Monday, May 1, 2017

Lorraine Berry on Didion, the South, and Race

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

It has always been good news when Joan Didion publishes a new book. For many of us, Didion is the grande dame of literary nonfiction. Any opportunity to read new material from the 83-year old writer is welcome.

Except, the new book is not new material. The writings that comprise South and West are notebooks that Didion compiled for two different writing projects that she never completed. “West” are her notes on California that she was putting together when she was intending to write something on the kidnapping drama of Patty Hearst. The majority of the new book’s content, however, is the close to 100 pages in notes that she took about the “South,” the result of a one-month road trip she and husband John Gregory Dunne took in the summer of 1970, which began in New Orleans, took in several locations in Mississippi and Alabama, and then returned to NOLA.

The publication of these notes has been greeted with rave reviews. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times calls the two essays “dazzling” and says that Didion proves “prescient” in painting portraits of the types of people who would vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post admits that the stultifying heat that Didion complains about in the material defeated her, still, “But these excerpts have value. They give us a renewed sense of the writer, now 82, in her creative prime. And, often enough, they remind us of her brilliance as a stylist, social commentator and observer.”

In review after review, critics recognize that the pages have an unfinished quality to them and say that it’s obvious that they are notes to a project that was abandoned. But all of them say that the notebooks serve the greater purpose of showing us the attitudes of people in the South in 1970 that were apparently in play when Donald Trump was elected president. In his foreword to the book, Nathaniel Rich tells us that “Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.”

Consider me baffled. Other than the clear motive that anything with Didion’s name on it will automatically sell copies, thus making money for both her publisher and for Didion, it isn’t clear to me what purpose the publication of 47-year old notes serve. They are serviceable notes that, with a lot of research and a variety of other voices added to them, may have contributed to our understanding of that geographical and cultural entity known as “the South,” but, as the notes stand now, they serve to show that even the most seasoned reporter will find exactly what she is looking for when she had made up her mind to find it.

Most people who read Didion are going to have their views of the South confirmed, will have none of their views challenged, and will have learned almost nothing new. Add to that the additional kicker that Didion’s notes were gathered in 1970—47 years ago—and the further folly of this book is exposed. So why would cultural critics in New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles laud it?

Didion performs a valuable service for white people in this book. By writing about the peculiarities of Southern racism, about how open people still felt about being able to express their racism in 1970, how casually they express it, it lets anyone who doesn’t live in the South in 1970 off the hook. “I may be racist, but I don’t call someone by the n-word or refuse to allow a black plumber into my house,” one expects some people may be thinking as they read through the stories Didion tells.

This is not to say that the system of legal apartheid that resulted in separate accommodations for “whites” and “coloreds” was not a horrific system that offends every principle America supposedly stands for. Of course, that system did not exist de jure in the north, but while Southern racism may have been enforced with signs that declared what could not be accessed by people of color, up north, neighborhood covenants, the use of blackballs to block memberships in social clubs, and the systems of “good old boys” who hired friends of friends, all maintained segregated systems under the guise of a system of merit in which merit was heavily weighted toward the white man (and it was always a man) who could get into the right school, the right social club, and who could get a loan to buy a house in the right neighborhood.

I have spent most of my life living in the north, first in the Pacific Northwest, and then for the majority of my adult life in the college town of Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is a city that had coasted for two decades on the humble-brag that it had been named by Utne Reader as the country’s “most enlightened” city. I can tell you that racism was present, it was just hidden in codes that you had to listen for carefully. One time, when my daughter was assaulted at school, other parents wanted to know the race of her attacker. When I asked “what difference” that information made, I was told by several white parents who considered themselves to be liberal that black children who grew up with single mothers didn’t know how to behave. Since I was myself a single mother, I spent a good deal of time shaming my interlocutor for their racism. You could also pay attention to lawsuits that were filed by homeowners in 2004 because their homes had just been redistricted so that their children would attend the local elementary school in which the vast majority of students were black, on the basis that the redistricting would lower their property values. And then you might ask yourself why a city as enlightened as Ithaca was so segregated that the majority of its students of color all attended the same elementary school when there were eight in the district. Could it be proof that the city was segregated?

I am not without empathy with those who hold onto a belief that the South is the repository of American racism, its refusal to acknowledge the reality that less than two centuries ago, people here thought that it was their God-given right to own other human beings. My memories from childhood—I was born in 1963—was of my father speaking to me of the horrors we saw on television as we saw the violence committed against people who were demanding their voting rights. And I remember when the Jackson, Mississippi killings happened just a couple of weeks after Kent State, I remember crying as I told my father that I thought that in the South, “all they did was kill black people.” But, as I grew up, and learned to notice the more subtle forms of racism that existed around me, I realized that the north (and the Pacific Northwest, home to white separatist movements) could not claim the moral high ground on this issue.

Still, when my partner and I opted to move to northeastern coast of Florida in order that I could live just a few blocks away from my widowed mother, I had managed to convince myself that I wasn’t moving to the “South;” I was moving to Florida, and I associated Florida with the cultural diversity brought to it by its large Hispanic population and the influx of tourists who come to this state looking for a happy time.

But, as I discovered, Florida is divided in a similar way that the state I grew up in—Washington, is. Western Washington, west of the Cascades, is progressive and votes Democratic. East of the mountains is much more conservative and votes Republican. Florida is divided north and south. The farther south you go in Florida, the more cosmopolitan it becomes, more culturally diverse, with pockets of Democratic districts. Parts of northern Florida, on the other hand, are known as the “Redneck Riviera.”

Here, I’ve discovered segregated graveyards in which Confederate battle flags decorate the graves of veterans of the Civil War. When I walk around the ruins of the Bulow Sugar Plantation, which was burnt to the ground by the Seminoles in the 1840s, the historical placards explain the process by which sugar cane is made into sugar, but it is only mentioned on one sign that the labor was performed by slaves. At an event marking the dedication of a restoration project for what had been the largest sugar mill in Florida in the 1830s, the historical minutia that is known about the factory is quite extensive, but no one can tell me how many slaves were held on the property, even though it is acknowledged that the man who owned the land the mill was built upon was a slave owner. I was unable to find the information at a separate website, which informs me that the builder of the sugar mill, Richard Oswald, made his fortune through slave trading. This area’s land was worked by slaves, but their labor, if it is mentioned, is an afterthought by the nice people who usher visitors around the site. I become convinced, however, as I’m walking the tour with my partner that the people of the historical society are pained by this information. While slavery is a huge component of Florida’s history, the good folks of the historical society have not figured out how to raise money to save the historical artifacts of Florida’s past, which are soaked in the blood of the enslaved people who toiled under horrendous conditions.

And my partner and I have both been present when white people have said to us directly comments that were racist, homophobic, or sexist in nature. And we’ve done the right thing when confronted with these people. Not because we deserve plaudits for doing so, but because that’s what you’re supposed to do. There’s no doubt in my mind that people have fewer filters here in northern Florida when saying racist things. So, I also have no doubt that in 1970, Didion found it easy to find white people who would say the sorts of racist drivel that convinces people living up north that the white residents of the South are some form of backwards life form. But Didion’s notebooks show such a series of problems with her methodology that I was gobsmacked by the inability of 2017 reviewers to notice any of them.

Didion only spent a month traveling through the “South,” time that was divided in New Orleans, Alabama, and Mississippi. New Orleans and Louisiana have a different culture from Alabama and Mississippi, to start with, so even lumping the three states together is problematic. The idea that “California” can be called the “west,” is also problematic. Leaving aside the problem that Orange County Republicans and Humboldt County pot farmers have little in common in California, Washington and Oregon have spent most of their existence distinguishing themselves from California, which has been regarded by its northern neighbors as a hegemonic culture that demands access to the Pacific Northwest’s water so it can water its lawns and wash its cars, even if Oregonians and Washingtonians have to go on water rationing to accommodate that, and that Californians have a nasty habit of driving up housing prices wherever they move to. If you expand the west to include the mountain states, California as “the west” is even more problematic.

Didion does the same thing when she decides that the three states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are the “South.” While she has notes about New Orleans, Pass Christian, Biloxi, Clarksdale, the Delta, and a host of other locations, and in the descriptions of these places, she is making notes that make it clear that these are not the same place—the words she uses to describe New Orleans and its residents as being characterized by “its peculiar childlike cruelty and innocence” are not the same used to describe the “good old boys” who make jokes about seeing pornography when their wives are out of town in Birmingham. Even within the writing, New Orleans is not treated as part of this entity she calls "the South." But all the distinctions that she is noting among planters in the Delta and businessmen in Birmingham and her exotic characterization of New Orleans collapses under a geographic term that doesn't explain to readers why they can all be called "the South."

But the biggest, immediately noticeable problem in Didion’s notebooks is that she only speaks to white folks. She talks to a lot of different people, but with the exception of a brief acknowledgment of two people who work for one of the prominent people she is staying with, Didion only speaks with white people and the topic that she asks them about is race.

What reading her notebook on the South indicates is that Joan Didion went to the South looking for conservative whites who she was hoping would say the sorts of shocking, racist remarks that she could write down in her notebooks and report in her pieces for publications on either of the coasts. And of course, the conservative white people she went looking for were exactly where she expected them to be

For all of Didion’s implying to her readers that she is a west coast liberal and an enlightened soul, she makes no efforts to interview the black residents of any of the three states she visits. She mentions on more than one occasion that people of color are present while she is meeting with various white people—friends of her and her husband’s, or officials in the towns she is visiting, or well-known writers, even celebrities. But each person that she speaks to in all of her notes are white people. Those white people all have opinions of black people, who they see as either “happy” and content to be their tenant farmers or domestic servants, and who they assume paternalistic attitudes toward in a “kinder” recreation of the master-slave relationship that was in place up until 1865. Or, she speaks to white people who go off on tangents about black people who don’t accept “their place” and who have brought in the federal government to tell the states and local municipalities to change in order to accommodate the demands of people of color.

Didion allows white people to explain how they can be good liberals and still object to sending their kids to integrated schools, and that information may remind readers of the perpetual excuses that white people make for why black expectations that discrimination end today is often coded by white people as “angry” or “impatient.” Didion speaks to white planters in Mississippi who appear on every level to be decent human beings. But when the topic of school integration comes up, Didion allows them the luxury of maintaining that aura of “goodness.” As they explain it (pg. 96), “we have tortured and tortured over what to do with our children, and our tentative decision for now is to send them to private schools, even though that is against our ideals. I can’t sacrifice my child to an ideal.” Didion lets them explain that they would be less opposed to sending their children to an integrated school if there was more time, but the children will change schools on February 2. And their response is, “Why can’t they wait?” If this reaction sounds familiar, it is because the refrain of “wait” was addressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was "well timed" according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never".
King wrote from his jail cell. And if you are not familiar with this passage, perhaps it’s because it’s also true that King is only quoted by white people in general when it backs up their beliefs that black people are too angry and too violent.

That same complaint, that the "time for waiting is long-past" has come from the people of color who have taken to the streets as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a movement that arose out of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer. But white people who have insisted on interpreting “Black Lives Matter” as an anti-police movement insist that the movement is angry and violent, even going so far as to invent crimes committed by BLM activists. The reaction to Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has chosen to protest the treatment of blacks in America by kneeling during the American anthem, has led to his being blackballed by the NFL, and fans have voted him the most hated player in NFL—more hated than Rae Carruth, the football player who murdered his pregnant girlfriend rather than pay child support. Again, people of color are told not to be angry, to slow down, and things will come to those who wait. In an incredibly condescending article by Peter Beinart, it was suggested that the Charlotte families who forgave the man who killed the nine churchgoers was the “correct way” to win over the hearts and minds of white people, who just need “time” to accept black demands for justice.

So, perhaps if the notebooks had been kept as notes that would become the basis for a book, there would have been a notebook that included interviews with people of color. Although it’s not clear who those people would have been. But, in her first foray through the South, Didion does not speak to any black people about their experiences of living in the South, of what it’s like to live with white people who believe the crap that comes out of their mouths and that Didion dutifully records.

Didion continually treats the people of color in the South as objects. They are objects of observation and they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer to Didion their views of the states they live in. Instead, Didion hangs out with wealthy whites whose casual racism Didion copies down as confirmation that the South is somehow different from California. At one point, she notes that it’s only a few weeks after the riots in Jackson, Mississippi in which college students were killed by the police, but the discussion she hears is about law-breaking students. Doubtless, in the same social circles in Ohio, conservative whites would have said similar things about the students killed at Kent State.

If Didion’s failure to speak to anyone else but white people goes unremarked by critics, it’s the writing about New Orleans that I find even more troubling. Her writing about New Orleans is singled out for praise in virtually every review I looked at. Kakutani raved:
The other reason that readers will find this volume so fascinating is that it shows Didion at work, as a writer and reporter, gathering details, jotting them down and running her observations through the typewriter of her mind. Even these hurriedly written notes shine with her trademark ability to capture mood and place. Of New Orleans in June, she writes: “The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: The atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.
Frantz Fanon, the Creole philosopher who articulated theories of colonialism and anti-blackness in the 1960s, gave us a language with which to recognize when writers are using paternalistic, racist, and imperialist assessments to describe “child-like” natives. And I mention Fanon because, as an intellectual in the 1960s, I have to assume that Didion must have been familiar with his work. So why does Didion write about New Orleans like she was trying to make it into Fanon’s next textbook about white colonialist writing:
It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy, in New Orleans as if in Port-au-Prince, and all the king’s men would turn on the king. The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness.
One wonders if Didion did not picture herself at that moment as Marlow readying himself to travel up the river into the Heart of Darkness to find Kurtz? Frantz Fanon wrote specifically in The Wretched of the Earth that the common complaint written by whites about the natives is about "their slowness, their laziness, and their fatalism.” Above, I had noted that she characterized New Orleans by its “peculiar childlike innocence and cruelty.” That type of writing about New Orleans is praised by critics who see in it some form of Didion’s brilliance, but which I now see as verging between the nonsensical and carrying about it a tone of supremacy that is deeply troubling.

Didion locates New Orleans as a town on the edge of wilderness. She writes, “in New Orleans, the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness and not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.”

Parsing that sentence, I see the insistence by Didion that the western wilderness (redemptive?) which was taken from the Native Americans in a series of bloody wars is superior to the wilderness close to New Orleans, which is too jungle-like and overgrown and which threatens to take back over the colonial town on its border. And I can’t help but see Didion’s criticisms of New Orleans, which has had a diverse population for a long time, including a large population of Creoles and mixed-race people, as being her wanting to say she finds the place distasteful, but is trying to find a more artful way to express it. (She mentions in the paragraph prior how a drive outside New Orleans had resulted in her feeling so dirty, she had taken a half-hour shower “trying to wash myself clean of the afternoon".)

It make sense that she chose not to do anything with her notebooks when she got back from her trip. It’s clear that Didion did not do any serious research in the South. She went looking for racist white people to explain to her their attitudes toward black people, and they told her what she wanted to hear. Perhaps when she got home, she realized that she hadn’t learned anything of value. Not because she hadn’t found the conservative white people in the South who told her the racist things she expected to hear, but perhaps because she realized that the only difference between those people and the white people she hung out with in California were levels of politeness. What bothers me, however, is the reception of the book, which has been largely positive, and which insists that Didion has captured something about the South that says something new by revealing that nothing has changed with respect to what white people in the South think about race. Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned from this is that cultural critics in the west and the northeast haven’t changed in their desires to have easy explanations for racism given to them, especially if it’s artfully done.


Lorraine Berry has written for THE GUARDIAN, LITHUB, SIGNATURE, DIAGRAM, and a host of other publications. After teaching creative nonfiction at one of the SUNY colleges, she moved to Florida to be close to her widowed mum. When she is not reading or writing, she can be found walking the beach or at the bird sanctuary, hanging out with sedges of herons and flings of sandpipers, and determined to memorize the collective nouns for all birds in the area. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW.


  1. Interesting and thoughtful essay. Haven't read this particular Didion book, but had similar problems with "The Year of Magical Thinking." While on a different topic, that book also ignored the fact that not every American enjoys such socioeconomic or health-access privileges. Some writers are assigned a lifelong critics' halo, regardless of what they actually produce.

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