Natchez, Mississippi, exists in a time warp; the longer you linger, the more its essence gets under your skin. British-born travel writer Richard Grant takes the reader on an amazing journey in The Deepest South of All through his friendships and interviews with key players in the Natchez cultural tapestry, demonstrating how the history of Natchez spins a web of fascination and frustration around all who dally. Stay long enough and your name will be sure to get crunched into the gossip mill: you will no longer recognize your own doings. Some residents might say that syndrome typifies Natchez more than any other trait. While its residents and groups are known to be odd, delightful, decadent, disputatious, discriminating, dignified and demented, the city’s mere existence demonstrates the foundation of irony and injustice upon which Natchez stakes its claim to fame.
Take the jaw-dropping fact that this center of slavery, which had more millionaires in its heyday than any other region of the U.S., was a Union army stronghold. Ulysses S. Grant stayed at an antebellum home named The Towers and allegedly rode his horse up and down the hallway on Christmas Eve of 1863. The city’s decision not to vote to secede from the Union caused Natchez planters to (albeit reluctantly) open their doors to the Union officers: for this reason alone, Natchez’s beautiful antebellum homes stand today with tours granted primarily by white women in hoop skirts. If not for that strategic decision, the mansions would probably have been burned to the ground.
Stanton Hall, where Richard Grant is invited at the outset of his book by the charming Natchez-born Regina Charboneau, a cookbook writer and former San Francisco restaurateur and blues club owner, takes a prominent position in The Deepest South of All. The name of Stanton Hall caught my attention because of a Californian high school friend who visited the Natchez mansion often (through family ties). A similar loyalty brought Charboneau home, and partly through her endeavor to keep Natchez alive while acknowledging its slave past, readers can feel the struggle that steeps the city in tension.
Charboneau runs Twin Oaks, another Greek Revival antebellum home dating from 1832. Richard Grant stayed here in the old slave quarters, and he does not hide his sense of grief or awareness of the misery that brought so much splendor to the city. Almost immediately, at the party thrown at Stanton Hall, a mansion that sits on an entire block and whose new roof cost $750,000, Grant discovers the fairy tale of happy servants promoted by more than one strong, elegant dowager in her 80s who won’t concede that any of the house servants who were called family were actual slaves.
That fairy tale is promoted by the locally famous Tableaux, a yearly theatrical event put on by rival garden clubs (who battle each other while keeping the antebellum homes running) at which children dance in more than one event and where each garden club’s Royal Court presides with a king and queen. Mothers in Natchez want their children to perform in the Tableaux, and therefore can be influenced to help in the activities that keep the city running. Those enlightened women who try to bring the tragedy of African American history into the Tableaux are met with ridicule, scorn and outrage from the fundamentalists who want the Tableaux to keep to the mythology of happy servants and singing field hands.
Grant shows how the mantle of resistance against racism and the Gone with the Wind romance has been taken up by many notables in Natchez, including the family of Natchez’s most famous resident, Greg Iles, a best-selling thriller writer. When his daughter Madeline was elected as Queen by the Pilgrimage Garden Club in 2015, she decided to use her power to make the Tableaux less racist. But in the poor part of the city, notable African Americans have worked just as hard to draw attention to the cauldron of misery that Natchez represents as a stronghold of pre-Civil War slavery.
The streaming racial debate that has spread swiftly into every artery of the USA during its 2020 pandemic crisis finds one of its chief sources (a never-stilled geyser) here in this spot on the Mississippi river where tens of thousands of manacled (men) or roped together (women) slaves were transported on riverboats. Here, these poor souls were sold at auctions after being rested and fattened up, the men dressed in outlandish top hats, the women in calico dresses and both sexes forced to submit to the grease of vegetables boiled with pork fat rubbed into their skin. Of all stories, none is more heartbreaking or more written of than that of the man nicknamed Prince.
Truly no story from The Deepest South of All so much got under my skin (and I yearned to get back to the book at the end of each work day) as the tale of the African Muslim prince born as Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima. Son of King Sori in Timbo in the highlands of Futa Jalon in what is now Guinea, Ibrahima was an educated young man who read, wrote and spoke Arabic as well as five African tongues. He was a valiant warrior who was the favored son of his father. One day, while returning home after a victorious battle, he and his men were caught by a warring African tribe and sold into slavery. If not for accidentally running into the same Irish doctor who visited West Africa and enjoyed his father’s royal hospitality decades earlier, Ibrahima, who accepted his fate as a slave for forty years and who was known to never smile, might never have had the chance to return to Africa (if only to die there).
It is easy to deduce that the controversy of slave-trading’s origins in Natchez has much to do with its draw on so many odd characters. Despite the gossip mill, no single character or set of characters can claim more attention than the issue of slavery itself and Natchez’s undeniable glory at the expense of human rights. It may be the oddest place in America and yet it serves a purpose as a mirror of ourselves. The Deepest South of All, one of the most fascinating books I have read this decade, dares us to look at our own reflection. #NetGalley #The Deepest South of All #Simon&Schuster