Thursday, April 28, 2016

Keep NC Gay... What? No. I Meant "Happy"

The fundamental driving force behind North Carolina's HB-2 is probably the great and hoary urban/rural conflict, wherein rural counties tend to be much more conservative socially, and urban counties tend to be more progressive and open-minded. We used to sing a song about this, which I learned the words to back in '72 I think, as it was one of the original songs on our set list back when we were playing places like the Endangered Species, a basement bar on Rosemary Street run by two lunatics, Big Dale and Little Dale. "I Wish I'd Bought Me A Half A Pint And Stayed In The Wagon Yard."

I am a jolly farmer, last night I went to town,
To take a bail of cotton, I'd worked the whole year round.
I hitched my team in the wagon yard and bought me a bottle of gin,
And went out to see them 'lectric lights, and watch the cars come in.

Now listen to me farmers, I'm hear to talk some sense,
If you want to see them 'lectric lights, just look right over the fence.
Don't monkey with them city duffs you'll find they're slick as lard.
Just go and get you a half a pint and stay in the wagon yard.

Now I'm a deacon in a hard shell church, down near Possum Trot,
if the sisters hear about my spree, it's bound to make them hot.
I went out on a party, I led the pace that kills.
When I woke up, that gang had gone and left me with all the bills.

I found them over on the corner, near the Soul Salvation Hall.
That drunken bunch was out there singing Jesus Paid It All.
They put me out in a dry goods box, Lord, my pillow was hard..
I wish I'd bought me a half a pint and stayed in the wagon yard.

[originally recorded by Lowe Stokes and his North Georgians, circa 1930]

I won't type up all of it here, it hurts my head to try to remember all of the lines. Al McCanless put in a nice minor chord on the first measure of the bridge, which spiffed up our version from the 78 rpm recording we got it off of. He and Tommy and Jim had been doing the song before the Red Clay Ramblers started, in '72, so it was easy to keep on at it. But we thought it was a funny song even then, and people laughed at it and with us, not only in the red nest of Chapel Hill, but up at Janette Carter's Carter Fold, in Hiltons, VA, which is as damn rural a place as you'll ever find anywhere within driving distance of North Carolina, and noted bluegrassers such as the Country Gentlemen have recorded it as well, even without a fiddle.

Now we got a guy running on the Republican ticket for Attorney General by the name of Buck Newton. He's from Wilson, NC, which is one of the places you can find the best BBQ on the planet, and from more than one fine eatery no less. Newton is currently an NC senator in the Legislature, and voted for HB2 of course, a preposterous piece of government dictate which in the Looking Glass way the Rethugs like to do it these days is being parsed by its authors and our weak-kneed Republican governor Pat McCrory as a sensible response to "government over-reach." Newton said in a speech this week, believing perhaps that sunspots were interfering with all recording devices, or perhaps that he was speaking only to the true believers:

"Go home, tell your friends and family who had to work today what this is all about and how hard we might fight to keep our state straight," Newton said during a rally in support of House Bill 2, the controversial measure passed in response to Charlotte's transgender nondiscrimination ordinance.

Buck. Of course that's his name, or at least the name he adopted before he ran successfully for state senator in one of our many predominantly rural counties, where for a century tobacco was king. When people from reality overheard Buck's remarks, they said, well, that's what we've been telling anyone who will listen. Because it's certainly right out there in Buck's timeless locution. The goal of this law is indeed to keep NC straight. It is expertly crafted by people with law degrees (and some of 'em surely get their ideas from the Koch's ALEC organization, which crafts all manner of laws ostensibly as an aid to over-strapped legislatures all over the country, and in fact as an aid to a successful state-by-state reactionary revolution which depends in significant part on fundamental flaws in the US Constitution, such as the tragic fact that representation is grossly undemocratic, e.g., Rhode Island gets two Senators, as does California.) How the law works is, a person who self-identifies as a given gender different from their birth gender is placed in an immediate legal quandary concerning which bathroom to use. To put it over-simply, use the restroom they "look like," or the restroom that corresponds to their genitalia at birth. There are already reports of persons removing themselves to other buildings where there exist neutral facilities rather than risk some sort of confrontation. The risks come with high stakes, obviously.

Buck just says "you Democrats are being sensitive, I never said anything about sex." What weasels the NC Republicans have become. They have a psychological problem. Having taken this short-sighted, un-thought-out position and made it into law no less, they are surely seeing, at least when they look in the mirror in the bathroom of their choice, the plain contradictions contained in the law. Making things worse, Ted Cruz, Presidential Candidate, has jumped on board. How can an authoritarian possibly back down? If only Pat McCrory had saved all of them from themselves! But the Governor is a party man, first, last and always. Possibly the advent of Trump will save the day, since he's maintaining a more common-sensical position at least at the moment. As soon--next week perhaps--as it becomes obvious that Trump is the Republican Presidential Nominee, good party men will be doing figure eights as grand as Jimmie Johnson's, or Junior's.

Hey Buck. Head on back to the wagon yard. You can explain to your agricultural constituents, over a nice G&T, why NC needs to somehow replace the millions in lost revenue which this vicious law has engendered. Maybe the Legislature can forego air conditioning this long hot summer to save some money.

[photo from WRAL-tv]

Friday, April 15, 2016

Moving Midway: A Documentary From My Home Town

I watched Godfrey Cheshire's terrific documentary "Moving Midway" twice. Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic. He started his career around here when he founded a weekly newspaper in the '70s called The Spectator and published his film reviews in it. In 1991 he moved to New York City and began writing for larger publications up there. It's obvious he learned, in the process of writing about films, how to make one.

Midway starts out as a personal story. Midway is a big plantation house, built in 1848 as a present from a father to a son. It was one of a number of plantation houses situated on a gigantic plantation, 26000 acres I believe the film states at one point, which lay in eastern Wake and western Johnston counties. Hundreds of slaves did the work. This area of central North Carolina has suffered an explosion of population growth starting in the 1970s, and what was once a rural landscape has become, at the time the film begins, an urban hodgepodge of four lane highways, new subdivisions, and shopping mall after shopping mall. Already just across US 64 (once and still called the Tarboro Road by the folks who live in Midway by inheritance) a big mall has sprung up, and fifty-five thousand vehicles pass the front gate daily. The current owner of Midway, Charles Silver, decides, he tells his cousin Godfrey Cheshire, to literally move the house and some of the outbuildings away from this impending juggernaut. One part of the story, then, is a literal engineering marvel: moving such a building successfully from where it sits to... somewhere else. When the story begins, the end point is not known, and one of the chapters in the tale involves the actual negotiation and successful purchase by Mr. Silver of a piece of land close enough and big enough to make the move possible. A feature of this move becomes something more remarkable in the process: the move is to some degree overland, not down a handy paved highway.

(This sort of move was accomplished back in 1999 down on Hatteras Island, when the Hatteras Lighthouse was successfully moved away from the encroaching Atlantic Ocean. In that case they used the same sort of hydraulic jacking system, and of course the structure itself was even heavier than Midway house. The best part of that move, however, was that they were able to lay rail and moved the lighthouse, inch by inch, on a path that was already engineered level and plumb, which limited the danger of wracking to an absolute minimum. It was a remarkable move documented in its own right. As I was driving down Hatteras to the Ocracoke Ferry on a semi-weekly basis back in those days, I could personally note the changes as the lighthouse made it's journey, across the horizon and the line of the road.)

So this is one part of the Midway story. But it turns out that it not the deepest part. That part belongs to the massive and ongoing denial which the South's white culture maintains, even today, and since the beginnings of this dark foundation stone of America: slavery. After Mr. Cheshire's initial engagement with his cousin Charles Silver and Mr. Silver's decision to move the house, he meets one Robert Hinton, a black professor of African American Studies at NYU who grew up in Raleigh and started his educational journey by graduating from Raleigh's segregated Ligon High School in 1959, two years before I graduated from Raleigh's white segregated highschool, Needham Broughton. As Hinton remarks, "I didn't have the money for psychoanalysis, so I studied history." He wrote his dissertation, from Yale, on the transition from slavery to agricultural labor in the South. Hinton, it turns out, is the descendant not only of slaves who worked on the Midway Plantation, but literally the descendant of the owner of Midway, who had a sexual relationship with the black cook. Hinton and Cheshire, Hinton and Charles Silver and his two younger brothers, are cousins.

As Silver's mother, and her sister Cheshire's mother, also relate: "I am certain we treated the slaves kindly. We are not a cruel family." Across this chasm stretched a tightrope, which the film pretty successfully negotiates. Robert Hinton is credited as the documentary's historian, as he should be. Just like Jackie Robinson, he sees the world aright. It turns out that there are black Hintons galore in the Midway area. Another is Algia Mae Hinton, a Piedmont blues singer and guitarist who was accompanied for many years by Libby and my friend, the blues artist Lighting Wells. Her music underscores the documentary, and there's a nice little "extra" included in the DVD featuring her singing and playing, with Lightning appearing behind her.

Cheshire also chooses to tell the story of the Southern "Plantation Myth," as part of the larger context for Midway Plantation. He reminds the viewer of Gone With the Wind, a film still given great prominence in our critco-historical story of American Film, and probably watchable sometime this year on TCM. He reminds the viewer, too, of Birth of a Nation, which memorialized all the myths of segregation and the southern fear of black people, which justified and indeed exalted lynching and the general terrorism under which black people lived once they had achieved "freedom" in 1865. Birth of a Nation, another extra notes, has been banned from view in some American cities including Los Angeles.

The documentary is riveting at every level. Towards the end, Robert Hinton admits that he doesn't care at all about whether this house is saved, and would like to see all of North Carolina covered with asphalt, as a memorial to the slave labor his people endured. He says, to Cheshire, "I'm kinda sorry I like you, it would have been easier to hate you."

It might be remarked that quite a few notable Republicans (and certainly some Democrats as well, even now) believe the convenient myth that black people were "happy" and well-treated back in those antebellum days. Cliven Bundy, point man for the mining industry, comes to mind, and also Sarah Palin. There's an ongoing battle right now in many places in the South to finally remove statuary that exalts Civil War "heroes" such as Robert E. Lee, not to mention Nathan Bedford Forrest.

[a hat tip to Lawyers, Guns and Money, who posted this picture]

That's part of an ongoing effort to deal with Robert E. Lee at the University of Mississippi. These myths, which perpetuate denial on a multi-generational basis, continue. Last year I got into an email conversation with some guy who was a member of the Sons of the Confederacy, on the question of whether slavery was the "cause" of the Civil War. He never budged. I finally thanked him for his time and gave up. When you quote long passages straight from the mouths and writings of the people who started the war and even then Southern apologists refuse to change their minds, you have reached the land of the clinical. I guess it's harder for the children of the slave owners to see what's true, but I really don't know why that is. Thomas Jefferson knew he had black children. White America didn't know until someone sleuthed it out with DNA study. His black descendants knew all the time, through all the generations. This question is even explicitly broached by Cheshire when he goes to a big reunion of the black Hintons. "Why didn't our families meet long ago," he asks. The black widow of a Hinton who had done a lot of research on the subject of his ancestors shrugs. "Well, we live in the South, what good would it do."

You can rent this film via Netflix or Amazon, or buy it for less than $12.00. Every one should see it. It explains a lot.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


I've about given up on the kind of "news" programs than come through the teevee. It's been obvious that the so-called middle of the road network fair is distorted when it comes to this election (and much else for that matter). We used to watch a lot of Ed Schultz, and we used to think Rachel Maddow was great, and that Rev. Al offered a voice to black citizens. Rachel is this spring a "star," and pretty much unwatchable if you want the truth. Schultz and Rev. Al have been entirely swept away. PBS, of course, offers us the stylings of David Brooks on a weekly basis.

This is all by way of explaining that last night I watched a fine hour-long documentary about a Southern Pacific steam engine (#4449) hauling a bunch of passenger cars up into the Cascades of Washington for a centennial winter games event. Beautiful shots of these great iron machines in operation, in a snowy February landscape. And it wasn't so long ago really: 1989. After than Ken Burns' documentary about Jackie Robinson came on. There's one more part to it, coming up tonight. You should watch. It's a reminder of how evil and deep American racism really runs, and how white America's ability to deny never flags. The Peewee Reese-Robinson statue, Reese with his arm draped over Robinson's shoulders as though it was his friendship and support that finally carried the day, the one "good" white man; the statue sits in front of a ball park even after Robinson's widow objected. Historians quoted on the documentary objected too. Because the incident depicted never happened. (This is not to say that Reese and Robinson never ever embraced, or didn't share some sense of being teammates.)

[photo by Gary Dunaier,]

As the documentary points out, it's not like this image is somehow "bad." Rather, the image enhances the myth that Robinson needed white help to complete his marathon through hate. After all the appalling racism he had to wade through, from his birth to the end of the '47 season (and of course beyond, through the rest of his life as well), Peewee, from Louisville, KY no less, reached out a hand from the top of the mountain and helped Mr. Robinson up.

There's another image that burned itself into my consciousness as I watched the documentary. It was a photo of how public waiting areas were set up in those days, and how every black person had to deal with this. I remember it vividly growing up in Raleigh, NC. Any public place you went in the '50s you'd find things like "White Waiting Room/Colored Waiting Room,"--two whole different rooms to wait for the damn train or bus. Bathrooms the same deal, and the picture in the Robinson documentary was particularly remarkable for it's contemporary resonance here in NC. There were a series of bathroom doors in some train station, all captured in one shot: "white men," "white women," "colored."

It kinda jumped out at me that here in 2016, sixty plus years after this old segregated world is alleged to have vanished into the dust heap of history, damn if we're not still back in it. This time it's not official racism. It's official sexism. Here in North Carolina a couple of weeks ago our Legislature, in "special session," passed a fresh new bathroom law which singles out persons of complex gender and pretty much tells them they'd better not go into any public restroom for fear of some police reaction or other, from pretty much any random person of either gender who happens to labor under their own misguided phobias and prejudices. God help you if you happen to be black as well. And eleven Democrats voted for this abomination and embarrassment. Here's who they are, if you happen to want to vote them out next November:

One guy said it was a "mistake." He's opening himself up for interviews even. Must be he detects a slight shift in the wind. He's not in my district, but if he was I wouldn't give him a pass.

What is it with this need, this ache, on the part of the powerful, to mess with the bathrooms? It's hard to believe it's even conscious on the part of many of our lawmakers, although that's not a pass either. If you're unconscious of your own blind spots, don't fergawd's sake run for office! Go to a shrink. (Mr. Trump may in the end have this lesson from reality; one can hope.) We get past our horrible, racist past here in NC, at least to some extent relative to say 1955, and here comes the right wing powers-that-be, now Republican rather than Democrats thanks to Nixon and the Civil Rights Federal Legislation of the mid-'60s, doing it all again, still aching for necks to step on, for heads to press into the muck with their shiny jack boots. And of course our limp Governor, who had yet another opportunity to save his Administration from itself, signed the damned bill as quick as it got to his desk.

Now I see other Southern states are leaping to the same sort of legislation. Tennessee is next apparently. A great and horrible "trend," with North Carolina at the head of the parade.

And of course there's another aspect of this bill that, because of the bright flames generated by this part, goes pretty much unnoticed except for a few liberal bloggers with some interest in the details. Turns out that down in the bill are dictates asserting that municipalities can no longer establish nondiscrimination ordinances, or higher minimum wages, no can anyone anymore sue an employer for alleged sex discrimination. All of this will of course now go to court, with nothing decided until some time well past November. As our Democratic Attorney General has already said the law is unconstitutional and he will therefore not defend it, the Legislature and Administration will pay millions more in tax dollars to private attorneys hired to defend the law.

Libby had a better and cheaper solution to all this, ummmm, crap. If you, Mr. or Ms random citizen, has some idea that a given public rest room might be occupied by someone you are suspicious of, for any reason, well, don't go in there. DUH. Libby, as usual, possesses more commmon sense than any Republican holding elected office. Meanwhile, a cursory Google search yields this bit of wisdom and common sense:

And as to the bathrooms? The provisions affecting public schools violate the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX, which could cost the state billions if OCR brings an enforcement action. Moreover, the bathroom-panic strategy is old and tired. Although Phyllis Schlafly denies ever speaking of unisex bathrooms, her anti-ERA strategy fueled a bathroom panic that might well have been the straw breaking the camel’s back in the 1970s when an insufficient number of states ratified the proposed constitutional guarantee of sex equality. Could we just agree to stop using bathrooms as a pretext for discrimination?

"... cost the state billions..." That has a certain ring to it.


I watched the second part of the Jackie Robinson/Ken Burns documentary last night. It's remarkable how in the center of the '60s he stands. He went to the flaming south during some of the worst of times, Birmingham, Spring, 1963. His son, Jackie, Jr., joined the Army and found himself in Vietnam early in the escalation, and was in the end broken by the horror of it. It makes me think of Merle Haggard's line: "back before Nixon lied to us all on TV." It wasn't just Nixon, it was Johnson too. Jackie Robinson, Jr., had the absolute best of families--of "homes" if you like. He was thrown into heroin by Vietnam, then, tragically, died on the highway after he'd just finally gotten away from drugs, just a damn accident in the night.

This was just one heartbreak for the Robinsons. Celebrating Peewee Reese's birthday, they flew the confederate flag at Ebbet's Field. Robinson decided to support Nixon because he thought Kennedy wasn't interested in civil rights. Neither was Nixon, and in the end the Kennedys at least interceded on Martin Luther King, Jr.s behalf to keep him off a Georgia chain gang which would likely have killed him. And then, by the mid-'60s, the black press was calling Robinson an "Uncle Tom" because he was a friend and political ally of Nelson Rockefeller, and believed (surely rightly) that a black armed rebellion such as the Black Panthers were advocating would lead to thousands of black casualties and terrible defeat for the Movement. Jackie Robinson was clear-eyed start to finish. He saw the world aright. He died, we must conclude, of a broken heart, like a great workhorse who never quit. What a life-story. What an indictment of white America.

I was reminded of how I felt during the early months of 1963, and why I became engaged in my tiny way in the Civil Rights struggle. I was reminded of the terrible turn Lyndon Johnson took when he waded into Vietnam, destroying in the end all the tremendous credibility and good will he'd built up after he became President in November, 1963. People who correctly see the choice between Hillary Clinton and pretty much any Republican as being a choice of lesser evils (of course I'd put the Clintons over under the "lesser" column, but see, e.g., are not seeing some new phenomenon in American politics, domestic and foreign. I saw a piece yesterday by a woman who is the daughter of one of the Berrigan brothers, who stood against the Vietnam war in the '60s. She opts for the Green Candidate this time around. I entirely understand, although I think that's a kind of mistake. At least her dad and uncle pointed the way to that path, right or wrong. There's so much blood and hate, then and now.