Terry Barr : Southern Bastards: Questioning Our Legitimacy (essay / memoir)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: As a boy in Bessemer, Alabama, I lived for Mondays for they were new comic book days. I’d head to the Stop and Shop on 4th Avenue in hopes that a new Batman, Detective, Justice League, or World’s Finest would be on the three-sided, rotating comic rack. It’s not necessarily Southern to love comic books, but in my small circle of literary-minded, sci-fi fan-boys, living to read anything meant that you were different, strange–that maybe you didn’t love hunting or fishing or God knows, football. I did love football, at least, but my love of comics led to many things. Mainly, they led to teaching a “graphic novel” course at Presbyterian College and writing about my love and appreciation for the themes found in comics: the price underdogs paid; the crimes of the rich against the poor; what a Golem is; and now, what a “southern bastard” is. My essay tells that story…and this one about me and all of us “southern bastards.”
Southern Bastards: Questioning Our Legitimacy
Maybe it started at the US Capitol building on the day Ft. Sumter was cannoned.
Maybe it started out on the battlefields of Shiloh or Manassas, a cry in the night after a heated day of wearying, tragic battle.
“You Southern Bastards!”
It would have been appropriate given the illegitimacy of the Confederacy in the eyes of the Union. Though southerners are clearly not the only regional bastards in our nation’s history, we have carved out a unique and sometimes debilitating notion of ourselves as illegitimate sons and daughters of racist slaveholders, as upholders of Jim Crow, separate but equal segregationist academies—virtually anything to give a big “Fuck You” to “outsiders” telling “us” what to do with our flag, our land, our women, and our servants. We know who these bastards are: they don’t always wear white sheets and aren’t just the ones who find white men innocent of killing teenage black boys; sometimes they blow-dry their hair, wear three-piece suits, or hold high political office, appointed cabinet posts. Or they run “Redneck Shops, “Dixie Outposts,” and believe that “a race war is comin’.”
Such direct or indirect racist views have been considered illegitimate in other parts of the country, but not in the main parts of the South. Not even now in this “post-Obama” age. It’s funny, though. Once William Faulkner and his Southern Literary renaissance kin came along, attempts to make the unrepentant South—its culture, stories, and its people—“legit” have been taken up by university English Departments. Sure, in this literature, we see traditional bastards like Thomas Sutpen or Willie Stark, religious outliers like Hazel Moates or Manly Pointer. But we also see more sympathetic characters like Quentin Compson, Jack Burden, and even poor old Nelson Head. They may be confused, weak, but they aren’t traditional southern bastards.
Attempts to legitimize Southern Studies have mainly “taken,” as we know. But outside our halls, how are we considered—those of us who promote McCullers, Percy, O’Connor, Wright, and Welty, or even Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, and Harry Crews? Are we the New South elitists? Are we in the same beds as other “legit” southerners like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? I’m guessing that Carter and Clinton got name-called quite often, those “Southern Bastards.” I’m guessing, too, that most of that verbiage emanated from places within the South.
The first time I used the word “bastard” was against my own brother. I was twelve, he eight. I learned the word from a friend, a boy of ten whose father taught him. The boy’s mother was a transplant from Michigan. My own southern mother washed my mouth out with soap when my brother told on me. The funny thing is, my brother and I are Southern Bastards, in the way I now think of the term. In the way I’ve been taught to think of it through a comic book.
Sons of married parents born in Bessemer, Alabama, my brother and I aren’t true heirs of the old South, the South that has long been considered wild, unruly, but the legitimate, often-caricatured portrait of a people. Our politics alone—we voted for Obama and Hillary–make us bastards in the eyes of many; that we married non-American women—my wife from Iran, my brother’s from Taiwan—undoubtedly seals our southern bastard status. But I’m not ashamed of that status, and neither are the creators of the recent comic book series, Southern Bastards.
Say it loud: “I’m a Southern Bastard, and I’m proud.”
To be clear: the history of southern bastardy runs from rebellious defenders of slavery to segregationists and their supporters, or as Southern Bastards creator Jason Latour puts it, from “the assholes you might think Southerners are…[to] the rednecks we’re afraid we might really be,” (Notes to issue one). The ones who spit on, gassed, and threatened the Selma marchers, who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Who hated Neil Young for calling out Alabama and southern men, or who hated Dylan because he was an anti-war Jew.
But then Young and Dylan had to go make records in Nashville with steady southern musicians. And then The Drive-By Truckers had to reconcile Skynyrd and Young. And then The Bitter Southerner was born, and all of a sudden the bastards weren’t the southern boys who wanted to beat me up for wearing long hair or loving Neil Young, Dylan, and—god forbid—David Bowie.
The bastards, it turns out, are us, and Southern Bastards creators Jason Aaron (hailing from Jasper, Alabama) and Jason Latour (from Charlotte) are our champions.
Latour again: “…this book is for them “the “rednecks”)…[it’s] designed to bury them sons of bitches. To spit on their graves. Because I fucking hate those bastards with every part of me. Because I love The South with all I’ve got” (issue ten).
Their ongoing series gives us the honest, hypocritical South, where you can love this land: its football, pork barbecue, Wrangler jeans, Garden and Gun, Faulkner, O’Connor, Hip-Hop, “Rectify,” Moonlight, Rick Bragg, Natasha Trethewey, Lee Smith, its Southern Studies academics, The Oxford American, and the Braves and The New York Yankees. And where you can hate it, too: the violence, bigotry, redneck racism, insistence on Wallace and Maddox, Bentley and McConnell, the re-emergence of the Klan. And that flag. If this list of loves and hates is mainly accurate for you, then you might be, all right, you are, officially, A Southern Bastard.
The arc of the comic series covers the events of two generations of residents of Craw County, Alabama, home of the perennial champion “Runnin’ Rebs” high school football team. A man named Euliss Boss coaches the Rebs and also seems to own three-quarters of the county. His BBQ joint, Boss BBQ, is the local hangout for victors and various forms of lowlife. How Boss became a legend, how he rid himself of his cracker daddy and aligned himself with traditional and non-traditional county powers, how he formed an alliance with a blind black man, and how he kills in the streets the son of the former sheriff—beats the man actually with the “big stick” that man’s father, the former sheriff of the county (not named “Buford Pusser” by the way)—form the series’ heart.
It’s true: Coach Boss is a real bastard. However, as Carolina Panthers all-pro center, Ryan Kalil, says in the introduction to Volume Three of the collected series, readers can’t write Boss off as only that. Aaron and Latour provide such a back-story that you’re one of the damned if you can’t have sympathy for this SOB whose daddy was a bit more than “lazy and no-count.” What Boss does to earn his way onto playing for the Rebs, and then what he does to become head coach when his playing days are done—well, you’d only believe it if you lived in the South. I’ve lived in the South all my life, and while I’m still not sure I believe this story, neither do I disbelieve it out of hand.
So it is easy to classify Boss and his hired hands as the true and only southern bastards here. And they are, they are. But don’t let them blind you. There are other sights in Craw County and surrounding areas worth blinding.
So much, maybe eighty percent of the series, focuses on football, which in a story set in Alabama shouldn’t surprise anyone. Events in issues one through fourteen seem to lead mainly to Craw County’s homecoming game with arch-rival Wetumpka County and, spoiler alert, the Runnin’ Rebs lose and lose badly. Clearly, Coach Boss won’t take this well. In fact, the loss seems to completely overshadow the suicide of his beloved defensive coordinator “Big,” the afore-mentioned blind man, and Boss’s murder of Tubbs in the streets just a week before the game.
Are we bastards for loving this violent sport? For overlooking what its players do off the field? For excusing the ones who hit women, steal computers, refuse to attend classes, or, in the strangest twist of stupidity, steal clothing from Belk Department stores during the weekend of The Belk Bowl, the game which has honored your team by inviting them and honored you, the player, by giving you a $450 gift card to Belk? Can we love the sport and still indict the corruption it often tolerates?
So if you read the series, you’ll see that Coach Boss has a sense of honor, but only when it comes to football. Still, having some sense of honor is far better than having none at all. There are degrees of being a bastard, and for Boss, at least, his has little-to-nothing to do with race. In fact, as we’ve seen in the SEC, football is the one cultural phenomenon that has united the races in most of the South (although on football message boards, there is still hot, coded talk about quarterbacks’ racial identity).
It’s when the series leaves that field that we see how southern bastardy truly gets complicated—how it embodies, as the DBT’s say, the “duality of the southern thang.”
Two issues in particular bring these complications home. The first issue, number ten, starts with its cover and its revelation of the traditional southern bastard—the one who believes that because of his birthplace, his race, and his gender (despite his poverty and educational ignorance) that he is King. The second, number fourteen, offers the return/intro of a character who starts almost as a literal bastard, or at least many in the traditional south would label her so. She will be our guide into the future and will help those of us who see the deep divisions and flaws in the South assume the mantle of Southern Bastard. Finally, there are the letters where readers all over the country proclaim the dawn of the new Southern Bastard—those who love and hate their native South.
Issue ten’s cover depicts a pretty mean-looking mongrel that has just torn away a bit of cloth from a larger tapestry. The tapestry is the rebel flag. The legend underneath the depiction reads: “Death to the Flag, Long Live the South.” The issue appeared in the early fall of 2015, you know, just after the church murders in Charleston, and its variant “Death to the Flag” cover raised $16,000 for the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund, benefitting the victims of the mass murders at Emanuel AME Church [Notes, issue fifteen).
The story contained within issue ten, the second part of the “Homecoming” arc, begins with Craw County redneck/thug Esaw screwing an unnamed woman while in his trailer parlor, a humble Bible thumper awaits, seeking to save Esaw’s soul. Esaw is one of Coach Boss’s underlings, perhaps the one with the devil etched most deeply in his soul. On his neck is tattooed “Rebel,” and on his right arm, the Rebel flag. That he uses hot sauce as part of his sexual encounter should tell us everything.
After sex, Esaw punishes the thumper, Donny Ray, by, in part, placing the Bible up against Donny Ray’s face and then pounding the poor guy through the Bible. The thumping metaphor reversed. Esaw is the disgusting blend of amoral soul and physical beast. He attracts: both Donny Ray to save the most corrupted soul in the county, and the Baptist women who adorn his trailer. But even as he is brutalizing Donny Ray, on the last panel of this story, we hear Esaw yelling at his own Daddy, the one who made him this way, into the demon that he is. I think of Esaw as I think of an old friend—the one who went faithfully to Baptist church every Sunday; the one whose daddy taught him to throw a baseball hard and to yell “nigger” even harder. The one who now believes we are in for a race war. The one who first called me a bastard in my own front yard. He has remained eerily silent on Facebook about Dylann Roof.
I don’t have mush sympathy for Esaw or my old friend. But I see where they got it. I see what or who made them.
Esaw, though, is the extreme. The final issue of “Homecoming” shows us the more common strain of traditional southern bastard.
Issue fourteen details Earl Tubb’s daughter, Roberta, and her exodus from the war in Afghanistan, back home to Alabama. Earl was a white man, now dead at Coach Boss’s hands. Roberta is a black woman. We have yet to see Earl’s wife, but we understand.
Roberta arrives in Alabama, to her daddy’s old home, to collect whatever stuff is lying there, waiting. She is greeted there by the neighbor’s dog who barks at her and, she discovers, has been using Earl’s house as a literal dumping ground. The local police stop by, figuring, of course, that she must be a looter, for why else would a dark-skinned being be pilfering ol’ Earl’s belongings? This, as they say, is Birmingham.
After she, out of our hearing, explains that she’s a Vet, the police leave her be with these words: “A damn war hero. You believe that shit? Fuckin Obama.”
Just as bad–because who knows what worse really is here?–the neighbors, the ones with the dog, advise Roberta that she needs to keep to her own yard, that she doesn’t want to live here, in Birmingham proper, but would “probably like it better over in Forestdale or Bessemer. Schools out there got real good football teams…How many kids you got? Four or five?”
The neighbor’s son, a little boy named Willie, sports a “Fuck Obama” t-shirt which, unfortunately for him, can’t help him as Roberta beats the holy shit out of his daddy and his tank-topped, cropped jeans shorts, American flag wearing momma. A stolen riding mower sets this action going, and at its resolution, Roberta tries to enlist Willie to grab her a big stick so that she can add the final, insulting switching to her humiliation of Willie’s daddy. Willie’s response, spoken like a traditional southern bastard: “I ain’t gotta do what no nigger tells me,” as he picks his nose.
Maybe the stereotype is too much here, but this chain sets Roberta off into the true heart of Dixie bastardom: heading to Craw County to find out who killed her daddy.
The latest issue, number sixteen, sees her arrival, though for now, she waits in the background. The cover of this issue is more than tone-setting: it depicts Roberta, in semi-military garb, holding her daddy’s—and now Coach Boss’s—big stick. Her t-shirt is emblazoned with the legend “Ask Me Nicely About My Feminist Agenda.” Above her head, artist Latour commands, “Don’t Be A Bastard.” Proceeds from this variant cover will go to the SPLC and the ACLU. Those liberal southern bastards.
Let’s drink some real Kentucky bourbon to them.
In her monumental study White Trash. The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg “exposes” the myths of the American dream we have told ourselves for all these generations:
“…that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan, or that Jacksonian democracy was liberating, or that the Confederacy was about states’ rights rather than preserving class and racial distinctions. Sometimes, all it took was a name: before becoming known as a reconstruction-era southern white who identified with black uplift or Republican reforms, the scalawag was defined as an inferior breed of cattle. The scalawag of today is the southern liberal who is painted by conservative ideologues as a traitor to the South for daring to say that poor whites and poor blacks possess similar economic interests” (313).
Is the South transforming? Are we, the untraditional southern bastards gonna stand up to “them,” the ones who still think a black quarterback doesn’t have the brains to manage his team; the ones who think love is separate but equal? From the letters column, I think the future has hope, though in this age, I also know that name-calling, poll-fixing, noose-drawing, and White Nationalism will be emboldened. In the end, though, I still love the South and want to fight for what good it has and still brings. So for me to do that, for me to be part of that, please. Call me a Southern Bastard. I’d appreciate it.