Discussing several areas in the South, primarily in Louisiana and Arkansas, Guinotte Wise counters mythic perceptions about Southerners by presenting us with a wide array of experiences and perspectives to consider. In this stream-of-consciousness essay, we get an account from a Southerner who has lived and worked and created all over the region and whose conclusion is that we might be able to get along, after all.
Come Together. Right Now.
by Guinotte Wise
Some Southern literary reviews (and this is by no means a criticism) seem to want their followers to brag up their Southern roots, but balance that with (if white) a liberal amount of chagrin and guilt. If black or some other jacked-around-with minority, they’d like a bootstrap story, or some seething. The South has a duality to deal with. All of us do.
That’s fine. The stories swirling around out there in what I call the New Liberation, the alphabet soup of LGBTQetc, the storied Come Together Right Now actually coming about, are legion and welcome. The lit mags are helping. An openness is occurring, a howdy well met that’s real, or trying damned hard to be, the putrid pettiness of political contentiousness aside. I’m talking regular people here, the people who pay the salaries of our public . . . servants.
I’m 82. Lived some. Seen some things. I do have a Southern heritage of sorts. I lived in the least populated of all Louisiana parishes as a kid: Tensas Parish, St. Joseph, Louisiana. St. Joe, as I learned to love it, call it. Home for awhile. As was Winchester, Kentucky, also home and loved as a child. I learned to cherish rural freedom in these places. Wandering unroped. Unleashed. Discovering. Enchanted. Imagine a kid moving from what is now Harlem to Tensas Parish. I’ll just say I was astounded. In a good way. And now, so proud to be a part of it.
Not too long after those (to me) idyllic Southern interludes, we moved to Tulsa in its boomtown era. (Did I love it, too? On walks with my dogs, when the sky was blue and a piston aircraft was buzzing silver, I said to my walking companions, “It’s a Tulsa kind of day.” They wagged their whole rear ends at the tone of my voice. I could bestow no finer compliment on a Kansas gravel road walk.)
But there was a dark side there. On the whole, great people, white, black, indigenous. But now and then an ugly remark about one of the latter two from an uneducated kid would foul the air. And I found it bizarre that anyone was assigned a different area of the bus than I. I never got that. And there was the Greenwood horror, now called the Tulsa Race Massacre. I found out about that later in life.
My stepfather worked in the oil industry as an electrical engineer, something to do with valves. During the war, he had worked on the Manhattan Project, and I saw little of him or my mother in those years. I lived with his parents during that time. My real father was a radioman on a ship, and I saw virtually none of him until war’s end.
I remember when I did, though. It was in The South. I vividly remember the sun coming through the tree canopy over the road in beams, shafts full of haze and stuff that would probably make you sneeze—and in one of these beams standing with a seabag on one shoulder, wearing a sailor suit and the rakish Dixie Cup hat, was my father. I ran and ran until stopped by his body. I’ll never forget that. The scary war was over. My dad had found me on the way back to Kansas City, his home. My home once and later. I look back on that scene now and realize the jog in his trip from wherever he’d landed in the USS San Diego? To somewhere very south. I smelled shaving lotion and the mustiness of train and bus travel and pipe tobacco. I saw sun. The sun the way Southerners see it. I was proud that we were in it.
Where you live as a child is always a part of you. I’m a writer and a sculptor. I had a sculpture show last year at the KC gallery I’ve been with for a long time. It was titled, “A Love Letter to Tensas Parish.” I was honored to have one of the pieces featured in 64 Parishes, a handsome magazine published in New Orleans. In the show I had photos of some folks from St. Joe along with their bios. The mayor Elvadus Fields, a poet born on the Mayflower Plantation Garland Strother, and a young LSU grad Joel Brannan who was building a premium vodka distillery in his home parish. I’d have had a lady resident who’d started a restaurant there and was rehabbing an old mansion as a home for victims of domestic violence, but I couldn’t connect with her in time. The parish is full of cool people.
It was an important show for me. A Southern blues band played: John Paul Drum, the real thing. There was authentic food from the area. The pieces were inspired by my time there.
Years ago, during my college days, I met a girl in Little Rock at a friend’s wedding. I transferred to the University of Arkansas from Westminster due to her. No big romantic story there; she married her high school love, I went on to my life, attending the Kansas City Art Institute for a couple of years, took a job in paving of all things, married.
But, while in Fayetteville, I felt, again, oddly at home. It was far enough south that most students had that familiar accent and some emphatic things imprinted on me there. One was taking a creative writing class under a southern author, Francis Irby Gwaltney. I read his The Numbers of Our Days and wrote things one writes at that age. He was gracious. Grades were so-so but not bad. I shared some time with him in a college-town bar, quiet booth, dark place, can’t remember what we discussed over beers but it sure was pleasant. I do know that I felt very fortunate to have a one-on-one with him. He was a true Southern author and one who embraced the civil rights movement of the time. Nice man, soft-spoken, talented. He inspired me as much by his demeanor as by his writing.
I palled around with a friend from El Dorado, Arkansas, (pronounced Eldo-ray-do) who seemed always to have guns nearby. He was involved in a scheme where he and a couple of others would buy surplus machine guns which had the barrels welded inactive, then buy new barrels, replace the old plugged barrels, and sell the now operative guns to Castro from coastal Florida. Back then, Castro wasn’t looked upon as hardcore communist, and Che Guevara was a dorm-room topic if not yet a t-shirt. The FBI became actively involved. By that time, I’d left and was back in KC as an art student in the late ’50s, beatdom, Vietnam, and Joan Baez our beer-fueled topics.
Another Fayetteville friend who owned a bar popular with college kids, The Huddle Club, drove a Stutz Bearcat. We would often blast through campus in this open apparition from the past. I left my own jalopy wrapped around a tree in KC so was afoot my last few months at the U of A. Then in Kansas City, I worked odd jobs (some very odd—like night pickup in a funeral home) to help pay my way through the Kansas City Art Institute. So I could get a paving job. Another story altogether.
My great grandfather Judge Jules J. Guinotte (for whom I’m named though it’s my first name—think that didn’t cause some expressions of concern among my contemporaries in Tensas Parish? It also resulted in my nickname, Butch, for many years) was a Democrat elected for forty years in KC. I was told he had a slave, Joe. When the slaves were freed, Joe stayed on, took the last name Guinotte. Joe Guinotte and the Judge were friends. They hunted and fished together, got tipsy and took the Dodge to the Little Blue River and did donuts on the ice. Raced boats. They had a pretty good time, I was told. I was also told that when there was a scarlet fever epidemic the sheriff came to Guinotte Manor to round up Joe and put him in quarantine. The Guinottes requested he not do that, that they would nurse him to health themselves. They used a shotgun to underscore this intention knowing Joe would surely die in quarantine. The sheriff left, shaking his head. Joe regained his health and drank good bourbon at Guinotte Manor. He is the progenitor of the Omaha Guinottes. Used to be a lot of Guinottes in Omaha, may still be.
I asked my father about this “owning” business. How could someone “own” another human being? He said the Judge had inherited Joe some way or another and he was never “owned.” I was quite small when I questioned this. It astounded me then. Now it occupies a place in my mind where things go labeled I don’t know what to make of it. So slavery and the back of the bus were, to me, as a kid, crazy. No one could explain it to me. Now I know what the particulars are, the economics, all that, but WTF. I live in Kansas. So did John Brown, the abolitionist. And Quantrill, just over the state line, was a psychotic serial and mass murderer. I know all these things. But I can’t make any sense out of any of it.
I don’t have to. Not anymore. I like to think I made a difference here and there. But I know I came up short. I wrote a piece titled “Racist By Default,” which Good Men Project published. Doesn’t make me look all that good, but it’s nonfiction. I’m not running for office so I pretty much told the truth.
Anyway, what started as a paean to what’s happening now in the Come Together deal rambles some, but let’s do that. Come together. The South is a fantastic place. With skeletons. We’ve got ‘em in all our closets. I’m kind of proud of some of mine. A great uncle who lived in Miami carried a .38 and sent his garbage out on a fiery raft to a viking funeral on weekends. He drove a 1955 chevy in the ’90s. He was somehow involved with JMWAVE back in the day. (I drive a 1949 Ford, chopped, 88 merc in it—looks just like what I drove in high school. Here I come, watch out.) Another ancestor ran guns to Mexico, fixed el presidente’s teeth and was first dentist and Mayor of Independence, Missouri. My grandfather was the DA here, appointed by Harding. He said I’d be a criminal. I’m not.
Come Together. Right now. I’ve got queer friends (can’t get used to saying that, it used to be a pejorative), one trans (she’s doing fine now, did okay as a guy) black, Asian, Mexican, name it. I guess since I’m old and white, the majority of my friends are too. Just the way it is.
I was sitting on my chopper back some time ago, stoplight on Vine, in a black part of town. Black guy walking across, said, “You don’t look tough to me.” Snarled it. I laughed, said, “You’re right, young man, nor do I see myself as such.” Then he laughed, sort of friendly, and walked on.
Come together. Right now. It’s okay. It’ll be good.
Guinotte Wise writes and welds steel sculpture on a farm in Resume Speed, Kansas. His short story collection (Night Train, Cold Beer) won publication by a university press and enough money to fix the soffits. Six more books since. A five-time Pushcart nominee, his fiction, essays and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals including Atticus, The MacGuffin, Southern Humanities Review, Rattle and The American Journal of Poetry. His wife has an honest job in the city and drives a hundred miles a day to keep it. (Until COVID shelter in place order) Some work is at http://www.wisesculpture.com