Luis M. Luque is still struggling to finish his first novel. He served as a U.S. Navy mass communications specialist for 20 years and now works as a writer-editor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is also a 2010 graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program. He and his wife, Vera, live in Newnan, Georgia.
Paula Deen Cooks Up A Hot Mess
Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I find a small measure of amusement surrounding the recent tribulations of celebrity chef Paula Deen. Deen, whose name I wouldn’t have known as recently as a month ago, has found herself the target of much finger-wagging in the media over comments she made that were rightly construed as racist but mostly betray the 66-year-old’s insulated upbringing in Albany, Georgia, which repealed its Jim Crow laws in 1963, the year Deen turned 16.
Deen’s life was turned upside down when both of her parents died while she was in her 20s. She suffered from panic attacks and agoraphobia, finding solace in the only place she felt comfortable, her kitchen, cooking down-home, Southern-style recipes she learned from her grandmother. To assume a white woman who grew up with a mediocre education and few marketable skills in Albany during the civil rights upheavals didn’t at some point harbor racial animosity, or at least distrust, is merely disingenuous. And to her credit, during her recent deposition in a trial in which she and her brother, Earl, are accused of racial and sexual discrimination, Deen was honest, admitting she had often used the word “nigger.” “Yes, of course,” she said. Given her age and upbringing, saying otherwise would have been a blatant and provable lie.
I’m not trying to urge anyone to feel sympathy for Paula Deen. Even if her tears on the Today Show were genuine, even if she never signs another media contract or endorsement deal, Deen and her descendants will continue to enjoy the many millions she has made as a celebrity chef, author, restaurateur, and brand name for many years to come. No, I frankly don’t care what happens to Paula Deen. She will soon enough disappear and be forgotten.
It does amuse me that the Deen racial controversy couldn’t have come at a more interesting time, coinciding with the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ducking of a case about affirmative action in university admissions and that same court’s striking of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, with the 50th anniversary of the violent summer of Bull Connor, fire hoses, and police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963, and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. In some ways, I feel the Civil War has never ended. As William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Now, in my head I can already hear the protests: “Oh, come on! You can’t make that comparison! We don’t have slaves today. We don’t have lynching. Institutional segregation is long gone, and the Ku Klux Klan is universally despised. What we have now is affirmative action. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington have won Oscars. Tiger Woods and Condoleezza Rice are members at Augusta National. Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America almost 30 years ago. For God’s sake, we elected a black president! Twice! Race relations have never been better in America.”
I wouldn’t argue. And yet, underneath the accomplishments are those most difficult of all ingredients to get rid of, prejudice and distrust. They simmer beneath the surface, and their smell lingers in the air, impossible to ignore, like the scent of chicken and dumplings that has probably seeped into the wallpaper and curtains of Paula Deen’s kitchen. Sometimes they boil over, like during the Rodney King riots, but mostly they manifest themselves in a hundred small ways and even display their images on electoral maps that resemble maps of the North-South divide during the Civil War.
I never used to be sensitive to these things, but I have become much more so in recent years. I see the signs everywhere now. I hear them in coded language about “taking back our country” from the “welfare president” as I watch the cheering of the lily-white crowd wearing three-cornered hats on the Fox “News” Channel, unconvincingly complaining about taxes, budget deficits, and “socialism,” rather than the skin color of the president they love to despise. I’m suspicious about why so many older white men, sports fans who never miss a pro football game, say they no longer enjoy pro basketball. How they use the word “thug” to refer to certain black athletes, but never use that word for white athletes guilty of similar misdeeds. I’m more than a little suspicious about the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics. I have no doubt at all about Joe Arpaio’s motives and the tactics of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Or the screaming to secure the southern border from “all the illegals.” Or the resistance to an “integrated prom” at a high school in Macon County, Georgia, several weeks ago. Or the rabid comments protesting a Cheerios commercial that featured an interracial couple and their mixed-race child. Those are all obvious signs.
Everyone shakes their head at the stupidity of those expressions. Just as they do at the stupidity of Paula Deen’s remarks. They shake their heads because people should know better than to express their racism openly today. Especially someone who has so much to lose, like Deen. Why risk your wealth and fame? Be politically correct. Lie like everyone else does. Never admit your racism. Only admit that racism still exists in the abstract, at a societal level, something we all must work to combat.
But it is the subtle expressions of racism that most stubbornly resist eradication. For instance, the immediate dismissal of hip-hop music and lyrics as less than art. (You might use the not-so-subtle words of one Atlanta radio station that likes to promote its format as, “Today’s hits without the rap.”) Miles Davis used to say that whenever contractors or repairmen came to his house and he answered the door they would invariably ask to speak to the owner of the house, presumably because a black man couldn’t possibly afford to live in a mansion, and this one in front of them had to be a servant. How many of us clutch our purse a little tighter or check our wallet more often in a crowded store when in “certain neighborhoods”? How many of us refuse to shop in certain malls because the caliber of the clientele has “gone downhill”? Why do African Americans wait longer in emergency rooms, get longer prison sentences for similar crimes? Why did the Los Angeles Police Department send nearly 80 officers dressed in riot gear to a noise complaint at a house party on the USC campus? Was it because most of the partygoers were African American?
Racism and prejudice may never be eradicated in the United States or anywhere, but as much as I don’t forgive or excuse Paula Deen given this reality, I do wish we could all acknowledge that we are all guilty, and we shouldn’t be so quick to destroy someone who was stupid enough to be honest about her prejudices. Whether we like her or not.
(photos: alieiswired.com, washingtonpost.com, rollingout.com)