthinking over Unmarked Graves
Before I found Jonesboro, I was sure Tara, Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation, didn’t exist. (And it doesn’t. Gone With the Wind was fiction, people!) Still, like most Northerners and lots of Southerners and other Earthlings, I “learned” most of what I “knew” about the South watching that movie. I think it was re-run on TV every year when I was a kid, as if it were our own national epic, like the Odyssey was to the Greeks. Weird, since the narrative is slanted to make us feel sorry for our former enemies. Weirder still, our epic’s enemies were, and still are, within “us.”
For our trips into the southeast, Atlanta would be the eternal crossroads, all flights and roads eventually leading there–even to Rome, Georgia. One trip South led me in and out of Atlanta at least four times. On this trip, I discovered “Tara” was close to the airport, so I squeezed in a visit.
Tara Boulevard is actually an exit off Interstate 75. Imagine if there were an exit for Oz outside Kansas City or one for Middle Earth outside Wellington, New Zealand—but wait, there probably are, complete with kiddie rides, witches, wizards, and/or hobbits. We’re inured to fakery. Tara Boulevard is real but doesn’t lead to hoopskirts, waltzes, and refinement. It is one of the most scaborously ugly suburban roads in the South, and that’s saying something. It’s lined by billboards for accident lawyers and struggling businesses in strip malls, rows of used tire shops, tattoo parlors, and, of course, those other heralds of American down-market capitalism, wig and pawn shops. The unrelieved ugliness sprawled for miles. Even the Southern cookin’ place along the oddly foodless strip served dried-out fried catfish with catatonic indifference.
Yet, just off the boulevard, the town of Jonesboro was a marvel, shilling its claim to be the inspiration for Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s imagination. Jonesboro clung to antebellum history with a few gracious houses, like the privately owned 1840 Warren home, where a war hospital had been set up during the Civil War . I knew Jonesboro was a key historic battle, completing Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta. Even though I didn’t yet know Jonesboro buried a subchapter in my own family history, I was mainly curious about seeing the battlefield.
But there was nothing to see. I couldn’t believe the town had done nothing to commemorate the battle, so I stopped at the visitor center/ museum to find out more.
An old rail depot housed a Tara Tour in the county’s “history” center. The Official Clayton County Visitors Bureau claimed to be the True South, complete with a website (http://www.visitscarlett.com) with a crackling soundtrack of Atlanta burning arrayed around a cameo of Scarlett and Rhett smooching. Puzzled by hulking busses unloading Italian and Japanese tourists suckered into the gift shop, I ran smack into the garrulous Tiffany, a clerk and history student who gave me her version of Jonesboro’s realities. It was interesting to meet someone even more cynical than I about phony history and America’s gradual Disneyland-ization of everything. She talked, I listened amid the “history” museum as an endless spool of Gone with the Wind played on the video screen and foreign tourists studied movie gowns and other memorabilia in glass cases—you know, authentic American historic artifacts. The movie scene played Scarlett’s slaves’ confusion about the attack on Atlanta for comic relief.
Tiffany confirmed the town’s lack of real Civil War commemoration. “The town, especially the north end, IS the battlefield,” she told me, “and hundreds of residents live unthinking over unmarked graves of combatants.” The last remnant of the battlefield was about to disappear, a developer having won an easement to build a parking lot over it.
Tiffany showed me the museum’s tiny corner devoted to the Jonesboro battle story, saying that locals really weren’t interested in either the battle or Gone With the Wind, only tourists, especially foreign ones. She was also forthright and irreverent about her version of Civil War and Southern history in general, asserting that the Confederacy’s General Hood was a fool, (living out his last years as a “drunk on a front porch”), that the Union’s General Sherman was indeed a rough prick (with slaves of his own via wife’s family in Missouri) and a war criminal; that Lincoln was also merciless—“a dictator, suspending habeas corpus.” Tiffany claimed that many Northerners were relieved when Lincoln was assassinated.
I returned to Tara Boulevard bit shocked at the town’s lack of concern for the battlefield. All museums engage in marketing one way or another, but I’d never seen such overt pandering, such shameless dumbing-down of history. Clayton County ignores our true shared past, speaking to our Hollywood hearts, not our brains. Heading back to Atlanta, I endured Tara’s ugly roadside again, wondering why we don’t give a damn, Scarlett, about living in sprawling commercial squalor while we idolize gracious country estates that never existed; why we cover our past—our sacred ground–under pawn shops, wig outlets, and funeral parlor parking lots.
I would soon find out that my own blood had a claim on that real estate.
While Lee talked with the clerk at the Gone With the Wind museum, I sat in the lobby unsure of where he’d disappeared but determined not to pay admission into what seemed a Disneyland re-creation of the movie. As I waited, a 50-something year-old African American woman entered with her husband and queried other museum staff about what she might see during the tour. I could tell she was a real GWTW fan asking the types of questions that only someone who’d seen the movie multiple times might ask. She reminded me of my mother, who I’m not so sure now was as enthralled with Gone With The Wind as she was with its male star, Clark Gable.
Besides my Mom’s adoration of the film’s leading man, I have to admit to another Gone With The Wind connection. By the time I was 12, I prided myself on having slogged through a number of books that I thought were meant for adults. Those I liked best seemed to have connections to history including James Michener’s The Source (Israel), Stuart Cloete’s Rags of Glory (South Africa), and Paul Bailey’s For Time and All Eternity (Utah). Truth be told, I’ve still about 250 more pages to go before conquering The Source’s 1100-plus pages. Its availability electronically will make it likely that I can finish The Source without risking the paperback version falling apart as happened with my two previous attempts.
I’d experienced no similar challenges finishing Gone With the Wind since I had seen the movie twice and was aided by familiar movie scenes and dialogue. I recall being seduced by the epic nature of the movie, the widescreen Technicolor photography, and late 1930’s musical soundtrack. Apparently, I was not the only person seduced by GWTW since it was re-released in theaters several times in the 20th century and is re-broadcast at least once a year on cable television. Given its continued popularity over the past three quarters of a century, I’ve asked myself how much the movie has become a part of the American psyche.
I wish the answer was “not much” since the movie portrays a highly sanitized, falsely revisionist history of the antebellum and Reconstruction South. None of the characters talked about the primary reason for the Civil War, i.e., the South’s determination to secure slavery where it existed and expand the practice into new U.S. territories. Instead, we are treated to young men loudly anticipating wreaths of glory won on battlefields defending the honor of the South. The movie certainly did not examine the lives of slaves who are portrayed as loyal to their masters and mistresses with no complaint about their condition as chattel. Instead, we hear Ashley Wilkes, a member of the landed gentry, lamenting the passage of an era as he contemplates the North’s defeat of the Confederacy. With no reference to the heinousness of slavery in the U.S., perhaps it’s all to easy for people to identify with Ashley’s longing for bygone days when men and hoop-skirted women spoke softly while gracefully promenading along wide porticoes of stately southern mansions – all the while being waited upon by simple, well-cared for, and loyal black servants.
Of course, that’s all a bunch of crap. Most southerners did not own slaves. It’s amazes me how many people profess loyalty to a cause and system in which they would most likely have been members of an underclass despite their white skin. Equally amazing is how one of our political parties so successfully takes advantage of that loyalty to further strengthen their stranglehold on this country’s resources while simultaneously asking Lost Causers to vote and act in ways that are inconsistent with their own best interests.
And, you’d have to be crazy to think that slavery was a benign institution. Thank God for movies such as 12 Years a Slave that portray the violence and horror inflicted upon enslaved African Americans. Unlike GWTW, I’m not likely to watch12 Years a Slave again. Based on the true story of a free northern African American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, the film’s depictions of men and women being whipped, beaten, lynched, and systematically stripped of their humanity were extremely painful to watch yet are seared in my memory.
Both Gone with the Wind and 12 Years a Slave demonstrate the power of movies to capture our imaginations and influence our thinking. I only hope that there are a lot more movies like 12 Years that accurately depict American history and provide us with stories that help us grapple in good faith with this country’s racial and class divides. The movie industry could be a major source of information in helping answer the question asked by many: Why haven’t African Americans made more progress? After all, the Civil War and slavery ended almost 150 years ago.”
The movie industry, like many other businesses is largely driven by the need to make a profit. However, while we’re waiting for the movies to engage us with the truth, we can educate ourselves at no cost. After all, libraries are free. (Or, at least they are made possible through our collective actions as taxpayers). Here are a few books that I recommend to help us connect the dots regarding the state of inequality in the U.S.:
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got Wrong by James Loewen
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Slavery by Another name: the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon
Sundown Towns: a Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James Loewen
When Affirmative Action was White: an Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America by Ira Katznelson
Novelist Valerie Martin shared her take on GWTW with me, that even more than a love story it’s about the friendship between Scarlett and Melanie, each seeing the other as brave. I think she’s right: GWTW is a great story of friendship AND a sickening reminder of America’s original sin of institutionalizing racism via slavery and legal terrorism.
(I would recommend her book Property, the story of the wife of a slave-owner who absolutely understands her own second-class status as a woman, but is unable to empathize with her slaves. Toni Morrison described the book as being a “fresh, unsentimental look at what slavery does to one’s interior life.”)
It’s funny and insightful that you should realize that your mom’s love of GWTW had more to do with Clark Gable than with technicolor!
I vividly remember my mom taking me to see GWTW – on the big screen! – during some anniversary special when I was, what? eight? ten? I loved it. Yes, Clark Gable, but more than that, Scarlett’s insouciant spunk. And how all the men loved her! She was so beautiful she could do anything. I wanted to be Scarlett!
It was on cable the other night; Christopher was surfing between it and a hockey game. I watched Scarlett slap her younger sister for saying she didn’t care about Tara, then could tear myself away when she shot and killed an evil federal soldier (evidently during Reconstruction) in the act of robbing Tara.
The story shamelessly promotes the ideas that: a) the antebellum world was a gracious one, with everything in balance and slaves well treated; b) Reconstruction was corrupt and needed to end; and c) white Southerners were victims of the aggressive North and the horrors of Reconstruction, but also of their own admirable code of honor.
(sound of choking, horror, dismay)
The little museum outside Atlanta, in its ugly present of strip malls, endless asphalt, signage, and cars, plays up all those falsehoods.
(repeat distressed noises)
The difference is that during Mitchell’s time, the South was in the grip of Jim Crow, and whites like her had very limited access to reality-based explanations of their segregated world.
Today’s reality is quite different, and a museum exploiting the popularity of GWTW without putting a a heavy emphasis on the story’s layers of falsehoods is selling their soul for the price of a few admissions. Hell, they might make more if they did it right. Maybe we should set up a competing GWTW museum, that would celebrate the friendship between Melanie and Scarlett, but also, point by point, offer reality on the story’s lies.
I’m reading Katznelson’s follow-up to When Affirmative Action Was White. It’s called Fear Itself, and is an amazing new look at the New Deal, about how pervasive fear was, especially:
1. the fear that liberal democracies would not be able to compete with the perceived efficiencies of totalitarian countries;
2. the fear of our vastly improved ability to kill one another with technologically advanced weapons that meant civilians were more likely to die than soldiers; and
3. the fear of the costs of maintaining or ending our viciously unfair treatment of African-Americans at home. Both proponents and opponents of segregation knew that the bill was coming due.
His point is how pivotal the southern bloc was in shaping the New Deal, and keeping it from helping African-Americans, and how Roosevelt, eyes open, made a calculated deal with the devil to work with those Southern racists in order to save democracy at home and defeat totalitarianism abroad. With African-Americans paying the greatest cost by far.
Oddly, while Lee and George were touring the South, absorbing its centuries-old heritage and gauging its current significance for the first time, I too was touring the South, absorbing etc. I visited Alabama for the first time, and drove through Virginia, both Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, spending most of autumn living in various Southern states, and I came away appalled by the stench of racism, and the stigma of slave-holding that to this day underlies the American South. In the week I spent in Montgomery, I got to see the extent to which the Confederate Flag is still regarded as a wholesome icon, and flown proudly over Southern homes. To me (and I hope to most sane Americans, Northern and Southern) it is a shameful emblem of a backward, treacherous, most unenlightened time which stands as a reminder of errors and evils for us to be on guard against slipping back into, but to Southeners who even tolerate it flying over their streets and towns, it seems to be a benign, even a positive, symbol of a sadly faded culture. What, I ask, is that culture other than a culture whose economy and viability were built on the terrible idea (and the even more terrible reality) of white people owning and abusing black people? How ought their white descendents to behave, other than ashamed, humble, and asking forgiveness for their ancestors’ evil beliefs and practices? How ought the descendants of slaves to behave, other than furious and mindful of the past? Instead, I was treated to grotesque displays of extreme pride in Southern culture with nary a recognition of its cultural foundation, that of slavery. I sat with literature professors in Montgomery, and listened to various Southern scholars argue over the meaning of the South, each vying (with only a soupcon of self-mockery) for the title of “true Southerner” or “real son or daughter of the South,” again as if these weren’t badges of shame but distinctions of pride.I felt like interjecting, “You jackasses are bragging about a status that deserves nothing but excoriating humiliation. You people got your asses whipped in 1865, and deserved every bit of the worst that Sherman gave you, but you don’t seem to have learned anything from the experience, least of humility. The larger argument–Should people get to own other people, or even to treat them with systematic disrespect?–was one that, amazingly, you don’t seem to have understood the clear yes-or-no answer to, and you make me think that the only real errors that the Yankees, and the Yankee army, and our dictator President Lincoln, committed was not driving home that answer more harshly, so that no American would ever again get to think about abusing his fellow citizens’ rights without an accompanying sense of mindless terror of suffering abuse himself in righteous retribution.” But of course, I stayed silent, both out of a certainty that I would be misunderstood by my Southern audience, and also a sense of good manners, which my Southern audience seemed to believe was inherent to Southern life and anathema to life in the North. I viewed the Stars and Bars as our equivalent to the swastika before I toured the south, and now I find that the only difference is that most Germans agree with my perspective that their flags will never again boast of a racist and evil culture. Most Southerners I met seemed to disagree with that point-of-view, or even to profess to feeling puzzled that I feel this way.
I’m always caught off guard when I see confederate flags displayed on front lawns, in store windows, on public squares, decorating bumpers, or covering living room and bedroom walls as if they were fine works of art. I don’t profess to know what messages are meant to be conveyed by those displays but I admit to feeling threatened and assuming that the people who showcase those colors do not have my best interests at heart. I can however speak to my negative reactions when I see those flags as I consider how my life might be different if the confederate flag were a symbol of an ultimate 19th century confederate victory over the northern states. As an African American born in the 20th century, I can attest to the struggles and inequities faced by family, friends, and myself in the almost 150 years following the South’s defeat. But, how much more difficult would our lives have been if it were still legal to own black people, to treat our children as if they were livestock to be separated from their parents and sold to the highest bidder, to be prohibited from benefiting from the fruits of our intellectual and physical endeavors, to have little or no choice regarding the overall direction of our lives? Is it asking too much for people who continue to display the confederate flag to consider how the offspring of former slaves view the Stars and Bars no matter what messages they intend to send?
If I’m correct in my thinking that the confederate flag does not symbolize a benevolent regard for African Americans, I can at least use it as a predictor of people and environments that might threaten my well-being. Certainly, I’ve seen a lot more confederate flags while driving in the South that have heightened my level of awareness of what’s going on around me. But, what about when I’m visiting states outside the south where the confederate flag is displayed less frequently? It’s easy to be lulled into a sense of safety that may be unwarranted.
So much attention has been focused on the egregious treatment of African Americans in southern states that we ignore examples of inequitable treatment elsewhere. The South is rightfully taken to task for its sanctioning acts of overt racism. But, how do we talk about acts of discrimination and violence that have occurred outside the South? We accept the fact that African Americans are highly concentrated in inner city neighborhoods in a relatively small number of larger cities but don’t question why that’s the case. As James Loewen has documented in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, African Americans lived in integrated settings in northern and western towns and cities following the Civil War through 1890. Today, the absence of African Americans in many of these locations is anything but natural. Rather, our absence reflects a legacy of lynchings, bombings, white riots that targeted black people, ultimatums to leave a given area, restricted housing covenants, and discriminatory housing loan practices that occurred outside the South – actions that forced African Americans to flee for safety or otherwise limited their choices of where they might live and work.
So what symbol might best reflect the state of race relations outside the South? Perhaps a flag emblazoned with images of three people covering their eyes, ears, and mouth, respectively.