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Exploring the meaning, symbolism, and role of the front porch in southern culture, Donlon shows that the porch is more than a comfortable place from which to greet passersby. She uses literature (including writings by Dorothy Allison, William Faulkner, Ernest Gaines, Gloria Naylor, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lee Smith), folklore, oral history, and photographs to reveal how southerners use the porch to negotiate public and private boundaries in society.
Swinging in Place is a look at a central icon of southern life through compelling interpretations of southern literature, oral narratives, and personal memories. A nuanced interdisciplinary study. (Tom Rankin, Duke University)
Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
I do not know when I developed a conscious appreciation of southern porch life. But I do know when I developed a conscious appreciation of being altogether southern—when I relocated from South Louisiana to central Illinois for graduate school. Before my northern trek, I had lived abroad for nearly a year. But Le Mans, France, for all its inscrutable social codes, did not offer some of the perplexing psychological hurdles that Urbana, Illinois, presented. For the first few weeks in the Midwest, I was confronted daily with unfamiliar dilemmas, particularly when it came to greeting others: Do I elicit eye contact with strangers, even though averting one's eyes is the local convention? If I believe I've seen this person before, do I nod and speak, simply nod, or feign lack of recognition until he or she speaks first? Throughout much of the South, it is customary to make eye contact with passersby and then to greet those people—perhaps several times a day. Hi, how ya doin'? C'est tout. C'est normal.
Thus I began years of drawing generalizations about southern and midwestern cultures. Not all midwesterners, I happily discovered, are hesitant to greet strangers. Nor do all southerners feel compelled to establish eye contact. Indeed, eye contact has been an emotionally charged, sometimes devastating custom throughout southern racial history: African American men of the Jim Crow era were sometimes lynched when whites accused them of greeting the wrong white women at the wrong times and places (see Goldfield). "All Southerners are not alike," Margaret Jones Bolsterli has said, in her memoir Born in the Delta: Reflections on the Making of a Southern White Sensibility. "There are many 'Souths,' but there is something common to all of them not found in other regions of this country, and Southerners tend to think of themselves as having been shaped by 'place'" (4).
There are many Souths, and, while claiming cross-cultural practices as belonging to the South as a whole, this work attempts to recognize complexities and differences within the region. What's more, many different places have shaped southerners, places that can be as varied as southerners themselves. Certainly, though, the house porch endures as a cross-cultural site of real significance throughout the South. Much of my own "southernness," particularly my penchant for greeting, undoubtedly owes something to my grandmother's Louisiana porch. Admittedly, her porch has not been the sole determinant in shaping my social practices. Simply going to the grocery store in much of the South often requires conversation with, at the very least, the cashier. And certainly my being the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister imposed some sense of sociability on my family and me: We were expected to be "on" for others and to "remember who we were." But what my grandmother's house taught me was that by merely occupying a porch, an individual acknowledges her connection to the community at large. At the very least, porch dwellers are compelled to greet passersby, familiar or strange.
Rose Anne St. Romain, a professional storyteller from the central Louisiana town of Mansura, tells the following story about the custom of greeting others from a front porch. When, as a child, Rose Anne made the journey to nearby Plaucheville to spend the night with her grandparents, she would join them in their daily porch ritual. After having put on fresh makeup, Rose Anne's MaMa would sit on her front porch simply to wave to the people of Plaucheville as they drove by. According to Rose Anne, "That porch-sitting ritual happened every afternoon. I thought it immensely boring, but my grandparents were quite dedicated to it. And I always wondered why MaMa would freshen her makeup and lipstick when the people in passing cars were at least 300 yards away!" Her story continues:
I remember spending a lot of time as a kid with MaMa. I spent a lot of time over there. One time she said, "Well, let's go sit on the porch."
I said, "What are we gonna do?"
She looked at me kinda quizzically, and she said, "Well, we're gonna greet passersby."
I said, "And then what are we gonna do?"
She said, "We'll wave."
And she and my grandfather would sit and rock. He had his coffee can—he chewed tobacco—and he would spit, and rock, and wave. And when a car would come, MaMa would kinda crane her neck a little and watch . . . and wave.
I'd say, "MaMa, who was that?"
"I'm not sure, my sha."*
"Why did you wave?"
"Well . . . you always wave!"
Indeed, "you always wave" is a lesson taught early to many southern children. Nell Coleman, who grew up in Brookhaven, Mississippi, is among those who recognize this abiding "need to greet" in the South. She said to me in our interview about her family porch, "You could go up to Brookhaven this day, and you won't know a soul up there. But everybody that you will meet on the road will wave at you." The cultural norm of greeting is not by any means dead in the South. And certainly the front porch has helped to institutionalize this social practice. The porch, however, has done much more for southerners than encourage waving and greeting.
African American poet Frenchy Jolene Hodges begins to speak to the porch's cultural significance to the region as a whole in her poem "Belle Isle: (Central Park of Detroit)":
In the South
Where I come from
All houses have front porches
And most houses
Lay claim to back porches too.
From the outset, Hodges speaks to the importance of Southern porches by celebrating their ubiquity in the region. She continues her poem by calling the porch a "breast-pocket / of a family's up-and-coming-ness / Or down-and-outed-ness," indicating its class functions. In this poem, the porch is a vantage point for seeing "the world go by" and one where individuals, too, can be seen; the porch is a place to court; and it is a place to tell stories:
That-don't-make-no-sense-stories . . .
Like Hodges, my own storytelling history, my sense of cultural identity, and my connection to the South, itself, owes much to a house porch, particularly my maternal grandmother's porch in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Indeed, because this work is stimulated by my personal experience, I have, in the remainder of the book, occasionally included stories from my own life as well as stories told by members of my extended family. Incorporating the personal into academic writing is a subject of much debate. Recently Rita Felski, in questioning her own lack of desire to incorporate the personal, posed the following question: "What authorizes the discourse of personal criticism? Why is writing about oneself deemed important or interesting?" (33). For this project, my personal experiences are essential to the discussion because they go to the very heart of it. When I am asked, "Why porches?" the first answer that comes to mind is "because my grandmother had one, and it has been a powerful influence in my life." Her porch has also been a powerful influence in shaping this book and thus warrants some attention here.
In the 1960s, when I was coming of age, my family would journey three or four times a year to my grandmother's working-class neighborhood in Lake Charles. Whenever my immediate family of seven arrived, we would sit on the porch, several of us occupying the swing that my grandparents bought when they got married in 1908—a porch swing that they moved from their home in Moss Bluff, a settlement outside of Lake Charles, to "town" around 1940, a porch swing that, when my grandmother died in 1977, my own father claimed in order to guard his memories of having courted my mother on it. Until my grandmother, Florence Materne Foreman, passed away, her front porch was significant to our family life, even when we weren't literally at her house, on her porch.
Part of the broad significance of my grandmother's front porch came through the stories my mother told. Before she passed away in 1997, my mother, Marie Foreman Hazelwood, frequently recalled porch memories of family and community. She talked of how she and her family would, on hot summer evenings, burn old rags to keep the mosquitoes away while catching up on stories. She recalled how she and my dad courted on the front porch swing. She even talked of the porch's political significance in the following story about the election returns of 1932, the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt was first voted into office:
One of my earliest memories—when I was about four or five—was when I first heard the presidential election returns broadcast over the radio. We were one of the few families in Moss Bluff who had a radio, so Daddy moved it out on the porch so that a lot of our relatives—Aunt Della, Uncle Mip, Aunt Cecile—and a lot of people from the community could come over to hear the returns. There must have been about fifty people there, standing on the porch, where the radio was set up on a long table. When Roosevelt won, they played the song "Happy Days Are Here Again," and it was the first time I ever heard that song. Every time I hear it I think about that night that Daddy moved the radio out on the porch. . . . And it bothered me when they didn't play the song at the convention this year .
My mother's story speaks of how her family extended itself to the community of Moss Bluff by way of porch events. My grandparents invited onto their front porch people who had been hard hit by the Great Depression so that they could await together the coming of new political promise. This story is one among many about my grandparents' generosity: stories about their lending their automobile for people in Moss Bluff to get to the doctor; about my grandmother, her sister, and my uncle building coffins and sewing burial shrouds for members of a separate black community dying in an epidemic; and about my mother's older brother Elray, who was exceptionally tall, being made to lie down in the coffins built for these dying people to test their length (a story that always makes me wonder just how gothic Faulkner really is).
My mother's porch story is traditionally southern, governed by norms of sharing with the community: She was taught to reach beyond herself to give to others. The story begins to explain why she eventually married a minister and chose to spend her life in service. She was unsettled by the Clinton/Gore break with Democratic tradition in 1992, when they did not play "Happy Days Are Here Again," because the song connected her back to that childhood porch where her earliest memories rested, where her identity as a southerner began.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when my family would go to my grandparents' house (after they moved to town), the porch was the center of our extended-family life, particularly for the children. The inside of the house was small—probably less than seven hundred square feet—and our family was large. We often visited in the summer. My grandmother detested air-conditioning, so the porch was an escape from the throngs of people sweltering indoors, where my grandmother had her eternal pot of beans simmering.
We spent endless hours on this porch, bounded by pink and blue hydrangeas that bloomed on the same bush, by lush crape myrtles with fuchsia blooms, and by a mature chinaberry tree that provided us with shade. Sometimes the countless children—my siblings, our cousins, their friends—would pile into the swing. With utter disregard for the rich history of that porch swing, we would recklessly test its limits to see just how high it could go and just how many people it could hold. The adults obviously showed a remarkable lot of tolerance for the remarkable lot of noise and chaos we managed to generate. Even though we children often believed that we owned the space, I do remember our having to defer to adults. When aunts, uncles, adult cousins, friends, and acquaintances claimed the porch, children either fled to another place or became "story listeners" on the fringes of the porch while the adults occupied the swing, the wooden rockers, and the red and green, shell-shaped, rocking metal chairs.
My grandmother's porch did occasionally give way to privacy, transforming itself into a place of calm and solitude. Because I was the youngest child in my family, I often went alone with my parents to what became "Grandma's house" after my grandfather's death in 1963. I have fond memories of situating bed pillows comfortably on the porch swing in order to nap in the warm-to-hot Louisiana breeze (when there was any breeze at all).
During those quiet times, my father, Calvin Hazelwood, often spent time in reflection on my grandmother's front porch. I wish now that I had pressed him for his thoughts, but his death in 1980 closed such conversations. There's a good chance that he wasn't thinking conscious thoughts at all but simply seizing on the all-too-rare tranquility. There's an especially good chance that he was pondering his next sermon. Perhaps he was recalling the family porch on his parents' farm in Opelousas, Louisiana. I like to imagine that he occasionally remembered the following story about his daddy, Lewis Howard Hazlewood (my father changed the spelling of his surname to "Hazelwood" because he grew weary of correcting people), a resolute Southern Baptist deacon. The following story was told to me by my father's younger sister, Ottie Hazlewood Mercer:
I remember sitting on our porch, listening to Daddy, as he helped one of our employees, who was pastor of a little church for blacks down the road that Daddy visited a lot—that we all visited a lot. I think his name was Joe. He would select his text, and then he and Daddy on Saturday afternoons would talk about what text he was gonna preach on the next day. I realized then what a Bible scholar my daddy was. We had to be quiet if we joined that group because this was serious business as far as they were concerned. But it was kind of a privilege, too, to be allowed to sit there and listen.
As is so often the case with porch stories, Aunt Ottie's story reveals a wealth of family history and culture—the sharing of knowledge, particularly biblical knowledge, with others; the central place that the Southern Baptist church still occupies in my father's family; the loving but firm discipline of my nearly legendary grandfather, who passed away before my parents were married and whom we knew primarily through my father's sermon illustrations of him; and the deep reverence and gratitude for the entire spiritual setting. The porch here is a place for the family to exercise its values and to influence others. Indeed, I do like to imagine that on the tranquility of his mother-in-law's porch, my father, as he contemplated his sermons, called to mind the lessons taught to him on his own childhood porch.
I never enjoyed a porch of my own until my husband and I purchased an older home in Spanish Town—a bohemian neighborhood in downtown Baton Rouge—in 1996. I have always thought it significant that we submitted the bid for our house on June 24, my grandmother's birthday. In spite of a twenty-five-year gap in my porch life, I nevertheless consider myself a "porch person," most likely inspired by the influence of my grandmother's porch. On her porch, I learned much about extending community boundaries—and also about setting them.
With the appearance in 1702 of the first gallery in Old Mobile (Oszuscik 1), through its widespread popularity in the nineteenth century, and until its ebb in the 1960s after the ascendance of air-conditioning, the porch has served as "a shady transition between indoors and out" (Moore, Smith, and Becker 24). In addition to providing a relaxing, shady place to escape indoor heat, the porch is a social site for watching the community go by, a comfortable spot "where one [can] relax and sip iced tea, talk with a friend on the swing, or eat summer suppers" (Moore, Smith, and Becker 24).
But celebratory as southern culture can be, particularly southern porch culture, I want to clarify that I am not writing solely to romanticize the nostalgic side of southern porch practices—though I attempt to do as much celebrating as possible. Denying the less romantic side of the porch would be folly, to say the least. Much of what has contributed to the development of "many Souths" has been the sustaining—and the occasional crossing—of boundaries, be they boundaries of class, race, gender, sexuality, or even of generation. And the porch, as so many of the informants' stories in this book illustrate, historically has helped to institutionalize those boundaries throughout the region.
Indeed, while my grandmother's porch was about creating intimacy among family and friends, it was also about setting boundaries with "Others." In the late 1960s, after my grandfather died, my grandmother's neighborhood made the transition from a working-class white to a working-class black neighborhood; for the last decade of her life, Grandma lived as the only white woman in her community. Thus, her swing, which had rocked us in an all-white community, was now supporting us in a black one. Her porch became a metaphor for the transformation of social systems in the South. My grandmother interacted with her neighbors from day to day. Her porch was a place of limited racial interaction, where her black neighbors would stop to speak or where members of the black community in Moss Bluff who remembered her having sewn burial shrouds for their dead occasionally visited to see if she needed anything. However, when we all arrived as a white family, the boundary lines between "us" and "them" seemed to be drawn automatically.
It was during this period of the neighborhood's racial transformation that I came of age to swing to stories being told on my grandmother's porch. I have already said that my grandmother's front porch shaped, in large part, my southern notions of community. In particular, the porch shaped my notions of racial communities during the turbulent period of desegregation in the South. And Grandma's porch gave to me a new racial vista. Even while I was participating in my own heritage, this porch provided me with a safe arena, a territory of family from which to view the public goings-on of the black neighborhood. I was quite often conscious that our activities on the porch were circumscribed by a black community—that we, for once, were different. I cannot say that there was any genuine sense of community with the people living nearby, since they were, from my family's perspective, positioned more as objects for our curiosity and observation rather than as other individuals with whom to socially interact—much as our family may have been perceived by the neighbors. But while I cannot remember ever socializing with the black children in the neighborhood, we were taught to be polite, to wave and greet, and to remember to behave. This was, after all, my grandmother's neighborhood, and she had to live there after we left. Ruth Frankenburg, in her book The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters, has talked about the dominating, presumed universality of whiteness. She says, "'Whiteness' refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed" (1). But on my grandmother's porch, our whiteness was very much perceived, marked, and named as the boundary lines were drawn.
Frenchy Hodges's poem offers a glimpse of these racial boundaries from the African American side. She says that front porches are places where "the neighborhood" can be viewed and celebrated. They are places where people can sound traditional African American songs:
These front porches are where an African American community can extol and protect a separate community identity. But, like it or not, they are places that often intersect with the dominant white world. They are places:
Where the old ones
Made sure you knew
Who you were
And who they were
And what 'white' was.
Hodges, claiming that front porches hold special value for African Americans because they are "the revolutionary cribs / Of [her] race," concludes that porches are "very important places" (5-8). And indeed they are. My grandmother's porch, though I haven't sat on it for over two decades, has been integral to my identity as a white, lower-middle-class southern woman. So much of this book is about race—from a white perspective—because my grandmother's porch was inextricably tied to race; so much is about family because I cannot separate my grandmother's porch from family; so much is about everyday work activities because I never saw my grandmother not working on her porch. I fight against nostalgia because my own view from the porch often belied its romance.
Such personal experiences have affected not only this book's structure, but also the results of my fieldwork. In my interviews with others, the initial questions I posed often sought to evaluate their experiences against my own. As I listened to others in interviews and read the letters written to me, I inevitably questioned my preconceptions about the porch. The final product, then, is a synthesis of my own observations and those of people who shared their stories with me, either in letters or in interviews. Together, we set the terms for this study of porch life in the South.
*"Sha" [pronounced with a short "a" as in "shag"] is Cajun French for "dear," deriving from the French "cher."
Excerpted from Swinging in Place by Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: Why Porches?||1|
|2||Living the Everyday Life||30|
|3||Setting Boundaries of Race and Class||57|
|4||Shaping the Family||98|
|5||Fanning the Flames||137|
|Conclusion: The Hope of Things to Come||160|