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Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South
Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South
Roy Blount Jr.
Knopf, 2007
400 pp., 25.00

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Betty Smartt Carter

Making Biscuits

Adventures Up South.

How would you feel if your 12-year-old ran around the house singing, "I'm Selling My Pork Chops, but I'm Giving My Gravy Away"? Personally, I'm a little nervous about it, though I admire a child with entrepreneurial spirit. It seems to me that a pork chop is only a pork chop until it shows up in a song by Memphis Minnie, the Mississippi-born blues singer who belted out double-entendres before Little Richard was a twinkle (or a leer) in anybody's eye. If Minnie had been a Girl Scout, she'd have sold a lot of cookies.

Well, I have only myself to blame for the musical happenings around here. Myself and Roy Blount, Jr. Reading his new book, Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South, gave me an appetite for the music he describes so deliciously in essays like "Good Gravy," "Memphis Minnie's Blues: a Dirty Mother for You," and "Love Those Bozzies." So, by the miracle of iTunes, I dredged up songs by the Boswell Sisters and the metaphorically vivid Minnie, along with my own all-time favorite, Fats Domino, who has recently resurfaced in New Orleans. You can't keep music like this to yourself; actually, you can't keep from yelling it out in the shower at the top of your lungs, which is why even the dogs next door to us are now howling about pork chops.

Blount is such a good writer that I almost—ALMOST—paid $35 to go see him at a fundraiser in Birmingham. Most writers have to pay other people to come to their book signings, but Mr. Blount lends his amiable Southern voice to the NPR show Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, which makes him a celebrity, at least among the kind of people who go to book signings. If I had gone, and had the chance to shake the author's hand, what would I have said to him?

I probably would have said, "Mr. Blount, nobody's worth $35, but you're a heck of a writer. I don't write as well as you do, but I think I could—if my life were so full of ironies."

OK, it's not true that I could ever write as well as Roy Blount, Jr., but it is true that his life is awash in irony. The most ironic thing about him is that he writes so well about places like Atlanta but lives in western Massachusetts. His politics are liberal, he's spurned the Methodism of his parents, and though he still considers himself Southern, it's only in the best senses of the word, which are mainly literary and musical-culinary rather than political. He likes Faulkner, Krispy Kreme Donuts, and Ray Charles; he doesn't care for George W. Bush (a pseudo-Southerner, anyway). Still, he can understand why people wouldn't vote for a Yankee liberal—somebody like John Kerry, for instance. After all, Reason and Enlightenment only get you so far, and then you've got to be able to tell a good story.

Which brings me back to his essay on Memphis Minnie. In looking for a biography of the singer, Blount found just one, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues, by a pair of married scholars named the Garons—and woe, I say woe unto the Garons on the day he crossed their path. Blount calls Woman with Guitar "one of the goofiest damn books I've ever read," "a vaporous mishmash of transmutational femino-Marxist 'paranoiac-critical' Franco-Freudian-surrealist theory." (Tell us what you really think.) Though he praises their discography, research, etc., he despises the "flummery" which they "have heaped upon the supremely no-nonsense Minnie, of all people." Songs that advise, "Babe, I've got to have a socket if you want me to iron your clothes" aren't really that hard to figure out, are they? "To me," Blount says, "blues music doesn't seem so exotic that it requires recourse to France. It may be surreal, but it's not trying to be."

Blount writes that Minnie was a talented songwriter who began to perform while she was still a kid around 1910. "Coal-black beautiful," with "all gold teeth across the front," she played "in joints, on the street, at house parties and fish fries." She was big-hearted and wild, and often sang "while chewing Brown Mule tobacco and sitting in such a way as to show off her pretty underpants." Though she never had the fame of Bessie Smith, she had a great influence on later artists, including Chuck Berry. At the end of his essay, Blount imagines that he has a chance to go back and visit the singer in her old age, that she bakes him some of her famous (non-metaphorical) biscuits, and that he gets the real story of her life. Food, music, and story: the Southern trinity.

Just after I read Long Time Leaving, I picked up Huston Diehl's Dream Not of Other Worlds: Teaching in a Segregated Elementary School, 1970. Diehl is a professor of English at the University of Iowa, and her book is part memoir, part academic study. Like the Garons, Diehl has not chosen a subject that only a professor could love (I'm thinking of a friend's dissertation on the varying size of bluebird testicles at increasing elevations). And, like Roy Blount, Jr., I have a personal interest in the subject of the book: while Huston Diehl was teaching fourth graders in a yet-to-be integrated public school in Louisa County Virginia, I was a first grader in an integrated Christian school near Richmond.

Like so many academic books (Woman With Guitar, for instance), Dream Not of Other Worlds has a lyrical title. In the forward, Diehl tells about teaching Paradise Lost in one of her first university classes in New York. An African American woman (who had defended the poem up until then) suddenly became enraged at the angel Raphael's advice to Adam, "Dream not of other worlds, Be lowly wise."

"I knew immediately," Diehl recalls," that, like my African American students in Virginia, she must have been told all her life to 'Dream not of other worlds.' … I saw her very presence in my classroom as a triumphant act of defiance against all the people in her life who had tried to stifle her dreams."

Diehl returns to her year in Virginia, describing herself as an idealistic, 20-year-old northerner with dreams of liberating her students' minds, opening their eyes to the broader world. After being hired by a disengaged superintendent, she found herself at the head of a class of 38 fourth graders who had never seen a white teacher before. Apart from their natural fears and suspicions, she struggled with a pitiful lack of teaching materials (many students couldn't afford books), with low expectations from the community regarding how much "negro" children could learn, with her own reluctance to use corporal punishment in a culture that expected it, and with all the attendant problems of the children's difficult home situations. Above all, she lacked experience. Near the end of the year, with her classroom in chaos, she spoke to the white superintendent again, only to hear him blame the children for her own failures. "I knew in my gut," she says, "that Dr. Martin was siding with me solely because I was white … . [I]f I accepted [his] backing, I would implicitly be acquiescing to the racist assumptions behind it."

A couple of things here. First, the kind of race bonding that Diehl describes is something I've observed my whole life in Southern white society, and (to my shame) occasionally been party to: someone makes a casual comment about a neighborhood "going down," or a mall that's "practically abandoned." Everybody knows what's really being said, and nobody demurs. Who wants to be sitting outside the circle while the rest of the tribe has its little war dance?

So I admire Diehl's fortitude of conscience. I admire, too, her willingness to examine her own shortcomings in such a public way, hoping that good might result. Plenty of people flop early in their careers, and schoolteachers notoriously have terrible first years. Thirty years on, as a respected scholar of English literature, she didn't have to tell this story.

But Diehl, thinking like a scholar, has goals beyond telling her own story or the story of her classroom. Frequently she pulls away from her narrative to examine the history of African Americans in Louisa County, of racist attitudes regarding education, and of the social and legal inequities that laid the foundation for a segregated South. This information is helpful for historians and researchers, no doubt, Still, I wish she had decided to keep the memoir personal rather than academic. The more detached and scholarly her writing becomes, the more she limits her audience and creates a barrier against the sympathy of the very people she may want to influence. For instance, while she speaks of her African American students with affection, and forgiveness too when called for, she treats the white Virginians in her book as a faceless monolith, a subject mainly for research. Having been one little brick in that monolith, I meekly protest: did you ever try to know us? Then how in the world can you write about us?

Now, Diehl does a better job than the Garons, certainly. A pretty good writer, she doesn't heap flummery on her fourth graders or (in the words of Roy Blount) take a wildcat (the rural South) and surround it with the bubblewrap of politics and theory. But neither does she burrow down to the heart and bones, the pork chops and gravy, of her own life or the lives of the people in Louisa County.

Diehl tells us that she was in Virginia to be with her new husband Bill, who was also a teacher. But we want to know more. Where did she and Bill live? What did they eat, what did they talk about, what did they fight about? What was it like to be a young woman with a new husband so far away from home? Later, Bill disappears, to be replaced by other husbands. Diehl eventually writes books about English literature and theater; then, just before she turns fifty, she learns she has cancer of the salivary gland under her tongue. Uh, not to be nosy, Professor Diehl, but would you mind telling us more about that? Actually, would you mind giving us the story of your life—I mean the whole story? Because it sounds like a good one. And if you want to make us some biscuits … .

This is the Southern way, and I'm not apologizing for it. Context is good, research has its place, but knowledge is ultimately sensual. To put it another way, Reason and Enlightenment only get you so far, and then you've got to eat.

Betty Smartt Carter is a novelist and Latin teacher living in Alabama.

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