Daily Archives: 26 August 2004

Confederates and Shias

Naipaul interviews the scion of a former plantation owner in South Carolina.

The North was now very concerned with all its minorities. It might have been thought that they would have considered the South a minority area. But they didn’t. The official Northern view could be put like this: “The white Southerner is not a minority. He is a backward fellow American who oppresses a minority, the Negro.”

Had he looked at his father’s book about the plantations recently? No, not recently. But he knew the book well, and he had some of the feeling for the old plantation life.

I said, “But you can’t feel nostalgia for what you don’t know?”

“Although I didn’t grow up with any knowledge of the working life of the plantation, still, life on the plantations–when we went to visit them when I was a child–it was more like the old Southern countryside, even though we didn’t have slavery. It was the old easygoing rural life, and relations between the races were much more what they had been. So I can feel nostalgia for a past.”

He was as concerned, even obsessed, as his father had been by the superficial destruction of the South–the highways, the fast-food chains–and pained by the alienation of some of the plantations to people and firms from outside.

The past as a dream of purity, the past as cause for grief, the past as religion: it is the very prompting of the Shias of Islam to nobility and sacrifice, the dream of the good time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, before greed and ambition destroyed the newly saved world. It was the very prompting of the Confederate Memorial in Columbia. And that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.

When–again as in a stage set–we got up from our chairs and went inside, for a salad provided by our hostess, I said I felt he was dealing in emotion without a program. He agreed; but then he said the program was being created….

He told me because of the developments of the 1950s his father had ended as a Southern separatist; and that was where he himself was now. The defeat of the South, the surrender of Lee, was for him an unappeasable sorrow, I felt.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 106-107.

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Stepin Fetchit in Trinidad

“Does the name Stepin Fetchit mean anything to you?”

It certainly did. Stepin Fetchit was adored in my childhood by the blacks of Trinidad. He was adored not only because he was funny and did wonderful things with his seemingly disjointed body and had a wonderful walk and a wonderful voice, and was given extravagant words to speak; he was adored by Trinidad black people because he appeared in films, at a time when Hollywood stood for an almost impossible glamour; and he was also adored–most importantly–because, at a time when the various races of Trinidad were socially separate and the world seemed fixed forever that way, with segregation to the north in the United States, with Africa ruled by Europe, with South Africa the way it was (and not at all a subject of local black concern), and Australia and New Zealand the way they were–at that time in Trinidad, Stepin Fetchit was seen on the screen in the company of white people. And to Trinidad blacks–who looked down at that time on Africans, and laughed and shouted and hooted in the cinema whenever Africans were shown dancing or with spears–the sight of Stepin Fetchit with white people was like a dream of a happier world.

It wasn’t of this adored figure that Jack Leland was speaking, though. He had another, matter-of-fact, local attitude. He said, “The ambitious people went north, and we were left with the Stepin Fetchits.” Now there was a movement back; not big, but noticeable.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 109.

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