If anyone said to me the ‘Deep South’ of the United States when I was much younger, I imagined smoky sultry jazz joints and intense passion in New Orleans, scruffy tearaways hiding on islands in the Mississippi watching the steam boats pass, beautiful plantations with women in big dresses running after men with pencil thin moustaches and the mournful sound of Elvis crooning in the chapels. A Streetcar Named Desire, Huckleberry Finn, Gone with the Wind were the stories I read as a teenager, choosing to ignore their darker sides. Later I read novels about slavery and lynching and racism: works by Alice Walker, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Alex Haley, Harper Lee, John Grisham. I began to understand too that the South had been a place of enormous poverty for many as told by the songs of the black Blues singers of the Mississippi Delta and the white country singers of Nashville. And yet somehow I wasn’t prepared when I finally made my visit.
In March and April this year we drove 2500 miles from Houston, Texas to Miami, Florida. It was an epic journey: ambitious and rather un-researched. For the most part we booked as we drove, staying in just-out-of-town motels with evocative names like Motel 6 and Motel Super 8. Apart from the breakfasts which were a shocking affair of sugar and disposable plastic plates, the motels served us well: cheap, quiet, and comfortable. We worked out our itinerary as we drove too, knowing that we had to be in Nashville, Tennessee on 30th March for a concert (Lambchop and Yo La Tengo) and, more importantly, in Vero Beach, Florida on 2nd April for my cousin’s wedding. I wanted to see Graceland and New Orleans but otherwise I was pretty laid back about where we went.
The difficulty about being a reader like me is that it is easy to inhabit the imaginary worlds that the best of the authors create for you, and to forget that fiction is different to fact. Even when a writer is exploring some of the more disturbing sides of humanity, one can choose to remember the more positive part of the story too. The unrelenting horror of slavery, for instance, is sugared sometimes with a happy ending in fiction, after all as T. S. Eliot wrote ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’. I don’t mean to say that Toni Morrison’s incredible novels, like Beloved and Song of Solomon haven’t stayed with me in all their pain, but just that when we read we can dip in and out of these worlds and choose to take out of them what we wish to take. And then we might turn to a novel like The Help where everything ends happily ever after, in a way. Reality is quite another story.
The Deep South shocked me profoundly, and, furthermore, it shocked me out of my tendency to think I understand a place just because I have read a novel about it. It is still poor. It is still clearly divided along racial lines. It is still a place of deeply conservative values held by those who can afford to have them. We regularly saw signs in the windows of shops saying ‘No Firearms Allowed Here’ or ‘Leave Your Firearms Outside’. I am sure this is normal to the average American but for us it had an air of unreality about it: ‘No Overalls’, ‘No Pets’, No Smoking’ are the signs I am used to seeing. And while I follow accounts of Obama’s desperate attempt to counter the power of the gun lobby in the States, when you actually see a sign like that it all becomes real. There are ordinary people in the ordinary towns we visited – pretty Natchez, Mississippi, full of ante-bellum houses and quiet Jackson, Georgia with its delicious chicken wings – who put a gun in their holster after they have tied up their shoes and before they button up their jackets.
There were landscapes of great beauty. We followed the Natchez Trace Parkway, an old road following the route of early western settlers, which looped its way through woods desperate to break into blossom. En route, you can see the mounds of the native Indians, early burial sites of a people who lost their voice a long time ago and whose stories only remain in such traces as these. Tennessee was striking too: soft round hills, lush land, well-looked after prairies. It felt much wealthier than Mississippi with its ranches, sit-on mowers, and Trump stickers in the windows. I loved Savannah, Georgia: nineteenth century houses built in tidy tree-lined rows, punctuated with formal squares. And Graceland was awesome: everything I had hoped it would be.
But elsewhere I was sad and disturbed. New Orleans, it seems, has not recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The roads and pavements are broken, rubbish isn’t collected regularly enough even in Spring to avoid the constant stench of decay, and the beautiful buildings of the French Quarter house not mellow blues but 1980s rock played by white men in their 50s. We were tourists in a tourist land with no inside knowledge so we followed the tourist route and didn’t care for it. But when we stepped out of it, into Treme, we knew that we should step right back in again. It simply didn’t feel safe.
Hundreds of miles later, we spent a night at Clarksdale, famous as the birth place of the Mississippi Delta Blues. As we drove in, it felt as if we had entered a ghost town surrounded by houses made of corrugated iron; in the main street on a Saturday afternoon all the shops were shut except a barber’s where business seemed still to be thriving (see picture below). Everyone we saw was black and everyone we saw was poor. That night we went to two music venues: a country bar and a blues bar. The audience in both were, like us, white: cultural tourists in a world that we had the freedom to leave. The music was great but it didn’t feel particularly authentic. But then why would it: the civil rights movement is over leaving a depressingly unequal society which pretends to be perfect. It is hard to protest against what seemed to us to be an unacknowledged implicit separation of races. And this was all the more evident when we drove less than 100 miles to Oxford, Mississippi, home of the state’s university, Y’Ole Miss; a fantastic bookshop; Faulkner’s birthplace; John Grisham’s hometown. The town centre was buzzing: a frozen yoghurt café, expensive clothes shops, and more restaurants than we had seen since we had left New Orleans. Every single face we saw was white.
The most powerful experience I had was during our visit to the Oak Alley Plantation. This stunning, neo-classical building had been put up in the 1820s by a French sugar man. We were taken around the house by a charismatic guide dressed in ante-bellum clothes, who told us the story of the Roman family, the pretty unhappy wife who yearned for her glamourous life back in New Orleans and the endless mosquitoes that plagued every inhabitant of the house. Our guide made no attempt to pretend that the plantation’s history had not been built upon the suffering of slaves and we visited reconstructions of the slaves' homes, seeing their pitiful conditions of habitation set against that of the Roman family. It was particularly chilling to read the inventory of the house, listing human beings as chattels and priced up according to their physical strength and age. But all the visitors we saw at the busy Plantation were white, as were all the guides and service staff. It was the absence of black Americans, wealthy or otherwise, in these places that shocked me.
I am glad I went. The wedding was fantastic and family from all over the world had made it, even my 90-year-old aunt who hadn’t flown for years. The concert was probably one of the best I have ever been to. We did a couple of great walks at the foothills of the Appalachians and a shorter one in the Everglades. And I drank the strongest Southern Comfort and Lemonade I have ever encountered in a saloon which Mark Twain himself used to frequent. But apart from Mark Twain’s ghostly presence, all traces of the literary versions I had expected were long gone. Novels, plays and poems tell stories. Sometimes they provoke change, sometimes they are complicit with the status quo, but always, I must remember, they are fiction, not reality.