“Droughts are dusty,” says the website keepitdirty.org. But the lead photograph on the site reveals not dusty drought but muddy fun. Sexy, generative, muddy fun. Check out that guy’s torso, that girl’s thighs! In California today, especially SoCal, we think about dust, about saving water; as keepitdirty urges, keep your car dirty. Keep yourself dirty; use parfum, not water. Or nothing at all: let your skin’s microbiome take over.
But in February, or maybe March of 2015—we can only hope—we’ll be thinking about California’s mud. We may hope, at this droughty point, for just the right amount of rain, rain that will restore reservoirs, soak what’s left of lawns, wash cars now unwashed for three months. But the right amount seldom falls and in a climate whose parameters have changed, receiving the right amount seems an audacious hope. What’s likely is that rain won’t just fill reservoirs but will pull down hillsides. And the million dollar, the five million dollar homes they support. Mud will slide into canyons or stores, houses onto other houses. The Pacific Coast Highway will close. Mud slides; and when it does, it’s dirty but not sexy or fun. You can’t close your eyes to it.
In the Dirty South, on the Dirty Coast, where I live, mud doesn’t slide much; it flows.
And sticks. On pick-up trucks. On floors. And walls. It’s no coincidence that “Bathtub” names the isolated yet integrated bayou community that is Hushpuppy’s home in Beasts of the Southern Wild. After Katrina, in New Orleans, you could identify the height of the flood’s waters, the flood’s mud, by noticing the city’s “bathtub ring,” a faint line of mud clinging to still-standing buildings. Six months after Katrina, I drove down Canal from Lakeview to the Quarter, and watched the water’s depth fade, from far over my head, above doorjambs, to only a few inches in the Quarter. As we often hear, the earliest settlers of New Orleans knew where to build.
In the Dirty South, but not in NOLA or other cities or towns near the Mississippi River’s flood plain, the mud that sticks is mostly red. Some is black. People here—some people, anyway—eat the dirt, the red or black clay. Because they hunger for iron. And the soil is rich in it, in rust, which makes the soil poor, unsuited for agriculture without fertilizers and sometimes irrigation. When the soil won’t feed you, you eat the soil.
Ultisols these are, and they’re called this because they were thought to be the ultimate in mature, weathered soil, heavily leached and thus acidic and nutrient poor. But they are not; oxisols, found in the tropics, are more heavily weathered and poorer than these of my subtropics. Scientists once thought the tropics would offer rich, fecund soils, but they were wrong. Heat and humidity punish the soil. Bad, violent weather punishes the soil. And the people who survive on it. Heat and humidity, violent weather, mosquitos—all of it batters them and their every possession, including their minds and their souls.
We keep it dirty here in the Dirty South, on the Dirty Coast. It’s easy; the subtropics link to the tropics. More and more easily, each day passing. Acknowledging this link, scholars of southern literature and history are beginning to call us “The Deeper South.” But “Deeper South” seems meant to clean us up, dontcha think, and will fail. Because the deeper south is dirty, too, dirtier even. On view this year in New Orleans—at the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art—are photographs by Richard Sexton documenting this creole world. Are you looking at Cartegena, Columbia? Or Havana, Cuba? Or New Orleans, Louisiana? Or Mobile, Alabama? Hard to tell. Sometimes. Or mostly. It’s always taken a lot of money to keep up appearances in the Dirty South, on the Dirty Coast. Because everything and everyone molds, green, black, and blue. Everything and everyone is dirty. And if you don’t believe me, ask Blanche. Blanche DuBois.
Because, as Atlanta’s Goodie Mob rapped in 1995,”Whatchu … know about the Dirty South?” What do you know, friends in California or New York? A decade later—or two—even those outta the know know something about the sounds of the Dirty South, aka Dirty South hip-hop, if only because of OutKast and Beyonce. By the early part of this century Dirty South hip-hop was the most commercially successful genre of rap. Because, writes Ben Westhoff, it’s party music, “full of hypnotic hooks and sing-along choruses that get the ladies on the dance floor.” But if you are outta the know, you don’t know that Dirty South rap prompted outrage and not only in the larger hip-hop community. Accusations flowed at the dirty southerners, about their misogyny, their simplicity, their failures to message, and perhaps most damningly, their minstrelsy. A lot of this, especially about the latter, swirled around a cross-dressed, middle-aged rapper from Shreveport, Louisiana named Ms. Peachez, whose real name is Nelson Boyd and who was never under contract, never made much money from (or was known at all before) her rapping in a series of videos gone viral beginning with “Fry dat Chiken,” and “In da Tub,” which may be a parody of 50 Cent’s “In da Club.” The most outrageous (and least viewed) of the lot is “From da Country” and with it I conclude my meditation on keepin’ it dirty in the Dirty South, asking you to wonder whether art is what allows us to admire the mired humans—W. C. Rice, the Pride and Futup of Thomaston, Ms. Peachez, Hushpuppy—living in the Dirty South, on the Dirty Coast?
Fig 7: Ms Peachez, “FROM DA COUNTRY” (2006)
Perhaps with it and this, you will begin your meditation on keepin’ it dirty, living in the Dirty South, on the Dirty Coast?
ESSAY AND PHOTOGRAPHS COPYRIGHT 2014