In September 2012, when Lynyrd Skynyrd appeared on CNN to discuss their new album, “Last of a Dyin’ Breed,” band members announced that they were dropping the Confederate flag from future shows. Guitarist Gary Rossington explained that the symbol of Southern roots had been “kidnapped” by groups like the KKK and skinheads to stand for divisiveness. Fans were not amused. CNN’s message boards lit up with charges that the band was kowtowing to political correctness. “A Southern man don’t need THEM around anyhow …” quipped one. Upon reflection, the band decided to keep the flag and decreed that it would stand for “Heritage not Hate.” It would mean what they wanted it to mean.
Symbols are tricky for the Southern man. But what about the Southern belle? What does she think of Dixie’s imagery and rituals? As I pondered this question, my mind turned, of its own accord, to a movie clip I had seen many times as a child in North Carolina.
Gone With the Wind, opening shot: Violins croon a mournful Dixie as an invocation glides across the screen: There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South … Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave … As the final word fades, marching slave figures disappear into the horizon; the picture floods with light, and a cheerful whistling tune overtakes the sad melody as the camera zooms onto the porch of a grand house. A sea of white ruffles fills the screen. Smartly booted cavaliers flank a fetching creature who snaps a lily against her palm like a riding crop.
Each year, when our family gathered before the shrine of the living room television to watch that spectacle, my father would lie stretched out on the sofa at a distance from the screen, arms folded across his chest; the images played on the surface of his glasses but never seemed to penetrate. As a Southern historian, my father couldn’t stand the film’s romanticizing. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, his slight frown a steady reproach to my edge-of-the-seat enthusiasm. But I couldn’t help it. The whirling figures at the Atlanta Bazaar hypnotized me, and even if this part of the film had to give way to its own inexorable destruction, couldn’t we just keep the pretty dresses?
You wouldn’t think I’d be so susceptible. My dresses, when I could be persuaded to wear them, were free of the frilly trimmings that delight Southern mamas. I was a child of scraped knees and bare feet, wandering in the woods and stuffing mossy rocks into the pockets of my corduroys. Yet the temptation to play the belle was powerful and enticing, even to a little girl in cords. It still haunts me today. Like the Ghost of Pageants Past, my inner belle turns to another porch scene on another sun-steeped Georgia afternoon.
There she is, peering beneath the brim of a straw hat, straining to view a troop of riders approaching. The parade leader calls out a speech in military staccato: So it be known to you, fair Belle, that a member of Kappa Alpha Order has publicly expressed the pleasure of escorting you to the Old South Ball. You will give your reply by adorning the above said Southern Gentleman with a gentle kiss. “It’s like being Scarlett O’Hara,” somebody giggles. I slip my foot into the stirrup as my date tries to stare down a sullen hired horse that nips at the collar of his Confederate uniform.
That scene actually took place, in 1991 at the University of Georgia. Young men in gray uniforms arrived on horseback to pick up their eager ladies-in-waiting; some of them descended from the soldiers and plantation dames their costumes evoked. And if many were not, it didn’t much matter. The day’s business was a ritual reproduction of a scene that certain white Southerners continue to hold dear. A time-honored tradition of honoring time-honored traditions.
Milledge Avenue, where the ladies waited, was the only street in Athens that kept its antebellum facade intact. The faded mansions, now sorority houses, burst into life as bright figures gathered around the wrought iron railings like spring flowers. The housing projects that crumbled just blocks away were far in the background, part of a very different scene. The sun was a giant klieg light, and it shined only on the pretty things.
As we marched along, I recalled the story of my great-great-great-aunt Sallie, who rowed in the dead of night as Federal troops invaded Virginia’s Eastern Shore, her account of the escape preserved by zealous family historians. “They put everything on me they could,” she wrote in a journal. “Two petticoats, two pairs of drawers, and two dresses with a double-blanket shawl. The rest they put in a heavy old trunk, which they set behind us. There was one seat across the little boat, and I sat with John, the dining room servant. I suppose he was about eighteen. There was no wind that night. It was all quiet, only clouds passing over the moon.”
The five-tiered crimson taffeta number I wore that day in 1991 connected me to such stories. At the Old South Ball, the follies and cruelty of the past were overlooked in a show of beribboned exuberance. I felt a selfish triumph, too, that was very much part of the present. Playing the belle meant that years of pimply awkwardness with boys, wanting only to be wanted, were swept away. I was Scarlett. That’s the magic of the belle: to be seen without seeing.
We approached the oak-shaded, red brick Kappa Alpha house. The azaleas were turned out in all their salmon-colored glory, and the lawn was dotted with swatches of cloying yellow and pink. Groups of young women in hoop skirts drew together for a photograph, then flew apart in twos and threes. The air was ripe with the satisfied delight of belonging. It was a time to summon collective amnesia, to forget that all the faces were white, that a rebel flag draped conspicuously over the front door. Stirred by undeniable yearnings, I chose not to notice that the young men wore their military uniforms a little too earnestly, that the women looked like so many Confederate cheerleaders on the brink of a rousing kick-line routine.
After a few pictures I pushed through the crowds and found the keg on the deck, where a security guard was posted. He was about my age, maybe a student earning extra cash. Or maybe he was one of the dispossessed young black men wondering what to do with themselves in sunny Athens, Georgia. I poured two beers and offered a cup to the guard. “One won’t hurt,” I encouraged. He shrugged and took the cup as I struggled to find something to say. Through the window I could see my date in his Confederate uniform. Ugly politics hung like cobwebs around us, and I really just wanted to wipe them away. I didn’t care about the Confederate flag and the portrait of Robert E. Lee; they were part of a masculine script I didn’t write. I wanted to channel something vivid and voluptuous I had carried inside from childhood. I just wanted to be Scarlett. It was my show. I sat on the railing, and the guard checked out my costume. Probably he thought this scene made sense to me, that I was fine with the exclusions implied by my make-believe frills. Comically, the hoops of my skirt had a way of springing up whenever I took my hands out of my lap. Through the window I saw my date looking around to find me. Our eyes met. Was that a hint of irritation? Meanwhile, my dress was firing signals, evoking responses I could not control. I was getting muddled about the part I was playing. The guard just drank his beer silently. His t-shirt read “Campus Security.”
As my ancestor rowed along in the night with John, her heavy trunk began to weigh the boat down. Icy streams trickled down her ruined skirts. Her finery threatened them both. What was John thinking? Was he thinking of things he couldn’t say? Maybe he hated her and her fancy dresses, itching to throw the lot of them over the side.
I looked at the guard, and he looked at me, his face blank. I told him my name, smiling expectantly. Another silence threatened to reseal the opening between us. “What do you think of my dress?” I asked stupidly. I lifted my hands in a theatrical Voilà! Suddenly the hoops sprang up, threatening to topple me from the railing. The guard grabbed my elbow to steady me. “That’s a big damn dress,” he said. Was that amusement in his eyes? Contempt? He was right. It was a big damn dress. Weighty with messages. The contradictions of the Southern belle were encoded in its hoops and hues. The waist was narrow, the bodice low and provocative. The skirts were full and complicated, suggesting inaccessibility, yet offering hints of what was underneath every time those hoops sprang up. The low-cut bodice revealed the belle as aggressor, her defensive skirts as the victim.
I looked at the window. My date, his cavalier sensibilities heightened by the day’s performance, was staring. What to do? I could play the belle gone bad. A sort of Blanche DuBois-meets-Jezebel. Questions flashed through my mind as I sat on the railing. Who, exactly, was protecting whom? From what?
I could almost hear my ancestor whispering to her companion in the darkness. A gunboat passed so close they could hear a sentry pacing the deck. “We’re shipping water,” said Sallie. “We’re going to sink.” John wiped the sweat from his brow, tried not to show how scared he was. Together they heaved the trunk over the side of the boat, where it disappeared into the black depths. Aunt Sallie wouldn’t have any fancy dresses like that again. The South would lose the war. She’d have to get used to a different way of being in the world. Sallie was a survivor. She knew when to let go.
One of the older KAs gave his head an angry jerk in my direction. Time to come in. A decision hovered in my head, then clicked; I turned away from the window. I couldn’t go back in. A door had swung open: inside had become outside.
Many KAs pretend that the Old South Ball is an ancient tradition. Not really. It was the 1939 release of Gone With the Wind—courtesy of a Jewish filmmaker from Pittsburgh—that inspired the annual celebration of Southern pride. The strain of hanging on to that illusion has grown wearying over the years. In 1992, Auburn University dropped its parade after public protest. In 2000, the UGA chapter quit flying Dixie except on special occasions, and in 2006, it canceled the parade to try to make peace with the long-time black residents of the neighborhood where the fraternity is located. By 2010, the national KA had broken down and banned Confederate uniforms altogether. The UGA chapter still holds its annual party, but gray hats have replaced the full uniform.
Yet the belle keeps her facade intact; the gowns are exactly the same. The white Southern man is slowly coming to reckon with his symbols, though some go on pretending those symbols mean only what they want them to mean. The Southern belle seems undeterred. There she is, adorning the lawn like an exotic white fruit preserved in aspic, still trapped in the false order of things, bound tight in privilege and precariousness, her beauty dependent on forgetting.
Like this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.