Saturday, September 06, 2008

Lynn Westmoreland, His Songs and Sayings; or, Who says white folks don't know how to signify?

Bumped up because it has more stuff added to it:

A. B. Frost, 1851-1928. "Terrapin speaking to Brer Rabbit" Illustration for Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings: Folklore of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris. Image found here.

For a discussion of "signifying," go here

Lynn Westmoreland, Republican Congressman from Georgia, yesterday:

"Just from what little I've seen of her [Michelle] and Mister Obama, Senator Obama, they're a member of an elitist class individual that thinks that they're uppity," Westmoreland said.

When a reporter sought clarification on the racially loaded word, Westmoreland replied, "Uppity, yeah."

Lynn Westmoreland, today:
“I’ve never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense. It is important to note that the dictionary definition of ‘uppity’ is ‘affecting an air of inflated self-esteem —- snobbish.’ That’s what we meant by uppity when we used it in the mill village where I grew up.”

Oxford English Dictionary (whose definition for "uppity" does agree with Westmoreland's, by the way), the four examples of usage given, oldest-known first:
1880 J. C. Harris, Uncle Remus, 86 Hit wuz wunner dese yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck. 1933 Times Lit. Suppl. 9 Nov. 776a Grammy is living contentedly enough with an 'uppity' young creature named Penny 1952 F. L. Allen, Big Change 11 viii 130 The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about 'uppity niggers' on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow. 1982 B. Chatwin On the Black Hill v. 28 He had a head for figures and a method for dealing with 'uppity' tenants.

With the exception of Chatwin's novel, which is set in Wales, all these usages for "uppity" directly describe African-Americans not knowing their place, in the judgment of the speakers1 (the Times Literary Supplement passage is from a review of Roark Bradford's Kingdom Coming (hat-tip: Edge of the American West, which beat me to the OED by a day).

Call me a skeptic, but I do doubt that the citizens of the Georgia mill-town of Westmoreland's formative years had their understanding of "uppity" shaped by Bruce Chatwin novels.

All words require other words around them in order to signify. But the language of race and of social standing, especially in the South, requires context as well in order for them to fully signify. Westmoreland may not know his fellow Georgian Joel Chandler Harris introduced "uppity" into the American lexicon in precisely the way he says it does not know it meant, but here he looks like nothing so much as Harris's Brer Rabbit avoiding becoming the main course of Brer Fox's barbecue.

I expect--and hope--that he will be less successful than Brer Rabbit. Figuratively speaking, you understand.

Indeed: Haste the day when Westmoreland's more-than-a-little-disingenuous professed ignorance of this adjective's racial and racist origins indeed comes to pass and we can all indeed be ignorant enough of those origins to use it to pejoratively describe any person, regardless of color, who is in some way too big for his britches. That time may in fact be occurring among younger people, judging from some comments at other sites regarding Westmoreland's comment. In the meantime, though, even granting Westmoreland the benefit of the doubt here, his implied ignorance of his own state and region's social and cultural history is breathtaking. I of course have no direct proof that Westmoreland is lying, but as this rhyming couplet from a toasting poem that Henry Louis Gates Jr. quotes in his book The Signifying Monkey makes clear, there's another--and better--reason to be angry with Westmoreland:
[Lion] said, "Monkey, I'm not kicking your ass for lyin',
I'm kicking your hairy ass for signifyin'." (57)

1 A slight modification to my comments on the usage of "uppity" above:

The Harris story the OED usage example comes from is "The Fate of Mr. Jack Sparrow"; a fuller context for that passage follows:
"Lemme tell you dis," said the old man, laying down the section of horse-collar he had been plaiting, and looking hard at the little boy-"lemme tell you dis-der ain't no way fer ter make tattlers en tailb'arers turn out good. No, dey ain't. I bin mixin' up wid fokes now gwine on eighty year, en I ain't seed no tattler come ter no good een'. Dat I ain't. En ef ole man M'thoozlum wuz livin' clean twel yit, he'd up'n tell you de same. Sho ez youer settin' dar. You 'member w'at 'come er de bird w'at went tattlin' 'roun' 'bout Brer Rabbit?"

The little boy didn't remember, but he was very anxious to know, and he also wanted to know what kind of a bird it was that so disgraced itself.

"Hit wuz wunner dese yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck," said the old man; "dey wuz allers bodder'n' longer udder fokes's bizness, en dey keeps at it down ter dis day-peckin' yer, en pickin' dar, en scratchin' out yander.
Tattling, as I know I had, um, impressed upon me when I was a child, is a form of not minding one's own business, of not knowing one's place. And since the Uncle Remus tales aren't overtly racialized (by that, I mean that the different characters don't appear to stand for black or white people but just for people), neither is this first in-print usage at all "racial" but, rather, social in its immediate context.

That said, I and, I suspect, most Southerners would recognize that that context becomes much blurrier when used by a white person to describe a black person. Here's an example of what I mean, using the first part of Westmoreland's statement above: "Just from what little I've seen of her and Mister Obama, Senator Obama." Note the emendation from "Mister" to "Senator." I don't think anyone would have objected to his simply having left the title as "Mister." Perhaps, as a fellow elected official, Westmoreland simply, as a matter of instinct, corrects himself in favor of the title indicating Obama's elected position, as other Congresspeople and Senators do when speaking of each other in public--in Westmoreland's defense, "Michelle's" presence in the statement complicates matters, making it harder to be automatically officious when he comes up to "Obama." But, as anyone who has seen that great scene in In the Heat of the Night between Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier knows, how whites and blacks address each other was (and for some, I suspect, remains) a vexed issue. So perhaps Westmoreland has all that in mind as well as he's speaking. But, again: if the latter is the case, then for him to plead ignorance of how "uppity" traditionally signifies when whites speak of African-Americans is disingenuous.

One last thing: Westmoreland's saying "they're a member of an elitist class individual that thinks that they're uppity." Setting aside what the word signifies, "uppity" is a judgment others place on a person. People, as the OED examples make clear, don't think that about themselves.

Of course, there is a last possibility, as suggested by the tortured grammar of the statement: that Congressman Westmoreland is, um, not terribly bright:

LAST UPDATE (I promise): The phone conversation reported between a commenter and Westmoreland's office here (scroll down a bit) demonstrates quite elegantly how two can play Westmoreland's game.


Anonymous said...

This has all been very interesting. I understand why uppity is considered racist. I agree that to use the word now is loaded. I grew up in North Carolina (1960's thru the 1980's when I finished high school) and I also grew up to hearing the works of Joel Chandler Harris at night, as my father had a copy of Uncle Remus tales that belonged to his grandfather in the 1800's. Every tale that Joel Chandler Harris wrote came from the African slaves who were brought to this country as he collected them from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. He wrote in colloquialisms. Most recent editions have watered that down considerable (what license?) though the one my father read from the 1800's was full of them! Of course we will never know if his use of "uppity" was his own word choice or an archiving of the speak he heard. I can say this - in the small town where I lived, the word uppity was still in use by country people, both white and black. It meant someone who puts on airs to seem more important than they are, which was for a time so frowned upon here. To put on airs was to make yourself a fool, because to -need to put on airs and then to have it look so obvious -- it only emphasized how UN-important a person was. SO-- for this reason, I could see how racist whites used the term to put down people who are African Americans and who were bold enough to have confidence in who they were and not try to hide it. (More coming!...)

Anonymous said...

(When I was a child, much to my discomfort, older people who were African-American sometimes still said "yes ma'am to me and ducked their heads when they spoke to me! A sure sign of the legacy of oppression!!) Poor whites in particular suffered from low self-esteem, and seemed to feel better *and this is still true of some people here* thinking that at least they are “better than a black person...” IGNORANCE that unfortunately exists worldwide, always keeping someone beneath you. There is a primitive human need it seems, to feel better than someone. Especially if one is part of the dominant culture and yet still unsuccessful . They give THEMSELVES a false sense of importance by thinking they are better than another group, which leads to racism and excessive patriotism (notice how it is poor whites who get so caught up in the American flag – “I am American! Americans are better than people in other countries! So therefore I AM somebody! And I will fight for my way of life (and ling to this idea so that I don’t feel so bad about myself!)” See--- this same thing is behind racism, and classism, and many of the notorious “issms”. So I imagine that as the civil rights movement began to grow (which started in Greensboro, North Carolina by the way!) more and more white racists had to reframe blacks who had confidence and self assurance as uppity, as if to say "they are acting like somebody and they are not." So probably more and more often, the word was used to cut down people who are African American, and began to sound like a racist word exclusively, especially to those who had never heard the word in any other context. So I understand why you say all this. (More to come...)

Anonymous said...

At the same time, I can wholesomely and honestly report, that the term was ALSO being used when I was a child by white people to describe other white people who seemed to have a false since of importance, particularly outsiders like Northerners with money and with a different sense of modesty than more subdued Southerners like we used to be (it really was frowned upon to appear to be putting on airs), or someone who was being particularly pretentious in a way condescending to others. To clarify, one might (in a state of being offended, but pretending like they don't care about being condescended to) call the person "uppity". I heard it alot. Whites about whites, but specifically it was used by poor whites or farmers. Guess what, a lot of vocal racists were less educated. Guess what? That word was only still in use by rural people when the civil rights movement came along. Guess what? A word that rural North Carolinians were accustomed to using, became a racist word. I am uncomfortable hearing it, and it was a probably a mistake for Westmoreland to use it. Clearly a snafoo! But since Westmoreland is older than me (I am 42) and since he had more of his life for it to become entrenched in his vocabulary before the word took on this loaded meaning, it is possible he did not mean it in a racist way, he may be from a place even more rural and isolated than the town I was born in in the 1960's. Was it sort of Freudian, an indicator of his hidden racist views? Maybe so. But maybe not. Rural North Carolina used to be full of Middle English era colloquialisms, long sense fallen out of usage in England and other parts of the United States, and in some parts of the state, particularly in rural areas, particularly in isolated areas such as the Outerbanks or in our mountains (The lower Appalachians) you could still here them, and linguists have written about it. Those areas are not like that now, lost in one lifetime, so sad, the words are mostly gone! Could uppity have roots in middle English slang. ( a cousin word to ‘come-uppance’, and ‘stuck-up’! I’m joking here, mainly) . We also had some African words as part of rural speak. I am white, but up until I went to college, I used to say "biddie" for example, for baby chick. "Biddie" is an African word for baby chick. We all said "biddie" growing up. How fast did that word die, my. I haven't heard anyone use that word in years, and the last time I tried, someone laughed and thought I meant "itty-bitty"!

Anonymous said...

...continued from "itty bitty"

So why did Joel Chandler use the word uppity? How many people in rural places actually read Joel Chandler Harris. I suspect very few. (My grandfather and greatgrandfather were college-educated and he could AFFORD to buy books. North Carolina, in 1960, was the 5th poorest state in the union. (now we are something like 32nd - big changes for us! HUGE, our culture has totally shifted.) Before 1960, I don't think you'd find many books in rural homes. Edcuated people were reading Joel Chandler Harris back when it was first printed. I would guess that is probably for a sick reason. I suspect that after the civil war, there was a creepy nostalgia by whites to return to slave tales, I hate to say it. I suspect it is true. Nostalgia for simpler, elitist times made them so popular! Racist. Lamenting the loss of wealth as well, Wealth of course based on keeping another man down. But also they are really good stories! And later, during reconstruction or the Great Depression, you can bet few poor whites or blacks owned or read those books. This region experienced such poverty, that any paper was used to cover the walls so that cold air didn't come through the slats of wood that made the walls. So my point: rural people’s saying "uppity" was not about Joel Chandler Harris!! (I still want to stress that they were not his tales (a side bar).. He ripped them off from African Americans and got all the credit. On the other hand you can see him as a cultural anthropologist of sorts, an archivists, predating FDR's campaigns in the South, an attempt to keep them for future generations? Or a chance to profit? I don't know much about the man, but I did hear he travelled all over to collect the tales, so I like to think his intentions were more archival. who knows.) (more...)

Anonymous said...

Anyway, in no way in defense of racism, and hopefully without niaivity, I present that the word was a good word (about something bad) turned bad over time, as more and more, it was used in the context of racist attitudes and a behavior by people overtly racist people still using increasingly archaic vocabulary, and in time become a term symbolic of racism. (and cannot now be used! bad! loaded, and upsetting to some, another reason not to use it anymore.)

So fair the well "uppity"! See you in the great by and by. (Do you recognize By and by?) I wish there was as pleasing of a word to call those well-to-do older women that used to have tea parties when a rich girl got engaged and excluded her "less-than" friends. (It would have been normal to overhear: "Don't worry you didn't get invited, who wants to spend time with such an uppity group of women, anyway?") Oh that's right, tea parties aren't happening anymore! I guess I can survive without using it! Or what about those women who were acting like feminists and causing a stink (before the feminist movement was defined?) In that way when other women in support called such women uppity, it was a complement!, reclaiming a negative word used against them by men -- yes we will put on airs, and yes we may not be important to you men, and we are uppity women, and we are proud!(That's right! I remember now! Rural men used to call strong white women "uppity!")Still with intention of keeping someone down --who had to them a false sense of confidence, a way of saying, “get back in your place and quiet down”.

So it wasn't exclusively racist, but certainly had the power to be!

Jane Allen

Anonymous said...

By the way, one more thing! I think Congressman Westmoreland sounds idiotic.

Re: Lynn Westmoreland, today:
“I’ve never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense."

Even if she used the word like our towns people did in the context of describing other whites as well, how could she possibly deny hearing it in the context of racism?

It clearly has been, or else her head has been in a bottle. But then again I am of the inclination to think that many or most Republicans (exept for some fiscal conservatives) have had their heads in bottles. So let me make that "disclaimer". I am wan to think her kind a wee bit out of touch with reality, to say the least.

One Southern liberal democrat speaking here... I've enjoyed stumbling across this blog, my first time blogging actually! Cheers

Anonymous said...

Here's a refresshed link to that video:

Wow long. HILARIOUS. OK, being very late to this conversation anyway, I recognize no one will likely read this! From a dark orner of the books stacks in some lost library...

John B. said...

I've been away from the blog for a while, and I'm only now reading your marvelous replies. THANK YOU very much for writing; you've greatly nuanced my understanding of this word's usage, and I appreciate it.

Best of luck in blogging to you. It appears that you have a future in it. Should you return here, send me a link so I can visit.