Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Richard Rapaport Echoes James Petigru on South Carolina: "Too Big to Be an Asylum"

At Salon, Richard Rapaport takes a good look at South Carolina's long, long history of refractory behavior that puts the future of the entire nation on the bargaining table, until South Carolinians get their way.  Rappaport finds the Palmetto state proud, reactionary, and more than a little crazy--echoing the state's native son James L. Petigru, who once observed that the state is "too small to be a republic, too big to be an asylum."

At Huffington Post, Jesse Jackson notes that the proud, defiant, refractory, and very raw race-baiting that has been taking place in South Carolina with Republican candidates for the presidency shows just how far we still have to go as a nation.  And he's right.

Just this past week, I happened on an article in the December 1937 issue of the Rotarian magazine which simultaneously suggests to me how far along we have come in terms of racial awareness and relationships in the U.S., and how far we still have to go--as leading political figures in this nation campaigning for the highest office in the land continue to stir the kind of racism that was once taken for granted in the American South.  The article, by L. Mell Glenn, secretary of Greenville, South Carolina's Chamber of Commerce, reports on a "pickanniny" Christmas party the Greenville Rotarians had been proudly sponsoring.  It's illustrated with one of those photos of grinning black children once so beloved by white Southerners.

As I say, I happened on this article last week as I was doing research for the book I'm now writing, which deals with commentary made by the man on whom I'm focusing about racial relations in northwest Arkansas in the latter half of the 19th century.  Something for which I was searching as I did my research made this particular link pop up, and I was glad it did, because the article was a valuable wake-up call to me, as the South Carolina primaries were just getting underway, of what life was like in much of the American South right up into my own childhood and adolescence.

The attitude, the terminology, the photograph: these could easily have been lifted right out of the world in which I came of age in south Arkansas in the 1950s and 1960s.  Much has changed since then.

But much has not changed, and listening to the unabashed racial dog whistles now being used by almost all the Republican campaigners in South Carolina makes me ashamed to note how little many of us white folks in the American South have changed--at all, in one iota--when it comes to matters racial, from the days in which a community development club in Greenville could boast about sponsoring a Christmas party for "pickaninnies," up to the present.

And here's why this should matter to everyone in the U.S.: through its primary, the state God made proud, reactionary, and more than a little crazy calls the political shots for all of us.  Not only that: the tea party--which is to say, the base of the entire Republican party--emanates from places like South Carolina.  As a number of political commentators have been noting recently, including Matt Bai in the New York Times, the tea party emanates quite directly from South Carolina, and Greenville is one of its major hubs.

Greenville has become a bastion of Christian right-wing movements, and in recent years, has actively solicited the relocation of people affiliated with these groups to the community.  And in writing about this area and this phenomenon, I want to make it clear that I am writing about my own people.  These are people I know.  I grew up among their cousins who moved west from the South Carolina upcountry as the cotton kingdom began expanding to places like Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas in the first half of the 19th century.  I am critiquing my own people and myself as I make these observations.

I know--from my own experience and my own upbringing--how a certain narrowness of viewpoint and lack of strong respect for education contribute to the ability of people to hold onto ideas (e.g., about race) that harm not only those the ideas target, but those holding these ideas, as well.  And an entire society imbued with racist ideas . . . .

One of the most interesting cousins I've run across in my years of doing family history is a man named James Edward Calhoun (1798-1889).  James was, in key respects, a South Carolina wild man--"that strange James Edward Calhoun," Mary Elizabeth Moragné wrote in her diary on 19 July 1838, when he made a proper fool of himself (to her way of thinking) courting several of his cousins and waltzing with them at a point in South Carolina history when the waltz was still a novelty and considered slightly scandalous.

James Edward went a-sailing as a naval officer early in his life, and for years after he joined the navy, he roamed the globe, picking up a polyglot assortment of languages, some of which he sought to study in depth by hiring tutors to help him perfect his use of the languages.  Because he roved and failed to marry, settle down, and manage his planation in South Carolina, his mother, Floride Bonneau Colhoun, wrote  one peppery letter after another, pleading with him to mend his wild ways and do what a good Christian son ought to do: make Mama happy.

After he had gotten one such letter in 1825, he did return home for a period of time, reluctantly and unhappily because, as an entry he wrote in his diary on 29 Sept. of that year notes, he had wanted to remain "at the North" (that is, in New York City) for a period of time to learn Hebrew and German and perfect his Spanish.  And as he also notes a day later in his diary, these pursuits were not easily understood in South Carolina, since "we 'Southrons' are little given to the pencil and hardly deserve to be called a thinking people."

As I say, I know these people.  I know how they think.  I know this because they're my own people.  James's father John Ewing Colhoun was a brother of an ancestor of mine, Mary Calhoun Kerr.  And this is also worth noting: James's sister Floride Bonneau Colhoun (named for her mother, hence the duplication of that name here) married her cousin John Caldwell Calhoun, the U.S. vice-president and senator who, in a very direct way, paved the path for the secession of South Carolina by fiercely asserting the doctrine of states' rights as he defended slavery and the right of the Southern states to hold onto the practice of slavery.

Another South Carolina wild man, another cousin of mine, and one who ought not to be forgotten as we sift the claims being made by Republican presidential candidates who are overtly wooing my people, my cousins to the east in the Palmetto state (and across the South, truth be told) with direct appeals to racism right now.  In 2012.  In the new millennium, when we had hoped and thought (misguidedly) that all this was far behind us, in the past.

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