Monthly Archives: June 2013

Paulagate – The Downhill Slide of Paula Deen

Living in Savannah as I do, I have taken a keen interest in the whole Paula Deen fiasco. Paulagate, as I like to call it. I have watched the interviews and the local news coverage talking about the possible impact on our city. I’ve overheard discussions and participated in conversations. My favorite take was Wanda Sykes‘ on Jay Leno.
The whole thing reminds me of a giant snowball rolling down a mountain, becoming bigger and bigger and more distorted on its way downhill. Paula Deen going downhill fast

Kind of funny but mostly just unbelievable.

But the unpleasant episode has made a lot of people stop and think, including me. Not only about racism – the obvious topic – but about my own individual feelings and actions, whether they’re blatant or not. And how my personal history influences my thoughts and actions when it comes to dealing with people of different races and cultures.

I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, on a compound that was, in effect, segregated from the local culture. But my parents, who are both from the South, made a point of socializing with people from various different countries. Among their best friends: Indians, Armenians and Jordanians. I don’t remember ever hearing a derogatory or racist comment coming from either of them.

During our time there, we had a “houseboy,” who helped with cleaning and laundry and cooking. He came from Pakistan, and he was sending money back there to his wife and family, who he visited often. He was a part of our family, and I loved him dearly. He would tell me stories about growing up in Karachi. He was not a servant – he was doing a job to make his and his family’s life better. When I heard he had died several years later, I cried.

Then I moved back to the South. I spent more time with my grandfather, who told racist jokes. That both surprised and bothered me. What surprised me even more was that my parents thought the jokes were funny. But they just said, “This is the South,” as if that made it okay.

I attended UT in Knoxville for a couple of years. I didn’t know anyone there, so at first I hung around with the high school students that attended my mother’s boarding school. A lot of them were from the Middle East and Africa. I remember walking down Cumberland Avenue (aka The Strip) one day with one of them, a boy from Somalia, and I was almost attacked by a white male student. He yelled racial slurs at my friend and called me a whore. It was unnerving, and it made me feel very embarrassed for my friend. A year or two later, I met an African American and spent some time with him. He was actually surprised that I felt comfortable being with him!

I got out of Knoxville as soon as I graduated from college.

I’m not proud of it, but over the years, and on subsequent trips back to visit my family, I admit that I began to laugh at some of those jokes, and even tell some myself. It’s an easy thing to just go along with the crowd. Way too easy. But I never thought of myself as a racist. And I only used the N word once, when I was a kid, and I had no idea that it was a bad word. The boy I said it to almost beat the crap out of me (sorry Reggie)! I never uttered that word again.

Paulagate has brought all this up in me, as I’m sure it has brought the issue up with people all over the country. And I, for one, am going to be more conscientious about my own thoughts and actions. Going along with things is just as bad as doing them yourself.

My thoughts on Paula? She is a product of the South, yes, but she also knows better. And as a public figure with a significant empire, she is held to a higher standard. But the fact that her sponsors have been so quick to judge – and to drop her – is even more disturbing. Who among them is so faultless?

What I think is, she needs to do something to redeem herself. And I came across this “Open Letter to Paula Deen,” a post incredibly heartfelt and eloquently written by a fellow southerner, an African American. It offers the perfect opportunity for Paula to do something to make things right! Please take a few minutes to read the letter and see if you don’t agree.

I’d love to hear  your thoughts on Paulagate…and whether the whole thing has made you reevaluate your feelings on the issue of racism.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Haint Blue Paint – A Short History of Savannah

We had a houseguest last week, and decided to take her on a ghost tour downtown. Savannah ghost tour

That – and a trip to a local museum – inspired me to read up on my adopted city.

Savannah is a city loaded with history. Founded in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe, Georgia was America’s 13th colony. 13th…how apropos! Oglethorpe named the colony after England’s King George II, and Savannah became the colony’s first city.

Oglethorpe was wise in befriending the local Yamacraw Indian Chief, Tomochichi. In doing so, he avoided the bloodshed that plagued other early American colonies. Or rather, he put it off. There would be plenty of it to come later. Tomochichi  granted the General permission to settle on the bluff overlooking the Savannah River, and Oglethorpe proceeded to establish the first “planned” city in the United States. Laid out in a series of grids, it was built with wide streets, shady parks, and squares that were used both as town meeting places and areas of fortification against enemies. An interesting side note: in its early days, the city banned strong drink, Catholics, lawyers and slavery.

Savannah flourished. This was largely due to the success of its rice fields and later, cotton plantations. The cotton gin was invented near the city, and a good deal of the world’s cotton prices were set on the steps of The Cotton Exchange, which still sits proudly by the river in downtown Savannah.

Savannah Cotton Exchange

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the city was devastated by fires. Half of Savannah burned to the ground. The city was also the site of the second bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War. Then there was yellow fever, which claimed one-tenth of its residents. The cemeteries were filled to capacity, and mass graves were dug to accommodate the bodies.

But the people of Savannah rebuilt. And when much of the South fell victim to General Sherman’s pyromania on his march to the sea during the Civil War, Savannah charmed him with her southern hospitality. He spared her from his wrath. Instead of torching the city, he presented it as a gift to President Lincoln.

Thanks to the valiant efforts of the Savannah Historical Society in the mid 1900’s, Savannah is a city that seems to be frozen in time. Its antebellum buildings and cobblestone streets were saved from destruction and today there are well over 2000 historically and architecturally significant buildings in the 2.5 square miles of the historic district. Most of them feature plaques that depict the date of erection and principal owner.

Owens-Thomas House in Savannah

Despite it’s beauty, Savannah is also known as one of the most haunted cities in America. Much of it has been built over grave-sites. Old homes in the historic district do not have basements because it is virtually impossible to dig without turning up someone’s remains. It is no surprise then that the accounts of ghost sightings and hauntings are prevalent. And even as far back as the early 1800’s, evil spirits were being fought. After all, you don’t think ghosts are confined by cemetery walls do you?

Colonial Park Cemetery

Colonial Park Cemetery

Old slave house in Savannah

Old slave house in Savannah

The African Americans who arrived in Savannah as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought with them the “Gullah” (aka Geechee) culture which still exists today. “Root doctors” used herbal remedies to protect themselves from malevolent forces. They also mixed a paint using indigo, oyster shells (or lime) and buttermilk, and used it on doorways, shutters, windowsills, walls and ceilings of their houses. They believed that it would prevent evil spirits – haints – from entering and harming them. Haints were trapped between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the Gullah believed that they could not cross water. Thus the shade “haint blue”  was created to look like water and thus deter the evil spirits. Many of Savannah’s old homes sport shades of blue and green for this reason. The biggest historic display of this paint can be found in the slave quarters of the Owens-Thomas House.

Haint Blue Paint

Haint Blue Paint in the Slave Quarters of the Owns-Thomas House

The Owens-Thomas House is the first museum I have visited in town. It is beautifully preserved and quite spectacular. The house had running water even before the White House! Its 24-inch thick walls and steel frame ensure that it will survive long after we are gone. Inside, there is a bridge on the third level, a unique architectural feature. It’s definitely worth a visit.

I haven’t encountered any ghosts myself – at least not here. But I won’t be surprised if it does happen.

Anyone out there have any ghostly encounters?

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Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

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