As usual, a trip to the library yielded another comic that caught my attention. Unlike Southern Bastards, Jeremy Love’s Bayou (2009) focuses on the fictional town of Charon, MS, in 1933. More directly than the first volume of Southern Bastards, as well, Bayou centers on race relations in the Deep South during the early part of the twentieth century, all the while inserting fantastical elements, a la Alice in Wonderland, into the action. Characters like Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox appear and interact with humans such as Lee Wagstaff and her father Calvin. While this is an important aspect in the text, I do not want to focus on it for this post. Instead, I want to highlight a section that occurs halfway through the first volume.
After a white girl, Lily Westmoreland, disappears (she gets taken by Cotton-Eyed Joe, an entity that emerges from the swamp), Calvin gets blamed for the girl’s disappearance and the white townspeople arrest him. After his arrest, Lee travels to town to speak with with him and picks up a newspaper that contains a sketch of her father. The headline from the June 18, 1933, edition of The Yazoo Herald reads, in all caps, “NEGRO HELD IN KIDNAPPING.” The front page contains an article on the history of Charon, an article on Lily’s disappearance and Calvin’s implication, and an article on the white bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd.
The fact that the paper’s coverage of Lily’s mysterious vanishing and the assumption that Calvin sexually molested the girl does not strike me as shocking. This jump to conclusions from journalists and newspapers appears continuously in literature and in real life. In fact, I’ve written about this type of scene before from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Tragedy of Three Forks.” Another story that uses a similar conclusion is Lydia Maria Child’s “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” (1843). In Child’s story, George murders his master, and brother, Frederic after he rapes and kills George’s wife Rosa. When the mob blames George’s rival Mars, another slave, for Frederic’s death, they gather to have him lynched. At this point, George steps forward and confesses. Rather than lynching Mars, the mob turns its attention to George and, after beating him, hangs him from a tree.
Relating the story to the public outside of the community, the newspapers in Georgia announce Geroge’s death as justified. They write, “Fiend-like Murder. Frederic Dalcho, one of our most wealthy and respected citizens, was robbed and murdered last week, by one of his slaves. The black demon was caught and hung; and hanging was too good for him” (160). The paper paints Frederic as a “respected citizen” who could do no wrong; however, what this account leaves out is the fact that Frederic raped and killed George’s wife, without any impunity. Likewise, Northern papers copied the Georgian accounts, simply adding, “These are the black-hearted monsters, which abolition philanthropy would let loose upon our brethren of the South” (160). Similar to the Georgia papers, those in the North paint George as villainous and beastly, unjustified in the killing of Frederic. Each article on the events of Frederic’s death eliminate what Frederic did to Rosa, and they also refuse to even acknowledge George’s humanity, leaving his name “unmentioned,” only referring to him as “Mr. Dalcho’s slave!” (160)
Child’s story highlights the power of the press in the dissemination of opinions, and in the way that the dissemination affects readers. Thinking about this in relation to Bayou, I want to return to the front page of The Yazoo Herald mentioned earlier. The article on Calvin and Lily appears nestled between Jack Bardour’s historical retelling of Charon’s origins, the “romantic” view of the South, and Lily’s abduction; and the story of Pretty Boy Floyd’s shootout with FBI agents in Kansas City. What this placement does is two fold. One, it reinforces the mythology of the South by placing General Douglass M. ‘Hellhound’ Bogg as the “gallant” defender of the Southern way of life. As Bardour puts it, “Bogg “illustrates the wisdom of our forefathers, who foresaw this type of lawlessness [Lily’s disappearance] in the wake of the fall of Southern culture.” When describing Lily’s’ missing body, Bardour even goes as far as to suggest that Calvin raped her, saying, “The Negro is currently in custody, but the white girl’s undoubtedly violated body has yet to be found.” Through his discussion of Calvin’s “abduction” and “violation” of Lily with the history of Charon, Bardour reinforces the mythological representation of the South and the “vileness” of its African American inhabitants in order to retain control over them.
On the right hand side of a sketch of Calvin, the article on the white bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd appears. Here, the paper does not condemn Floyd. Instead, the author only says that the deaths of the officers “occurred as a result of the attempt by Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, Vernon Miller, and Adam Richetti to free their friend, Fran Nash, a federal prisoner.” The importance here is that Floyd remains at large, even writing into a newspaper and the FBI denying his involvement. Unlike the article on Calvin, Floyd does not appear as monstrous criminal that needs to be stopped. Instead, only the facts appear. The incident with Pretty Boy Floyd actually happened, and he did write a note to the FBI denying his involvement. What this article shows, in juxtaposition with Calvin’s image, is that the white man’s life matters more than the black man’s. Floyd, whether or not he was involved with the Kansas City massacre, had a criminal record; Calvin did not do anything wrong and strove to maintain a life of respectability for him and his daughter.
Thinking about these texts, I cannot help but reflect upon the way that the media presents images and narratives of whites and people of color. Specifically, I always get reminded of the images and captions following Hurricane Katrina where blacks are labeled as “looters” and whites as “surviving.” In class, a good exercise would be to have students sift through varying reports and images of events to see if the media or outlet that presents the information does so with any form of bias.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Child, Lydia Maria. “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes.” The Liberty Bell. Ed. Marian Weston Chapman. Boston: Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair, 1843. 147-160.