While I was working at a newspaper in Atlanta, one of my co-workers came to me highly agitated. “You won't believe the restaurant my dad took me to last night,” she said. “It was so insane. It was like this fake plantation made to look pre-Civil War era. It had all this Gone With The Wind iconography everywhere. And all the waiters were black. They were basically dressed up as slaves.”
I knew immediately which restaurant she was referring to — Pittypat's Porch, named for the slave-owning Gone With The Wind character, which claims to be the longest continuously operational restaurant in Atlanta. It opened in 1967, and hasn't changed much in the intervening decades. It aims for “an atmosphere similar to an old plantation.”
A similar bell went off in my head last week when the Paula Deen kerfuffle broke. Pittypat's Porch could well have been the restaurant Paula Deen was referring to during the recent deposition that got her in so much hot water: She said that she got the idea for black men dressed as slaves to serve at her brother's wedding from a restaurant. “I mean, it was really impressive,” Deen is quoted as saying. “That restaurant represented a certain era in America … after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.” If it wasn't Pittypat's Porch she was referring to, it was another just like it.
It's somewhat surprising, given the voracious appetite the media has for this story, that no one has reacted to the existence of restaurants like the one Deen described with much more than a passing comment. There ought to be just as much outrage over places like this as over Deen finding inspiration in them. And yet nostalgia for slavery and its era is still a big part of the South's identity, at least for a certain set of Southerners.
I've been to Southern weddings, held in actual old plantation houses, where all of the guests were white and all of the service staff was black, and no one seemed to notice or feel uncomfortable with the arrangement. It made me want to choke on my julep, but it's not totally uncommon, especially on the South Carolina and Georgia coastline where many of those plantation houses still exist, and where Deen's restaurants are located.
And yet, I'm almost as uncomfortable with using Deen, or the existence of Pittypat's Porch and its ilk, as just one more reason to write off the South as the last bastion of racism in America. For one thing, it isn't true — the South is far more complicated than people paint it to be. In many ways, Atlanta is the most integrated city I've ever lived in, as one small example. For another thing, dumping on the South allows people to smugly point at one culture and thereby ignore the egregious racism in other parts of the country.
As long as the South is our national scapegoat, no one has to look at places like Boston or Chicago, cities far more segregated than Atlanta. My experience of the Northeast has mainly been a lot of white people declaring their liberalism and disdain for the South while avoiding any interaction with anyone unlike themselves. My experience of the South has been a far more honest — and, yes, sometimes painful — dialogue, one that has to happen for anything to change.
But there is a generation of white Southerners still struggling with the massive changes that have taken place in their lifetime. When Paula Deen said “of course” she used the n-word, many took that as flippancy. I took it as an admission that for people of her social class, race and generation, it was par for the course.
Behind closed doors and with their friends and family, there are still plenty of Americans who engage in casual racism, and many of them are nostalgic for the days when it wasn't such a taboo. Not all of these people are monsters — they are, however, people who need a not-so-gentle shove into the present day, where racism is simply not tolerated.
If nothing else, the fall of Paula Deen may well be that shove for many older, white Southerners who relate to her brand of good-old-girl casual, unthinking racism. And if embarrassing relics of that thinking — like Pittypat's Porch — disappear along the way, then all the better.
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