Post's Hunting-Camp Story Unfairly Loads Southern Baggage on Perry's Shoulders
Well, pardon me for making myself important, but I feel like I do bring a certain perspective to the Rick Perry N-word story. For one thing, I just finished a long stretch of reporting on Perry. I have a story coming out his week in the newspaper that's pretty much a deconstruction of his "Texas miracle" narrative.
My other credential is this: I am, as my wife calls me, a certified "Yankee carpetbagger." She's a Dallas native. Apparently "Yankee carpetbagger" is one of the few slurs that's still political correct, in my house anyway.
We're talking about The Washington Post story revealing that Perry and his father had a hunting lease on pastureland referred to by locals in the Paint Creek area as "Niggerhead." At some point in the past the entrance to the lease was marked by a slab of rock with that name painted on it.
Perry says his family had the rock painted over and then moved to hide the name. Nobody in the Post story says they ever heard Perry use that name.
But the story goes on at some length to engage in what I always think is a dangerous journalistic practice -- painting a narrative. Nowadays in the journalism schools they teach "narrative writing" as a good way to get readers. Maybe. I know it worked for Harper Lee. But in news stories too often it's a way to push conclusions that you can't prove.
As context, Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen (who may be a Southerner, for all I know) says of Perry: "He grew up in a segregated era whose history has defined and complicated the careers of many Southern politicians. Perry has spoken often about how his upbringing in this sparsely populated farming community influenced his conservatism. He has rarely, if ever, discussed what it was like growing up amid segregation in an area where blacks were a tiny fraction of the population."
Well, yeah, but a lot of the reason the American history of racism complicates the careers of Southern politicians more than it complicates the careers of Northern politicians is because the complications derive from a certain narrative. It's the narrative that's the problem.
I was a little kid in supposedly liberal Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1950s. Nine years ago I wrote an essay for inclusion in a book edited by Bernestine Singley, called "When Race become Real," in which I recounted my memories of rigid, mean-spirited racial segregation in Ann Arbor. The point of my essay was that even though Ann Arbor was racist and segregated as hell when I was a kid, Ann Arbor believed that segregation and racism were the exclusive sins of those bad people in the bad South, like you see in Sidney Poitier movies. But that just meant that Ann Arbor and Poitier movies operated on a narrative that was bullshit.
The part of the Washington Post Perry narrative that sticks in my craw is the suggestion that n-word place names -- or racial segregation or racism -- were Southern. They were not. Those were all national and had to do with white people, not Southern white people.
When I was a young man, I worked as a researcher of historic sites for the state historical commission where Mitt Romney grew up, in Michigan. I was familiar with the old maps. In the 19th century and well into the 20th century, Michigan was heavily dotted -- chicken-poxed -- with geographic features whose names incorporated racial slurs, many of them the n-word.
So back to the Perry deal. When I was a young man in Michigan, Romney's father was the governor. He was a pretty cool guy. I interviewed him after he retired from politics. He had a hell of a narrative.
I don't know if the Romneys hunted, but if they did, and if it turned out that one of the places where they hunted once had a racial slur place name, what would the narrative have been for the Washington Post? Yankee moderate Republicans in Great Lakes area hunting on land once named with racial slur? I don't get a big buzz from that. I don't think the Post would have, either. The Perry story only has legs if you marry it to the bad South narrative.
Am I saying the South wasn't bad bad? Oh, hell no. It was. I'm just saying the North was too. Where race is concerned, we just don't have a lot of white people in our history, north, south, east or west, with lot to brag about. (Oh, sheesh, I know this is going to lure the all-caps commenter out of his hole to defend white people. But there you have it. The word, white, is a kind of dirty slur in and of itself for what it implies about not being white.)
Sure, racism and segregation had a formal legal structure of enforcement in the South, less so elsewhere. But does somebody think the North wasn't segregated? Or racist? That kind of thinking, a distortion born of the outcome of the Civil War, is all about the victors writing the history. And in the longest view, victors are worse at telling truthful stories on themselves than the vanquished. Tell me the name of the Yankee Harper Lee.
Anyway, the Rick Perry n-word story so far is a Yankee carpetbagger narrative trying to make Perry out for a bad guy because of where he comes from, without any proof whatsoever that the offending term ever departed his lips. With the same set of facts, the Post would not have written his about Romney.
It's those damned narratives, man. They're quicksand.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.