Season of lilacs: nostalgia of place and homeplace(s) of difference.
When my grandmother died, it was April, and the lilacs were in full bloom. I think back on those lilacs now, realizing that they, like the women in whose lives they played such a part, define homeplace for me. I realize that I cling to them, the flowering, decadently-scented lilac that stands at the doorway like the angel at the Garden of Eden, and the women of Big Mama's. But the angel armed with flaming sword was placed at the Garden's entrance by God to keep people out, so homeplace, even as it beckons, has its own fiery barriers. I can no more cross the threshold of home guarded by the lilac than Adam and Eve could get past God's messenger. And yet, just as the searchers have sought the now mythic Eden, Southerners, like me, spend an endless quest yearning for homeplace, trying to go home.
It was around my grandmother's table that I first learned about homeplace, as she and her 5 remaining daughters, the sisters, recollected the old hard days and made plans to go back. In the same way that bell hooks (1990) contends, "houses belonged to women" (p. 41), for me, home is made by them. On Sundays, over coffee and caramel cake, they lovingly described the house and place where six babies were born. I learned that the old homeplace was a location of enshrined desire. And it is within nostalgia, a yearning for home, that desire and homeplace ideology intersect.
Daddy's people did not like Mother's people. My father's father had finally left the farm, got factory work, and moved inside the town limits. When his son, my father, fell in love with a girl from "the mountain," it appeared to them like a step backward. My mother's home was a place of noise and music and laughter and hard liquor--everything that Daddy's fundamentalist Christian mores denounced as sinful. The pact was made: when they married, she would disavow that lifestyle, stay away from home. I knew very little of my maternal family until I was 12 years old and my mother could not stay away any longer. She took me with her to Sunday coffee at Big Mama's.
By the time I met them, Big Mama had left her job at the local truck stop, and the sisters had divorced the wild young men who drank and played music on Saturday nights. I returned to a Sunday afternoon matriarchy that had resigned itself to calm. Now the sisters and their daughters returned to sit around the same table, now cluttered with chipped coffee cups rather than bottles of Jack Daniels. Big Mama's house was not quiet or orderly. The old house creaked and heaved with determination as it enveloped the lives it cradled, including, again, Mother's, and now, mine.
Some images never leave us. When Big Mama got sick in 1983, the sisters rallied. Nobody was taking care of their mother except them, and they stayed with her around the clock for a year. On a Sunday very different from those spent around the table, I saw death still in the claiming. Big Mama had no appetite and was drinking only a little milk. Mother was at her bedside trying to get her to eat yogurt. I could not bear to go into the dark bedroom, witnessing the scene instead from the next room, as close as I could get but not nearly as far away as I longed to be. My mother coaxed her mother to eat, tiny spoonful by tiny spoonful, cooing to her as she had to my own baby, to me as an infant. She tenderly spoke words of love to her mother, words devoid of joy, words sickeningly rich with heartache. I had never felt so low and empty and sick, and I never have since.
After she died, I was wracked with remorse because I missed so many years. I loved her, and I treasure the time I spent with her. But regret and guilt are old friends who call often; there would be no moving forward. Then I dreamt my dream. She and I were alone in the darkness, and I, grown and helpless, was sitting in her lap. She enveloped me in an old string quilt, soft and comfortable with age. Her words and her body soothed me; I knew that I had known her. And my heart and mind rested easy.
When the sisters finally made the pilgrimage back home, some 50 years after leaving it, they carried with them buckets and tools. They came for artifacts, tangible memories. Each collected cuttings from foliage that remained, now overgrown with scrub bushes and weeds. My mother and her four sisters cut through the wild vines and tall weeds to re-claim their mama's garden and take it home with them--old plants: mock orange, iris, forsythia (yellow bells), and lilac. Since then, wherever Mother has lived, wherever I have lived, we have dug up a piece of those plants, with good roots so they will live. "They won't ever even know they've been moved," she tells me. I do this because wherever I live, it comforts me to know there is a lilac by my door.
"Something About the Southland ..."
What is the lure of home? I allude to the seduction above, by evoking powerful, lasting images of home and place in a narrative that effectuates what Gilmore (2001) calls "the power of narrative to heal" (p. 7). Homeplace is an aspect of Southern place and feeling Southern inundated with conventional notions of Southern identity; a curriculum of place should consider the socially constructed sense of place that arises from homeplace experiences. This study situates homeplace as a site for the interrogation of identity construction rather than the consoling, pacifying mirror of identity. When the idea of home is sacred to those who long to return there for sanctuary, it paralyzes us to growth, to our own becoming; we might, however, reclaim home by re(memory)ing it. I suggest that the white Southerner's sense of place, of homeplace, might begin with an interrogation of self, place, difference, and (dis)locatedness.
My analysis of homeplace narrative weaves autobiographical narrative--in this case a reading of the lived experiences of one rural, working-class, queer-lesbian-feminist fundamentalist Christian--with literary texts and curriculum theories. Southern place is the context by which these hyphens of identity construction may be worked; home informs place as place informs home. Both inform the self by contributing to the sense of place within white Southerners. Homeplace identity has particular embedded meanings for white Southerners, and there are diverse and varied Southern homeplace identities to account for. As research on Southern place insists on maintaining connections among race, class, and gender, this study of homeplace within place maintains those same connections by engaging memory to encounter nostalgia, desire--not just for home, but for the idea of home--for, as Probyn notes, desire remembered is "deeply imbricated in the structuring principles of race, class, gender, and place" (p. 110).
From what do we seek to be healed by a transformative journeying home? Perhaps from what we imagine--or have made--homeplace to be: the journey's end, the place that was over the rainbow all along. Memory (home)work demands a negotiation of past and place, a grappling with nostalgic episodes of downhome, so that we might make meanings and cultivate awareness within locations of home and place. We might, as Asher (2003) terms it, "engage the possibility of transformation" (p. 242) by "developing self-reflexive awareness, and working through the splits of self and other" (p. 237) regarding homeplace. The healing, then, is of the illusion of comfortable sameness, of a unitary belonging that thwarts the potential of transformation and integrity of the self--of becoming.
Home culture is an identity construct to be approached and mined for the singularities of homeplace experience rather than as the source of metanarratives of identity and ultimate origin, Probyn's "founding status" (1996, p. 116). Home(be)coming is a recursive journey which looks at the past-in-place with an eye toward the future. It is a journey of deliberate displacement, in which the sojourner becomes, to coin Flannery O'Connor's term, "the displaced person" (1954).
Throughout this work, I purposely link displacement to dislocatedness in relation to a curriculum of place-through-self. Dictionary meanings of displace and dislocate are similar: both mean to remove or expel from the usual or proper place. Displace has the added dimension of the physical forcing one to flee one's home or homeland; while dislocate means more particularly a forced change in normal/usual connections, status, relationships, or order (Merriam-Webster, 2003). I use them interchangeably to draw the focus to the notion of place within each. The displaced person in O'Connor's story is displaced due to war--he is a foreigner. This displacement, and that of genocide, flood, etc., is different from the displacement from home that I describe in this chapter. Rather than suggest, for example, that the displacements of immigrants and war refugees are similar to or at least parallel to that of white Southerners, or to the displacement of blacks and queers, I point to a displacement of the self-within-place, perpetrated and perpetuated by the over-identification and attachment to past-in-place. The displacement of white Southerners, for example, may be characterized by the devotion to the Southern Lost Cause.
The Lost Cause is a romanticized idea of the South, the persisting legend of a lost civilization, one that never was and is always in the future. It is a celebration of what white Southerners see as the pinnacle of the Confederacy: "its nobility, its Christian virtues, its leadership, the loyalty of its men" (Ayers, 2004, transcript). According to Blight, white Southerners forged the Lost Cause, "not as a story about loss, but a story about victory. They might have lost the way, but they were now winning the ultimate victory, over control of their own society and against Reconstruction" (2004, transcript). White Southerners, in the attempt to continually maintain separations and expel the abject other (Sibley, 1995, p. 8) are ourselves abject, other, separate--displaced.
Another sense in which I employ displaced and dislocated is as a of displacement within displacement, that of one who by her acknowledged difference--and the rejection of that difference by home--is removed emotionally, physically, relationally, etc., from the place. This is the context of my discussion of Minnie Bruce Pratt's and Dorothy Allison's respective returns home later in this chapter, and of my recognition of myself as Misfit that marks this research. As Edgerton (1991) describes what she experienced during her childhood: "The displacement becomes significant in that one cannot simply choose another place that is truly home. The place called 'home' is in many ways closer to being a part of the anatomy than mere geographic location" (p. 92). The homecoming of the displaced to the displaced home disrupt rigid boundaries of exclusion and separation.
Indigo Girls (1990) sing, "There's something about the Southland in the springtime ... where the waters flow with confidence and reason," but what is there? The lure of the South is conflated with that of home, giving particular meaning to homeland for white Southerners. McPherson (2003) notes, "... the meaning of South often slides into the meaning of home [through the] tight interweaving of tropes of home, femininity, and region" (p. 216). And both South and home slide into the homeplace feminine ideal of Mother: How's ye mama nem?
This shifting by which it becomes no longer possible to differentiate between South and home--and Mother, fuels the dynamic tensions that designate homeplace, or downhome. As I make my own home-journey, I confront and disrupt "dominant constructions" (Gilmore, 2001, p. 13) of home and conceptualize new meanings by loosening the interwoven tropes. It is difficult, for example, to explore the home-trope of femininity without confronting the pervasive forces of masculinity that are also present in the person of the father. If emancipatory meaning may then be made of homeplace, then so may it also be of the South, with which it is indistinguishable to white Southerners. Homeplace--the journey toward reclaiming home--is a metaphor for the South. Parallels between South and self are uncovered by disrupting the comforts of home, by tossing a rock into the waters flowing with confidence and reason. Home is in the ripples, not the flow.
From out of Southern narrative appropriations of religious tropes, homeplace has itself become a trope and a significant anchor in the storying of Southern redemption. A homeplace narrative that unrests and unsettles, one that evolves out of multiple meanings and discomfort, might be a transformative conversion narrative. A homeplace narrative of a reconstructed South might employ a discourse of convergent spaces, of transcending a downhome that mires the South in past and place. When memory work is a self-reflective interrogation that facilitates, as Asher suggests, "understanding [one's self and one's narrative] in relation to different others instead of apart from them (2003 p. 245), familiar Southern sensibilities may themselves be unsettled by a rupturing of the comforts of home.
The Discomforts of Home: Minnie Bruce Pratt & Dorothy Allison
Reclaiming home as a network of difference from which the (dis)placed self emerges--of-the-place, but not unto-the-place--suggests the interrogation of self, place, and homeplace-yearning in terms of larger contexts. Edgerton (1996) credits Toni Morrison with naming the working through of place, people, and past rememory (in Edgerton, p. 141) and describes this work as an "intellectual and intersubjective" uncovering of place--with issues of "desire, guilt, privilege, and domination" (p. 152-153). Pratt (1991) calls this "practicing memory" (p. 22). The South, site of desire, guilt, privilege, domination, and defeat, is fertile ground for cultivating an aesthetic of memory; and, thereby, through intersubjective recursivity, it uncovers itself. To this end, I engage the self-transformative narratives of poet/ activist/essayist Minnie Bruce Pratt and self-proclaimed white trash feminist Dorothy Allison on their personal and intellectual journeys home. Both are of-theplace -selves shaped by place, time, and other, yet (re)turning to (re)member homeplace with discomfort, agitation, displacement. Home is no safe harbor; it is the storm into which they sail. Pratt's and Allison's narratives embody Britzman's (1998, p. 19) "difficult knowledges" of self and south that must be disclosed in the foregrounding of a marginalized curriculum of Southern place.
Homeplace may be re-claimed as a site for questioning narrow identity constructions through the disrupting of nostalgia. While embracing nostalgia solidifies identity and place norms, disrupting nostalgia allows anomalous, fluid forms of Southernness to surface that might corrode hardened, intransigent Southernness. As Doll (2000) notes, "No one ideal is grasped--not love, not home, certainly not purity--because to grasp is to begin a hardening process" (p. xix). Going home, going to homeplace restores the spirit with the richness of love, family, community--of not grasping. Yet the common unity must be borne out of a harmony of difference; the place is dynamic in its displacement. Uncovering the self's dislocatedness within (home)place might reveal the lure of home and the source of yearning: the homeplace quest is a way to get to love.
Minnie Bruce Pratt: Honorable Rebellion
Pratt discloses the "underside of the rhetoric of home" (Martin & Mohanty, 1986, p. 204) as she negotiates her own Southernness, recounting the complexities of being a white Southern woman who struggles with place and the experience of homeplace. By exposing the underside--the side of fallen tree trunks where the maggots crawl and feed--the raced, classed, and gendered foundations that bolster Old South ways of "being at home," she refuses nostalgia and challenges white Southern "desire for the kind of home where the suppression of positive differences underwrites familial identity" (p. 205). There is little differentiation between kinds of differences, positive or otherwise; it upsets the structure. Gilmore (1994) observes, "Pratt constructs the home as a duplicitous site of acculturation which violently binds differences together under the sign of the same" (p. 238). Difference-in-place emerges from a de-centered perspective that has shifted from lived experiences, and the telling of difference dispels illusions of homeplace refuge. It is Pratt's struggle to tell rather than absorb the discourse told to her by the traditional homeplace text that signifies a curriculum of difference.
As home is central to Pratt's politics, a theme of sameness-differencedislocatedness within the context of home is central to her work. Fear of displacement contributes to the reluctance to confront difference and change. She writes,</p> <pre> This is a fear that can cause us to be hesitant in making fundamental changes or taking drastic actions that differ
from how we were raised. We don't want to lose the love of the first people who knew us; we don't want to be standing outside the circle of home, with nowhere to go. (p. 65-66) </pre> <p>Going home queer, for instance, as she did, as I do, is one of those drastic actions. When the first people who knew us know us only within the confines of sameness, they become unsettled by the difference. This, in turn, unsettles the homeplace. Ironically, if we go back closeted, in whatever capacity one closets oneself, then how well is he or she really known. I want them to know who I am remains a leading motivator to come out to parents, siblings, friends, etc. Still, it is a powerful attraction--to embrace the sameness of the circle of home, and the greater irony is that we can sometimes be standing inside the circle and still have nowhere to go. Containment within a circle of sameness hampers our becoming.
Going home to difference and asynchrony displaces the self by destabilizing the contexts of (home)identity construction. As she disrupts the idea of personal and historical unitary identity, she negotiates the space between home/not at home, which in turn refutes Southern ideals of homeplace as unitary community. Therefore, identity of self within home and regional geographies is discursive, can be negotiable and fluid. Further complications arise when the thought of homeplace is elevated, suggesting not only a colonized ideal of autonomous, patriarchal home, but also a stance of Enlightenment transcendence so that it exists as an ideal that is out of reach and beyond honest memory. Like the South with which it is conflated, home becomes yet another Lost Cause. Pratt interrogates ways of feeling Southern by disrupting memories of home as a haven of sameness and stability that reinforces the selfevidence of white identity. She concludes the title essay, "Rebellion," with her reconstructed truths:</p> <pre> I begin to understand that a white woman of the South can live and write, but not of the dead heroes. She can live and write a new kind of honor, the daily, conscious actions of women in true rebellion. </pre> <p>Home (Dis)place(ment)
A homeplace narrative that unrests and unsettles might be a transformative conversion narrative if it evolves out of multiple meanings of difference and displacement. The troubling incongruity between Pratt's home culture--the comfortable site of her raising--and her increasing involvement in social justice activism draw out her awareness of her difference in perspective from that of her father.
As the stability of home is rendered through violence, so also does violence execute the rift between father and daughter. In a scene from "Identity" reminiscent of the account of Christ's temptation on the mountaintop (Matthew 4), Pratt's father takes her to the top of the county courthouse to look out over the town below. She was supposed to see the place, her heritage, all that had been laid before her, secure in an established raced and classed hierarchy. She contrasts what she, as a child with a lineage of privilege, would and could not have seen from the pinnacle of the established seat of civic justice, where her grandfather had presided as judge for forty years.
Pratt's narrative takes a violent shift as the rite of passage of privilege recognition is interrupted, for she is afraid to ascend to the top. That moment marks a significant moment of recognition for father and daughter, when both distinguish and must attend to the gendered component of privilege within the social matrices of raceclass-gender.</p> <pre> This is what I would and would not have seen, or so I think: for I never got to the top. When he told me to go up the steps in front of him, I tried to, crawling on hands and knees, but I was terribly afraid. I couldn't, or wouldn't, do it. He let me crawl down; he was disgusted with me, I thought. I think now that he wanted to show me a place he had climbed to as a boy, a view that had been
his father's and his, and would be mine. But I was not him: I had
not learned to take that height, that being set apart as my own,
a white girl, not a boy. (p. 33) </pre> <p>As the incident shatters the facade of sameness and accentuates the gendered differences of expectations and privileges, it threatens to expose fissures of race and class as well. What she would not have seen is difference, obscured by the trappings of privilege. Father and, eventually, daughter recognize this imminent danger to a homeplace culture of protection.
Pratt re-considers the moment with what Probyn (1996) calls a "necessary distancing" (p. 113) that counteracts the pull of nostalgia when she exercises honest memory. She becomes aware of the constricted view and domain offered to her by her father, and her greater worldview shifts to one "more accurate, complex, multilayered, multidimensioned, more truthful" ("Identity," p. 33). Yet, memory is complicated; Pratt possesses also the memory of her fathers sorrow and pain--also her heritage--"disclosing to me his heart that still felt wrongs" (p. 62).</p>
<pre> I honor the grief of his life by striving to change much of what he believed in; and my own grief by acknowledging that I saw him caught in the grip of racial, sexual, cultural fears that I am still trying to understand in myself. (p. 71) </pre> <p>Place, nostalgia and going home are instrumental to displacement; Pratt grieves her father's despair as, we will see later, Allison mourns her mother's loss. Their anguish is inextricable from place.
But what of the home(comings) of the dispossessed? A homeplace that reproduces itself through the perpetuation of sameness discourages and castigates difference within and without, whether that difference is detected in the individual or in social, cultural, ethnic, religious, or political groups that threaten what it perceives as its sanctity. When we "go back different," we are going to more than place; we go to place-in-time, where the past is present. The displaced person, subject of difference and subject to indifference, unfits time-in-place by (dis)claiming a past to which his or her presence is "superfluous" and (re)claiming a past requisite for a necessary self.
High Cotton: Homeplace in Dixie</p> <pre> We were walkin' in high cotton. Old times there are not forgotton. Those fertile fields are never far away. We were walkin' in high cotton. Old times there are not forgotton. Leavin' home was the hardest thing we ever faced.
(Alabama, 1985) </pre> <p>Pratt's personal and intellectual journey home demonstrates that home is a filter not only for what we may or may not think, feel, do--but for what comes in and what goes out; in the filtering, home does the work for us. It is also a filter of memory. When memory is Dixiefied, grounded in Old South "lies of normalcy" (Segrest, 1985, p. 57), we become complacent--and complicit--in the lies, protective of the veil that makes home and Dixie the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:33) in homeplace ideology. Reclaiming home as a generative place requires a tricky recursive dance of returning and stepping back, of delving and surveying. For the white Southerner, memory (home)work means uncovering indicators of conflation of home land and home place with the Dixie ideal. hooks (1990) writes, "I had to leave that space I called home to move beyond boundaries, yet I needed also to return there" (p. 148). In other words, how much of our nostalgia, our yearning for home, is a yearning for Lost Cause ideals of race, class, and gender structures? Moving beyond the boundaries that contain the illusion of the privilege of sameness suggests a distancing by which home may be observed in the larger context of Southern place.
Southern myths and confederate iconography, shrouded in nostalgia, had the anesthetizing effect of giving me space--within a South, within a home--in which to fit. Gilmore (2001) writes, "Difference does not establish itself all at once, but by degrees" (p. 46). I go back queer and feel the difference, which leads me to ever-sotentatively delve into other conventions of traditional homeplace, like desire and emotion, that intensify the degrees of difference. To that end, I turn to Dorothy Allison's intense trauma tales of home desire, centered around her persistent love and yearning for her mother, by which she negotiates sites of difference where she as queer-feminist-intellectual-activist can make meaning from the discomfort.
Two or Three Things: Dorothy Allison
The disruption of the gendered dispositions of home--which Pratt undertakes by distinguishing her father's grief and privilege from her own--discloses spaces of feminine subjective agency as it uncovers deviative forms of Southern homeplace. Dorothy Allison interrogates agency within the feminine home and unrests homeplace nostalgia through her mother narrative. She writes, "I have written stories about people like [her mother and first lover] out of my need to understand them and reimagine their lives. Better to mythologize them, I have told myself, than to leave them with their fractured lives cut off too soon" (Skin, p. 225). A similar sentiment may be held regarding the South and Southern homeplace. Left alone, the women's lives were already mythologized, regardless of social, cultural, and material deprivation. Their living selves are located within the fractures; telling and understanding and reimagining de-mythologizes the cut-off lives of Allison's women. Likewise, silence--not-telling--upholds mythologies of a cut-off, Lost Cause, South. Hope for a progressive South lies within the stories from the fractures.
In her recursive proclamation, "Two or three things I know for sure," Allison unsettles the known; there are no truths to be known for sure, only telling. Allison seems to ask, "What can be known from accounting lived experiences?" She writes, "The story becomes the thing needed" (p. 3), and yet, "Behind the story I tell is the one I don't" (p. 39). Both the told and untold stories are narratives of homeplace, and transformative homeplace lies in the community of women who are there. Love and admiration for her mother, apparent from the recounting of her mother's tenacious struggle to subsist within social structures of class and gender, endure despite the encumbrances of those structures that prevent her mother from saving her. "Women run away because they must," she writes, but, "My mama did not run away" (p. 5). Instead of re-locating, she and the women of homeplace remained to pay the cost of "hard compromises": loss and entrapment of being-of-the-place. Home, place of subversive feminine strength, is a site of disruption of sameness rather than site of hardening of identity/place norms.
Examining homeplace as a form of Southernness that perpetuates Southernness requires not only interrogating the homeplace for which one yearns, but also interrogating the love through which the yearning occurs. Sometimes that love is seemingly inexplicable, yet its persistence lures us to place. For example, I have been questioned on what felt like an innocuous remark, "I love the South." Why, why do you love the South? More likely, how can you love the South, when its past--now its present--makes it so antithetical to love? In my reply I clung to those Southern entities that seemed given to love--people, home--wrongly severing them from place-in-past. Allison reconciles this unfitting love by moving towards love for self and other as subjects. In Skin she writes,</p> <pre> The first rule I learned in writing was to love the people I wrote about--and loving my mama, loving myself, was not simple in any sense. We had not been raised to love ourselves, only to refuse to admit how much we might hate ourselves ... it was my mama's life, the madness that love had thrown at her, the violence, the grief, and the shame. (pp. 237, 240) </pre> <p>Loving the South is no simple matter for much the same reasons as Allison's; we are often raised with the abnegation of self-loathing, passing for a love that in its madness throws white Southerners violence, grief, and shame. To tell the mother, Allison tells the pain. To tell homeplace, I tell the mother, to tell the South. Two or three things I know for sure, writes Allison, and one of them is that telling the story all the way through is an act of love (Two or Three Things, p. 90).
When I read Allison, I picture my mother's family. In fact, the photographs Allison includes in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure could have come from Mother's picture box. My favorite picture of Mother was taken around 1960; in it, she is lined up with four of her five sisters, shoulder-to-shoulder, slightly facing right. They were getting ready to go to town when going to town meant fixing up, and the array for each is the same: form-fitting sweater and skirt, black pumps, rings, watches, bracelets, painted fingernails. Incidentally, whenever the baby sister, now 59, looks at the scene, she remembers distinctly that they would not let her tag along, a kid at age 13. The most striking feature of the tableau is the line of dark lipstick that runs from sister to sister. And although the photo is in black-and-white, I can picture its deep red shade. These are women, like Allison's, who would not run away.
Other photos in common are of the tragic young men--the uncles in Allison's family, pained, restless, and angry--who "gave themselves up to fate" (Two or Three Things, p. 28). These were the men who came into my grandmother's home to claim her girls. I have seen them in photographs, too. Angular, sitting with legs apart and arms relaxed and draped over a chair back or a sister's shoulder. The men have the same expressions on their faces: raw, wild glints in their eyes, cocky grins that masked disappointment and fear. They came at night to the house with whiskey and guitars and played music. Sometimes they put on records and danced with the sisters. They were dangerous boys who would become "hard-faced men" (p. 28).
My mother was not a willing dance partner. My daddy was not a dangerous boy. They worked together at a local cafe, and against his parents' wishes, they began to date. In 1961, she told him if he would marry her and take her away, she would not go back, promised that she would not go back; this is my daddy's version of the story, for my mother has never spoken of the promise. For a time she kept it; there are pictures of them as a young couple. He is grooming a horse as she, pregnant with me, lingers in a housedress and flip-flops. But I was witness to her yearning for home. When I was six years old, my grandmother and oldest aunt came to our house, but not to visit. They came to collect a sewing machine that Mother had taken with her when she married. It sat on a black base with a white cover that latched on. I remember what it sounded like when my mother used it, and I remember her sobbing as they left with it. Then Daddy, protector of the promise, took us to Sears to buy a new one, the same one she sews on today. That was my first awareness of Mother's longing, of her displacement, and it is the strongest yearning that I have ever known her to have.
The years passed, and as I tell in my opening narrative, Mother's homeplace changed. The sisters exchanged their hard-faced men for tired, earnest men who worked hard for a living and who had outgrown dancing on Saturday night. Every Sunday they gathered, until eventually, my mother went home--with me in tow. My brother went with us rarely; this was women's space, where mother love and sister love fortified them/us as subjects. Mother had taken me into her homeplace narrative, a child both self- and parentally-identified with the father. For years, whenever Mother was aggravated or flustered with me, even in amusement, her retort was the same, "You're just like your daddy!" And for years, it made me chuckle, until I realized it was at those times that my mother expressed her contained resentful anger at Daddy in acceptable code--language that reinforced his gendered, patriarchal stature, assuring him that there was none of her in me. My daddy might never understand her yearning, might never have access to the part of her which held her deepest desire, but I would be invited in to make meaning of it for both of us. I am my father's daughter, yet it is my mother's pulse I feel through my skin. Put your hand here, writes Allison. Hear the echo of my mama's pulse, her laugh, her songs. While I live and sing she does not die ... (Two or Three Things, p. 243).
For a time, five of the six sisters worked at the VF Plant, where they sewed Lee jeans. It was work that made backs and legs ache, wrists and fingers deformed, and soon Sunday conversation became about their lives as working women. Because she was strong, determined, and level-headed--nothing much outwardly fazes my mother, but she holds a great deal in--she was elected president of the local garment workers' union. She was proudest of two things: (1) the respect afforded her, and thereby the workers, by Management and (2) her participation in contract negotiations that resulted in agreements and benefits more favorable to local workers than contracts in other states had been. In fact, the VF plant in Russellville, Alabama, was one of the last in the United States to be outsourced to Central America. I like to think Mother's skills as a leader and negotiator helped keep it here for as long as it was.
The sisters "talked Lee" at Big Mama's because of its largeness in their lives; my mother had no other place to tell it. Daddy's resentment was visible whenever she got a union call or when she had a union meeting that kept her an extra hour after work. He aimed his comments toward home, asserting that he was not weak and controllable like the sisters' husbands. After my grandmother died and the sisters continued their Sunday afternoons, he began to say that he wished that the old house would just burn down--that everybody would be better off if it did. He did not understand what they all continued to cling to or why they did not devote themselves to their "own" families. Mother graciously submitted by saving her agency--and her life--for Sundays. After church, she and I went to Big Mama's, the homeplace where women negotiated their subjectivity and their subjection, ways they could lead in public and submit at home. It was then I realized the homeplace of the child's yearning is not the same one yearned for by her parents.
In the classed, gendered, fundamentalist narrative of my mother, I find the hope of a homeplace of affirmation and solidarity wrought from different life narratives, a place for telling. It is not a perfect place, nor a place of perfection. The lives there are often fractured; the place ruptures at the seams. It thrives because of--not in spite of--the schism. Allison writes,</p> <pre> What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama's death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself. I am here to claim everything I know, and there are only two or three things I know for sure. (Two or Three Things, p. 52) </pre> <p>Within a homeplace of difference and positive disruption, we might, as Allison, suggests, "honor the truth of each other's stories (Skin, p. 251). Life stories, narratives, can not be told if they are not honored, nor honored if not told. The self-in-place who names and claims lived experiences of difference and displacement (pro)claims her own truth as a subject. While a homeplace of sameness projects its own truths, a homeplace of difference is a homeplace of the different truths of its subjects.
Allison and Pratt turn to home, rather than from it, to find ways that honest self-respect, the "positive self" ("Identity," 1991, p. 59), may be formed within Southern geographies, including places of home. A new honor of rebellion lies in our acknowledgment that home has been, for some of us as white Southerners, the space where we "sit in the darkness of White privilege" (Doll, 2000, p. 16); it lies in our willingness to open the windows and air out the permeating mustiness of nostalgia. Nostalgia, which speaks the desire of time-in-place, conducts the deep-seated fears and hatred of difference from within the self into the collective illusion of unitary homeplace. As nostalgia bears out the desire for reconciliation of past and present--a centering on the past to reinforce present truths--the sanctity of sameness, at the expense of identity--individual, social, cultural, political--is preserved
Homeplace may be celebrated--honored/recognized/acknowledged--as a site for restoration and resistance, as hooks (1990) proposes, but to do so requires a rethinking of the ideal of the Southern homeplace. As Pinar (2004) notes the convergence and conflation of raced, classed, and gendered domains within Southern culture and history, we might uncover these sites of convergence within the home. Home is a most immediate and intimate Southern place; home(as)place is a category of social and individual experiences situated within larger Southern place. A home-based curriculum of place becomes "a curricular embodiment and contradiction of peculiarly southern experience ... demystifying southern history and culture" (Pinar, 2004, p. 94). It employs confrontation and interrogation of lived experiences--through the recovery and grounding of memory--to enhance self understanding and social reconstruction. Home-based curriculum of place, underscored by difference and (dis)place(ment), might facilitate home-based social justice.
We may consider home as a place for rootedness without falsely idealizing home with sentimentalized, nostalgic yearning in which it is severed from larger social contexts (McPherson, 2003), with racism and heterosexism left outside on the porch with the dog and wet boots. Thich Nhat Hanh (1995) suggests that "Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions" (p. 90). There are jewels in Southern culture, including, of course, the Southern homeplace, that we might excavate and touch deeply. Separating them from the debris of "other" is the dirty work. Honest memory work yields both.
Home-yearning, according to Honig (1994), "never goes away" (p. 595), and, given the traditional, conventional images of homeplace, the past-in-place offers a comfort and security of privilege elusive to the present self. Home welcomes us in with the alluring promise of sameness--Come, we are of like mind here--yet the price is the same promise--Be of like mind here. When the sojourner crosses the threshold from the spaces of her own life experiences and subjectivity--as subject of difference, as propagator of difference--the journey home becomes tentative. That same threshold becomes a border to be breached, where knowledges and silences are unsettled in the transgression. Without recovery of homeplace, there remains little hope of a transformative homeplace narrative in which self-in-place and the place itself might move toward progressive change.
Home-yearning is powerful, appealing to the heart as well as the senses. As strong as the food and flowering images remain to me--coffee, cake, the smell of the old house, the shade and scent of the lilacs, day lilies that sway beneath the kitchen window--the emotional yearning for something greater than the images is stronger still. Revisiting a glimpse of my own homeplace narrative, I see the yearning for a community for sameness that exists among the sisters and, then, by me. And yet, within the woman's space that they cultivated--literally--for themselves, there is room for new growth, for the recovery of the generative components of home. These women were not unitary subjects; they had different life narratives, experiences so varied they sometimes had to find ways to negotiate in order to find their common ground.
Pratt and Allison challenge us to confront the yearning and interrogate it without rejecting it. We have no need to turn from home; neither author suggests such rejection. Rather, each illustrates the disruption of (home)place on her queer journey home. We might disrupt conventions of sameness, much as Big Mama would stand on the front porch and shake out the old throw rug, and see what dust drifts into the sunlight. Home, then, is a place of difference rather than the submergence or erasure of differences. When I, queer academic, gender-, class-, race-, and sexuality-traitor, re-memory home in discomfort and displacement, the yearning shifts toward a desire for dialogue and coalition building, for communion. I go back now different, seeking something more than being embraced if only I do not speak my difference. My desire is for communion of love because of my difference; until that is so, my homeplace narrative is incomplete, home is not yet.
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Reta Ugena Whitlock is a program consultant in the Division of Professional Development, Office of Quality Educators, at the Louisiana Department of Education, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
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