Monday, 26 March 2012

Fried chicken and General Lee

After a lovely lazy morning at home, Lesley and her daughter Madeline and I went for a walk through the drizzle to lunch, after which Lesley and I went for a walk through her university campus on the way home. Now, Washington and Lee University is named after two men: the Washington you'll already know about (or guess - yep, the first American president; the Lee is General Lee, an important man who led the Southerners during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Although the South technically lost the war, (a) don't tell that to some people in the South who still believe in what their side fought for, and continue to wave confederate flags at any and every possible opportunity, and (b) General Lee came home to the South a hero, and upon his return was offered many opportunities to continue to extend his leadership. He decided in the end to come to Washington here in Lexington, Virginia, where he served as president for five years (during which the student enrolments rose from 40 to 400) and brought the school back to its feet after the decimation of the civil war. After his death, the school was renamed Washington and Lee University in order to recognise him and his role: both here at the school and in the South.

We went to the university chapel, which doubles as a crypt for the Lee whanau, and they have a fullsize marble statue of Robert Lee on his sickbed (which sits directly above the place he is actually buried) and a small museum in which various parts of the school's (and Lee's) history are presented. History is a tricky kind of thing, and when one tells a story for a mixed audience is can sonud even more awkward. The signage in the museum was minimalist, quietly offering whispered context and carefully avoiding taking sides. Taking sides? Well, taking sides means a lot here in Virginia, and people may well come through a museum such as this with strong feelings (either for or against; the strength is more important than the direction) and it is difficult to produce an account of things which will satisfy everyone. American Indians were not mentioned at all, and Black history was delicately skirted around.

As I walked around, I was struck by the dates of the civil war - the first years of the 1860s - which of course is the same as the wars at home. The Land Wars, as they used to be called, are now known as the New Zealand Wars and were between Maori and the Crown. The result of the wars was, at least from the point of the view of the Crown and History and the Ownership (more correctly, the confiscation) of Land and Law, that Maori lost the 1860s wars and there is an extent to which this is true. And yet, surely our continued claim of separation from the Crown - evidenced by our ability and desire to engage with the Crown according to the terms set down in the Treaty - takes for granted that the wars were one important moment of interaction between Maori and the Crown but not a definitive moment or endpoint. As long as we continue to exercise our ability to imagine our sovereignty, surely we are contradicting the most bald and simplistic accounting for the outcome of the New Zealand Wars? I'm not saying that sovereignty is imaginary as in not real but imaginary as in a fiction which we all choose to believe and which belief compells people to act in specific ways. After all, Maori sovereignty is no more or less imaginary than New Zealand (or indeed American) sovereignty.

In this way, I found myself in the awkward situation of realising there is a link between my commitments to Maori sovereignty and the Confederacy movement here in the South. Ouch! But seriously, consider the links between them: both espouse a series of specific values and perspectives which are central to what they are; both suffered historical (specifically 1860s!) military defeats (after attempting to demonstrate their own desire to conduct their own affairs without far-away and inappropriate government intervention) which on the surface removed power and self-determination but which continue to provide nostalgic and aspirational symbolism; and both have produced a situation in which people are capable of strongly holding two loyalties at once - to the nation, and to the specific group. Oh, and both are represented in media and other 'public' spaces as backward, stuck in the past, anti-progressive and - well - embarassing.

This is not a realisation that has made me any more sympathetic to Confederate (or Republican, for that matter) ideals or aspirations, but it has helped me think through the meaning of the Confederacy for some people in the South. What I mean by this is that I had not really been able to understand how people who were so clearly militarily defeated in the past are still interested in, well, literally, flying the flag? Why bother with a failed identity? Isn't it a bit embarassing? Pointless? I mean, really, it's not like the South is ever going to actually get to secede again - and if it tried, there are too many people who live here who don't hold the same ideas for it to succeed in any way. I am appalled by Confederate political and social ideals; I abhor their underpinnings of racism, imperialism, sexism and homophobia; and the sight of a Confederate flag flying (or stuck on a car or work on a tshirt) always makes me feel a bit sick. But, in terms of the structure of feeling - the way some people here remain committed to something despite everything - I am able to understand things just a little more.

Dinner tonight was a shared meal here at Lesley and Chris's place with a whole lot of cool people from W&L University, and one of the dishes was fried chicken. Yep, Southern fried chicken. Now anyone who has eaten takeaways with me knows that KFC is among my least favourites: it's greasy on the outside, dry on the inside, and leaves me feeling gross at the end. I'd never been able to understand why Southerners (or anyone else) got so excited about fried chicken, and although friends of mine from down this way have told me it's better down here, I wasn't sure how something like KFC chicken could get so much better that I'd actually like it. But! I tried the chicken tonite and it was amazing: delicious light crispy batter and fluffy moist dense chicken. An absolute joy to eat, and - seeing as I always thought I didn't like fried chicken - truly a revelation.

My ideas about fried chicken have been shifted, but so have my ideas about the ways in which some people in the South make sense of their world. This insight into the Confederate scene here in the South is not - it's not - in any way a support of the values or claims of that scene, but it has enabled me to find a way to understand how people tell specific stories about themselves regardless of what those stories are. Surely, this is the point of education: the "practice of freedom," says bell hooks; the production of empathy.

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