Dispel The Myth Definition Essay
John T. Edge is wickedly smart and an intent listener. And when he laughs, he snorts. Anyone who's met him can tell you these things. Because, in equal measure, John T. is deeply invested in his subject matter—the South—but he also understands that it's something to be shared, mused over, and reframed through conversation (and perhaps over a couple of drinks). The director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a celebrated journalist, a barbecue nerd, and the author of the forthcoming The Potlikker Papers, John T. has created a canon of Southern food writing that follows in the tradition of legends like John Egerton and Vertamae Grosvenor. The Potlikker Papers is an extension of this cultural plumbing of the South and its meaning in modern America.
"Definitions of the South typically depend on geography or secession," he writes. "The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South." In The Potlikker Papers, he asserts these delineations are a failure. Rather, the South is a place full of sound and color, wealth and poverty, horror and beauty. It's a place where history has been erased or veiled in favor of easy narratives—"Moonlight and Magnolias" as Edge says. His latest book is an attempt to rectify that history, to reveal the full breadth of the South's negligence, intelligence, and legacy.
Beginning with the Civil Rights Movement, moving through the "folk" period (Back to the Land, Edna Lewis, and the commodification of fried chicken) onto the artisanal South movement, the glorification of barbecue, and the introduction of a new kind of Southerner—21st-century immigrants—Edge paints a portrait of the South that is sweeping and balanced. He gives names, first and last, to the forgotten cooks of lauded soul food establishments and poverty-stricken families of the Delta that galvanized Robert F. Kennedy.
Ultimately, Edge asks us to consider how we, as Americans, active and passive Southerners, journalists, and eaters, can begin to set the record straight in this very moment—to tell the histories of those living and working in the South with truth and humanity. To recognize them and say their names.
How did you first pitch this book?
I rewrote the proposal for this book four times. At first I thought I wanted to do a book that was post-Civil War, but then I realized the struggle that defines my South was the Civil Rights Movement, not the Civil War. That's the tipping point. That's the beginning of the South that I embrace. It's the beginning of the South that is forward-thinking instead of backward-looking. It's the South that inspires me. That was when I figured out I could write a that started with Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery bus boycotts.
I'm not saying I'm the only one paying attention but I am saying that I intend to tell this kind of people's history; and I intend to tell a history with cuss words.
Was there a point where you felt like it was the right time to start? You’ve been writing about the South for a long time, but is now is particularly apt moment to publish it?
I would like to say that I could have anticipated where we are now, but for me the real impetus was the passing of John Egerton, who was my mentor in so many things. He wrote beautifully about many subjects, but his two big books were Speak Now Against the Day about the generation before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, and Southern Food. When he passed [in 2013] and when his family asked me to be one of the speakers at his celebration of life, I felt not a burden but a responsibility to his work and to what I believed I was doing with my own. Writing magazine pieces for the Oxford American, or newspaper columns for The New York Times, or more recently pieces for Garden & Gun, or the piece about barbecue that I did for y'all, you can see glimpses of how I mean to write about food.
But they're not fully realized. It's not a persistent narrative. There are moments in time that I think matter and should be stitched together in a narrative arc. Trying to make sense of this was really what this book project was about. Why am I obsessed with Southern food if in reality what I'm obsessed with is the South's tragic history and the imprint of racism on this region? Why do I write about food if that's what's really in the back of my head? Part of this book for me was trying to figure that out. Is it possible to sustain that notion for 400 pages? That was one of the questions I wanted to ask myself.
What do you think? What's the answer?
I know I could sustain it for 700 pages because that's how much I wrote and then cut down.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you and John Egerton met? You mention him throughout the book. How did he inform your writing of it?
We'd met earlier, but first time we had a real conversation was when I visited him in his house. I was in his office, the bathroom of which was papered with rejection notices from all the places he had tried to pitch and failed. He went into that bathroom and I stayed in the office, and was running my finger down the spines of his books. Tracing his research and seeing new possibilities for mine.
He called me on it. He comes out of the bathroom and basically calls me on it. Through the years of our friendship—20 years—he told that story again and again. He embellished it as time went on, but the notion that I was borrowing from him and was, in some small way in a league with him, is the greatest compliment I could receive.
I'm trying in my own way to make good on the promise of his own book. He set out with Southern Food to tell a full story of Southern food culture, to include the people who are normally left out, to use both the first name and last name of the black cook that sustained the white family. And that effort emboldened me and emboldened a whole generation of people about food. In writing this book, I'm trying to pay tribute to his work, I'm trying to advance it in a way. I've worked with a term in the book and it's one I keep returning to because it resonates in my head: We have to pay down a debt of pleasure that we owe to all the unnamed farmers and cooks who have put food on our table, who have served the South, who have sustained the South.
Paying down that debt of pleasure as a writer—that's the greatest thing you can do, celebrate the life and legacy of someone whom others might have overlooked. I'm not saying I'm the only one paying attention but I am saying that I intend to tell this kind of people's history; and I intend to tell a history with cuss words. I intend to tell a history that doesn't ghettoize food.
Tell me a little bit about the debt of pleasure, what that means to you.
I grew up about a quarter mile from a barbecue joint in Georgia. I'd go to this place called Old Clinton Barbecue. I realize as I go along I love that place, I idolize that place. I know the names of the family that owned it, the Coulters. I knew Ms. Coulter, I can describe to a T what she looked like. I can't tell you who the men were who actually cooked that food. Black men who lived in my own community, who fixed that taste of barbecue on my palate. I don't know who they were.
But I have the ability—by way of my academic training and my skills as a writer—to unearth the first and last names of those people. Their backstories, their hopes, and beliefs, and fears. I think of the boldness of Fannie Lou Hamer to speak truth to power. I think of Booker Wright in the same way, and Booker Wright wasn't singular. His moment beneath the lights was singular. His moment on TV was singular, but his life—others lived it, others dared to speak, others paid the price.
They were the servant class of the South and they sustained the South. They sustained the white South and we don't know their stories. I try to tell a few. There are a lot more to be told. A rush of people is at work on that now and I'm proud of that, and I'm proud to be some small part of that.
Let's talk about the chapter "Landed Hippies." I think people in general think about the Back to the Land movement as being a very West Coast thing. To have read that chapter was to realize that a huge contingent of farmers, and hippies, and people were taking back land and moving to the South. I had no idea that that was true.
Within a few years, everybody was quitting the South. It was a place to get out of. It was a hive of racism and hate, and yet, here come these hippies claiming the South.
What I hope I've done is frame a South that is true. The Colonel Sanders kind of myth sells well but is dangerous. A correction is needed.
I've been thinking about another term too, this idea of "active Southerners" and "passive Southerners." Immigrants are active Southerners and those hippies were active Southerners. They saw potential, they saw themselves in that place and actively claimed it. They said, "No we see value in what the old moonshiner knows. We see value in what the pump windmill operator knows. We see value in the same way as the Foxfire journalist kids saw value in their forbearers." That was bold, and you don't think about the South as an incubator of free thought, as an incubator of radical Back to the Land experiments. The most successful, arguably, Back to the Land experiment of that era just outside of Nashville.
Do you think that there are some parallels with back then and what's going on today? Post-Katrina all of these creative white people moving to New Orleans, people moving to Houston. Do you see any connection between those two moments?
If you think about the Back to the Land movement as one when kids who went to Brown or Princeton were discovering folk music and blues—coming to the South to sit at the foot of an aged bluesman to learn. Now they come South to sit at the foot of a fried chicken cook or a barbecue pit master. They come South for an audience with the sisters at Bertha's Café in Charleston. Yeah I see parallels in that, in young people valorizing the work of a previous generation, seeing it anew and traveling, quitting the places they grew up to reinvent themselves in a land they think of as somehow more true, more authentic.
This brings up another question, which is one you've written about alongside Tunde Wey. Who owns Southern food?
We did a summit recently and a number of essays have come out of that, and they'll continue on NPR. One of the conclusions we came to—I can't say everybody came to this conclusion—was that it isn't about ownership: it's about equity and capital. There aren't that many black-owned restaurants interpreting the foods of black people, so if there weren't issues of capital and there weren't issues of equity for black chefs I think we'd be asking better questions.
Do you think that your book is an attempt to start giving equity? Not literally, but in the sense of sharing the names people need to hear?
I don't think I'm giving anybody anything. What I hope I've done is frame a South that is true. It's one of the reasons I wanted to write a chapter about myth and the Southern fad of the Carter years, and all the myths that are spread about the South. Those are dangerous myths and they have served the South for ill mostly, but the Colonel Sanders kind of myth sells well. A correction is needed, truth telling is needed. A future-tense South is at hand now. If we can clear away the thicket of nostalgia, we'll see it's already a font of multicultural expression. Let's get this right now.
The Potlikker Papers is available for pre-order now, and will be published on May 16th.
Much of what we hear about the plight of American women is false. Some faux facts have been repeated so often they are almost beyond the reach of critical analysis. Though they are baseless, these canards have become the foundation of Congressional debates, the inspiration for new legislation and the focus of college programs. Here are five of the most popular myths that should be rejected by all who are genuinely committed to improving the circumstances of women:
MYTH 1: Women are half the world’s population, working two-thirds of the world’s working hours, receiving 10% of the world’s income, owning less than 1% of the world’s property.
FACTS: This injustice confection is routinely quoted by advocacy groups, the World Bank, Oxfam and the United Nations. It is sheer fabrication. More than 15 years ago, Sussex University experts on gender and development Sally Baden and Anne Marie Goetz, repudiated the claim: “The figure was made up by someone working at the UN because it seemed to her to represent the scale of gender-based inequality at the time.” But there is no evidence that it was ever accurate, and it certainly is not today.
Precise figures do not exist, but no serious economist believes women earn only 10% of the world’s income or own only 1% of property. As one critic noted in an excellent debunking in TheAtlantic, “U.S. women alone earn 5.4 percent of world income today.” Moreover, in African countries, where women have made far less progress than their Western and Asian counterparts, Yale economist Cheryl Doss found female land ownership ranged from 11% in Senegal to 54% in Rwanda and Burundi. Doss warns that “using unsubstantiated statistics for advocacy is counterproductive.” Bad data not only undermine credibility, they obstruct progress by making it impossible to measure change.
MYTH 2: Between 100,000 and 300,000 girls are pressed into sexual slavery each year in the United States.
FACTS: This sensational claim is a favorite of politicians, celebrities and journalists. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore turned it into a cause célèbre. Both conservatives and liberal reformers deploy it. Former President Jimmy Carter recently said that the sexual enslavement of girls in the U.S. today is worse than American slavery in the 19th century.
The source for the figure is a 2001 report on child sexual exploitation by University of Pennsylvania sociologists Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner. But their 100,000–300,000 estimate referred to children at risk for exploitation—not actual victims. When three reporters from the Village Voicequestioned Estes on the number of children who are abducted and pressed into sexual slavery each year, he replied, “We’re talking about a few hundred people.” And this number is likely to include a lot of boys: According to a 2008 census of underage prostitutes in New York City, nearly half turned out to be male. A few hundred children is still a few hundred too many, but they will not be helped by thousand-fold inflation of their numbers.
MYTH 3: In the United States, 22%–35% of women who visit hospital emergency rooms do so because of domestic violence.
FACTS: This claim has appeared in countless fact sheets, books and articles—for example, in the leading textbook on family violence, Domestic Violence Law, and in the Penguin Atlas of Women in the World. The Penguin Atlas uses the emergency room figure to justify placing the U.S. on par with Uganda and Haiti for intimate violence.
What is the provenance? The Atlas provides no primary source, but the editor of Domestic Violence Lawcites a 1997 Justice Department study, as well as a 2009 post on the Centers for Disease Control website. But the Justice Department and the CDC are not referring to the 40 million women who annually visit emergency rooms, but to women, numbering about 550,000 annually, who come to emergency rooms “for violence-related injuries.” Of these, approximately 37% were attacked by intimates. So, it’s not the case that 22%-35% of women who visit emergency rooms are there for domestic violence. The correct figure is less than half of 1%.
MYTH 4: One in five in college women will be sexually assaulted.
FACTS: This incendiary figure is everywhere in the media today. Journalists, senators and even President Obama cite it routinely. Can it be true that the American college campus is one of the most dangerous places on earth for women?
The one-in-five figure is based on the Campus Sexual Assault Study, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and conducted from 2005 to 2007. Two prominent criminologists, Northeastern University’s James Alan Fox and Mount Holyoke College’s Richard Moran, have noted its weaknesses:
“The estimated 19% sexual assault rate among college women is based on a survey at two large four-year universities, which might not accurately reflect our nation’s colleges overall. In addition, the survey had a large non-response rate, with the clear possibility that those who had been victimized were more apt to have completed the questionnaire, resulting in an inflated prevalence figure.”
Fox and Moran also point out that the study used an overly broad definition of sexual assault. Respondents were counted as sexual assault victims if they had been subject to “attempted forced kissing” or engaged in intimate encounters while intoxicated.
Defenders of the one-in-five figure will reply that the finding has been replicated by other studies. But these studies suffer from some or all of the same flaws. Campus sexual assault is a serious problem and will not be solved by statistical hijinks.
MYTH 5: Women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns—for doing the same work.
FACTS: No matter how many times this wage gap claim is decisively refuted by economists, it always comes back. The bottom line: the 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure or hours worked per week. When such relevant factors are considered, the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.
Wage gap activists say women with identical backgrounds and jobs as men still earn less. But they always fail to take into account critical variables. Activist groups like the National Organization for Women have a fallback position: that women’s education and career choices are not truly free—they are driven by powerful sexist stereotypes. In this view, women’s tendency to retreat from the workplace to raise children or to enter fields like early childhood education and psychology, rather than better paying professions like petroleum engineering, is evidence of continued social coercion. Here is the problem: American women are among the best informed and most self-determining human beings in the world. To say that they are manipulated into their life choices by forces beyond their control is divorced from reality and demeaning, to boot.
MYTH 6: Men are the privileged sex
FACTS: Neither sex has the better deal. Modern life is a complicated mix of burdens and advantages—for each sex. Women are assumed to be the have-nots because a massive lobby devotes itself to proving Venus is worse off than Mars. Mars’ afflictions go unnoticed. So let’s consider a few of them.
When it comes to being crushed, mutilated, electrocuted, or mangled at work, men are at a distinct disadvantage. Most backbreaking, lethally dangerous jobs—roofer, logger, roustabout, and coal miner, to name a few—are done by men. The Labor Department reports that nearly 5,000 American workers die from workplace accidents each year. Ninety percent, more than 4,400, ARE male. We are often reminded that only 24 women are CEOs of the Fortune 500. But what about the Unfortunate 4,400?
Education beyond high school has been called “the passport to the American dream.” Increasingly, women have it and men don’t. From the earliest grades, our schools do a better job educating girls. Women now earn a majority of associate, bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees and their share of college degrees increases almost every year. The intersectional narrative tells us that males—especially those of the white variety–are the group most in need of atoning for their privileges. But recent government data show that Hispanic and Native American women are now more likely to attend college than white men.
Finally, consider the mother of all gender gaps: life expectancy. On average, women outlive men by about five years. The numbers are starker when you factor in race and ethnicity. In the U.S., Hispanic and Asian women can expect to live to 88 and 85, respectively. For white and black men, the ages are 76 and 72.
Today’s women’s lobby deploys a faulty logic: In cases where men are better off than women, that’s injustice. Where women are doing better—that’s life.
Final verdict: If Mars needs to check his privilege, then so does Venus.
Why do these reckless claims have so much appeal and staying power? For one thing, there is a lot of statistical illiteracy among journalists, feminist academics and political leaders. There is also an admirable human tendency to be protective of women—stories of female exploitation are readily believed, and vocal skeptics risk appearing indifferent to women’s suffering. Finally, armies of advocates depend on “killer stats” to galvanize their cause. But killer stats obliterate distinctions between more and less serious problems and send scarce resources in the wrong directions. They also promote bigotry. The idea that American men are annually enslaving more than 100,000 girls, sending millions of women to emergency rooms, sustaining a rape culture and cheating women out of their rightful salary creates rancor in true believers and disdain in those who would otherwise be sympathetic allies.
My advice to women’s advocates: Take back the truth.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a former philosophy professor, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism and The War Against Boys, and is the host of a weekly video blog, The Factual Feminist. Follow her @CHSommers.
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