Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

Of racism, food, memory and Obama’s victory

I spent 2.5 hours waiting to vote yesterday. I was surprised to see that my Grant Park polling place was selling an assortment of processed junk food and soft drinks Although, I saw nobody buying the stuff, I was glad to know that if my blood sugar fell during the wait, help was nearby.

I voted for Obama – surprise! — and seeing a black man actually win the presidency has been extremely moving to me. I’m old enough that I remember segregation, which endured long after the Civil Rights Act’s adoption, in many areas of the country.

I spent my first five years out of undergrad working for newspapers in rural Georgia. Yesterday, seeing the spread of junk food at the polls and watching Obama win so definitively, caused me to flash back to those years in the sticks and recall how the ritual of dining was central then, and now, to our political life. I remember, time and again, dining with ordinary people who spouted racism as if it were a common value among all white people. And, of course, all public dining was segregated. Dining itself, so much an expression of community, was strictly controlled by the protocol of racism.

I remember, for example, that I frequently had to cover the weekly Rotary Club meeting, where lunch, prepared by black women, was usually followed by a talk by a politician. I’m not sure why, but I always recall the moment when lunch was being finished. Conversation died away and the introduction of the speaker began. Cigars and cigarettes were lit as the small-town white power brokers prepared to have their asses licked. There were smiles all around and the occasional clinking of a fork on a dessert plate.

Racist euphemisms over lunch

Besides the cooks and service staff, there was not a black face in the room and it was not unusual — not remotely so — to hear a speaker prattle about states’ rights, private property rights, the value of private education and many other euphemisms for continuation of a racist society. During these speeches I often watched the black women cleaning up the dining room. Their faces did not betray any emotion.

Political events were often held outside — at the county fairgrounds or on someone’s farm. These almost always involved a picnic featuring barbecued pork. One of the reasons I do not share other urban foodies’ thrall on seeing a hog and chickens cooked over coals in a pit or in an iron smoker is that I saw this constantly during these years. (Indeed, when I see such sights, I want to know why there’s no squirrel in the Brunswick stew and why there are no chicken feet for sale on the side real cheap.)

I knew I’d crossed the threshold to acceptance in one town when I was invited deep into the woods for a “goat mull.” This too was a political event, or at least that was the excuse for it. Mainly it was elderly white men who sat around telling stories and eating the stew made of a goat roasted on the premises. Much of what I heard that day was shockingly racist, including stories of KKK events and a lynching. I comforted myself by assuming most of it was exaggeration. Still, I don’t think most people under 40, unless they were raised in such areas themselves, have any idea how traumatic integration was and how bloody the battle for it was.

One of my signal memories of the period is a barbecue spot in Elberton. It was open, as I recall, Thursday through Saturday. The pork was roasted in open pits next to the building, which looked like something between a mobile home and a tarpaper shack. The interior of the restaurant was completely decorated with souvenirs of Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s racist campaigns.

The most shocking part of the experience of eating there, though, was seeing that a constant parade of black people lined up at a take-out window, even though they were not allowed to dine inside.

A road trip back to racism

Not quite 10 years later, I returned to Elberton during a road trip with Larry Ashmead, then executive editor at HarperCollins. He had contracted me to write a book about Flannery O’Connor and the Southern Gothic, and I couldn’t wait to show him this barbecue shack, which I’d learned was still open.

When we drove up, I was disappointed that the exterior had been cleaned up a good bit. And the inside was even tidier. Moreover, all the racist memorabilia was removed from the walls. We sat at a table and were soon greeted by the new owner, who turned out to be a black man.

I was stunned that this recent monument to racism was now the property of an African-American man. I introduced myself and asked the man if he knew the restaurant’s history. He said that he certainly did. I asked him why black people had bought the restaurant’s food when they weren’t allowed to dine inside. “Because they were hungry and the barbecue was good,” he replied. A moment of silence followed. I expected further explanation, but the man laughed and went back to work.

The experience was another of those enigmatic revelations of moral ambiguity — not just from the offender’s perspective, but from the victim’s too. That confusion was my experience frequently during the years I worked in the sticks — and, of course, that was one of O’Connor’s persistent themes, too: that evil and grace are often instruments of one another. Outcomes are one thing; the source of their making is another, usually mysterious — like the feeling behind alchemy or cooking.

Thus it is with the election of Barack Obama. The entire nation is stunned by its own act of grace. Nobody thought we’d get here so quickly but here we are in one of those accelerations that seems to unexpectedly occur in evolutionary narratives. I look back to the world I saw in that Elberton barbecue shack during my first year out of college and, honestly, I can’t really make any sense out of how we got where we are today. But, more than any time in memory, I feel (as Michelle Obama did not say) proud of America.

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There are 10 Comments to "Of racism, food, memory and Obama’s victory"

  • […] (This post is excerpted from a much longer post on my personal blog. Click here to read the entire post.) […]

  • Warren says:

    Though I have not been alive quite long enough to see the blatant racism you have, I saw enough of the “beneath the conscious” kind, where people don’t even know they’re doing it, in my own slightly-rural hometown, my own family, and sadly even in myself in earlier days.

    However, I take issue with the idea that “states’ rights, private property rights, the value of private education and many other euphemisms for continuation of a racist society”. Though it may have been true of those men at that time (and given the culture, I assume they were men), these were tools misused by people with a misguided world-view. Please don’t throw out the baby with the bath water…

    If this were true (on the broader scale), then it seems that a corollary would be that public education, communal or state ownership, and centralized government power are just simple ways of saying Communism. And sure, they’re important parts of the Communist Manifesto, but don’t we usually resist that as hyperbole when people on the right try the argument?

    In a time where I fear (too strong? “am concerned”) that the ideas you listed are losing favor, I just thought your comparison went a little too far…

  • JaRa says:

    Great post. I’d never thought about the way racism literally regulated dining rituals, but it’s true. I hope you write more about that. Did you ever go to Johnny Reb’s or Aunt Fanny’s Cabin?

  • Lorenzo says:

    Cliff, I’ve long been interested in the intersection between food and American racial tensions, particularly first-hand accounts. Thanks for a great read. If you have more, please share.

  • Jeff says:

    Hi Cliff,
    I’m sure you have heard this before.
    I preface this by saying I really enjoy your reviews as it saves me time & helps me in deciding some of the places that I want to whet my palette at. Did I just use a preposition at the end of a sentence:)

    On the political take of yours, you missed one little, small, minute detail. Dem boys back then were Democrats.
    They were the one’s that voted against the Civil Rights Voting Act and didn’t believe in all people being treated equally.

    I went through your political section & I just don’t get how people try to loop any conservative (racists is usually what they mean), even fiscal conservatives like me with the backwoods types. I bust my tail daily to provide for myself and to have a few extra dollars to attend the restaurants that you review.

    When I saw the videos were from msnbc I didn’t even need to hit play.
    I watched a few minutes of that channel last night and they are despicable in their hatred for the other side.
    I try to stay tempered in my emotions but it was vicious. I thought they would be reveling in their victory but they couldn’t even be happy with that.
    What a miserable group of unhappy people.

    As far as Obama goes, he is the President for all of us now & I hope he will be a great one. I will not be hating him for the next 4 to 8 years.

  • Cliff says:

    Jeff: I’m not aware of making even an implication in this post that the people I’m talking about were Republicans. Anyone who’s lived in the South very long knows that the political ruling class of the Civil Rights era here was the Democratic Party.

    But you must know very well, too, that Lyndon Johnson predicted, accurately, that with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act, the Democratic Party would lose the South forever. It’s not as if the Republican Party overtook the South because the region wanted to return to Lincoln’s principles.

    Warren: I am referring to these terms as euphemisms of the time in a purely rhetorical sense. When these people talked about states’ rights and the rights of private property ownership they were directly alluding to race. These were the terms in which arguments justifying segregation were expressed. There was no mystery about that. I do not mean that these issues aren’t genuine concerns in other contexts today. (For example: former Atty. Gen. Ashcroft’s effort to overturn states’ decisions to authorize euthanasia or medical marijuana use.)

    Lorenzo: I have so many stories about race and food I oughta write a memoir on the subject. It has stunned me how often people write sentimentally about Southern food but seem clueless about the way our cuisine and dining habits have been inflected by racial difference.

  • LeaT says:

    Great column. I grew up in Savannah and saw the same kind of thing. ….Jeff, I don’t think Cliff was suggesting he was writing about Republicans. Those videos aren’t any less valid becuase you don’t like their source.

  • Great post, Cliff. I grew up in one of those small Georgia towns in the 80’s, and much of what you discuss was still going on then. I think about how I called every adult by Mr. or Mrs. except for my family’s and my friends’ families’ housekeepers, who were inevitably black women (and really, the only black women we knew then), and I’m appalled at my own upbringing—even though we were certainly moderate compared to most. I’ve spent a lot of time, by work and thought, going through race relations in my life and the greater world, and what you say is so well-put—that we are stunned by our own act of grace with election. I wept openly and joyfully as Tuesday night’s results rolled in.

  • Michael says:

    Hey, Cliff

    A great post. It seems to me the food narrative offers a singularly focused way of tracking how America has been created in a larger sense. The White House itself was built by slaves whose identity, if I’m not mistaken, has been completely erased, if it was ever noted in the first place. Conversely, most of the country’s infrastructure, including its grandest public buildings, were built by a largely black underclass that has, for most of our history, been denied the full access to what they were building. What’s a bit different about the American narrative about food is that while black people have been erased in the narrative, they’ve been reinscribed as a kind of mythical presence–e.g. the zafttig, blissful Aunt Jemima showering her masters with endless piles of fluffy pancakes. In the food narrative we kicked black people out of the restaurant seats and conjured them back in as priests.

  • Cliff says:

    Ah, that reminds me of the novel/film “Imitation of Life,” a pretty exact rendering of that narrative.

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