Sweet Home

maids

This morning I couldn’t believe that my home town of Mobile, Alabama had made Drudge’s front page, much less believe WHY it had made the front page. Acting in the best interests of his home state, Alabama NAACP Director Edward Vaughan suggested that the Azalea Trail Maids be removed from Alabama’s procession for Obama’s Inaugural Parade. Bust my buttons……or should I say my corset?

When I was a young girl, with a thick Alabama accent and knobby knees, I would watch the Trail Maids process during the Azalea Trail Parade or Mardi Gras down the main streets of Mobile’s business district. There were like a hundred of ’em, gently sacheting down the asphalt, graciously waving while holding their parasols with delicate gloves in an array of ruffly pastel femininity. My sister and I would mimic their waves as they strolled by smiling and I remember making eye contact with one of them once, it was like having Cinderella wink at you, pure magic.

Now I was a tomboy of sorts, I liked playing outside, riding my bike. We played dress up but my sister and I also started businesses, ran libraries, doctors offices and construction sites from our backyard and play room. We played “rock star” just as much as we played “office” and never felt jammed into some gender stereotype as young girls. Of course our parents moved us all to Fairfax, Virginia when I was ten, so perhaps things could have gotten “worse” if we stayed.

Lets move this diatribe onto color, because that is what the debate is all about. 39 of the maids are white, 8 are black, 3 are Asian and the NAACP thinks that the dresses make people think of slavery.

Now I can see his point. That Alabama hasn’t really carried the reputation of a racially progressive state in American history and that as an Alabamian he would like “FOR ONCE!” to be proud of the procession that represents his state. Clearly the man has rolled his eyes at one too many parades in his home state, because these gals are everywhere whenever Alabama is doing something ceremonial, and he probably is too.

In his defense he has also stated that he thinks that marching bands from local black high schools should march, which I am all in a favor of. God knows I love me some marching band, esp our boys and girls from the South. If you’ve ever seen one of these teams break it down during a parade, you’d agree that the Inaugural parade could use plenty of that. Actually wait, here’s a complete list of the participants in the parade, and there are PLENTY of marching bands (including my fave Grambling) and even a tumbling team thats been performing since 1959.

tumblers

We can go back and forth about the racism that exists in every state, what racism means, and point out tons of racial contradictions in Northern, Southern, Western and Mid Western traditions. I guess I just stop short of thinking that the Maids represent (only) slavery. The KKK represent the history of slavery to me, while the Maids, in all their gracious glory, have (albeit slowly) changed to reflect the State’s diversity and progress. The KKK wear white and spin crosses, not parasols. In 1925 the KKK marched on Washington, yet in 1929 a white Southern man was asking high schools to nominate their highest performing female students to represent the state and welcome Northerners down to Mobile. He was trying to be progressive during a very turbulent (and economically weak time) for the South and the country. Its an interesting gesture when you think about the historical context of what he was trying to do.

Heck, I say lets get a bunch of guys together and dress them up like plants,would that be progressive? How silly can this get?!

dumb-and-dumber3

Blacks make up 27% of the state of Alabama, and Alabama is one of 22 states that have blacks as the largest minority group. 8 out of 39 is close to 20%, while this is just shy of 27% I say its good enough, if we are trying to use data to justify propping up the girls defense.

Lets also look at the history of this “tradition”, for just a brief second. It tuns out that the plants are indigenous to Asia and were imported during the 1920s to cerate a tourist attraction. A Mobile businessman, Sam Lackland, spearheaded the effort to add Mobile to the annual Azalea Trail that brought Northern tourists to Southeastern cities.

Classic

In order to get folks around the city to plant azaleas, gas stations gave away a plant with every tank of gas! It only took a few years for the city to be ensconced in flora which attracted thousands of tourists each year.

The plants were seen as exotic Oriental attractions as they could not be planted up North until the 1950s after a hybrid was grown. Sam also arranged a small court of about 10 girls (who received scholarships) to dress in an antebellum / heritage style. Sure, this was a play on the South’s plantation culture, but I’d say offering scholarships to women in the 1920s was kinda progressive. Plus the Jaycees have gone onto revise the dress’ look to reflect that of a colorful plant rather than some old school debutante gown. Some would call this bs, but I suppose I think there are tons of traditions that try to change their message, isn’t that a good thing?

But lets really talk dresses. According to the OBAMA Inauguration website The dresses—costing anywhere from $3,000 – $6,000—are patterned after the blossoming azaleas that line the streets of Mobile every spring. By the late 1940s, the Maids had appeared to greet the tourists and export the experience of strolling down the Azalea-lined streets to those who couldn’t make it to the city. The dresses are now floral inspired costumes, not antebellum antique dresses meant to conjure up the indignity and cruelty of cotton-picking…now whether or not they evoke that just by our own visual imaginations or associations, that is a different issue, and a reality I don’t deny. But as Warhol says, sometimes a banana is just a banana….

As I said before, I am not really interested in a debate over which history the dresses represent. Its clear that, historically accurate or not, the costumes remind people of a time in this country when the violent oppression and abuse of a particular race was tolerated and enabled by governments. To some feminist minded folks, they remind them of a time when women should be seen and not heard. Looking at those hoop skirts, the parasols, the frilly gloves and faux corset bodices some people see Hooters Girls. But I wonder if this is a failure of the Trail Maids and of the state of Alabama to explain the evolution of their traditions and why this court of women exists. Now that they are walking in the parade next week, its a great time to revisit a tradition that was actually quite progressive at the time in which it was created.

Shoot! The whole thing was a PR stunt to begin with! So lets not pretend that this was a political statement that has outlived its relevance. As my friend The Black Snob says, “a poofy dress is a poofy dress”.

230px-azalea_trail_gauntlets1

Plus, DC is dreery this time of year and next week is looking to be cold, and wet and overcast. If anything, I think Sam had it right, a little bit of color goes a long way….

girls

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