Tag Archives: the South

On Returning Home and Missing My Family

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We took so many group photos, it was kind of hard to choose one. But here’s the family in Brooklyn Heights.

So, I can’t say this better than Lindsay, but writing a last post is difficult. And this time, perhaps thankfully, I didn’t have a 36-hour train ride home for meditation. Instead, I’ve taken these last two days in Georgia to tune out and think about what this CSU NY Arts Immersion trip has meant to me. Back at home, I found myself sort of immediately bored without somewhere to walk on Saturday evening and then sort of immediately maladjusted to the truly “free” Sunday that I had without a trip or meeting scheduled—without the buzz and hum of the city in the background. So, I do miss the city with all of its stimulation, all that it offers. But, of course, I’m going to talk about “family” for my last post…because, like the last trip taught me, it’s about the people that accompany you on a trip as much as the place you travel to.

From the beginning, this group referred to us as a “family” and insisted that we take a group photo for nearly every outing. This was quite a contrast to our last group in 2012, who ditched us as often as they could to go out exploring. While that group was interested in discovering the city on their own, this group wanted to experience it together, which meant a certain kind of openness to just about any event that was planned. They put serious trust in their professors to show them the city, and then they could reflect for themselves. For instance, when I suggested a theatrical reading of Russian literature at Joe’s Pub, almost everyone came along—and even though we were all lost because we hadn’t read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, this group made the best of it. They used humor to get through it, seeing who could laugh the loudest at a show that none of us could really understand. It might have been a dreadful event, but this family made it memorable anyway.

From what I could tell, when this group was disappointed with something, they talked through it. This, again, suggests an openness. Instead of a quick dismissal—an “I hated that”—they talked amongst themselves and then with us about what left them curious, questioning, or uncomfortable. For instance, after a visit to the MoMA, Rylan and I discussed postmodern art with one of my English students, which led to an interesting debate about works like those of Jackson Pollock and the significance of visual art as political and meaningful versus that same significance in literature. After our tour in Harlem, many students felt uncomfortable that our tour guide took us into the housing projects; they discussed this together and then with me a little, which led to some of the most honest conversations about race and class that I’ve ever had. Another instance: one art student pulled me aside at the International Center for Photography to talk about the composition of a certain series of photos, which she felt looked poorly Photoshopped. Even though she disliked the series, she was engaged with trying to understand why the photographer would use such techniques. And, of course, in my class meetings where we discussed literature, we inevitably drifted away from the actual texts and spoke about our own experiences in the city, whether good or bad.

Even if we all felt homesick and tired and maybe even tired of each other at some point in the trip, we remained a “family,” as the students put it. Family, to me, means sharing experiences in honest and open ways–unafraid to question, to engage, to make decisions about what we value in art and life, or even our values and how they change. To just know that you can trust someone else with your true feelings about what you’ve just experienced. That is the real purpose of this trip in my mind—to establish that kind of rapport. It’s not to try and cram in every artistic and historical event in New York City into three weeks time, so that students can dance through them and later talk about their experiences like badges or trophies (“I saw this; I went here; I’ve done that before”). Instead, the purpose of this trip—and I think travel more generally—is to form lasting bonds with your travel mates, to reflect together on what you are seeing and learning, to miss the people more than the place when you get home.

Like the authors that we read for this trip, who were all searching for connections with others in places far from their homes, that’s what we seek when we venture to new places out of our comfort zone. I’m glad to have found that with my 2014 New York family. We talk so much about the importance of family in the South, about how family sustains us and keeps us grounded in place. But after this trip, I know that the concept of family extends beyond the bounds of our blood relations and our region. I know that, despite all the depressing literature Southerners may write, those connections forged are very real, and that perhaps, in contradiction to some of my earlier posts, home is transportable if you are with your family.

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A Southern Girl Says Goodbye to New York

Alas, it is our last evening here before an early trip home to Georgia tomorrow. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted this trip–my students put me to shame (probably because they receive grades for their posts :)) There was so much more I wanted to reflect on: how the South might just reside up in Harlem; how Coney Island always restores my soul; how I seem to always reconnect with old friends in this city; how I think I may have learned how to interact with New Yorkers on my very last evening here; how this Southern girl (unlike hometown girl Carson McCullers) ain’t ever leaving her region, not even for the cultural capital of the world. I’m going to use this excuse for my lack of posts: we’ve just stayed so busy, which means more experiences and less time to write about them. Instead, I’ll offer you some photos and let you see through my eyes what this trip has meant to me…(after all, this isn’t only a literature trip but a photography and arts trip, too).

Carson McCullers' Home in Nyack, NY.

Carson McCullers’ Home in Nyack, NY.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia's in Harlem).

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia’s in Harlem).

I've dreamed of seeing Minton's ever since I read Ralph Ellison's "The Golden Age Time Past," one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

I’ve dreamed of seeing Minton’s ever since I read Ralph Ellison’s “The Golden Age Time Past,” one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

These are the "stars" that matter to me.

These are the “stars” that matter to me.

Catch the group in the glass  as we step into the Apollo.

Catch the group in the glass as we step into the Apollo.

The South lives in Harlem.

The South lives in Harlem.

Coney Island get-away.

Coney Island get-away.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

Minetta's,  a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

Minetta’s, a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub--the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas's favorite watering hole.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub–the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas’s favorite watering hole.

The end of our literary tour...with the beginning of great American literature.

The end of our literary tour…with the beginning of great American literature.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I've gained here.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I’ve gained here.

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Sweet Musings on Art, History, and Consumption

Interacting with art and history at the Kara E. Walker installation, A Subtlety.

Interacting with art and history at the Kara E. Walker installation, A Subtlety.

My professor partner-in-crime, Rylan Steele, makes sure we all see great art while we’re here, and man, am I glad. I had seen articles about the Kara E. Walker installation pop up on Facebook, but I hadn’t thought much about whether I’d go while visiting NYC. After a semi-grueling (but marvelous!) day spent touring Brooklyn Heights with Sherill Tippins and a trip to the Brooklyn Museum, Rylan and I hopped in a cab, made it to the Domino Sugar Factory, and waited in line with hundreds of others to see the Walker installation titled A Subtlety.

In short, it was amazing and not at all subtle. While the sugar mammy sphinx and her sugar baby helpers were a sight, the place itself was something to behold. The smell of sugar hits you instantly when you walk in—both sweet and sour. The walls of the space are muddied with molasses stains, and piles of dark brown sugar rest in every crevice. Beautiful but dirty. (Perhaps that sums up the exhibit itself—beautiful and dirty, sweet and sour?). But these descriptions have been given again and again, and Evette Dionne’s and Kirsten West Savali’s articles speak particularly well to some of the emotions that Walker’s installation brings to the surface. There are scores of well-written reviews out there, and I’m not sure that I can add more in terms of interpretation, but I do want to talk about Walker’s work in a southern context.

 Walker has southern roots, having lived in Atlanta during her adolescent years and then remaining there for college, and her work often showcases the iconic image of the mammy figure that she incorporated into her installation at the sugar factory. Now, while I know that this piece is specific to the history of Brooklyn and the destruction of the factory, I also read that part of Walker’s inspiration in continually re-creating these stereotypical black icons came after seeing a giant mammy-shaped restaurant outside of Natchez, MS. And this is what I want to think about: why that restaurant remains—not in any ironic form—and then why an installation like Walker’s would probably not see a 45 minute line out the door in the Southeast. Certainly, across the mill towns of the South, there are historical spaces doomed to demolition and gentrification where Walker (or other artists) might create a similar installation. But I’m not sure that Southerners are ready to see this image outside of an offensively kitschy roadside attraction— this time so gigantic, so horrifically iconic (that the mammy stands in as our American “sphinx”). And I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with the emotions we confront when we see it. Because those are emotions about slavery, labor, oppression, and exploitation of people’s bodies and minds—specifically of African Americans and specifically of African American women.

But maybe I’m wrong: maybe lines would form, maybe the wait would be hours, just to be a part of something controversial. When I saw people snapping selfies with Walker’s sphinx looming in the background, it made me feel uncomfortable—as if I was part of a trend, some art installation fad—not a part of an intellectual artistic endeavor. This is not in any way a critique of Walker’s installation, but more a critique of the audience–of thinking about what it means to stand beneath an artistic rendering of American history with an audience that may not be fully aware of its meaning. For instance, many of my college students in Georgia get the Civil War and Civil Rights movement confused, and so many of us (Southerners or not) still consider Gone With the Wind to be an iconic American film, maybe even a substitution for actual history, when we need to be thinking about those iconic characters and settings in a critical way.

This is what I think Walker’s installation does…but I also wondered if her statement wasn’t lost a little. Like the rest of the spectators, I stood there gawking, almost as if the sugar mammy sphinx was a consumable roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere Mississippi.

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Great Architecture or Illuminated Tombstones? (or: Thinking about Home)

“Great architecture in a great city” or “Illuminated tombstones in a necropolis”? (phrasing borrowed from Tennessee Williams’ “Happy August the 10th.”)

While the classes that I taught in New York in 2012 revolved around Sherill Tippins’ February House, this year I decided to take a different approach with classes: to investigate Southern writers who lived and wrote in New York at some point in their lives. Since this program was founded because of Carson McCullers’ journey to New York City at age 17, I felt that a class that explored McCullers alongside other writers who undertook similar journeys might be, simply put, fun. Because the trip participants are all “Southerners” (if not by birth, then by current residency), I figured we’d all be able to tell about our own journeys as well. We’re reading Capote, Williams, McCullers, Walker—more canonical authors—alongside contemporary authors Karen Russell, Donna Tartt, and Allan Gurganus. Thus far, we’ve discussed the ways that the traditional southern gothic writers described New York and the South in their work, comparing and contrasting the ways these two places intersect and divide.

So, that’s my lens—that’s what I’m thinking about, as a Southerner visiting New York City. And thus far, I’m puzzled. So puzzled that I’m experiencing a little writer’s block. I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, to understand one’s own culture, one has to leave it. And then miss it. And then see it everywhere, even when one is estranged from it. And then understand that leaving it doesn’t necessarily make anything any better. It’s not that there’s no place like home–it might be that there is just no place to call home. Ever.

For instance, in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae Golightly from Tulip, Texas—the wild thing that stole turkey eggs and ran through brier patches. Even in New York, she cannot escape that identity. In Carson McCullers “Who Has Seen the Wind?,” Ken is also an ex-pat Texan, working on a novel about his gritty hometown. The New York literary life eventually drives him mad. In Williams’ “Happy August the 10th,” Elphinstone has filled the bookshelves with such titles as Notable Southern Bullshit, as described by her roommate Horne, a woman whom Elphinstone both loves and despises. In the end, both characters view the city’s buildings as tombstones: “…she watched the city’s profile, creep with understandable reluctance into morning, because, my God, yes, Horne’s comment did fit those monolithic structures downtown, they truly were like a lot of illuminated tombstones in a necropolis” (472). All of these characters are at home in New York, and yet, out of place. They are successes but failures; they are with companions but alone; they are caught between past and present, also between places. New York City cannot save them.

I don’t want to make this the bluest—or the mean reddest—post ever written, but I can’t help but reflect on what feelings of homelessness can do to folks: put them continually on the run and in search of home in people and places (like Capote’s Holly) or make them crazy and violent (like McCullers’ Ken), or if they are perceptive, make them begin to change and to seek different meanings of home (like Williams’ Elphinstone who we think might make amends with Horne despite her now bleak view of the city itself). One thing is certain: this feeling of searching for a home (of a certain sort of homesickness, which McCullers wrote about so often) is not unique to out-of-place Southerners who must flee their region. While some suggest it’s made worse because of the slow—snail’s pace—progress in the South, finding your “place” (considering all the metaphorical meanings of that word) is exhausting, even in one of the most progressive and culturally diverse cities in the world.

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A Little Bit Like Home

Suddenly, I wasn’t homesick. Not a bit.

The first time I visited Nyack, I felt a little like I was going home. I can understand why Carson McCullers—who loved her Georgia home, even if she took issue with its social policies—would want to live in this little gem outside of New York City. Today, visiting again, it was confirmed for me: Nyack feels like my home region, which is comforting. Let me tell you why. (I’m about to embark on a list of stereotypes here—of both the South and NYC—the type that I usually question).

People are friendlier up there. I chatted with a shop owner; I petted a frisky dog; I enjoyed a homemade donut on a quiet street. The pace is slower. There was no rush to jump on the subway or push through a crowd; in fact, the bus was late, and the streets were uncrowded (although we did have to run to catch the train back to the city). It’s quieter. While I noticed the occasional booming car stereo, that was just it: it was so quiet that I noticed the music. The landscape is like home. That is, my childhood home of Greenville, SC, in the piedmont on a tiny river. While, in Nyack, the hills are more mountains and the tiny river is the Hudson, I was still reminded of Greenville and the surrounding western North Carolina mountains. True, the cityscape of Manhattan is beautiful in its way, but it was refreshing to look out and see green and blue.

Basically, what I’ve done here is undermine some of my previous posts. I’m arguing that the South is friendly, slow, quiet, and green, while New York City is disaffected, fast-paced, noisy, and concrete. But Nyack stands out as special to me—maybe because Carson chose to spend most of her life there—but also because it lets me see that “the North” and New York City cannot be collapsed; the North is as diverse as any other region—as NYC itself. Spending time in Nyack also made me realize that I uphold some of the stereotypes about my home region as positive and as true.

Then this street sign reminded me that not all of the South has always been “friendly, slow, quiet, and green.” We have a violent and uncomfortable legacy to discuss and to make sense of, and we must continue to address our regional history and its consequences as much as possible. But, maybe in that moment especially, standing on a street corner in Nyack, NY, I was suddenly not homesick. Not a bit.

 

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