Mother Emanuel, SC’s State Confederacy Fetish, and Growing Up Southern

June 23, 2015

I grew up in the south, Birmingham, Alabama, in fact, which is to say in a state proud of its bigotry.  My life’s more complicated than that, actually: I was adopted there at the age of 19 months, after spending my life up to that point with my Oregonian biological mother. It may not seem like much, but I’ve always held onto that as one of the reasons I never quite fit in my deeply Southern family. As in: held on for dear life with both hands.

<snip, snip> the various complications and delights until I get to grad school as a side-effect of employing the geographical cure, and there take up the study of medieval and early modern Spanish literature and culture.

Why, you might ask, did I choose that area of study and that career path?

Well, I didn’t choose it, it chose me.  For many or most of my professor colleagues, it’s about the same as it was for me: being called by some area, some question, some culture, some issue, falling in love with it.

But over the years of fending off the not-even-remotely-dead vestiges of the Black Legend, I’ve noticed one very interesting overlap with the area I study and my own life.  One thing that makes Spanish culture — medieval and early modern right on up to the present — seem very familiar to me is that both cultures have the legacy of a shameful past.  Mind you, few to no societies get by without having committed injustices, often grievous ones, even atrocities, so neither Spain nor the South is particularly more heinous than many other societies. But I live with and love these, so they’re particularly close to home. Literally.

I’m not referring to the conquest of the Americas, actually, but the ethno-religious complications of late medieval Spain in its passage from medieval convivencia, the never easy or idyllic or stable living together of Christian realms and Muslim realms with a Jewish minority in both, to a realm obsessed with limpieza de sangre or blood purity, which expelled its ethnoreligious subgroups, first Jews and then Moriscos (converted Muslims), while excluding from effective citizenship conversos (converted Jews, even if the conversion was many generations in the past) in every effective way imaginable. Well, not entirely effectively. You can imagine the genealogy industry that sprang up to show the strictly Christian and autochthonous lineages allowing one to attend university, hold a bureaucratic position, emigrate to the Americas, join a religious order or participate in a confraternity.

Spanish Patent of Nobility

As recent analysis of the Spanish genome has shown, there wasn’t a lot of purity of blood, really. As my favorite prof in grad school, herself a member of an old noble family, quipped in class one time (translated and paraphrased): “Yes, only the peasants were pure Old Christians, because they were too ignorant to intermarry with Jews and conversos.”

I’ve lived outside the South the majority of my adult life — until recently, that is, when I took a job in Memphis. I have to say I’m remembering all the reasons I left in the first place. It’s as if the generosity of spirit that used to sorta-kinda somewhat redeem the bigotry and gender rigidity has evaporated, doubtless immolated in the racist demagoguery and resentment that’s been promoted by conservatives. Progressives and radicals are here, but a bit like the mycelium of a particularly brilliant and eccentric fungus: only visible when the conditions are just right for bearing fruit, and a bit hard to find otherwise.

Living in the Midwest, and perpetually having to explain that race relations and racism in the South are incredibly complex and fraught, led me to ponder those relations. Many white middle-class folks of my generation were raised by black women, and I do understand the tragedy of their having to raise us and neglect their own children; and, beyond that, people of all races rub shoulders here. It finally dawned on me that white folks in the South are obsessed with racial purity, because deep down we all know there ain’t none. Hardly anybody anywhere, and surely not in the South, is pure anything. The problem with the Midwest is that most white people there really are just about that white, and it’s not really good for you — once upon a time I found this great button at McNolia’s, a great little shop in Five Points South (Birmingham), that said “Some People Are Just Too White.” Although I probably am genetically that white, I always wanted to make a button that said “Not Nearly As White As I Look”.

I figure it’s the same with gender rigidity — thus far, after 2 1/2 years here in Memphis, I have yet to find anybody who’ll give me a dyke-doo. I say “James Dean” and they only give me Mia Farrow. Nothing against Mia Farrow, but that kind of femme haircut is not what I want, it’s not moi.

And, oh thank god, someone else has written what I’ve thought about the South for a while:
The Confederacy is Not Our Heritage by Mark Sumner

But the Confederacy is not my heritage. It’s not anyone’s heritage. The Confederacy is our shame. In the whole of the Confederacy, there is not one thing to be proud of. Not the men. Not their actions. Certainly not the ideals. . . . The Confederacy was launched not on a platform of slavery, but on a foundation of racism. That it maintained slavery as an institution was a feature. That it upheld racism was the design.

I’ve always thought that, had I been alive and male during the Civil War, it might have been a struggle to choose whether to abandon my loved ones or fight for the Confederacy. I don’t think I could stomach fighting for slavery, though, in the same way I can’t stomach the racism, oh ever so much more subtle now, that I deal with every day at work.

Not that you can call the continuing, apparently endless violence against people of color (and queers and women, and god help you if you’re in all those categories) “more subtle”. So daily life has become a roller coaster of dismay and grief with the senseless violence of yet another disgruntled white or other elite boy taking a gun or a car or some other weapon and taking out his troubles on others, some brief recovery, and then yet another massacre to deal with. It seems to me that the Southern madness I grew up with is no longer contained in the South, but has spread to every ignorant bastard in the entire country. The grief and outrage accumulate — god grant us patience and the will to turn back to compassion and social justice as our basic principles of community and governance, and to open our hearts and our communities to all of us, every day, all day, in our smallest choices, because every choice is an ethical choice.

Corey Robin, in his Salon article today, divides our society into “people of comfort” and “people of color and the poor” — I might add that, while a lot of queer folk aspire to be mainstream “people of comfort,” I am somewhat anxious about the possibility that even the straightest of queers (and they are many) might well become the target of just this kind of bigoted violence next. So “people of comfort” and “people of fragility” and “targeted people”. Those are the meaningful categories when dealing with police, and enduring violence such as Dylann Roof’s very revealing grandstanding. Robin’s article is excellent and I highly recommend it, btw.

My heart goes out to Charleston, S.C., to the good folks who’ve been murdered and all their close and more distant kin, and I grieve the immorality of my country, the vicious stupidity of the violence against people of color, against queers, against women. We should all be grieving for the utterly useless stupidity of it all.

Below is the message I sent to my colleagues at my place of work:
Dear Colleagues,

The role of libraries, and library and information science is crucial in working toward real equality and social justice, not just in theory but in practice, which, as we have seen in the last while, is farther away than we would wish. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”

injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. No one who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.

I believe we can also expand that to say “violence to any group in this country is violence to every group in this country.” No one is safe until we’re all safe, no matter our ethnicity, phenotype, religion, sexual preference, or gender identity. Neither our worth nor our ‘safety’ should depend on being like some other kind of persons.

The cold, rationally calculated, premeditated slaughter of a group of individuals as tokens of a category of persons is a threat to all of us – – ALL of us. Some categories of persons are more vulnerable than others, it is true, but no one is exempt from either the physical or the moral danger. Complacency in the face of actions like these, even those perpetrated by police, is a kind of moral suicide, as Hannah Arendt showed in Eichmann in Jerusalem. I am not playing the “Holocaust Card” trivially, but pointing out the deep structure in common with the kinds of attitudes and ideologies that drive people like Dylann Roof, who took the cant we’ve all heard over and over, both within our own families and in the outside world beyond its walls (speaking for myself and my own family), to its logical extreme, to action. Not just the gun that Roof got for his 21st birthday, but the ideas put in his head since birth, produced the shooting in Charleston, and produces shootings and rapes and other forms of violence to persons of color and to women and to queers all over this country every day. Look at the numbers sometime: and

In the modern world, the most common mode of collaboration is work itself. Requiring the cooperation of millions, it extends across continents, and, with a few exceptions, everyone does it. That is why Arendt pays so much attention to Eichmann’s careerism, less as a personal motivation than as a structure of action. Genocide is a form of work: from the maids, cooks, and butlers who beautified the villa at Wannsee where plans for the Holocaust were finalized in January 1942, to the men who met there to finalize it. It is a job for which men and women get paid, promoted if they do it well. And it has its own murderous claims to monumentality: “What for Eichmann was a job,” Arendt wrote in Eichmann, “with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.”

In our charge as professionals and as human beings in community are documentation and access to it, the materials to support education and to provide the basis for a profound understanding of the incredibly difficult and fraught realities of the present and the past, and the day to day practice of Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly (Micah 6:8). The shooting in Charleston is all too typical, and yet Mr. Roof’s statement of the motivation for his actions are the same ideas that have always undergirded racism in this country – – he may think he’s something special, but it’s just More Of Same:
And the violence against people who are different by race or by sexuality or by gender identity or expression has to stop if we ever want to clear our collective conscience and stand with honor in community, and before whatever higher power we hold.

We do this day by day, each person choosing The Next Right Thing in all the choices we make every day – – our moral integrity rests on that, not on heroics: just by day-to-day choosing to act out of justice and compassion.

I’m forwarding this from Prof. Noble because it’s incredibly important.

in solidarity and profound grief,

From: Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D. []
Sent: Saturday, June 20, 2015 01:09 AM
To: Linde M Brocato (lmbrcato)
Subject: [New post] Reaffirming #BlackLivesMatter

Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D. posted: “It’s been a devastating week, and I’m reflecting on the massacre of Black life in South Carolina and the escalating anti-Black violence in the U.S and abroad. I’m reposting a statement developed with my colleagues at UCLA about the importance of educators”

New post on Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D.

Reaffirming #BlackLivesMatter
by Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D.

It’s been a devastating week, and I’m reflecting on the massacre of Black life in South Carolina and the escalating anti-Black violence in the U.S and abroad. I’m reposting a statement developed with my colleagues at UCLA about the importance of educators, particularly those in the fields of information, library science and communication, to affirm our commitment to […]
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Link to Post
Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D. | June 20, 2015 at 1:08 am | Tags: #BlackLivesMatter | Categories: Blog posts | URL:

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