South of the South, below the Bible Belt, northernmost point of the Caribbean — these are all monikers New Orleanians have embraced to remove the city from the cultural geography of the South. Is New Orleans really part of the South? On its face it’s a silly question. A quick glance at the map settles it. And New Orleans has faced the same historical dramas as the rest of the region.
Instead of pretending that New Orleans isn’t in the South, it’s more useful to think of the city as an “other” South, one that has always existed alongside the popular image of the South that so many of us — including me — cringe to behold.
Many have reflected, especially since Katrina, on the gap between the myth of New Orleans and the underlying reality. But of course the South is laden with myth, too, a myth concocted by natives and onlookers alike. Sadly, Southern identity is often hijacked to support radical right-wing political agendas.
American leftists are wrong to call our far-right conservatives Nazis. They’re actually Confederates. The conflation of “Southern” with “Confederate” is at the heart of the political myth of the “Solid South,” and, as ever, the successful marketing of that myth has resulted time and again in political ugliness.
Thus “our” values, to folks such as Governor Bobby Jindal, require limiting the pool of citizens qualified to embrace and enjoy those values. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 said a black man had “no rights” that a white man is “bound to respect.” Just change “black” and “white” to “gay” and “straight,” and you’ve got the gist of Jindal’s recent “Marriage and Conscience” order.
Explicitly excluding African-Americans is no longer politically viable. State-sanctioned racism is a thing of the past, albeit the recent past. But to Jindal et al, the “South’s” stewardship of “traditional values” entails a last-ditch effort to throw up a bulwark against gay citizens.
Jindal’s executive order protecting the right to discriminate — by, for example, refusing to cater or provide flowers for a gay wedding reception — is meeting with widespread outrage here in New Orleans. I’m proud of that, but it’s no surprise. Even outside Orleans Parish, Louisianans can be found who are offended by the governor’s kamikaze-like decision to hold the tourism and convention economy hostage to his Quixotic dream of acceptance by Iowa caucus-goers. And it’s not the first time a Southern conservative has sought to build alliances with fellow travelers far from home.
The myth of the “Old South” was first dreamed by segregationist Southerners such as Thomas Dixon Jr., author of “The Clansman,” the 1905 novel celebrating the night riding and associated forms of political terror that aborted Reconstruction in a shower of blood. Hollywood picked up Dixon’s novel and made it into a blockbuster movie. Valorizing the most despicable among us, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) created an image of the South that has been an indelible part of our regional iconography for 100 years and counting.
Today, Jindal foists an unpopular law on the state, against the will of the legislature, and then runs an ad in Iowa trumpeting the righteousness of his stand against — believe it or not — discrimination! Yes, just as the Confederates were outraged at the infringement of their freedom to hold others in bondage, Jindal’s wacky but monied minority insists that its right to discriminate against others must not be discriminated against — confusing, yes, but self-evident in the minds of true believers.
They understand freedom in a mercantilist sense, as a limited resource: If everyone has the same rights, they’re not worth as much. Rights should be privileges earned by hard work and obedience to “traditional” values (theirs).
The immediate backlash in New Orleans has been appropriately virulent. Most interesting is the repeated declaration that this executive order is “not us,” is not what “we” (New Orleanians) are about. According to Mayor Landrieu and many other aggrieved and vocal locals, we are about “tolerance” and “diversity.”
Fear of lost revenue, more than a broad-minded acceptance of alternative lifestyles, is what drives the statewide resistance to Jindal’s latest cry for attention, but New Orleanians can rightly claim a history of live-and-let-live attitudes in regard to sexual orientation and lifestyles.
Of course the myth of New Orleanian cultural tolerance can be undermined by history as much as confirmed by it. We can look at Tennessee Williams’ personal narrative of self-discovery in one of America’s most visible gay communities in the late 1930s or we can look at District Attorney Jim Garrison’s targeted persecution of gay New Orleanians in the 1960s. Sex across the color line, from plaçage to Storyville, remains the central exhibit in the Big Easy’s famous (and notorious) disregard of the private lives of consenting adults, but these examples entail exploitation along with unbridled freedom (for possessors of money and power).
“Oh, New Orleans is such freedom!” gushes the major gay character, a trust-fund transplant, in John Kennedy Toole’s novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.” But “such freedom” remains elusive for Burma Jones, the novel’s African-American working stiff, and for Ignatius Reilly himself, an iconoclastic intellectual loudmouth in a world of repressed and repressive socially conservative yats. We could even say that New Orleans’ historic tolerance of sex across the color line radiates an especially Southern ethos: absolute white privilege for those who can afford it. New Orleans was able to realize the logical outcome of a principle that the rest of the South was simply too squeamish to pursue so openly.
The accusation of racism is the way to go for the jugular when reminding New Orleanians of their Southernness. Like many other (white) locals, I was incensed by the way national media emphasized racism in their coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Reports of recent acts of state-sponsored racism in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore regularly came with the disclaimer that the same thing happens in “the rest of the country.”
I don’t recall that courtesy in the post-Katrina coverage. New Orleans was made to appear like an average Southern city, with white people up on a hill, and black residents in the swampy bottom land down by a flood-prone creek. Think Sparta, Mississippi, the fictional town of TV’s “In the Heat of the Night.” Mayor Nagin had to remind national observers that the “sliver by the river,” the higher ground that escaped catastrophic flooding, was also majority black.
But of course New Orleans can’t escape its typically Southern racist past. All it can do is emphasize a handful of meaningful aberrations from it. Yes, New Orleans was the largest slave market in the country before the Civil War. On the other hand, New Orleans also had the largest population of free blacks during that era. Yes, school desegregation was ugly here, with national cameras recording “crackers” shouting the n-word at little girls. But were they “crackers?”
Hollywood often insists on giving white New Orleanians redneck accents (like John Goodman’s “Big Daddy” Leboeuf in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”), but we know these were yats, not crackers. What’s the difference? Urban ethnic working class descendants of 19th-century immigrants are more readily comparable to the racists who took to the streets during the New York Draft Riot of 1863, or the1919 Chicago Riot, than to impoverished Scots-Irish hill country agrarians. Racist, yes, but Southern? Also yes, if we’re willing to realize how the urban South differs in many ways from the Hollywood myth of an agrarian South.
We also can’t ignore that Jim Crow descended on Louisiana just as it did upon every former Confederate state. On the other hand, “separate but equal” was valiantly resisted by groups such as Rodolphe DesDunes’ Comité des Citoyens, who brought their Plessy vs. Ferguson challenge all the way to the Supreme Court — where, shamefully, Justice Edward White, a New Orleanian, won the day by backing the “separate but equal” opinion that formed the legal basis for Jim Crow. White’s statue stands in front of the State Supreme Court on Royal Street — why doesn’t anyone protest that?
Often it’s the smaller, less public incidents that remind us of our roots in Southern racism and associated “traditions.” One such private insult took place May 21 at a tourist bar and grill on Decatur Street called Huck Finn’s. The insult was the inscription of the words “N—–, 100% Dislike” on the check presented to an African-American diner. This is the kind of thing that goes viral, and it did.
However you dice it, it will be easy for many to conclude that this is a typical act of Southern racism in a Southern city. The employee was immediately fired, and I don’t know where he/she hails from. A strange irony is how the offensive word printed on the receipt is uttered throughout the novel narrated by the restaurant’s namesake: Huck Finn, as in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain. This is ironic because for a white to fling that word at an African-American is indubitably a racist act, while the novel itself is one of the great anti-racist texts of American literature. Few people today are aware of the book’s anti-racist message, because they won’t read it for fear of seeing the n-word. The appearance of the n-word in a quite different context — a French Quarter restaurant named, perhaps unwittingly, for an anti-racist hero — ill-serves America’s anti-racist literary record as much as it does our city.
Twain was a big fan of New Orleans, and buddies with another great exemplar of the “other” South, New Orleanian writer George Washington Cable. Cable well reflects the fate of that “other” South, the South that defines itself outside the constrictions of conservative propagandists like Jindal. He spoke out loudly against racism, but finally had to flee his hometown because conservatives nostalgic for the “Old South” drummed up so much ire against him.
One of his under-read gems alleges to be a Civil War memoir by a New Orleans lady who resisted the war and spoke out against it, earning the retribution that conservative Southerners visited upon neighbors opposed to their catastrophic decision to take up arms in defense of slavery. The story is found in a volume entitled “Strange True Stories of Louisiana,” published in 1890. The word “strange” in the title reflects the challenge faced by an author attempting to counter the dominant myth of the “Solid South,” a place of charming backwardness and homespun bigotry that new Southerners such as Bobby Jindal, the rabid “Duck Dynasty” fan, are all too happy to continue promoting.
It’s the kind of thing that drives many of us to the desperate claim that we’re somehow not really in the South. Instead, we should be proud that New Orleans has long been a magnet for Southerners who wish to remain in the South and celebrate their Southern cultural identity without the millstone of hate that Southern conservatives attach to it.
Cable’s willingness to resist the Southern orthodoxy of his day (and ours) doesn’t make him any less Southern, despite the claims of his enemies. He envisioned a more congenial, more tolerant, more diverse South. A freer South.
The French Quarter establishment named for his friend Twain’s protagonist serves Cajun burgers and catfish, but the help has been reminded that they are supposed to do so without invoking the n-word or indulging in the gay bashing encoded in Jindal’s latest decree. That way we get to take in an extra helping of tourist dollars — a venerable New Orleans economic tradition that Jindal, as he seeks to extend his lifelong tenure on the public payroll, is being reminded not to fool with.
C.W. Cannon teaches New Orleans Studies and English at Loyola University.