Oh Those Genteel Folk in Savannah, GA
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My third attempt to say something about a possible quality that was induced or more likely defined by my hometown. This time the point is finally made. Then reduced to doubt. As it should be.
Savannah fancied itself. Did it have reason to? It was the oldest town, the closest kin to civilization amid an agglomeration of wretched redneck towns.
I’m glad that I was born there instead of hideopolises like Macon and Columbus, GA. Blind, manly ugliness held reign there.
When I became conscious of where I was born and raised I felt that it was in a time warp. Savannah hadn’t left the 19th century without ever agreeing to be in the 20th (It is such a nuisance to have moved on to another century. I keep starting to type ‘this century’ but that one recently retired.)
I’m not sure what the racial politics of Savannah were. As a little boy I was awakened on night by noisy people marching down the street (something I later realized must’ve been an early civil rights march). The schools were integrated when I turned thirteen. Three years later I’d enter high school and we’d every now and then evacuate the school for a bomb threat.
But by that time nobody demonstrated, black or white. I’m not sure which was my first exposure to racism. When J.B. Stoner ran for governor. I was pretty weirded out by his TV commercial. In front of the Confederate Flag with Dixie playing in the background he swore to clean out the ‘jungle bunny’ schools by shipping all of ‘them’ back to Africa. The TV station and Savannah Morning News ran disclaimers that election laws required them to run his ads. Only a few morons voted to have him become governor. The black Alabama church had long ago been bombed so it was actually satisfying when he was put in jail for his part.
Thinking back I saw his newspaper, The Thunderbolt, before the commercials. But crazy crap about Jewish bankers controlling the world and attempt to prove that Africans had evolved from chickens (with photos!) impressed my young self with nothing more than their eerie craziness. (The paper had been left on our lawn after we’d moved from a white trash housing project to a suburban neighborhood.)
In an earlier entry I mentioned going to the public library with my friend Larry Williams. Later I realized that I also remember Glenn Kersey. He introduced me to the term ‘darkies’ who’d been doing something he didn’t like. He was probably the first racist I’d ever met.
It was years before I could place ‘darkies’ in its place in a nasty bit of American pop culture faux-sentimentality; the imagined happy life of black people living on a plantation. Old minstrel shows (I saw a very late one as kid in Savannah, far too young to grasp what I was watching) and popular songs well into the 1930s celebrated the happy, lazy days of the ‘shiftless coon.’ Can you imagine a similar detachment from actuality rhyming about the joys of life in prison? (Of course there was Hogan’s Heroes.)
Being older, more polite, having more surface delight, Savannah had lots of illusions about itself: urbanity, civility and gentility. Or some people did. I suspect it would’ve sounded crazy to my parents.
I’m sure the illusion of gentility isn’t uncommon in old Southern towns. Savannah’s ‘Sister City’ Charleston has to be full of it. Probably the entire state of Virginia buys into the myth as well.
Off and on I’ve wondered how much it influenced me. Is asking a mall store clerk “I beg your pardon Miss, could you tell me the time?” odd? Victor found it embarrassing pretentious?
And when Gordon came for his visit I wondered if his seemingly ‘brutal’ way of talking wasn’t because he was a Yankee. That is easily retracted. Gordon was unusually plainspoken. The double negatives of careful, defensive courtesy aren’t anything that would’ve come naturally to him.
Moving to Boston I was almost shell-shocked by the rudeness. Or maybe the fear. The Boston Strangler had left his mark. Almost every apartment had a warning that if anybody comes to repair anything and you haven’t called for him or been told by your apartment manager had sent for him to call the police. I didn’t like it any more than I did their ugly voices.
Did I inherit some overly delicate notions of deportment from Savannah; from watching Donna Reed on TV?
The illusions and perhaps the reality of gentle behavior were there in Savannah. Not in my parents’ house. I’ve called them white trash in some of my journal entries. That was unfair. They both had tight ideas of neatness and appropriateness. The grass was always cut (unlike 116 Davidson). Nothing was ever left to rust in the yard. They were just lower middleclass people trying to do the right thing: conforming. Being thought odd was likely their deepest fear.
Savannah’s notions of ‘high class’ may have snuck in insensibly.
Those of us who think ourselves outsiders often place ourselves as aristocracy. However trashy and proletarian it imagined itself punk is a handy example of being better than conventional folks. If only by being ‘worse.’
Maybe part of my personality took some of its color from my hometown. Or books, movies, TV shows framed my aspirations and Savannah supplied the fretwork.