Three Southern women and the novel they might have inhabited

By Tom Baxter

If the three Southern women were fictional characters, they might be the co-habitants of one hell of a summer-read novel. But all of them are real, and in a week when there was plenty of other stuff to make news of, they stepped unexpectedly into the spotlight.

We all know the character of the brassy Southern Magnolia who works her way to the top with energy and pluck, not always helped by her no-count relatives. Very often this character is tightly wound, capable of coming unstrung with frightening speed. So it has been with Paula Deen.

In the week when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a significant chunk of the Voting Rights Act, racial commentary in our country centered mainly around Deen’s use of the N-word. There’s no little irony in that she got to this very public place by way of a law suit which started out as a sexual harassment case directed primarily at her brother, Bubba Hiers, brought by a white woman employee. This is, among other things, a supreme example of what can happen when a legal dispute is allowed to go on unsettled for a long time. The allegations against Deen and Hiers have been out there for more than a year, but last week they blew up into a string of cancellations.

It was regrettable but predictable that despite more serious charges about practices in the restaurants owned by Deen and her brother, the national story would focus on Deen’s admission that she used the N-word once, after a store robbery 20 years ago.

This country can be tough on racists, even as it embraces racism. Strict avoidance of the N-word by whites is a part of the veneer of racial progress that was cited with such confidence by supporters of the court decision striking down the delicate compromise reach by Congress in its last rewrite of the voting rights bill. Just as the woman who filed the suit wasn’t black, neither, by and large, were the company officials who rushed to cut Deen off when her association with that electric word went viral.

Although the Supreme Court also cleared the way for the advance of gay marriage last week, Alec Baldwin isn’t going to pay nearly the price for calling a journalist who annoyed him last week a “toxic little queen” in a Twitter message that Deen has paid for something she said two decades ago. Just like the characters she resembles, Deen has ellicited a mixture of sympathy for the way she’s been treated with revulsion at the way she’s acted in the past.
If that novelistic character Deen resembles had a younger sister, she might be a tough-as-nails single mother who puts herself through Harvard Law School and takes on the big boys in the state senate in a dramatic filibuster. In the novel, they might be allies or antagonists, but Paula Deen and Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis have more than a little in common.

Davis’ triumph in stopping an anti-abortion law from passing the Texas Senate will be short-lived, as the legislature meets again in a special session to do what it couldn’t accomplish in its allotted time due to her filibuster. But Davis is already well established as a liberal icon.

We speak of people becoming national figures overnight. This is literally true in Davis’ case. Coming as it did right between the big court rulings on voting and gay marriage, the filibuster and its aftermath made it into the social media and were watched and commented on through the night, hours before the story hit mainstream media. Even the shoes Davis wore while holding the Senate floor — pink Mizuno Wave Rider 16 trainers — have generated a sluice of political commentary on Amazon, where the shoes are selling like hotcakes.

This novel’s other character — “other” in just about every sense of the word, is by far the least likely to have captured the nation’s attention, if only for a moment. Ill-at-ease, sullen, unable to read the letter that it turns out she got a friend to write for her, Rachel Jeantel made just about the worst witness the prosecution in Florida’s George Zimmerman murder trial could have dreamed of. Jeantel, who Trayvon Martin was conversing with on a cell phone shortly before his death, nevertheless made a distinct, defiant impression in her brief moment on the national stage.
One observer has described her testimony as “a labyrinth of cultural nuances,”  signifying in part how much of white America might have been put off by the Haitian-American teenager’s manner in the courtroom. “Cultural nuances” is not a phrase which has popped up in any of the Paula Deen stories, by the way.

Rachel Jeantel is a reminder of social problems that won’t be dismissed with a law suit or acted on in a special session. She definitely would not have fit in “The Help,” but an honest novel about the South today could not avoid a character like her. Her stolid presence made as deep an impression on camera as Davis’ defiant stand and Deen’s tearful apology.

How these three might have encountered each other, interacted with each other and affected each other we’ll never know, since this isn’t a novel but real life, which isn’t nearly as neatly ordered, or as satisfying.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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