VS Naipaul writes about race, prejudice, Elvis Presley, country music and tobacco in A Turn in the South, about his journey through southern United States. Remarkably, he compares the “rednecks” with the Indians of his childhood in Trinidad.
Published in 1989, the book begins with a flight from New York to North Carolina. Naipaul’s friend Jimmy, a designer and lettering artist in New York, has an assistant, Howard, who takes them on a visit to his home. After landing at the airport, on the drive to his mother’s house, Howard books Naipaul and Jimmy into a motel owned by Indians.
Howard is black. His mother, Hetty, lives in the black part of a small town. When Naipaul visits her, the talk turns to the condition of blacks in America. Naipaul writes:
Black people had lived through the bad times. Now, when things should have been easier for them, there were new racial elements in the country: Mexicans and Cubans and the other foreigners. The Mexicans were going to be politically powerful in the country. The Asians were not just buying motels; they were going into other kinds of business as well; and they had been here only for a few years. In a hospital not far away, Hetty said, there were only two American doctors.
And soon Howard and Hetty were reminding each other of the way things were changing. In the old days trucks would come around to pick up blacks for the fruit-picking. The trucks didn’t come now: the Mexicans did the fruit-picking. And Howard said the blacks had eased themselves out of Miami. The blacks hadn’t wanted the hotel jobs; they thought those jobs demeaning. So the Cubans had taken over those jobs, and the blacks wouldn’t be allowed to get in there again. In ways like that the blacks had allowed the Cubans to get control of the city. Spanish was now the language of Miami.
After returning to New York, Naipaul again journeys South — going to Atlanta, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Tallahassee, Florida; Tuskegee, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Nashville, Tennessee; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He devotes a chapter to each place.
In the course of his journey, he visits Elvis Presley’s birthplace. He writes:
Presley’s birthplace was in the small town of Tupelo in northern Mississippi.
The businessman who was taking me there said, “He was the lowest of the low.”…
Tupelo was a busy little town, one of the busier business places in Mississippi, and the area around the Elvis birthplace had become suburban, with the house itself like somebody’s ancillary cabin (or “dependency”) in the shade of a tree, with lawn all around.
On the front porch was a swing seat for two, hung on chains fixed to the ceiling. The front room was the bedroom. It was freshly papered, with a simple floral design; and on one wall was a framed printed copy of the “If” poem…
In the Mississippi museum the past on display could be felt as a kind of religion, a bonding. And there was something of that feeling in the prettied-up little shotgun house. (Imagine people living in that cramped space, though; imagine the crush, the disorder.) The very lowness of the man’s origins had made him that much more sacred, to the — fattish — people who sat on the swing seat and had their photographs taken…
The businessman’s attitude was historical. It had precedents almost as old as the state.
Naipaul then quotes the English actress Fanny Kemble’s withering criticism of poor whites in the South in 1839: “These are the so-called pinelanders of Georgia… They own no slaves, for they are almost without exception abjectly poor; they will not work, for that, as they conceive, would reduce them to an equality with the abhorred Negroes…”
The writer Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi, tells Naipaul: ”Most of the rednecks grew up without black people, and yet they hate them…Rednecks worked in sawmills and things like that. And they had small farms. They are all fiercely proud. They dictate the politics of the state.”
“The rednecks are sixty to sixty-five per cent of the white population,” a businessman named Campbell tells Naipaul in Jackson. When Naipaul asks him who is a redneck, he says:
“A redneck is a lower blue-collar construction worker who definitely doesn’t like blacks. He likes to drink beer. He’s going to wear cowboy boots; he’s not necessarily going to have a cowboy hat. He’s going to live in a trailer someplace… And the son of a bitch loves country music… It’s down-home music. It’s crying music. Somebody got killed in a truck. Or a train ran over somebody. Or somebody ran away with somebody’s wife.
“Presley is a redneck like you wouldn’t believe. He’s a double redneck.”
Blacks hate country music, Naipaul is told when he visits Nashville. He writes:
Nashville was the centre of the country-music industry. It was an industry, but the streets of the music area were full of tourists in holiday clothes.
An elderly black man, driving me back to the hotel one day, said of the visitors, “They’re all white. Do you see? Blacks hate country music. It’s redneck music to them. It symbolises all that oppressed them and all that they hate.”
Naipaul gives his own impressions of country music. He writes:
In country music, the music itself was not important. What mattered were the words. But the words were few and simple, and the themes were so stylised.
He meets songwriter Bob McDill who tells him:
“The vocabulary is very limited. You have to learn to do big things with little words. In both black music and country music, and more so in country music…”
Sometimes you begin with an emotion, a feeling about something. Sometimes a title, sometimes a line of the lyric… Your text is so small that every word has to count…
“You write line by line and line. The couple of parts we have to deal with which serious poets don’t have to deal with are tonality and also the singability. You can’t do complex things and things that are hard to say. It has to be easy to say and sing. It has to fall out of the singer’s mouth.”
Naipaul observes: “It was such a special art, songwriting, so far from my own.”
He tries to appreciate what he is being told. Ellen, a 60-year-old white woman in Mississippi, has no kind word for the rednecks. ”The rednecks to the south of the town were just mean. They had the reputation. They were very pugilistic”, she recalls about growing up during the Depression.
But Naipaul is more understanding. He writes:
And I understood what Ellen was saying… No situation or circumstance is absolutely like any other; but in the Indian countryside of my childhood in Trinidad there were many murders and acts o violence, and these acts of violence gave the Trinidad Indians, already separated from the rest of the island by language, religion, and culture, a fearsome reputation. But to us to to whom the stories of murders and feuds were closer, other things were at stake. The family feuds or the village feuds often had to do with an idea of honour. Perhaps it was a peasant idea; perhaps this idea of honour is especially important to a society without recourse to law or without confidence in law.
Naipaul’s ability to draw parallels like this makes the book more interesting. Travelling through the Southern states, he compares and contrasts them with the Caribbean islands. He notes:
Georgia had been established in 1733 as a colony for free men. But within sixteen years the slave-owners had changed that; and communities of poor whites like the pinelanders, migrants from other states, had been created. There were no poor-white groups of comparable size in the West Indies slave colonies. There were only planters and slaves, in the main. So that after emancipation the islands became in effect black; and, without rednecks, there was on the islands no post-Reconstruction, “Southern”-style history.
Naipaul even finds and quotes a Southerner who claims the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Trained in theology, Barry McCarty, whom the governor of North Carolina appointed chairman of the state Social Services Commission in 1985 for a four-year term, told Naipaul:
“Slavery was not the real issue in the War Between the States. The real issue was the power of the federal government over the states. The same distrust of a central power, the same jealousy over individual rights that moved the Founding Fathers to demand the Bill of Rights, that same spirit is really what led the Southern states to resist the North in the issues that led to the War Between the States.”
In North Carolina, traditionally tobacco country, Naipaul is moved to remark that “the very names of some towns here now (are) more famous as the names of cigarettes — Winston, Salem”. And then he contrasts the English interest in tobacco with the Spanish disinterest in it in the New World. He writes:
The word “tobacco” is thought to have come from Tobago, the dependency or sister island of Trinidad. And before “Virginia” became the word in England for tobacco, tobacco was sometimes called “Trinidado”, after the island of Trinidad, part of the Spanish Empire since its discovery by Columbus in 1498. Tobacco was a native Indian crop. But after the discovery and plunder of Mexico in 1519-20 and Peru fifteen years later, the Spaniards were interested only in gold and silver; they were not interested in tobacco.It was the English and the Dutch and the French who went to Trinidad to load up with tobacco. There were hardly more than fifty Spaniards at a time in Trinidad in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Gulf of Paria, between Trinidad and Venezuela, a vast safe harbour, was nearly always full of foreign ships. The English explorer and diplomatist, Sir Thomas Roe (who later wet to the Mogul court at Agra as the representative of King James), came to the Gulf of Paria one year and saw fifteen English, French and Dutch ships “freighting smoke”. Another English official reported that the tobacco trade might be worth more than all the Spanish gold and silver from the Americas.
The trade was illegal, however — even though crops were grown with the complicity of the Spanish governor. ..
The island that the British captured (without a shot) in 1797 was a sugarcane slave colony. And it was to work in the sugarcane estates that, thirty years or so after the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1834, Indians were brought over from India on indenture. It was sugarcane that gave a rhythm to the life of the rural Indian communities. Tobacco was no longer a local crop.
The tobacco industry changed with the advent of filter-tipped cigarettes, Naipaul writes. He quotes his friend, James Applewhite, a poet and a teacher at Duke University in Durham who came from an old tobacco family. Applewhite tells Naipaul:
“The industry changed in its desires when the filter tip came in. The classic cigarette was the unfiltered Lucky Strike or Chesterfield or Old Gold. That’s the kind of cigarette the companies wanted the most beautiful tobacco for, the most beautiful lemon-yellow, ‘bright-leaf’ tobacco. When the filter came in they wanted a heavier kind of tobacco, less bright, not as good a quality. So the premium for growing the most golden bright leaf lessened. The whole mode of production has been degraded by different kinds of demand and, most flagrantly, by altered growing practices. Chemicals are used to inhibit sucker growth and to artificially increase the bulk, the weight of the leaf. It’s called MH 30. It was developed in North Carolina, And of course tobacco doesn’t support as many people in its mechanised aspect. Formerly tobacco-growing would support whole countrysides of people, It was the chief cash source for the rural descendants of slaves, white Southern farmers who owned no land of their own, as well as for the landowners. Today there’s simply so much more money, and the importance of tobacco is less.”
Tobacco may have diminished in importance, and the Southern states found other sources of revenue — after all, it’s called the Sunbelt — but it has not yet buried all its ghosts. And American literature is all the richer for it. I have not read William Faulkner. But from Gone with the Wind to All the King’s Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and even the crime fiction of James Lee Burke, there’s a rich vein of literature down South.