The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Strom, Essie Mae, Cold Mountain and the epidemic of Magnolia Madness

For instance, one Eric Deggans the
TV/Media Critic
of the St Petersburg Times [1] takes a (very small) load off (December 28):
Weeks after news of her existence was finally acknowledged in the mainstream press, I'm still trying to decide how I feel about Strom Thurmond's secret black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams.

The world awaits with bated breath...
I want to believe she's a heroine; someone long disadvantaged by a ruthless, powerful, hypocritical politician now getting her due. But isn't the essence of heroism doing things that don't necessarily advantage you or your family, but may help others?

Has Essie Mae invited anyone to consider her a heroine? Not that I can recall [2]. Deggans is disappointed that she fails to match his fantasy.

He quotes her saying
I had no reason to do anything before now. It would not have been an advantage to him or to me to say anything about our relationship.

The problem is, she's a grown-up in the real world of the 1950s and 1960s, with a lawyer husband and children to look after; and Deggans is throwing his toys out of his play-pen.

She realises that going public on her parentage might hurt Strom Thurmond [3], but would do nothing to affect the lingering death of Jim Crow, at the cost of major hurt for those for whose welfare she had direct responsibility.

And Deggans says as much:
...criticizing a 78-year-old woman for not upending her life and destroying her father's career by going public with such a scandal 30 or 40 years ago is a near-nonsensical proposition.


It's the fact that Essie Mae has, by her common sense, deprived him of an auto-erotic historical fantasy figure that really seems to piss him off. Pack of Pampers for Master Eric, stat!

[Not that the myth-makers will allow the facts to get in the way of a good story. Already, one sees the word rape bandied about to describe Strom's relationship with Carrie Butler (on the basis of no evidence that has so far been revealed). The fantasy spun around the role of Rosa Parks in the Montgomery Bus Boycott I mentioned most recently on October 9 may be a model for straightening the curves of Essie Mae's story.]

By happy chance, the Strom-Essie Mae farrago has played out in parallel to the release of Nicole Kidman's latest effort, Cold Mountain [4].

A puzzle is the fact that, before the film starts, the Kidman character is supposed to have freed her slaves. How likely is that? I know we're looking at the mountains, where things were done differently from the Delta, but even so [5].

The flick somehow got me thinking about Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family - that I have long been meaning to read, but never had the inspiration.

The good people at Atlantic Monthly have kept online a 1998 interview with Ball - which has sapped any inspiration that Essie Mae and Cold Mountain might have generated!

I've just skimmed the 4,000 word piece, but got the cringemaking impression of a cringing Yankee aghast at discovering that his family's Margaret Mitchell-ised tales of plantation life were not, strictly speaking, accurate. The guy is a journalist by profession: should one have expected more savvy? Or is this a yokel act for the benefit of his nice, liberal paying public? Answers on a postcard...

A sample:
Another taboo in Ball-family lore was discussion of sexual abuse. The Ball tradition is, or was, that the Ball slave owners did not have sex with their slaves. That was something that other slave owners did. If you ask any descendant of slave owners they will tell you the same thing, "My family didn't separate families, and our men did not sleep with the slave women." I knew that I would find some evidence to the contrary, but I didn't think I would find much. In fact I found a considerable amount of evidence that in each generation going back two hundred years at least one of the Ball men had a mulatto family...

At least one?

I quoted on December 18 Mary Chesnut's well-known comment on the matter - from 1861 - and gave a few of the many examples in history and art where miscegenation (ante- and post-bellum) has been to the fore.

Ball had to be faking, surely?

Damn this Magnolia Madness!

  1. The photo-byline is helpful in context; the fact that the rag thinks the photo needs a separate caption is puzzling.

  2. To what extent is she responsible for the media spin on the point? It was reasonably foreseeable; but unavoidable.

  3. On Thurmond's role - or lack of it - as a bulwark of segregation, my piece of December 23.

  4. Touched on here on December 23. I've not seen it, so no review!

  5. The movie's historical veracity I'm not concerned with - I assume it to be zero. But the freeing slaves question stands independently of the movie.


Worthy of mention is prolific Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's 1859 The Octoroon. The online text I have is of the American version: Zoe is the daughter of the late plantation-owner and a quadroon slave, and treated - to judge from a skim of the text - pretty much like a legitimate daughter by the family. Except, of course, that she is doomed by her parentage never to marry. She finds herself bound by some lien to be sold by her father's creditors; and the whole thing ends with pretty much every character killed in a steam-boat explosion.

The version that was played at the Adelphi Theatre in London allowed Zoe and her white lover to escape to married bliss. But - let it be noted - the happy ending was substituted in response to public demand, rather than offered first, in recognition of a less bigoted racial climate in the Mother Country:
"The Octoroon narrowly escaped entire failure from a singular cause--namely, the death, instead of the triumph, of the heroine. This shows a sympathy in the audience, at which Mr. Boucicault, in a published letter, affects surprise. But the English do not like to see their heroines sacrificed" (Athenaeum, 23 November)...In less than a month, Boucicault changed the ending. Even so, The Octoroon never attained sufficient popularity to be the main attraction.

The tragic version played in New York - four years before the Draft Riots, scarcely an oasis of racial tolerance, in no small measure owing to the deluge of Irishmen it had lately received! - this paper (PDF) on The Harlem and Irish Renaissances (p11) says that one
New York theater critic...pronounced the play abolitionist propaganda and Zoe an impossible creation.

In accordance with the tragic mulatto trope, the girl dies - but, since the white folks are also killed, the sting of the racial curse is negated. Call it abolitionism lite.

A collection of pieces The Politics of Antebellum Melodrama includes a page on The Octoroon:
In 1859 the runaway success of the New York Christmas theatrical season was Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon, despite strident condemnation by Bennet's New York Herald, which maintained that "it is certainly disgraceful that the people of this metropolis--and they are conservative and sound in their hearts--cannot even go to the theatre without having the almighty nigger thrust under their noses." Bouciacult's play, which starred his wife Agnes Robertson in the title role, ran until late January 1860 and then was immediately picked up by not one but two theatres, then other theatres throughout the north, becoming the second most frequently performed anti-slavery play, after George Aiken's adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. But as Bennet's editorial response indicates, The Octoroon was cursed with living in interesting times: John Brown had been hanged three days before the play opened, and on the day of its opening a a bitterly divisive New York mayoral election resulted in the election of the pro-State's Rights candidate, Fernando Wood.

Wood, from memory, was the guy who proposed that New York City secede from New York in 1861!

(Boucicault bios here and here.)

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