Monday, September 20, 2010

It’s important to remember…

Ever since the phrase “keeping Southern” occurred to me, I’ve been thinking about what it means. There are all sorts of things keeping Southern involves (many of them pertaining to food – and yes, posts on biscuits and cornbread and grits are coming), but if it’s just about doing stuff, what’s the point?

There’s an obvious analogy to “keeping kosher” here, not just in the parallel construction of the words, but in there being a purpose beyond the stuff you do that makes it meaningful to be doing it. For me, part of that purpose is remembering.

The beauty of Southern food isn’t really in its originality or nuevo-ness. The beauty of southern food is in its familiarity, its ability to invoke memory. After all, scent and taste are two of the most potent memory triggers we humans enjoy. Nuevo Southern cuisine only works when the creativity is undergirded by and infused with familiarity.

Remembering is a tricky thing, though. As both Jews and Southerners can attest, sometimes it means eating bitter herbs. There’s a song I love by Kate Campbell. It’s about the tensions and ambivalence in being Southern:

I was taught by elders wiser
Love your neighbor, love your God
Never saw a cross on fire
Never saw an angry mob
I saw sweet magnolia blossoms
I chased lightening bugs at night
Never dreaming others saw our way of life
In black and white

The chorus concludes: “It’s important to remember – to fly the flag half-mast – and look away.”

The “look away” is ambiguous. It’s what we do with things we don’t want to see or acknowledge. But Campbell is echoing “Dixie,” and in that it’s a looking toward with longing. For me, her song embodies looking to the hard, ugly things without letting go of the beautiful ones. Not letting either one blind us to the other.

I spent Labor Day weekend back in Chattanooga where I grew up, and I was reminded of why I so love that city (truly one of the great cities of the world). It’s a city that has renewed itself by listening to its people – who came up with the crazy idea of a world-class aquarium by remembering the river that started it all. More recently, the city has taken another step in developing the riverfront with The Passage, the largest public installation of Cherokee art in the country.  The Passage remembers the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, marking its beginning at Ross’s Landing in the heart of the city. It was designed by a team of Native American Artists from Oklahoma (where the Trail ended), and its dedication – called “Homecoming” – was attended by Western and Eastern band Cherokee Nation chiefs and representatives. It embraces a past of both beauty and pain, and in doing so, begins to redeem it for a different future.

That gets to the heart of what I mean by keeping Southern. Walking out remembering, not to relive or revive the past, but to redeem it.

A couple of days after I was in Chattanooga visiting The Passage, I was back in Chicago listening to a Native American talk about the immigration debate – “a lot of immigrants trying to decide what to do with more immigrants.” Mark Charles is Navajo who believes that if Native Americans voices and perspectives are not included in the American immigration reform discussion, whatever solutions may be put forward cannot be either “comprehensive” or “just.” It’s not a position about what should be done with immigrants, or reparations, or even being right. It’s a position about respect, and, perhaps most of all, remembering.

Mark has an analogy about how it feels to be a Native American living on a reservation:

[It] feels like I am an old grandmother who owns a very large house. It is a beautiful house with plenty of rooms and comfortable furniture. I am upstairs in my bedroom tired, weak and sick. Meanwhile there is a party going on in my house. It is a large party with plenty of food and drink, games and laughter. People are all throughout the house having a great time. Yet no one ever comes up to my room. No one comes in to say hello and no one stops to acknowledge that the house belongs to me. It is not even that I am sad that I cannot join in on the festivities, or that I would be unwelcome to come out of my room. It is that, no one comes to me. And at times I wonder if they even remember whose house they are in.

There is much to remember – and much that is not pretty. We must not turn away. But if we have the courage to remember, there is beauty to redeem, as well. The Cherokee Four Journey Directions. Magnolia blossoms. Lightening bugs at night.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful, Jen!

    Loved hearing the Kate Campbell song again. Thanks for the link. It so resonates with my own love and respect for things southern, my pride in my own southern heritage, juxtaposed against my shame and confusion about its racial struggles.

    My southern heritage, my Cherokee heritage thank you for pointing to redemption!