The Southern Belle in Black

For a little over a year, I’ve been engaging in something new for me, I’ve been writing a book. It has gone much more slowly than I had planned but I have a lot more to say than I initially thought. Following is an excerpt from chapter one of my manuscript. I figure that it’s about time to try my words out on the public. If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you have read these some of these lines before, incorporated into other blog entries. My plan is to share a chapter or two in my blog over the next few weeks, sort of a trial run to discover if readers find my musings of interest. The book is a memoir about growing up southern, female, and black, The title was suggested to me by a friend. I like the title and I think that I may keep it.

Memory is to truth as a coffee filter is to coffee beans. A pot of coffee contains the essence of the beans just as memory contains the essence of truth, but the details have been ground up and blended together. My memories of growing up have been filtered through time and experience but the essence of the truth remains intact, although the details may have blended in unexpected ways. These are my memories of being a girl child, born black and southern in a small town in North Carolina.

Chapter I—Me and Scarlet
In 1955, my mother gave birth in eastern North Carolina to a colored girl, sometimes a Negro. By the 1960s, I was black and proud. Sometime in the 1990s, I became African-American. I think that I’m black again in 2007 but sometimes I’m still African-American. Born one year after Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, I grew up in a fully segregated society.

I was raised in a mid-sized southern town, Wilson, North Carolina, in the heart of tobacco country. Our town was divided by a railroad track. In my childhood, blacks lived to the east of the track and whites to the west. My parents still live in Wilson, and the boundaries are no longer so solidly fixed. Black families have moved across the tracks and there are mixed neighborhoods on the western side of the city, but east of the tracks remains all black.

I love all things southern–grits, the summer heat, and the way that y’all sort of rolls off your tongue like molasses. When I travel outside of the south, my drawl intensifies. I don’t make a conscious decision to sound more southern but I find myself tossing about southern colloquialisms and stretching words like ice, nice, and rice into multiple syllables. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism against the anticipated raised eyebrows that question how a black person could actually like being southern.

For the most part, I never gave much thought to being a black child in the south; it was the only world that I knew. We had first cousins that came south to visit during the summer but their world seemed a bit alien to us. I recall the unconcealed disgust my brother, sister and I expressed when our northern cousins put milk and sugar on their bowl of grits. Their parents, my mother’s siblings, left North Carolina in their youth, and my cousins had been raised in northern cities that I only knew by name—Brooklyn, Trenton, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. Strictly speaking, Baltimore and DC weren’t northern cities, but they were north of us and my cousins didn’t act or sound southern.

My first connection to identifying myself as southern came about the summer that I read Gone With The Wind. I was eleven-years-old when I checked Mitchell’s saga of the south out of our local library. I fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara with her first “fiddle-dee-dee” to the Tarleton twins. Scarlett was everything that I was not—beautiful, adored, and high-spirited. When Mammy tried to force feed her and make her cover her bosom before attending the big shindig at the Wilkes estate, Scarlett stomped her slender foot and refused to be bullied. She cared nothing for convention, daring to dance with Captain Butler when she was expected to behave with the decorum of a grieving widow. She was brave and resourceful, facing down the invading Yankees and making a killer outfit out of a pair of old drapes.

I read the entire book in two days, pretending not to hear my mother call my name when she wanted my help with some household chore. I suffered with Scarlett as she and Melanie fled from the Yankees, and lusted with her as Rhett Butler put a blush on her cheeks with his suggestive comments. Of course, I was only 11 so I didn’t really know what he was suggesting. I cried my heart out when he left her at the end and felt Scarlett’s defiant sense of hope as she turned her eyes towards Tara and vowed to get him back, “After all… tomorrow is another day.”

That summer, my dad took us to the Starlite Drive-In Movie Theater and I saw Gone With The Wind on the big screen. It was one of those rare cases of the movie being as good as the book. I was enthralled and swept away as Atlanta burned. When Vivien Leigh threw that vase at Clark Gable’s head, I knew that I was in the presence of greatness. I wanted to be Scarlett.

I spent hours in front of a mirror trying to arch one eyebrow in pursuit of my best Scarlet impression. To my great disappointment, I never mastered raising just one eyebrow. Eventually, I came to realize that my inability to replicate Vivien Leigh’s quizzical eyebrow lift was not the only bar to my becoming Scarlett O’Hara. In spite of my childish ability to ignore the obvious, the face that stared back at me as I vainly worked my forehead muscles, was that of a brown-eyed, brown-skinned girl, who looked a lot more like Prissy than Miz Scarlett. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I fully realized the irony in my Scarlet O’Hara obsession, the peculiar intersection of being black, female, and southern.


6 responses to “The Southern Belle in Black

  1. Of course, because it’s you, it’s succint and well-written, but almost too much, for a memoir. I think you need to grab us from the get go with a defining anecdote. For example “Eventually I came to realize..” is amorphous, vague. Of course you did. But can you isolate a defining moment, when you realized inconvertibly that the barrier to being a sequal to Scarlett was insurmountable? When you realized you blackness was not just another adjective? Can you remember the first time the n-word was used against you? Who said it, where you were, what you wore, saw, smelled? Can you make us relive that moment with you? (Or another defining moment, something equally pivotal, cinematic? You’re a sensual woman, but your writing is cool, collected, controlled).
    I’ve had to wrestle with this myself. My tendency to write at a distance, in an objective voice, soeaking from the brain instead of the heart, or even the gut–where the strongest writing comes from. In this extremely crowded, competitive publishing market, a voice that stands out is absolutely essential.

  2. Marc
    As always, great advice. This is only a piece of the first chapter, not the entire chapter and I do elaborate on my awakening regarding my Scarlett obsession. Next installment!

    Please keep up the feedback!

  3. I think it’s really good; you have an elegant turn of phrase. I kinda agree with Marc: it feels more condensed than I’d expect from a novel but maybe that’s because it’s only a part of the first chapter. But it did grab me and there’s the suggestopn of much emotional richness.
    I’m looking forward to reading more!

  4. As a non-writer, I have to agree with both comments so far; you’ve room for much more meat on the bones underneath this recollection. Take that as a compliment, since I was moved by the story and would love to see it developed further.

  5. I just want to read your story. It’s the story. anyone can get a cleanup person to get it published. It reads fine to me but all those literary critics out their in bookland will want to have their way with it. Can I add you to my daily blog visits? I think I need to read your thought rendering blog often.

  6. I enjoyed it very much, it is a subject I have never thought about before, Gone with the Wind’s impact on African American Women, it had a refreshing feel to it. Thanks

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