LITTLE DARLINGS: A DEFENSE OF THE CONFEDERATE FLAG AND AN APOLOGY TO AUNT SYBIL, IN HONOR OF MY DADDY, RUE MCCLANAHAN, AND DIXIE CARTER
It's striking. I cry about some things. Not a lot of things, but some things. I don't like to see my mama suffer, not one bit. Now I love(d) Tammy Faye Baker, but I didn't cry when my best friend and roommate Trey came banging on my door in the middle of the Alabama night to tell me she had inoperable brain cancer. In fact, I'm sure I was pretty bitchy when it happened, but God love him, you've got to admire his nerve and his insistence that Tammy Faye's imminent demise was something serious, so serious that you go and wake someone up to tell them about it, like if you had run over their dog or spilled their Mama's ashes or what have you. This kind of thing always happened with Trey. He is the messenger I shoot on repeat. I still have saved, and listen to it regularly, a four-word voicemail from Trey, in his harshest Tennessee damsel accent: Ertha Kitt is Dead. Thank you, my brother, my sister.
When oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico this summer, Trey said his boyfriend grieved something terrible about it. Trey's boyfriend grew up on the Gulf, around Mobile, and that Gulf and the way of life that grew from it, I'm sure, became a part of him. And even though I'll be the first to tell you I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of Trey's boyfriend, I do bear witness to his grief. He grew from the Gulf, so for certain the suffer was a hard hit home for him. Still, while I realize there has been life lost because of the disaster, I couldn't imagine shedding tears over it. Hell, I didn't even cry about Katrina, when the life lost was a city where I grew drunkenly gaily, that is, the life lost was rich, human, and Southern. It's clear that somewhere there, humanity got lost, and I feel strange for the not-grieving. Maybe my ego hasn't fully transitioned from self to world, from small to grand, and maybe, since my parents raised me an only child, it never will, but here it is—my truth. I was aware that what had happened, in both cases, was tragic, was terrible, but I still didn't feel personally terrible. Overwhelmed perhaps, but not terrible. At a loss perhaps, but not terrible. It wasn't as if somebody had taken a hatchet to Mama.
Some people see the Confederate Flag as a hatchet, and that is true too. But one thing I have surely learned in life so far is you can't ever keep a hatchet buried. You've got to look that sonofabitch square in its jaw and love it just as much as you hate it. Every time I want to roll my eyes at the little-boy-Bo who cried his eyes out at the two-hour music video that is Evita starring Madonna, instead I lick his face, tell him how much I love him, and tell him it's OK to cry when a diva dies, actual or dramatized. I tell the man who sits beside him, doing his best to comfort the queer acts of an even queerer youth that he should be made something like a saint, but not exactly a saint, something like a saint of Hell, but not exactly a saint of Hell. He looks a little bit like Ernest Hemingway, and does more and more the older he gets. In fact, maybe here, as we're watching Evita, he doesn't look like Hemingway at all; I am just casting him across time to play his younger self. Anyway, that man is my father, the man who bought me first Judy Garland biography—Gerald Clarke's Get Happy. It was breathtaking. And he would take me to the Salvation Army, and that was breathtaking too. He called me his little darling, this man who read my first poems and short stories, this man who told me I'd never be anything but a mediocre poet in the woods. Good God, I hope so. This man carries his body the way I carry mine, but that don't mean he dreams like I do. Still, he pushed me to be an artist—to be rich, no matter what I had in my pockets, no matter what kind of pockets I had. While Mama sharpened my eye, Daddy pushed my spirit to manifestation. That is, he gave the fire its shape. This, after all, is the man who made me choose between his belt and losing my Reba McEntire concert tickets the one and only time I ever called Mama a bitch (I chose the belt, there was no choice really). He's also the man who told me The Golden Girls was such a good show because of its writing. Of course he was right.
Of course he was wrong. With the recent passing of such great iconic Southern female characters, Blanche Deveraux and Julia Sugarbaker, played by The Golden Girls' Rue McClanahan and Designing Women's Dixie Carter, it's hard to believe Dad completely. I reckon that's hard for any son to do. Yes, the writing on these shows remains tremendous, but these actresses embodied the dialogue, so much so that they became greater than just the character, just the script, just their separate parts. They became Blanche, they became Julia, (and still do). For me, they became the Confederacy, albeit a different kind of confederacy, one more akin to the origins, that is, a friend. And yes, I cried when these actresses passed. I am a man who cried because I am a man who was intimate with these women. We was good as good friends. I knew them as myself. When I was I blowing my trumpet in the marching band, my nickname was Blanche, and whenever I need to get fired up, I still Youtube Julia Sugarbaker's now-famous monologue in which she defends her sister, Suzanne Sugarbaker's, status as a former Miss Georgia World: "She was not any Miss Georgia, she was the Miss Georgia! She didn't twirl just a baton, that baton was on fire!" Look that shit up while it's still free, write to me and tell me you don't get chills.
I knew these women outside of the television. I even felt like I might meet these two women in particular inside the fellowship hall of Hokes Bluff First Baptist Church and/or the Fuzzy Duck lounge on East Broad where my mother (sober so she says) danced on the tables. And now that I think about it, I reckon it's because I carried these women, and the language/dialogue they used to maneuver throughout their Southern existences and experiences in me, in my mouth, in my swagger, in my heart. Losing them was not like losing power, but it was like some of the well-spring that begot the power drying up. And so I wept because loss is part of a whole. This is what my daddy taught me when our house burned, that is what the Civil War taught Scarlett O'Hara as Atlanta burned. In the end, we've always got to lose a little bit of our little darlings, and that is a grief something terrible.
Onced I swam in the same lake as Talullah Bankhead, onced I was a rebel, onced I was a Scarlett. And so was my great-aunt Sybil. Nanny says Sybil was always the one who resented having to do the labor of living country: the picking, the chopping, the hollering. She was the jealous one is what Nanny says. Well, I saw Aunt Sybil last night in Wal-Mart. She wasn't real sure who I was at first, but when she turned all that hair to the side, snapped her fingers, and asked me "What's your name, boy," and I told her, she said "Well you look real good, baby." And I didn't. And I should've told her she looked real good too. My Daddy would have. I'm sorry for the forgetting, Aunt Sybil. I grieved something terrible about it.
By the time I went to sleep, I had made peace with it though—Nanny wouldn't want me to fawn over her sister anyway. The way people don't want me to fawn over my flag, and God forbid, fly it anywhere near anything. But that's always all right on account I already made a peace of my own with that flag—with losing it too. Here I stand in paradise. Here I stand in paradox. This is my story, my little darling, this is my song—a beautiful thing.
I wrote this piece on account of I'm sick to death of the South and its images being portrayed as hateful things, closed to difference, when, in actuality, the complexity of the landscape allows it to hold magic and beauty like you would not believe. I know, I seen it myself.