12 August 2004

Republicans in Dallas, 1984

IT WAS in Dallas in 1984, at the Republican convention, that the idea of traveling in the American South, or Southeast, came to me. I had never been in the South before; and though Dallas was not part of the Southeast I later chose to travel in, I had a sufficiently strong sense there of a region quite distinct from New York and New England, which were essentially all that I knew of the United States....

It was mid-August, and hot. I liked the contrast on the downtown streets of bright light and the deep shadows of tall buildings, and the strange feel of another, more temperate climate that those shadows gave. One constantly played with contrasts like that. The tinted glass of the hotel room softened the glare of the hot sky: the true color of the sky, outside, was always a surprise. Air conditioning in hotels, cars, and the convention center made the heat, in one's passages through it, stimulating.

The heat was a revelation. It made one think of the old days. Together with the great distances, it gave another idea of the lives of the early settlers. But now the very weather of the South had been made to work the other way. The heat that should have debilitated had been turned into a source of pleasure, a sensual excitement, an attraction: a political convention could be held in Dallas in the middle of August.

On the wall at the back of the podium in the convention center the flags of the states were laid flat, in alphabetical order. The flags of the older states were distinctive; they made me think of the British-colonial flag (and the British-given colonial motto, in Latin, from Virgil) I had known as a child in Trinidad. And for the first time it occurred to me that Trinidad, a former British colony (from 1797), and an agricultural slave colony (until 1833, when slavery was abolished in the British Empire), would have had more in common with the old slave states of the Southeast than with New England or the newer European-immigrant states of the North. That should have occurred to me a long time before, but it hadn't. What I had heard as a child about the racial demeanor of the South had been too shocking. It had tainted the United States, and had made me close my mind to the South.

The convention center was very big. The eye could not take it all in at once. In that vast space the figures on the podium looked small. They could have been lost; but a big screen above them magnified their image, and scores of smaller screens all over the center repeated this living, filmed picture. It was hypnotic, that same face or gesture in close-up coming at one from so many angles. The aim might only have been communication and clarity; but no more grandiose statement could have been made about the primacy of men; nothing could have so attempted to stretch out the glory of the passing moment. And yet, almost as part of its political virtue, this convention dealt in piety and humility and heaven, and daily abased itself before God.

A famous local Baptist pastor spoke the final benediction. His church organization was prodigious; its property in downtown Dallas was said by the newspapers to be worth very many millions. His service, on the Sunday after the convention, was to a packed congregation. It was also being carried on television; and it was a full, costumed production, with music and singing. But the hellfire sermon might have come from a simpler, rougher time, when perhaps for five or six months of the year people had no escape from the heat, when travel was hard, when people lived narrowly in the communities into which they had been born, and life was given meaning only by absolute religious certainties.

I began to think of writing about the South. My first travel book--undertaken at the suggestion of Eric Williams, the first black prime minister of Trinidad--had been about some of the former slave colonies of the Caribbean and South America. I was twenty-eight then. It seemed to me fitting that my last [or, fortunately, latest] travel book--travel on a theme--should be about the old slave states of the American Southeast.

My thoughts--in Dallas, and then in New York, when I was planning the journey--were about the race issue. I didn't know then that that issue would quickly work itself out during the journey, and that my subject would become that other South--of order and faith, and music and melancholy--which I didn't know about, but of which I had been given an intimation in Dallas.
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 23-25

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