Tag Archives: Oxford American

On the Contentious Borders of the American South

Fifth graders practice before battle during a re-enactment of Picketts Charge at Gettysburg. (Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Scholar and writer Zandria F. Robinson narrates her coming of age in Memphis while examining the food, music, and accents of contemporary “southernness” for Oxford American. During her teenage tears, the author tried to extricate the South from her voice:

At home in my room with the door closed, I practiced aloud, watching the shape of my mouth and the movements of my tongue in the mirror. I repeated my introduction in different accents: regular, valley girl, Southern, newscaster, New Yorker, and British. I still couldn’t hear how I sounded, but I was desperate to discern and attain a standard American accent—that is, one with no regional mark. I was sixteen years old, trying to make it in the world. I didn’t need no Southern accent perched like a twanging bird on top of my being black and a girl and precariously middle class and a precariously middle-class black girl whose hair wouldn’t get straight all the way no matter the strength or caliber of the relaxer. I switched on the television, hoping to find a Cosby Show rerun so I could study Mrs. Clair Huxtable.

But in echoes of Ralph Ellison’s essay on black regionalism from 1948, “Harlem is Nowhere,” Robinson comes to realize that any notion of “southernness” as separate from “Americanness” is false.

Everybody wants to be Southern but don’t nobody want to be Southern, too. To enjoy the culture, to have gentrified ham hocks, but not to deal with ham hocks’ relationship to slavery or slavery’s relationship to the present and future. Folks want the fried chicken and Nashville and trap country music (an actual thing) and sweet tea, but they don’t want Dylan-with-an-extra-“n” Roof or the monstrous spectacle and violence in Charlottesville or the gross neglect and racism after Katrina. No one wants the parts of the South that make America great again. It’s high time we move beyond the border sketched out in John Egerton’s provocative 1974 book, The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America — the South has been everything below the Canadian border all along. If the Black Lives Matter chapters across Canada weigh in, then the South is above the Canadian border, too. Though I’ll admit that “everything below the Arctic circle” doesn’t have a good ring to it.

Things are dirty on both sides of our nation’s internal border, it’s just that some folks won’t confess it. The borders in us and between us seem ever more real, even as we strive to tear them down in service of one sound, one nation, undivided. But one side always wins, and borders are never neutral. I’m just glad that the border wars in me are over for now … I wonder if America ever will be.

 

Read the story

For the Love of Sturgill Simpson, Country Rocker Ignored by Country Music

Sturgill Simpson performs onstage during the Boston Calling Music Festival (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Oxford American’s winter issue is dedicated to music, and Leesa Cross-Smith writes lovingly about her appreciation of Sturgill Simpson, who won a 2017 Grammy award for Best Country Album despite being largely ignored by country radio and the country music establishment (Simpson was not invited to the Country Music Association awards and spent the evening outside the event busking for donations for the ACLU).

I’m also a huge fan of Sturgill Simpson’s music and the way it seems to defy all genres while still maintaining a clear country sound. Cross-Smith describes it perfectly:

I liked him from the jump but got super-attached to Sturgill when I was editing and trying to sell my novel. That anxious in-between. I listened to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth on repeat, absorbing it. First listen felt a bit like solving a complicated word problem. I couldn’t process it. It feels from another time—the seventies. It’s tense and dramatic one moment, the next, languid and dreamy. It’s awash with blue, a country concept album—earnest letters to his wife and son, sea-moonlighting as songs. He sings common-sense dad lines like “Motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean” and “Don’t let them try to upsell you, there’s a reason they make chocolate and vanilla, too.” He makes “stay in school, stay off of the drugs and keep it between the lines” sound fetching and profound when backed by his army of snap-punchy brass. He offers up his grunge-country version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and changes the “don’t know what it means and I say yeah” lyric to “don’t know what it means to love someone.” According to an interview with the New York Times, he misremembered the lyrics and inadvertently changed them, literally adding extra love to the song. The second track, “Breakers Roar,” defies its title and is instead a placid prayerlike lullaby. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a pristine, indefectible album that’s hard to categorize, although Sturgill’s voice is clearly country, clearly Kentucky—as Kentucky as Chris Stapleton’s voice, as country as Loretta Lynn’s.

Feast your eyes on what many consider to be a musical-taste unicorn: me, a black woman who knows and loves country music.

Read the story

When Life Imitates Country Music

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Gary Stewart Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Ramsey‘s essay in the fall issue of Oxford American is partly about honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart; partly about the loss of his wife’s father, Mr. Chuck; and entirely about the power of music to bridge cultural divides, to console, to memorialize, to provoke. As an essay, it’s thoroughly lovely, and thoroughly satisfying.

If you’re not familiar with Gary Stewart, it’s probably because he’s been dead since 2003, and had a patchy career for almost 20 years before that. He sang about hard living, and his life imitated his art:

Then, like a country song, all manner of things went wrong. Stewart had designs on a more anarchic Southern rock sound, and stodgy RCA didn’t quite know what to do with him (the head honchos kept complaining that he wasn’t enunciating). His consumption of uppers, Quaaludes, and prescription painkillers became even more prodigious, and bleaker. He was hospitalized for overdoses at least three times. After a few ill-conceived duds in the early 1980s, RCA dropped him in 1983.

By 1987, according to the writer Jimmy McDonough, who tracked him down and wrote the definitive profile of Stewart for the Village Voice, the singer was holed up in a small trailer with the windows painted black, rarely leaving unless it was to score drugs. “When not comatose, Stewart was living on 19-cent two-liter bottles of Dr. Chek Cola, ‘Ree-see’ Peanut Butter Cups, and amphetamine,” McDonough later recounted. Stewart agreed to be interviewed only if McDonough brought him an obscure 45 by Wild Bill Emerson. The demand was intended to be a wild goose chase, but McDonough managed to find it, earning an audience.

“I stay away when I can’t do anybody any good,” Stewart told McDonough. Then he threw a knife into the wall.

Read the essay

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(DEA Picture Library/ De Agostini / Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from David Dobbs, Rachel Aviv, Max Read, Holly George-Warren, and Bianca Bosker.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

Building a New Society for Black Americans, First in Mississippi

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

As Southern novelist William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In racially divided America, this is as true as ever. James Baldwin would recognize his era in ours, where police routinely kill unarmed people of color and the Klan still marches past their beloved Confederate statues, unobstructed by police. When it comes to racism and violence, America still looks much like it always has. But the past holds certain ideas whose potential has thankfully never passed either.

In the Oxford American, Katie Gilbert reports from Jackson, Mississippi, where a coalition is working to empower black communities through economic and political independence. After trying to help create a majority-black nation in the Deep South in the 1970s, mayor Chokwe Lumumba pursued a similar goal on a smaller scale: turning Jackson into a model of a new, more equitable autonomous society driven by cooperative economics, and no longer divided by race, class, and violence. After the mayor died, his son Antar Lumumba and a group of engaged citizens have taken the helm of what’s called the Jackson-Kush Plan, advocating their own farming, manufacturing, and alternative currency. Its goal is nothing less than transforming society.

In one of his first questions to Antar, Rhodes bored directly into the discomfort that plenty of Jacksonians still felt about the Lumumbas, pointing to the history of the PG-RNA and the sense that Antar’s platform had been born out of some sort of bigger plan—or “agenda,” as the more suspicious tended to put it. “One of the concerns that came up in the last election,” Rhodes said, his eyes on Antar, “was about whether or not, for lack of a better way of saying it, Antar Lumumba is going to be an anti-white mayor, and push away white folks, and gonna bring in nationalists, and it’s going to be Jafrica and all these kinds of things.” Some murmuring and laughter broke out around the room. 

“I appreciate you asking that question, Pastor Rhodes,” Lumumba began. In his job as a criminal defense attorney, he said, he worked with many people who don’t look like him, and had plenty of success. But his voice was climbing stairs, building up to something higher. “I’ve been labeled as a radical,” he continued. “My father was labeled as a radical. You were told that he would divide the city and what was demonstrated was something entirely different.” Antar would tell me later that he and the MXGM members helping to run the campaign had made the concerted decision to embrace the loaded “radical” descriptor that had been hurled at his father and at him in his previous campaign. His pace quickened a few steps, riding on its own momentum. “Honestly, when people call me a radical, I take it as a badge of honor. Because Martin Luther King was radical.” Applause spread through the room. “Medgar Evers was radical.” The applause intensified, and so did Antar. “Jesus Christ was radical.” The applause didn’t break, so he spoke louder to be heard. “The reality is that we have to be prepared to be as radical as circumstances dictate we should be. If you look outside these doors and you see a need for a change, then you should all be radical.” I heard shouts of “Amen!” He went on, “And the reality is that we haven’t found ourselves in the condition we’re in because someone has been too radical for us.” He inflected these last few words. “I would argue we haven’t been radical enough.” The applause carried on like an unbroken wave. 

Read the story

Following John McPhee’s Path to ‘Oranges’

Some works of nonfiction grow dated quickly, others remain what poet Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news.” John McPhee’s slim book Oranges came out in 1967, and although the players in Florida’s citrus industry have changed, Oranges endures as a classic of unconventional journalism. For the Oxford American, Wyatt Williams travels to Florida in McPhee’s footsteps fifty years, revisiting places that McPhee visited, examining his mix of research, reporting, and essay writing. What Williams finds is a very different Florida, and a work that has endured the  changes to both the publishing industry, and citrus industry.

Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.

Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.

Read the story

The Portrait of an Artist Who Flattered Donald Trump

A Ralph Wolfe Cowan portrait of Elvis in the National Portrait Gallery (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Unless you’re a millionaire or a member of a royal family, you might not have heard of painter Ralph Wolfe Cowan, but if you’ve seen a picture of the Donald Trump portrait that hangs in Mar-a-Lago, you know his work. For Oxford American, Nicole Pasulka spent a weekend with the Maestro, visited Mar-a-Lago to see his handiwork in situ, and learned the basics of the kind of celebrity flattery that lets an artist charge a cool quarter-million per portrait.

When Cowan was a boy in Portsmouth, Virginia, his three brothers would go see cowboy movies on Saturdays. He chose the Technicolor musicals showing across the street instead. From an early age, he found that portraiture was the perfect way to combine his passions for painting and celebrity. “I used to love going to the movies and seeing Maureen O’Hara in all these pirate movies and the big ships,” he told me. “I said, one of these days I was going to grow up and meet all these people and paint their portraits—and I did.”

In the 1950s he painted Debbie Reynolds in casual attire and Liz Taylor in white silk pajamas. The three of them would hang out together in Miami Beach, Los Angeles, and New York City before Taylor ran off with Reynolds’s husband, Eddie Fisher. Cowan wanted to paint Betty Grable, but he says by the time he met her she couldn’t afford it. Elvis paid for his eight-foot-tall portrait with $10,000 in cash and carried it home before the paint was dry. When country singer Kenny Rogers was newly divorced and feeling unsexy, Cowan painted him in a coat that concealed his waistline “and I put a big dick down there,” he said.

Read the story

A Small Town Crushed By a Big Weight — the Military-Industrial Complex

a water tower in kentucky painted like the american flag
Oak Grove, Kentucky's very patriotic water tower. (Photo by Carol VanHook via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a meticulously-reported piece for Oxford American, Nick Tabor explores the bungled investigation into an unsolved 1994 double murder in Oak Grove, Kentucky — a small town next to a big army base that exemplifies the military-industrial complex’s depressing effects on small-town economic development, governance, and policing.

In an alternate history, the Army’s presence could have spurred rapid economic development in Hopkinsville. The city might have extended its borders down to the state line, annexing all of that empty farmland, and business leaders could have built new neighborhoods, stores, and a movie theater. This is exactly what happened in Clarksville, Tennessee, on the other side of the post. But it was not to be in Christian County, because the people of Hopkinsville considered the soldiers an “inferior social group,” as Turner put it to me. Parents didn’t want the troopers mingling with their daughters, which they did anyway, and fights were always breaking out at bars. In 1952, a federal grand jury determined that soldiers had been “brutally beaten or killed” by Hopkinsville police, and an Army general threatened to declare the whole city temporarily off-limits for military personnel. The space in between remained a no-man’s-land, with development limited to a few stray trailer parks.

Read the story

Of the Parade, But Not In the Parade: The Mardi Gras Flambeaux

Flambeaux light the way for the Krewe of Orpheus parade. (Photo by Michael Homan, CC BY 2.0)

Louisiana Rien Fertel explores the complex history of New Orleans’ flambeaux — the men who carry the torches that light the way for Mardi Gras parades — in Oxford American. Perhaps unsurprisingly, race issues were intertwined with Mardi Gras from the festival’s earliest days.

That inaugural spectacle proved so popular that a second flambeaux procession, now doubled in size, marched about two months later, on April 6, to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, a day “generally celebrated as a holiday,” according to the Picayune, and the unveiling of the city’s newest Confederate statue, that of General Albert Sidney Johnston astride a marble likeness of his famed steed, the aptly named Fire Eater. Just as it had weeks earlier, this “carnival of fire,” as an unidentified reporter called it, paraded down St. Charles Avenue to Lee Circle, the centrally located traffic crossroads and commercial district that had been rechristened three years prior, at the height of Carnival season, to honor the dearly departed Confederate general. Though Robert E. Lee never crossed into Louisiana as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia—he likely visited New Orleans for a brief stay while soldiering during the Mexican-American War, decades earlier—the city honored him with a bronze statue, standing and facing north, a traitorous Golem ready to spring to life and defend the South from Yankee advances, atop a sixty-foot Doric marble column. Today, despite the skyscrapers that eventually mushroomed around him, Lee’s statue still manages, from certain vantage points, to dominate the city’s skyline, at no time more so than from the Mardi Gras parades, which all circle beneath his stony gaze.

Read the story

Living the American Dream in Comer, Georgia: The Garden of Refugees

Photo by Udo Schröter (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Oxford American, André Gallant tells the story of Eh Kaw Htoo, a Karen refugee from Myanmar — a man who “extolled the redneck’s work ethic” and helped build a community of 150 Karens who sustain one another by living frugally and sharing the bounty of the land in the rural community of Comer, Georgia.

I met Eh Kaw in 2012, when I approached him as a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald to tell his story to our shared community. Those first meetings enchanted me. In our earliest conversations, Eh Kaw explained that the Karen’s ability to keep gardens, trap rabbits in nearby woodlands, and slaughter chickens helped his people retain their cultural identity.

From the beginning, I loved Pa Saw’s food: roselle green and chicken skin soup, eggplant and anchovies in turmeric, hot dogs and canola greens scooped with rice mounds into sweet gum leaves. The debtless and quasi-agrarian lifestyle she and other Karen adhered to stirred a primal gene somewhere within me. After I reported that first story, we became friends, and in 2014, I attended a party to celebrate Eh Kaw and Pa Saw becoming U.S. citizens. Dozens of people gathered around a buffet table anchored by goat stew—the whole animal (organs but no hide) cooked in a tall pot. A few months later, I went to a joint wedding of four Karen couples, after which we dined at an outdoor buffet on tables hewed from pine trees.

Every few months, I returned to Comer to visit Eh Kaw and the other Karen. On one trip, he took me to various Karen houses to show off their infrastructure.

Each home we visited was organized in a similar fashion to Semoeneh’s property but adapted to the particular footprint of the lot. The houses were made of materials ranging from cinder block to clapboard, and every yard teemed with life: vegetables, poultry, the odd goat, droplets of brook water falling from minnow-snatching nets, a horde of shoes at the back door arranged as a roll call for those snoozing inside.

Read the story