On Paula Deen’s Southern ‘Hospitality’….

Paula Deen is delusional.  This isn’t in reference to the obnoxious public apologies (both of them)–begging (quite literally) for forgiveness. Nor is it to the butter-slathered, heavy cream dishes which coat her arteries as she ponders her diabetes and weight issues.  Nor is it in reference to her apparent alcoholism, and questionable relationships.  I’m talking about the bizarre nostalgia she and others like her hold for the antebellum South: where ‘men’ were white wealthy landowners; women were pale, fragile accouterments; and ‘coloreds’ were friendly, happy helpers on the plantation and in the house, willing to offer hand and heart to anything the landowners desired.  But she’s not racist. No. Not at all.  She just pictures the ideal wedding reception as the bride and groom in dazzling white, and the wait staff all Black skinned with white gloves (so as not to contaminate the food?).  But that’s not racist.  That’s nostalgia for a simpler, better time, right? That’s just old school ‘class(ism)’? Right? For a woman who’s made a career on creating food as a key component of hospitality, her life has taken a strange twist–being outed as someone with one of the least possible hospitable mindsets–racism.

But she's not a racist...

But she’s not a racist…

Recently a friend I went to high school with brought back some old 8 mm home movies his cousin had taken in the 70s and 80s.  His purpose: get these converted into a digital mode to preserve for future generations.  A nice idea, indeed, and truly a gift to his family.  My father was his pastor in the mid to late 80s, and he invited me over to view some of the films, as I would enjoy seeing folks and reminiscing about old times–even though the films were all of a time before my family lived there.

One set of films was taken was a series of women’s ‘slumber parties’ sponsored by the Nazarene church women.  The films depict these holiness women being silly and playful, and it was fun to see this side of them.  But on occasion, the men of the church, possibly feeling left out of the ‘fun’, would burst in and surprise the women.  They only stayed a short period of time, and usually performed a silly skit and left.  All of this was very amusing, and fun to see everyone when they were young.  Amusing, that is, until the men ‘busted’ into the slumber party and performed a jamboree in blackface.  Horrified, I watched these holiness people play washboards, beat on over turned wash tubs, and act silly.  Their audience giggled and danced and delighted in the fun. This film was taken during the Regan era–not the Kennedy era.

I don’t know why I was so shocked.  You see, a large portion of that church lived out on a country road that was known commonly “Nigger Lake Road“.  Back at the turn of the century, some Black people moved to town and purchased the cheapest land in the area: a place prone to flooding. During flood-times, those good ol’ country folk began calling the road that ran through that area, naturally, “Nigger Lake Road.”  Eventually, it was too difficult (socially, financially) for the Blacks to stay in the area, and once they’d abandoned the farm land, the surrounding farmers decided to build a drainage system in order to keep the land usable for farming.  But in order to apply for a government grant, it was determined that the name of the road perhaps needed to be a bit more benign: so it was changed to “Sand Lake Road”.  The name didn’t change until 1996.

I’m confronted once again with the mental gymnastics required for white holiness church people who proclaim the love and hospitality of Christ, to so very easily dismiss for so long the blatant racism in their midst.  And I realize there is a certain form of nostalgia that comes along with privilege: a rose colored lens through which events in the world are seen.

I am so ashamed.  We are so delusional.

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3 thoughts on “On Paula Deen’s Southern ‘Hospitality’….

  1. megillikin says:

    My sister recently became the custodian of family portraits of ancestors who were “farmers” in Georgia in the 1800s. It was startling to me when I finally realized (I’m too mortified by my cluelessness to confess at what age) that this meant they were slave-owners. What does it mean to have systemic racism and privilege (as well as objects glorifying that history) as part of one’s inheritance? On the one hand, these portraits are a piece of history. (But does that make them automatically worth preserving?). On the other, I am glad they are not in MY home… and furthermore, I’m not sure what this does to my ability to eat in Katie’s dining room in the future… at least not without naming the elephant in the room.

    There’s a clip floating around facebook from The Daily Show in which Jessica Williams refers to Deen-gate as being the result of having the disease of Type 1 (inherited) or Type 2 (personally cultivated) racism. I kind of like that imagery. Because it has been through the hard work of trying to dismantle Type 2 racism in my own life that I ever came face to face with the Type 1 crap threaded through my own family’s nostalgia for “better times” when we weren’t poor folks scraping by to make a living in the steel mills or dependent upon the charity of the rich man who “saved” the family by marrying the eldest daughter (and then preyed sexually upon every other female relation). Delusion is easier to swallow than crow… at least, that’s the witness of my family’s actions and conversation.

    It’s a sign of the times that there has been such a public outcry in response to this debacle. I don’t think the same energy would have been generated 20 years ago… certainly not 40. So, we’re making progress??? And, though, it was unintentional on her part this time, Paula is teaching her audience an important lesson about the consequences of our actions, be it the consumption of butter/sugar or hate.

  2. I love that imagery: the result of having the disease of Type 1 (inherited) or Type 2 (personally cultivated) racism.

  3. Pamela R. L. says:

    Excellent article. What is not often said though is that Paula Deen has made her living selling what she calls “southern” cooking and what we African Americans call “soul food” straight from the hard work of the African American COOKS in she and her brother’s restaurants.

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