Walter Rhett attended Ohio State University and writes from Charleston, SC. His writing combines speed, thoroughness, authority, discovery, seriousness, and humor.
Walter is a New York Times verified commenter who posts without moderation and often receives top ten reader recommendations. His blog under his own name, “Walter Rhett,” appears in the San Francisco Chronicle. He is followed on twitter by the Oxford Dictionary.The Times recently featured him (on its digital front) along with their top 14 commenters.
I am a writer. I tell stories. Read closely.)
wr: I am a writer whose medium is current affairs–politics, economics and social affairs. My technique is to weave in southern history and culture, creating a unique voice and view, to challenge and respond to the status quo from all sides while sidestepping anarchy and indifference. Actually, it’s an old form made new. It embraces the Gullah aesthetic. Gullah was the collective African synthesized world view, an intellectual undertaking still unrecognized–and being reduced to cooking and craftwork.
Exactly what does that mean?
wr: Recently I wrote about the contrasts in style and between House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and the Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who called for health care reform to be Obama’s “Waterloo.” Both are elected by voters in the same state. But they are opposites in philosophy, strategies, values, and legislative goals. Clyburn’s in his eighth House term; DeMint’s in his first Senate term. These men–Southerners–were major national voices during the health care debate, speaking at town halls and on Sunday talk shows. But who writes about these national figures as Southerners, or explains how being southern-born influenced their style and their opposing views? Something called “southern,” is at the core of both. How can a state nurture such broad and seemingly irreconcilable differences in its native sons?
Is there more to being southern than weird political views?
wr: Yes. It’s a willingness to grasp inconsistencies, to know exactly when to break or enforce the rules, to embrace contradictions, and to master being over the top and harness the understatement, to balance logic and quips, to strengthen the imaginary and invisible, to see folly and wisdom as the presence of spirit. Like the picture above. This Mississippi lady was 74 years-old in 1937. That makes her born in 1863. What do I see when I look at her picture? Was she born during the Civil War, or two years “before freedom?” She says she was born two years “before the surrender.” Consider for the moment the difference each represents in perspective, living, and storytelling. Gullah native (St. Helena Island, SC) Ann Scott influenced my choice. In a Library of Congress audio intervew,, she always gave her name as “Ann Scott, after freedom.” The choices are very fluid. The right one tells the inner truth.
Okay, rather than narrow in its views, the South is wider and deeper than many might first assume. How does this show up in your writing?
wr: First, the American voice of popular arts is a Southern voice. From embedded attitudes of manners and social conduct, from the music and dance of the Charleston to rock and R & B, from the Constitution drafted and written by four Southerners (two from SC and two from VA) to leading orators, preachers, and community story tellers, Southern leadership and influence can not be denied. The legend of the American Dream was propelled by southern rice.
In writing, its influence mixes traditional elements of Latin rhetoric with the poetry, layered meanings, wit, humor, internal sounds, and story telling forms of the African oral tradition, carried to communities by Africans who were enslaved across the South. Charleston’s DuBose Heyward who wrote the novel, Porgy, and then penned the book and lyrics for Porgy and Bess, grew up in a house in which his mother earned income running a salon for visitors telling African stories in the Gullah language, the language created by those enslaved along the South Carolina coast. Imagine the massive effort it took to create a language in thousands of separated communities which had restricted, limited contact, and then somehow get the local American-born Europeans (ABEs) to speak it and master its intricacies. Then to get these same ABEs to share humor and stories in the language, even sing its songs, while appreciating its wit, sly understatement and engaging rhythms. This is achievement without measure.
The South once tried to purge itself of these African language elements, by class attacks (its speakers were not considered erudite), educational attacks (students were whipped for speaking Gullah even informally at school), and intellectual attacks (Gullah was viewed as a savage, brutish, backward survival of Africa). The poet and culinary anthropologist, Verta Mae Grosvenor (who once lived in Paris) often describes her early experiences as a student facing the teeth of these cultural attacks.
Gullah hides a number of powerful cultural affirmations. For example, James P. Johnson, the incredible creator of stride piano and composer who sparked the first American dance craze, the Charleston, used Gullah patterns in his music. His most famous composition, the standard for jazz pianists for two decades, is “Carolina Shout,” a tune Johnson based on watching the feet of Charleston dancers at a west side club called The Jungle in New York. His first extended composition was a piano suite named “Yamacraw” for a Gullah community near Savannah who imported the name in honor of the shared lessons and legacy of nearby native Americans.
Gullah language rhythms reach their highest form in the pulpits of local churches. Gullah preachers can literally rock the church with intonations and cadences. They transcribe its spiritual elements, leaving off its older, off-sounding pronunciations.
But how do these rhythm and language elements show up in print?
wr: As repetition, double meanings, structured details; as theme changes and wide, encompassing knowledge; as rhythms and images, consonants and vowels that create and place an internal sound that touch heart, spirit, and body; as audience engagement, and breaking and defying western rules and conventions and standing them on their head. As laughter. Simply sit through an Episcopal or Methodist and an AME or Baptist sermon on a Sunday morning in Charleston; the contrast and twin traditions are obvious.
Can you offer examples from you own work?
Sure. Here’s an excerpt from the opening of “Stirring the Pot: Food as Memory,” a short memoir form I recently published on the web (see http://bit.ly/baMiiM). Note the double meanings, embedded emotional details, repetition, and emphasis by both hyperbole and sly humor:
“I loved food, and Mrs. Lucy Washington cooked food that I loved. Her school lunches were better than anybody’s cooking that I knew in the whole world. My mother, never jealous or put off by my praise and devotion to Mrs. Washington’s school lunch, was eager to hear, as I got off the school bus, the epicurean delight of the day. My mother took an active interest in this high point because she loved food, loved me, and believed in my judgment and taste. So empowered, together we shared, revered, and celebrated the gifts of Mrs. Lucy as I described her daily triumphs in the school cafeteria. Mrs. Lucy Washington was a cook who could cook.
And finally, in the closing excerpt, is matrixed power: tied to food, to Alice, a cook who is a Charleston legend; to Ralph Ellison (the Pulitzer prize winning writer) and his use of “yams;” to the millennium change, American freedom, Gullah food legends, dressed in the language of internal rhyme, alliteration, and the outpouring of creative spirit by which the enslaved survived in the teeth of America’s oppression:
“I sold out of Alice’s collard greens and Hoppin’ John (eaten for luck and prosperity) during Charleston’s 2000 Millennium First Night celebration on Marion Square, named for the historic patriot whose men survived in their fight for freedom on Oscar’s legendary yams.
But my mind always goes back to Mrs. Lucy’s lunch. There are days when the single thought of a bite of her breads is enough to sustain me through the crush of a world that has left me starved for so much.
In Gullah, “das ’em dere,”–food for thought?
What inspires you to tweet? Living; the lives of others. The global human spirit. Every tweet tells of a heart, in joy or distress.
140 characters of advice for a new user? Be silent. Listen to what others have to say. Find your community. Change and grow.
How do you imagine Twitter changing? Great platform and search options.
Who do you admire most for his or her use of Twitter? Soledad O’Brien, her amazing humanness; Cory Booker, an inspirational mayor who combines new and old.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions of Twitter?It only duplicates FB. Shorter version. That it has no features.
Why should people follow you? They find their own reasons; it’s presumptive of me to suggest.
Can you name some one-of-a-kind Twitter accounts that you follow?NepalTV, who will often provide ground level commentary upon reply.
How do you decide what to tweet? Posts that travel the world, touch its people, that find and share its stories, old and new, preserve its love, and recall its fear, greenly and cheaply.
Why’d you start tweeting? The posts reflect interests, are easy to share and offer a means of personal support and contact.
Has Twitter changed your life? If yes, how? Yes. Greater confidence, greater satisfaction, new friends, renewed faith in spirit and social action.
What do you wish people would do more of on Twitter? I write history because its truth and honesty gives my writing intimacy and authority. I wish people shared more local history.
How will the world change in the next year? I don’t have a crystal ball. I hope for improved water and health among the world’s poor.
What are some big Twitter faux pas? Sales pitches; too many lists and bests; bad research; inaccurate facts; pushing ideologies, name calling, cursing.
What will the world be like 10 years from now? I love living in the moment.