My take on the insanity of assigning The Help for history, for the Slate Book Review
Just wanted to belatedly say, in the most gracious way possible, THAT I WAS TOTALLY, COMPLETELY RIGHT ABOUT ALL OF THIS!!
The only genuinely shocking aspect of Paula Deen’s disasterously racist deposition is how completely the Southern cooking doyenne has confirmed what many have long suspected about Southern Whites: they’re all still racist, they just code it better now. They employ a gentrified, polite kind of racism, the kind that offers you sweet tea and a smile instead of equal rights. ‘We’ talk this ways amongst ourselves, but not in mixed company (and that includes non-Southerners). We cling to that sacred phrase, Tradition, to stave off change and explain away our antebellum balls and Dixie sing-alongs. We romanticize the “different era” and simpler time of the Old South instead of being “misinterpreted” by saying, We’d like to go back to a time when we prospered under a system of brutal human bondage. We live in a society in which white people casually use “nigger” to talk about “them” (but not “in a cruel or mean way.”) And when we say, Southern Plantation Wedding, what we really want is– as the deposition alleges Deen said– “a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.”
Of course, that is just what the suit elleges. When asked, Ms. Deen graciously explains what it was about a restaurant staffed with “middle-aged black men in white jackets” that was so utterly “impressive” to her:
PD: I didn’t live back in those days but I’ve seen pictures, and the pictures that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America.
Q : Okay.
PD: And I was in the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south.
Q: Okay. What era in America are you referring to?
PD: Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.
Q: Right. Back in an era where there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people.
PD: Well, it was not only black men, it was black women.
Q: Before the Civil War, those black men and women who were waiting on white people were slaves, right?
PD: Yes, I would say that they were slaves.
PD: But I did not mean anything derogatory by saying I loved their look and their proffessionalism
Q: So is there any reason that you could not have done something just like that but have people of different races?
PD: Well, that’s what made it.
PD’s lawyer: Objection
This is a PR disaster not just for Deen, but for forward-thinking southerners everywhere, who must now contend with smug people like myself saying, I knew it. Yes, white southerners use the n-word, but only when recounting a conversation between “them” in the kitchen (the black people, in the kitchen), or when referring to the kind of n-word who once robbed Paula (“I wasn’t feeling too favorable toward him”), or when Paula’s hilarious husband tells a joke that “someone” might find offensive.
Is this the way of all Southern whites? No, of course not. I have close, personal friends who are Southern whites! (I don’t judge people on their state of orgin. I, like Ms. Deen, believe that it is only “what’s in your heart and in your head that matters.”) And of course, as many like to point out, the South does not have a monopoly on racism. There are verilent racists in California (where I’m from), and New York (where my yankee husband is from), and in Maryland (where we live now, which is actually in the South, which makes me a Southern white?) But the South perfected racism, and Paula Deen is obviously not helping to dispel this stereotype. Instead, she is showing us all how the modern racist codes her bigotry, burying it within a sweet and inviting traditional whitecake.
A defense of my laker fandom, c. millennial times.
Pros and Cons for Taking this totally normal writing/trophy wife job
- Booooots. “lots and lots of boots.”
- Unlimited Zumba! Plus allowance for gym clothes: LuLu Lemon is expensive y’all!
- Massages, by the fireplace, nightly.
- Daily trips to the nail/hair salon
- “Company car”
- Total emotional and financial support while “writing another masterpiece” (after gym, beautification, parenting, and sexxy-times duties are fulfilled)
- “Company credit card”
- The economy is tough, writing grants are scarce!
- “Laying” in your arms for a really long time. Incorrect grammar + enforced spooning?
- Can I sleep in rather than enjoy my cup of “loose-leaf tea”?
- That morning routine seems kind of involved…what time am I waking up in your arms exactly?
- Every kiss and embrace being “like it’s the last” one is maybe a bit menacing?
- How many kids are there exactly?
- Are the daily “Zumba/Yoga/Crossfit/etc classes” mandatory?
- Is the daily nail/hair salon trip mandatory?
- In terms of schedule, getting writing done after getting the kids to school, and going to the zumba, salon, and mall, but before afternoon pre-school pick-up seems tough.
- Re: “be sure to save some energy for my daughter when she gets off the bus.” Physical energy? Emotional energy? Is daughter old enough to have a creeped-out opinion on this whole set-up? Has she OK’d the boot allowance?
- Can I transfer my boot allowance to other footwear in summer months?
- When you say we’ll “often” cook dinner together, how often are we talking?
- Is the nightly “massage by the fireplace” mandatory?
- Instead of “Playing board games, doing homework, practicing instruments, singing songs, doing artwork, reading stories, going for bike rides,” can I drink wine and surf the internet, alone, without massages?
- How often does the night end with me showing off my horizontal zumba moves?
Numbers become more abstract the bigger they get, and we are a country awash in big numbers. Exorbitant sums are mentioned so often in our culture– Tyler Perry made $130 million in 2010, and maybe owns an island!– that at a certain point conceptualizing the reality of that kind of money becomes as difficult as actually owning an island. So when Mitt Romney released his tax return, and the country learned that he pulled in $21.6 million last year, the number initially seemed like just another absurdly ambiguous sum, the kind of money that makes someone really, really rich (and we already knew he was rich). That number and the way in which it was earned and taxed floated like a huge, context-less bubble above the heads of those of us without a firm background in economics. Even when we see or hear the amount of money Romney makes every year on “unearned” income (never was a financial term more loaded), it’s difficult to make it concrete.
Which is why the widget my husband, Dan Check (let’s just get that out there right now– I am in no way a disinterested observer), created yesterday is so brilliant. He built a fairly simple, interactive tool for calculating how long it takes Mitt Romney to make as much as a user earns in a year. In an ideal world, our work is valuable and valued. In reality, most people are fortunate to hold employment that is even one of those things, and only the very lucky can claim both. Still, key to our American Dream is this conviction that the hard work we do is important and/or getting us somewhere financially, which is why the widget is so jolting. The average American may not be able to understand the reality of a $21.6 million income, but they know exactly what went into the money they made, and what that money afforded and denied them. To see months of labor– often hard, unappreciated, stressful and difficult– equal a small, cold number (4 hours, 51 minutes…21 hours, 2 minutes) in the scope of Mitt’s immense wealth is depressing and infuriating in equal measure.
In the time it takes me to get my son to his pre-school, have a cup of coffee, try to write something, and return to pick him up at noon, Mitt Romney has made my yearly income. But I don’t ‘work’ full-time, so perhaps it’s not a fair comparison (I’m not going to get into the exhausting labor involved in child-rearing, as I don’t want to awaken the ‘take it to Babble’ trolls). Let’s compare, instead, the most rewarding , difficult and stressful job I’ve ever had. When I was teaching special needs students (English and Language Arts for dyslexic and LD kids, grade 5-12), designing a curriculum from scratch, talking to parents every day, working late to create lesson plans, grading essays, advising teenagers, directing school plays, making yearbooks, chairing the humanities committee, presenting at conferences, writing constant reports, and breaking down at least once a month from the emotional toll of feeling personally responsible for giving children the quality education they deserved, my yearly salary, at its highest (after 5 years), pre-tax, was a few hours’ shy of Romney’s day rate.
I’ve read the comments on Slate about how hard Romney worked for his fortune, how all comparison smacks of class warfare, how the left simply wants to criminalize the prosperous. This is not the issue. I do not like the way that Romney made his fortune (dismantling businesses for profits), but I do not doubt that he is industrious and hard-working. The question is whether his work– and the work/lineage of others in the hyper-wealthy class– is so valuable that it warrants not only an outsized yearly income but an undersized tax rate.
This is the point that the Obama administration has been trying to make for months– the talking points for extending the payroll tax, for instance, centered on the entirely reasonable notion that if you make more than million dollars a year, you could pay more in taxes than someone making $24,000– and which he hammered home in last night’s State of the Union. Unfortunately, just talking about these huge sums is often too abstract, and too often feeds into that wonderful/terrible aspirational quality in Americans, the part that says, ‘I wouldn’t want to be taxed that way, and though I don’t make anywhere near that amount now, I no doubt will in the future.’ But approaching that little widget armed with your annual income– the number that, justly or unjustly, is the sum of your year’s labor– and seeing how paltry and inconsequential it is in the face of Romney’s wealth? The widget trumps talking points, rhetoric and rationalization to show the reality of $21.6 million dollars in all its stark obscenity.
Flavorwire’s listicle of literary couples, while juicy (“I weep for the eight years I spent…worshipping his image with him, and I weep for whatever else I was cheated of due to that time-serving”–Martha Gelhorn on Ernest Hemingway), doesn’t even scratch the surface. Where are Sartre, de Beauvoir, and their detail-sharing open relationship (pro-tip for young existentialists: this rarely works out). What about bisexual addicts & Morocco fetishists Paul and Jane Bowles? Drunk commies Dashiell Hammet and Lillian Hellman? And where are today’s tempestuous writer couples, hurling drinks at Paris Review parties?
Oh, they’re buying luxury brownstones and worrying about how they love their husbands too much. Blech. Today’s offensively private and healthy inter-writer relationships rob us of the gloriously drunken, sexually dysfunctional liter-romances of yore. Why have writers’ relationships gotten so boring?
- Not enough letter writing. Consider this mash-note from Rebecca West to H.G. Wells: “You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations.” Yikes. While the torrid love lives of today’s writers might be uncovered by future biographers, emails are easy to delete, and lengthy love/”you’ve ruined me” letters are a dying art. (Though $10 says Franzen’s got some.)
- Gay Pride. Fine, yes, it’s essential that society progress from the shame and judgement that kept gays and lesbians in the closet for centuries. But what about the great literary marriages of convenience? Everybody is so open now, they don’t make fraught, sexless contracts with other similarly tortured writers. And literary gossip suffers.
- Not enough alcoholism. The common denominator in so many of history’s most passionate writer-couplings just isn’t as common these days. Raise a glass to our bygone friend, crippling addiction.
- Psychopharmacology. Many of the “eccentric,” “tortured” writers of yesteryear were probably “mentally ill.” Now that bi-polar, depressed writers can be treated, they might not have such dysfunctional relationships. Or they do, but the pills lessen the risk of scotch throwing and revenge-sonnet writing.
But perhaps there is drama brewing behind those staid Brooklyn walls? One can only hope, for the sake of literature.
A question: if a lady’s lover reports directly to Goebbels, she holes up with him at a Nazi-controlled hotel during her city’s occupation, and her collaboration earns her a 9-year post-war exile in Switzerland, can you claim that she was not anti-Semitic? If you’re the House of Chanel, and the lady in question is doyenne Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, then the answer is yes, because you have an airtight rebuttal! She couldn’t have been anti-Semitic, because she had Jewish friends.
Such was the peevish response from France’s premier fashion house upon a new book’s allegations that Coco Chanel, in addition to having a taste for fascist boyfriends, was herself a Nazi spy. According to Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, Chanel spent the duration of the war spying for the Germans under the codename Westminster (named for another lover, the Duke of Westminster, a virulent Anti-Semite with a dog he called “Jew”). Though author Hal Vaughan says he based his book’s claims on “not one, but 20, 30, 40 absolutely solid archival materials on Chanel and her lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was a professional Abwehr spy,” what is historical research in the face of the always-solid ‘but some of my best friends are…’ defense?
After all, if Coco Chanel was Anti-Semitic, would she have entered into a Chanel No. 5 partnership with the Jewish businessmen Pierre and Paul Wertheimer? Would she have then, using the Nazi laws seizing all Jewish property, petitioned to lighten her partners’ burden by taking sole ownership of the company, as it was “still the property of Jews?” Luckily (perhaps they knew how much their good friend Coco would worry?), the Wertheimers preempted Chanel’s friendly takeover by transferring ownership to a Christian colleague before the laws came into effect. That’s just what friends do when their friends are Nazis.