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Wasting Away in Margaritaville Hell

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

Living and Retiring in ¾ Time

In the early 1970s, Jimmy Buffet and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina were each stymied by identical situations. Buffet, a Gulf Coast native, was mired in an identity crisis. He definitely wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, but with novelty songs like “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)” he wasn’t country enough. The Parrotheads, his legion of loyal followers, hadn’t been invited, and Hilton Head was run aground in a similar spot. Charles Fraser’s Hilton Head Company had developed a half-dozen private communities on the island, from Sea Pines to Shipyard Plantation, but the area’s population was still relatively small—less than 3,000 full-timers. When a barge damaged the only bridge to the island, residents traveled a temporary pontoon bridge to get off. Yet the singer-songwriter and the sleepy vacation destination were each on the launching pad, poised for a transformation that transcended their common origins. Over forty years later, the two global brands have linked themselves together, and their union plants a beguiling capstone on Generation Jones and Gordon Gekko’s 1980s Wall Street creed: “Greed is good.”

Like many Atlantic barrier islands, Hilton Head still has only one central access point. Today, it’s US-278, which runs from the humdrum Hardeeville exit off I-95 to the panoramic Harbour Town lighthouse. The thirty-five mile stretch of four-lane divided highway operates like a perpetually tangled extension cord, a constant gnarl of traffic. The area’s strict zoning and building codes also create an incessant monotony of sandy beige and hunter green, hypnotizing and annoying travelers with its mundanity. When everything appears the same, how can you tell what’s authentic? However, in the Lowcountry town of Bluffton, nearer the interstate than the island, two faux boulder formations mark the arrival of the free spirits to Beaufort County.

Nearly twelve miles from Fraser’s original Sea Pines resort, but only two miles from the I-95 Hardeeville exit, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Holdings, LLC and a Florida-based retirement community developer are partnering to construct another Latitude Margaritaville. Their third location plans to provide the same whimsical attitude as the mythical land of flip-flops and “booze in the blender,” offering 3,000-plus homeowners daily opportunities to blow their kids’ inheritance. Now randy retirees can get drunk at a variety of beverage concepts and pop a blue-diamond party-pill so they can screw before “Hannity,” which might rile-up aging Parrotheads enough to improve their refractory period.

Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker sired the rock ‘n’ roll cash-grab, and the world knows there’s no-limit to a real estate developer’s gumption. No one can blame Mike and Marcy from Moline, or Milwaukee, or Minneapolis for wanting to live anywhere with palm trees and without snow blowers. Golf sucks in a blizzard. As for Buffet, with his early 70s ballads like “He Went to Paris” and his haunting siren-song “Biloxi,” he’s earned a degree of absolution for his distinctive grade of gluttony. He sold out after “Cheeseburger in Paradise” saturated the airwaves in 1978, leaving behind fans of his early albums. Moreover, his rise to the heights of commercial proliferation was in our social dharma ever since The Monkees and The Partridge Family. The youngest of the Baby Boomers have been bombarded with mass merchandising for fifty or sixty years. Like every kid raised on Saturday morning cartoons, they can’t distinguish between a genuine presence and products masquerading as contrived characters. Chugging Landshark beers and piling aqua blue pineapple throw pillows on the sofa offers a validated identity. Mike and Marcy are only following the rules, bullshit cultural norms they believed were their only options.

The manicured golf courses, discount outlet malls, and beach lifestyle obscure Hilton Head Island’s rich history. According to F. Rutledge Hammes, a Lowcountry native and author of A Curious Matter of Men With Wings, the Gullah Geechee people are an integral part of the region’s legacy. Descended from Central and East Africans, the Gullah’s roots were embedded in the land after the Civil War. Inaccessible and nearly uninhabitable, much of the Lowcountry was left to the former slaves during Reconstruction, and from the swampy ruins they cultivated a powerful way of life free from the master’s sinister oversight. All along the coast, annual festivals celebrate the Gullah’s culture, but for years in Hilton Head, the only meager remnant of their impact on the island was the odd glimpse of a bottle tree. Earthmovers expunged them with each new development. Recently, Louise Cohen, a Hilton Head native, has worked to revitalize the Gullah’s legacy on the island. In 2003, she formed the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head, and this summer the organization is holding its first annual Gullah Day Camp. Perhaps the newest Mikes and Marcys moving to Latitude Margaritaville can donate to support to her cause.

Savvy marketers have long known how to manipulate our minds, but place isn’t as simple to influence. It can be polluted and bulldozed in a variety of means, but it can’t be entirely defeated. The earth will exist with or without us. The choice is ours as to how we serve out our incarnation. It’s tempting to lethargically squander our post-career life as if it’s extra sick days awarded to us by human resources, until you realize that at seventy-one Jimmy Buffet still tours every year, packing out shows from Wrigley Field to Fenway Park. It’s a lot of work being the ruler of the “no worries” empire.

 

(Photo credit: Flickr.)

The Neo-Nazis Come to Town

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

A City of Healing

“It’s a free country” is a childhood taunt kids learn on playgrounds and in lunchrooms. Despite that most Americans can’t explain the Bill of Rights, we’re possessive of our freedoms. Except when it means Neo-Nazis can pay a fifty-dollar permit fee to march into town and hold a hate rally in the park. Outrage becomes the immediate response.

Dissected by Interstate 85’s gray concrete river and populated by a mix of transplants and locals, Newnan, GA is a thriving Atlanta suburb southwest of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. It’s also the worldwide headquarters of Southern Fried Karma. When the social media jungle drums began beating about a National Socialist Movement (NSM88) rally scheduled for Saturday, April 21st in the Greenville Street Park, righteous indignation and pig-headed denial ran through town. The “no way” sentiment was shared in grocery store lines and bank lobbies. This had to a bureaucratic bungle. But back to the Bill of Rights thing… There was no legal argument for the city to deny the permit. After reluctant acceptance settled into the community’s bones, the discussion shifted to two questions: “What are we going to do about it?” And, “Why here?”

Determining appropriate public safety became the primary issue for city officials. Police Chief Douglas “Buster” Meadows encouraged town residents to stay away from the park that day. Downtown shops and restaurants decided to close on Saturday, which would mean a considerable loss of revenue. With the images of the Charlottesville tragedy a click away, Newnan’s civic leaders teamed with state officials to plan a law enforcement strategy. There would be an overwhelming show of force to discourage violence and quickly respond to any clashes. City officials had access to skilled resources, which made addressing the dilemma of “What are we going to do about it?” a professional process.

The question of “Why here?” has sharper edges.

According to Politico, in the 2016 election, President Trump won nearly seventy percent of the vote in Coweta County, which was far above the state and national numbers. Locals aren’t merely “clinging to their guns”—they’re sporting .357 Magnums at the meat-and-two restaurants. The area also has a vibrant Civil War history and mythology. In front of the old courthouse, there’s a memorial to Confederate hero William Thomas Overby, who was a member of John Mosby’s “Gray Ghost” rangers. At 24 years old, Overby was captured and executed by federal troops after refusing to provide rebel locations. The memorial was erected in 1956, amidst the fervor of the anti-segregation movement, and there’s never been a serious public debate about removing the polished granite monument from the center of a downtown square lined with gift shops and clothing boutiques. Similarly, the reasons for a group of Yankee skinheads choosing Newnan was never much of a discussion. It was overrun by chatter.

As it became apparent that the left-wing street group Antifa (short for Anti-fascists) planned to mount a counter-protest, panic reverberated in all corners. The police grew concerned that thousands of hooligans would converge at the park to battle the Nazis. Hysterical fear-mongers suggested manning front-porches with shotguns and “making sure your homeowner’s insurance is paid up.” Fortunately, calmer souls moderated the gossip. When approached by an Atlanta news station for a reaction to the rally, one serene resident quoted the Taoist parable of the old man and the white stallion: “Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” The allegorical story offered an essential lesson on perspective and an individual’s response to an apparent calamity. A concerted effort to not allow hate to identify Newnan flourished.

The local newspaper helped communicate law enforcement’s aggressive approach to crowd control. There would be helicopters. There would be drones. Armored SWAT vehicles would be on hand. Hundreds of police officers in full riot gear would surround the park to maintain control. The Friday night before the protest, a #NewnanStrong rally was planned to support downtown merchants, and a “Peace in the Park” event was scheduled for the day after the protest to reclaim the area and cleanse the space of hate; however, in the final few days before the protest, the town’s fears were rekindled.

By Thursday, white and orange water barricades lined the streets. A temporary chain-link fence enclosed the park. The shiny silver barrier was conclusive evidence that the protest wasn’t only a topic of coffeehouse conversation—it was really happening. Arriving along with this visual proof was a social media post from a person claiming to be a former member of Antifa. The inflammatory post warned residents to remove American flags from their homes and offices lest they become targets, and it again advocated guarding your homes with firearms. The authenticity of the post was questionable, but there was no denying the consequences: Formerly calmer souls were now scared. The escalating dread served as a warning beacon to Southern Fried Karma. It was our “Bat-Signal” hanging in the sky.

Our offices were squarely on Antifa’s route to confront the Nazi’s. We had choices to make. First of all, we fly an American flag at our building, and there is a blue ribbon attached to the pole to show our support for local peace officers. The flag was not coming down no matter the cost. Likewise, we had no intention to sit in rocking chairs on our front porch, armed with 12-gauge shotguns and 9 mm pistols. That’s not who we are. We decided to express who we are by decorating the sidewalk in front of our office with positive messages of peace and love. On the morning of the march, we left out bottles of water and nourishing snacks for whoever walked past our building. We wanted those who were hungry or thirsty to be replenished. We wanted to share the love.

Fortunately, other than a few arrests for minor charges, the event was a dud—the M-80 that failed to explode. The Nazis were almost an hour late to their own rally. The positive energy created on Friday night at the #NewnanStrong rally continued on to Saturday, as a series of ecumenical unity services convened throughout the city. The massive police presence safely squelched any violence. The town escaped with only a skinned knee, but still, the community faces questions.

NSM88 and Antifa have threatened to return. The Coweta Sons of Confederate Veterans’ annual reenactment of the Battle of Brown’s Mill set for late August provides a foreboding irony and the potential for a real clash. Yet, the affecting aspect of the Confederate’s victory over Federal troops wasn’t that it protected the town’s antebellum mansion, but that the family homes were being used as field hospitals by both Northern and Southern soldiers. Today, Newnan is home to the Cancer Treatment Center of America and a large regional hospital. Perhaps our civic slogan should change from the “City of Homes” to a “City of Healing.”

A drenching all-day rain forced the rescheduling of the Peace in the Park rally to the weekend after the protest. Mother Nature cleansed the space herself. Late on a sunny Sunday afternoon, a small group gathered to sing a few songs and listen to a series of short talks by community leaders from a variety of backgrounds. One of the speakers, an energy healing practitioner, reminded listeners of a song she learned as a young girl, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Taught in Vacation Bible schools throughout the South, the gospel song’s message of unity is timeless, despite its outmoded lyrics. The real challenge lies ahead for us all. Will we embrace the moment and build upon our new sense of communal strength, or will we backslide into silent indifference? Viewing everyone as the same, connecting with all sentient beings as family members, only comes through the daily diligence of practicing love and kindness. When we attune ourselves to the essence of our fellow travelers, our fears dissipate. This awareness is what the Nazis brought to town.

The American Dream Had a Lisp

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

Rumblin’ with the Rise of Rasslin’

Audiences adore Dwayne Johnson. The action star rules the global Cineplex, but many of his newer fans are unfamiliar with his earlier wrestling career as “The Rock,” when followers of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin jeered him as his greatest World Wrestling Entertainment rival. Johnson broke out from his first roles as Flex Kavana and Rocky Maivia, leader of the “The Nation of Domination,” and other pro wrestlers have replicated a degree of his crossover popularity. Hulk Hogan appeared in films and reality television, John Cena has developed as an on-screen and voice talent, and a 30 for 30 documentary about “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair recently aired on ESPN, a network that brands itself as “the worldwide leader in sports.” However, for Southern wrestling fans, no hero transcended sports and life like the late Dusty Rhodes, known by his legion of fervent fans as “The American Dream.”

For forty years, Dusty Rhodes and his signature “Bionic Elbow” were the Saturday afternoon champions of hard-working devotees from Texas to the Mason-Dixon line. The 2007 WWE Hall of Fame inductee never reached The Rock’s success, yet Rhodes was one of the first regional personas to climb out from the territorial ranks and headline in Madison Square Garden. Before the inception of WWE, Inc., a corporate conglomerate cranking out entertainment products, professional wrestling was localized; it operated as independently sanctioned circuits. From the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s, cable TV mogul Ted Turner broadcasted Georgia Championship Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Florida, headquartered in Tampa. The South was divided into a half-dozen similar regions, and Dusty Rhodes performed in them all. When Vince McMahon, the genius madman behind WWE, plundered the struggling Southern franchises in the late 1980’s, it was natural for The American Dream to join him. Rhodes, who described himself as “265 lbs. of blue-eyed soul,” became an elite pay-per-view star; throughout his legendary career, however, he never forgot he was a “Plumber’s Son.”

Like Muhammad Ali, Rhodes possessed a charisma that was made for the camera, and many of his interviews were more like soliloquies. His October 1985 “Hard Times” interview on the weekly Mid-Atlantic Wrestling show serves as a discourse for the common man. After verbally taking down The Nature Boy, Rhodes, in dark shades, the purplish-blue scars on his forehead clear to see, riffs into a diatribe about the difficulties American families were facing: “When the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got four or five kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food.” “When the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home.” “When a man has worked at his job for thirty years, thirty years, and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say hey a computer took your place, daddy.” What makes the interview extraordinary is not merely the background cheers of the screaming fans or Rhode’s self-deprecating humor—“my belly’s just a lil’ big, my heinie’s a lil’ big”—but his empathetic understanding of the reality that plagued the country. This was the height of the Reagan Revolution, but Rhodes knew that many folks were excluded from the famed Republican tax reforms that fueled the transformation of hippies into yuppies, and launched the “Me” generation of Wall Street profiteers.

As a contrived blend of showmanship and athletics, professional wrestling runs on feuds. Chatter about the latest unexpected twist in the hottest rivalry fills locker rooms and lunchrooms. Aging Southern wrestling fans can still recount the night Mr. Wrestling II unmasked Mr. Wrestling I at the Omni in Atlanta. Staged battles, also called “kayfabes,” are the vaudeville of sports. Rhodes recognized the country’s undercurrents and challenged a bigger villain than The Nature Boy. He intuitively perceived the concealed suffering his fans were enduring at a time when sanguine greed was the nation’s mantra. His battle to regain his title belt was against more than Ric Flair. The American Dream wanted to pile-drive the Establishment. The correlation between Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” and Donald Trump’s #MAGA movement are dubious for myriad reasons. But there still needs to be that authentic voice questioning the group in control, especially when today’s leaders appeal to what the common man wants to hear, while their actions primarily benefit the corporate oligarchy.

Unfortunately, professional wrestling doesn’t have a track record of embracing noble causes. If the villains aren’t portrayed as braggarts or psychos, then they’re often foreigners: Abdullah the Butcher, The Iron Sheik, or Ivan Koloff. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the most reviled wrestling scoundrel of all time, spoke with a Canadian accent and wore a Scottish kilt. Pro wrestling draws upon the classic Us versus Them mentality. Dusty Rhodes personified the concept of the American Dream in and out of the ring. His keen insight enabled him to discern the initial stages of the decline of the working middle-class and the crumbling of their factories, jobs, and hopes. To Dusty, “Us” were the cheering fans who filled the stands and sent him cards and letters, and “Them” were the callous business leaders and politicians who slashed-and-burned their aspirations. Them was responsible for destroying the belief that you could have a better life than your parents, that you could build a better life for your children. That’s the American Dream. The agonizing irony is that within a few years after his “Hard Times” speech, Rhodes was forced to join forces with the pro wrestling equivalent of Them: McMahon’s WWE, wrestling under the moniker of the “Common Man.”

The universe runs in cycles, even the professional wrestling universe. There’s a birth. There’s a life. There’s destruction. Hindus know as it as Brahma, Vishnu and Shankar. Buddhists call it Dharma. It’s an awareness that’s instilled in our collective consciousness. Yet, we’re all not awake to concept, and we don’t all enjoy where we are in the sequence. The cosmological cycle has been cynically summarized as: Life is a bitch, and then you die. But for every end there’s a beginning. In armories and community centers dotted throughout small towns, there’s a circuit of semi-pro wrestling, young athletes struggling to make it to bigger venues. It’s possible that some dimly lit dank gymnasium is producing another Plumber’s Son—or daughter. Perhaps the prospect of fulfilling our desires is all that’s required to survive hard times. We’re all the Common Man. We all have Bionic Elbows, and we should all be unafraid to elbow-smash braggart blowhards who’d deceive us for their own gains.

 

(Photo Credit 1: “The Ring and Lighting Setup for NWA-AE’s Uprising Show” by zenmasterdod can be found on http://bit.ly/2pxKRbV. The image has been adjusted with Adobe Photoshop for color, contrast, noise, sharpness, and tone.)

(Photo Credit 2: “Dusty Rhodes B” by Tony A. can be found on http://bit.ly/2pxKRbV.)

A Wandering Poet’s Cry

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

Book Review
Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart
Clifford Brooks
Kudzu Leaf Press 2017, 122 pp., $14

Good News for the Southern Man

In 1970, Neil Young’s “Southern Man” challenged the white patriarchal power structure, whose dominance was founded on the enslavement of black men, women, and children. The song put Southern males on notice, and the Canadian rocker forewarned that a day of reckoning was coming. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” served as a retort, informing Mr. Young that his opinion wasn’t needed. Forty years later, given the conflicted status of the Southern male, one wonders what the late Ronnie Van Zant, the band’s original lead singer and the lyricist of the iconic hit, would make of today’s contradictions.

The fishing is still good. The whiskey is better than ever. But accounts are being settled. Van Zant’s old high school in Jacksonville, FL, Robert E. Lee Senior High School, has removed the name of the Confederate general from the school sign after “racist” was spray-painted across it. Within this paradoxical setting, Georgia poet Clifford Brooks has released his second poetry collection, Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart. Brooks doesn’t have a 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop to shred guitar solos, or the Sweet Inspirations on backup vocals; nonetheless, his collection delivers Young’s and Skynyrd’s forceful emotions and unambiguous message.

Brooks was born in Athens, GA; so adopting Athena in the title seems fitting, and the Greek Goddess of war and wisdom is an appropriate symbol for his dueling free verse style. Early in the vast collection, Brooks addresses the bitter farce of patriarchal influence. In the poem “Two Old Men,” we see recognition and respect for the two old men who are fixing the broken washing machine, and the expectations are clear:

“I half-expect
Some Great Depression
philosophy
for such a nasty sum.”

But, our confidence in the two old men is misplaced:

“The condescending fucks
take my cash
and rumble off
in a battered Chevrolet.”

True knowledge about our being and our conduct must come from another source, and like the Fugitive poet Donald Davidson did in “The Demon Brother,” Brooks turns to the devil for answers.

“Meeting Old Man Scratch (1)” and “Meeting Old Man Scratch (2)” are two of the more illuminating poems in the collection. In these companion pieces, you sense that Brooks, like The Rolling Stones, has sympathy with the devil. When Old Scratch arrives, “it’s damning/but certainly not evil.” There’s a “kinship linked to a promise.” But Brooks knows that time spent in violation of duty “will make for a hard night.” In the first poem, he admits the bargain he’s made with the devil and its toll, but in the second poem, he acknowledges the counteracting energy of family:

“my momma
and a monster
have an equal share
of my tombstone stock.”

The allure of Brook’s poetry is that he takes us with him into the confessional booth. He doesn’t hide the complexity of his tangled feelings. Equally appealing are his unpretentious visions of front porches and snapping green beans intertwined throughout his poems. His imagery is purely Southern. “Sex and Sweet Tea” evokes the bliss in a “red Southern Sky,” and could be the lyrics for a Jason Isabell tune.

As alluded to in the title, Brooks’s use of mythology is another engaging aspect of his poetry. In an “Ode to Southern Sons, and Uncivil Rest,” he draws on the tortured trickster Sisyphus to pull in the reader, and in other poems he employs Prometheus, Orpheus and Eurydice, and the Hindu god Vishnu, the great protector of the world. This use of classic stories and characters further illustrates the modern dilemma Brooks is examining. Many contemporary Sons of the South are befuddled by the question of how to honor their quarrelsome legacy and admit their culpability in rigging society to maintain their advantage. Brooks lays out the first step in good ol’ boy recovery—rigorous honesty, to borrow a precept from Bill W’s Big Book. But while his candid rock n’ roll style is enthralling, it exposes the collection’s vulnerabilities.

Some of the poems are as forced as a shotgun wedding. “Blues ‘Round Midnight” and “After Rock-and-Rolla Lover Talk” are like chugging rot-gut whiskey from a plastic pint bottle and backing it with tepid beer. The poems work, but they weren’t aged long enough in the revision oak-barrel. Brooks has a clear speaking voice, but it could use more finesse. There’s also an opportunity for him to develop his use of language and structure. Not to suggest that he should become a formalist with traditional rhythm and meter, but he could leverage more of a poet’s arsenal. The collection’s shortcomings could be caused by the number of poems selected for the book. Rather than include over fifty poems, he could have forged and fired forty in his crafty kiln-mind and yielded more consistent results.

In actuality, there never was a conflict between Young and Skynyrd. As it says in the Drive-by-Trucker’s tune “Ronnie and Neil,” “they became good friends and their feud was just in song.” Legend has it the enigmatic “Powderfinger” was written for Skynyrd to record and that Young acted as a pallbearer at Van Zant’s funeral. There was a companionship between the two rock stars, and in Brooks’s Gospel, he produces a similar path to reconciling Southern heritage with today’s divergent views. The good news is that Clifford Brooks will be a wandering voice crying out in the wilderness.

Exorcising the Spirit of Rednecks Past

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

The Ghost of J.B. Stoner

Last year was as mixed-up as the Academy Awards. It was marked with phenomenal events. Women marched in the streets, and the #MeToo movement brought the roosters home to humiliating disgrace in the boardrooms and cloakrooms of Hollywood and Washington. A total solar eclipse united the country for at least an afternoon. Employment was up and 401-K accounts were healthier, but you couldn’t help but wonder if it was time to dump everything and mine Bitcoin. It was a confusing period that created constant doubts about the future. Hurricanes and wildfires generated concerns that the catastrophic results of manmade climate change will be upon us sooner than feared. The insanity of global and domestic terrorist attacks continued to haunt us, and for the first time in generations, world leaders threatened nuclear war. Our whiskey glasses were always either half-full or half-empty and never too far away. Yet for Southerners, sadly, last year produced some uniquely dubious moments. As forewarned during the 2016 presidential election, hate groups were empowered and Dixie returned to play a recurring character on center stage.

For many of us who’ve lived in the South, the villainous antics of Alabama’s Roy Moore and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA are familiar atrocities. During the 1960’s and 70’s, when the country was shedding its overtly racist appearance, Southern bigots clung to their narrow-minded malice. Each state had its own select hatemongers. Georgia was cursed with two: Lester Maddox and J.B. Stoner. Maddox, a pickax-wielding restaurateur, was elected governor in 1966, and in 1971, he served as lieutenant governor under Jimmy Carter. Maddox was a segregationist with a feel for political showmanship, but he lacked the violent fervor of J.B. Stoner. A North Georgia lawyer and lifelong Ku Klux Klan member, Stoner decried Hitler as being too moderate. As one of the founders of neo-Nazi political groups, including the National States Right Party, Stoner continuously ran for public office. During a 1972 U.S. Senate contest, a Supreme Court ruling forced local television stations to play Stoner’s campaign commercials without censorship. In between episodes of “Huckleberry Hound” and “The Little Rascals,” school-age children throughout the state witnessed Stoner’s vitriolic diatribes. The patsy-faced leering old man with slicked-back hair and a Confederate battle flag bowtie provided young Georgians a lesson in malevolence. Stoner was never elected to public office, and in 1980 he was convicted of the 1958 bombing of the Bethel Church in Birmingham. He died in 2005, but not before he trained us to hear the dog whistle of today’s white nationalist. We recognize the slack jowls of J.B. Stoner’s evil specter.

The election of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama is one the most significant political events of Southern history, and it delivers a progressive strategy for defeating contemporary bigots. Good old-fashioned indignation is the first component. With the onslaught of the 24-hour social media news cycle, it requires a staggering injustice to catch our full attention. The Hitler salutes and labeling of the Unite the Right supporters as “very fine people” boggled the mind. The campaign of Roy Moore, a misogynistic intolerant sexual predator, was stomach-turning. We must remain observant to these types of affronts to our society and be prepared to act against them. Furthermore, we must pressure our established leaders to take action. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s denunciation of Roy Moore and his support of write-in candidates were courageous. It’s tragic that Shelby’s condemnation was required, but a blessing that it occurred. He spoke out against the endorsement of a Republican president, and in Alabama that’s as dangerous as walking across a busy interstate at nighttime. The other essential element required to rid us of narrow-minded fanatics is community, and in the case of the 2017 Alabama special election it was the black community.

According to article on AL.com, the percentage of black voters in the recent special election ran close to that of the 2008 turnout for Barack Obama’s first presidential election. Much of the credit belongs to a grassroots push, but that drive wouldn’t have succeeded without proper motivation. That source of inspiration is derived from a lineage of civil rights leaders, and the chief cornerstone of that legacy is Dr. Martin Luther King. In his 1957 speech “The Power of Non-violence,” Dr. King presents the tenets for peaceful resistance. His methods include aggressive spirituality, not humiliation of your opponent but reconciliation, and a philosophy of agape love—“understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.”  This love fuels the sense of community and is the “power in the universe that works for justice.”

This year will be similar to the last one. There will be joys, sorrows, and reckonings. We must recognize and never normalize discrimination and bigotry. Our reasons for action against evil forces such as Roy Moore and J.B. Stoner must be grounded in a zeal for goodness and an all-embracing love. Expelling the menacing spirit of white nationalism won’t require a young priest and an old priest, only awakened beings with a sense of urgency and decency.

Coming Home to Our Self

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

Book Review
A Kind of Freedom
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Counterpoint Press, 230 pp., $26.00

Each day, legions don their corporate masks and sulk behind their computer screens longing to be custom cabinet makers or pastry chefs. Anything other than what they are. Yet when faced with the uncertainty of pursuing their desires, they squelch their moxie and sacrifice their aspirations of independence. As an author who left her job as an attorney, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton must be familiar with risk and ambition. In her debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, she balances the complicated concepts like a trial lawyer examining both sides of a case, prosecutor and defendant. She makes her argument well, having been long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award. With a fascinating multi-generational tale of an African-American family in New Orleans, she challenges readers to consider their own ability to control their actions and the power of family, community, and circumstances to alter the choices that determine who we are. To portray the complexity of these fateful choices, Sexton undertakes literary ventures. Her first gamble is with the structure of the story.

A Kind of Freedom begins in 1944, transferring readers between 1986 and 2010, and then back to World War II New Orleans. Sexton moves beyond the limitations of chronology into an expansive three-dimensional realm. By deploying time in this pliable manner, she allows us to glimpse the impact of our decisions. The narrative’s point of view is also elastic. We begin the novel with Evelyn, a Creole woman from a black upper-class family, but the story is not hers alone. Like ingredients in a spicy roux, Sexton blends in the accounts of Ruby, her sister, her father, an obstetrician, and Renard, a suitor who fails to win her Daddy’s approval. Sexton uses the novel’s structure to illustrate how we are invariably linked to our family. The choices Evelyn makes in 1944 affect her and the other characters introduced throughout the novel: her daughter Jackie in 1986, and her grandson T.C. in 2010. Each protagonist has the opportunity to select from a number of courses for his or her life, and it’s in these decisive moments that Sexton ventures another risk.

Evelyn, Jackie, and T.C. aren’t conventional heroes. They’re appealing, but they operate without insight or understanding, making the worst decisions at the worst times. Evelyn secretly drops out of nursing school. Jackie, a struggling mother, remains loyal to her no-show husband. Recently released from jail, T.C. allows friends to draw him into old habits and haunts. However, Sexton’s characters arrive at these junctures because the author is unafraid to address the issues that influence their choices: colorism, patriarchal power, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, gang culture, and young black men in prison. These are authentic problems that real people in real communities combat in real time. When faced with these circumstances, Sexton shows us how abstract freedom can be. This appears to be a lesson she’s learned in her own life.

In an August 2017 issue of Publishers Weekly, Sexton details her own writing journey. Like other authors, like her characters, and like us all, her path has meandered through fits and starts. She enjoyed her work as a lawyer, “the mental precision that the legal questions required,” yet she confesses there was a wooing need for more: “I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else I was supposed to be doing.” Her legal training bleeds through in her writing. Her style is precise like an attorney’s, and the pace is short and concise, rarely allowing the reader to linger in the moment. All her characters are well-rounded, but it does appear that she’s more comfortable inhabiting the worlds of Evelyn and Jackie than she is inhabiting T.C.’s. His post-Katrina conflicts could use more space. This is a New Orleans readers should be able to identify with, the ideal backdrop for Sexton to support her argument.

In the years since Katrina, New Orleans has exemplified the best and the worst of 21st Century America. The French Quarter tourist traps run full throttle selling t-shirts and 64 oz. frozen cocktails, and the area surrounding the Central Business District has been revitalized. Former warehouses are now upscale condos. In the spring of 2017, the city triggered the crusade to remove Confederate monuments, and in November, it elected the first female mayor in its 300-year history, but the success is one-sided. The street gangs displaced after Katrina have returned. The Crescent City rivals Chicago in shootings and violence. Depression and suicide rates have increased. The opioid crisis has its hands around the city’s throat. Further inflaming the dilemma, the New Orleans Police Department battles a decades-old reputation of corruption and brutality. T.C., like his mother and grandmother, can’t escape. It’s not a matter of moving to Houston, TX or Rainbow City, AL.

There is no true breaking away from our vision of ourselves. That’s a home that’s always with us. The key is to become comfortable with our authentic self. We’ve been formed by our life experiences—family, hurt, betrayal. When our lives don’t happen the way we plan, we are difficult on ourselves, unforgiving. Our power is derived when we realize that what matters is not our memories of the past or our thoughts of the future, but the here and now. That’s what we can control. That is freedom.

Undertow

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives.

 

Jesse and Ricky Few camped in front of the TV watching, “Let’s Make a Deal.

“I bet Monty is doing Carol,” Ricky said, reclining on the couch.

“Shhhh,” Jesse said, unable to conceive the idea of “doing Carol” and anxious to see if Monty Hall, the folksy game-show host, could persuade the lady dressed as a duck to trade her new living room suite for what the long-legged Carol Merrill had hidden behind door number one.

The two brothers had been invited by their childless aunt and uncle to spend a month with them at their beach house near Jacksonville, Florida. Earlier in the week, they had watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, and Aunt Franny cried tears of pride. Ricky and Jesse giggled at her. This afternoon Aunt Franny was in the living room on the phone. According to their aunt, Uncle Archie was “off buying some old dairy” near Orlando. For lunch, she’d departed from her usual pressed ham or tuna salad and made each of them their favorite sandwiches—sardines, bacon, and peanut butter for Ricky and a PBJ with no crust for Jesse. They barely noticed this treat, so absorbed in the show.

“Shhhh, yourself, turd face,” Ricky said, extending the second knuckle of his middle finger and frog-punching Jesse.

“Ouch,” Jesse said, holding his arm. “You’re King Zitpoppalotta, not me.”

Scrambling to his feet, Jesse knocked over the end table, spreading magazines across the floor.

Ricky was an undersized sixteen-year-old whose face made for a fertile field of red acne blooms. He wore his curly black hair down to his shoulders and finished off his budding hippy look with a sparse mustache and sideburns. Jesse was a prepubescent ten-year-old. His sharp nose and hazel eyes favored his mother and grandfather. Jesse spent his summer vacation humoring Ricky as much as possible, to prevent him from turning to little brother torture for amusement.

“What are you boys doing in here?” Aunt Franny said, entering the den. Short and compact, their aunt did herself no favors with her copper-red pixie cut and lime-green mini-dress, making her look like one of Santa’s elves in the offseason.

“Nothing,” Ricky said. “Jesse had some fit because he’s in love with Monty.”

“No, you—”

“Stop spazzin’ and pick it up,” Ricky said. “Don’t make me call Momma.”

Jesse righted the table and restacked the magazines.

“Why don’t you turn that thing off?” Aunt Franny commanded, soft but firm

“Yes, ma’am,” Ricky said, kicking Jesse in the back of the leg. “Turn it off.”

“You need to go enjoy the ocean … those rafts Archie got you,” Aunt Franny said. “There’s some ladies coming to the house shortly for bridge. Y’all go put on your suits.”

~ ~

As they prepared to head out the sliding glass door to the beach, Aunt Franny gave them their final instructions.

“You two stay together. Don’t go in the water alone.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in chorus.

“Y’all can walk down to the Beach Club, but don’t get separated.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t come back until dinner time. No sneaking back in with sandy feet to plop down in front of that idiot box. Meet some of those young girls. I’m sure they’d love you cute Georgia peaches.”

They stared at the floor and nodded their heads in agreement.

“Scoot, so I can set up my card table.”

The brothers walked out to the patio into the peak of the afternoon heat, only the ocean breeze providing some respite from the intense sunshine.

“Grab the rafts there, Tumbo,” Ricky said. “I’ll get the towels.”

Jesse pulled the two blue canvas rafts by the cords, walking toward the beach path ahead of Ricky.

“Not so fast,” Ricky shouted.

Jesse stopped, waiting for his brother.

“Take these.” Ricky threw the towels at Jesse and ran ahead.

“Ricky Retardo,” Jesse screamed, though not even the seagulls took notice. Trekking over the sand dunes, he saw his brother on the narrow high tide beach.

“Geez, you’re a slow one,” Ricky said.

Jesse slung the rafts down and threw the towels on top.

“I’m splitting to the club for a little sugar, sugar.” Ricky rocked his pelvis. “You guard the stuff.”

“But Aunt—”

“Wonk, wonk, I don’t want some square kid hanging around.”

“We’re—”

“I’ll repeat it for you, mommy’s boy. You’re picking up seashells for your boyfriend.” Ricky put his hands on his little brother’s shoulders and pushed him to the ground.  “Just don’t drown, or I’ll kill you if you do.”

Jesse planted himself behind the wall of seaweed, broken reeds, and trash that marked the high-water level and had a brackish smell of the sea and dead fish. Finding a small piece of smooth glass, he began building a fort until sand filled his bathing suit.

He had to go to the bathroom, but he couldn’t walk back up to the house or go in the sand dunes. Floating out on the raft was a possibility, but the sight of the coarse canvas made his belly twinge after he had rubbed it raw riding the big breakers last weekend. His only choice would be to wade out into the water.

The slate gray waves proved broken and choppy. Jesse jumped over the first set. Not wanting to get his hair wet on the off chance that Ricky might figure out he’d been in the water, he went out far enough out to squat down up to his neck. His warm pee flowed into the cold water around him. A wave crashed in front of him, foamy water came rushing for him. He dove under to escape. When he came up, he realized his hair was wet, but he didn’t care. “Surfin’ USA” filled his head.

Another wave came toward him, and he body-surfed to the beach. Uncle Archie had taught them how to catch waves; Jesse pictured his uncle’s thick hairy forearms with the faded anchor tattoos spearing through the water. Jesse was much better than Ricky, who didn’t like putting his face underwater. He caught a couple more and decided to venture out to the bigger waves.

A crab nipped at his big toe. He shrieked. Bouncing off the bottom with his other foot, the undercurrent from shore carried him past the creature. He took one more step then another, knowing that if his feet could touch he was alright. But with his next move, the riptide pulled him off the edge of the sandbar and into deeper water. He went under, desperately trying to feel for the bottom.

Jesse was on the surface again, treading water, when a wave broke on top of him, smacking him down into the darkness. Bicycling his feet in panic, he battled waves and the invisible force of the undertow. His heart beat faster. His stomach tightened. He kicked at nothing.

He came back up for the second time. Another wave pounded him into the deep, his lungs straining for air. Gasping, he forced himself up, greeted with a torrent of salt water filling his mouth, choking him, and driving him down once more.

Fighting to the top again, he was determined to find Ricky and yell at him for leaving him alone. A wave peeled off, gradually, and he mustered a couple of strokes, timing the break, allowing it to carry him to shore.

Struggling to his feet, he looked back at the ocean, coughing hard enough to vomit a little. He sobbed, racing up the dunes toward the house, not feeling the sandspurs. He disregarded his aunt’s admonition, deciding that almost drowning trumped ladies and their bridge.

The sliding glass door was locked, and the curtains were drawn, so he ran around to the garage side door. His pursuit of sympathy slowed only as he saw the red MGB convertible parked in the garage where his uncle’s silver Mercedes-Benz should have been.

“Aunt Franny, I’m sorry,” Jesse called out, pausing to wipe his feet.

He limped toward the living room where she’d intended to set up the card table. There was no table, no ladies, and no bridge game, only two empty wine glasses and “Aquarius” playing on the console stereo. Jesse heard a bump come from the back of the house, and he walked toward his aunt and uncle’s bedroom. Hearing a faint cry, he peeked into their room.

“Ahhhh … Uhhh.”

“Aunt Franny?” he whispered.

More groans came from the bathroom. Guessing she might have fallen in the shower, he inched the door open, detecting a strange voice with an English accent like John Steed, the hero from The Avengers TV series.

“You’re a naughty bird,” said the Steed voice.

“Oh, yeah,” his aunt screamed.

The red MGB stranger growled. It echoed off the tile. The steam filtered away, and Jesse saw his aunt’s breasts pressed against the shower door, peering at him like angry clown eyes. Jesse ran back down to the beach.

Waiting on the raft for Ricky, he covered his head with a towel and focused on figuring out why Monty would ever want to punish poor Carol that way.