Paula Deen, an American Story

Deen embodies the selective amnesia that's allowed the U.S. to paper over its racial, economic and political contradictions, right from the start.

By Imara Jones Jul 04, 2013

In an interesting turn of history, the celebration of America’s birth and the demise of Paula Deen’s food empire are occurring at practically the same time. The Georgia-based TV cook landed in hot water due to the recent uncovering of her lifelong racist views and alleged employment discrimination. Key among these views is her desire to return to an era when American liberty rested upon the economic brutalization of millions through slavery.

As with the U.S. of yesteryear for which she longs, the so-called Butter Queen is falling apart due to an inherent conflict at her core. Mirroring the schizophrenia of America’s original Constitution, which championed both freedom and slavery, Deen’s sunny promise has a dark side, informed by race.

As Americans gather to celebrate our founding principles, the Deen controversy gives us the opportunity to examine our founding contradictions. Declaring that you’re open to all even as you allow racial and economic injustice to thrive doesn’t work. Had she had a better sense of her national history, Deen might have managed to avoid the current disaster.

Deen’s plantation wishes and mint julep dreams burst back into public consciousness on June 19. That’s when the transcript of her out-of-court testimony in a racial and sexual harassment discrimination lawsuit against the former Food Network star was released by the National Enquirer. During the course of questioning, Deen admitted to using the N-word on several occasions.

But had it stopped and started there, the firestorm might have blown over. As Lisa Jackson, the white woman who brought the suit against Deen and her brother Bubba Hiers said earlier this week, "This has never been about the N-word."

What’s actually sunk Deen is her often stated desire to return to the days of the legal ownership of blacks from which her family got rich. Deen gives us two dramatic examples, but there are many others.

According to the transcript, Deen recounted an idea that she had come up with for a Southern plantation wedding replete with "slaves" dressed up in formal serving attire. She envisaged black men resplendent in white coats and black ties catering to guests’ every need.

Deen said that the idea was sparked by her visit to a restaurant that represented a "certain America before the Civil War" that was "impressive." The pretend slaves, as she tells it, "not only black men, [but] women too" were "beautiful."

Sadly, this plantation fantasy echoes a similar whitewashed novella she told about her slaveholding great grandfather to The New York Times’ Kim Severson last year.

Recounting the story as if she were an eyewitness, with a voice tinged with sadness and regret, Deen laid out how her forbearer had committed suicide at the end of the Civil War. He did so, she said, because he’d lost all of "his 30 workers" (i.e. enslaved people who won freedom) and could no longer run the plantation. Forced to actually work, rather than extract labor from other human beings, Deen’s great grandfather ended his life. In her telling of it, our sympathy should lay with him.

What Deen misses is that as a slaveholder of 30 men, women and children, her great grandfather was actually in the top 2 percent of all whites in the South in 1860, according to data from PBS’ Africans in America series. As such he formed a network of wealth that made the Southern region the nation’s richest, the products of which fueled the development of the Industrial Revolution around the world and the rise of Wall Street in America.

The highest concentration of millionaires in the United States at the beginning of the Civil War was along the Southern half of the Mississippi Coast, and as Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and author of the "Crucible of the Civil War" points out, the total dollar value of slaves in the South was worth more than that of all the railroads and factories in the Northern states combined.

But the slaves never received any of the riches from the economic juggernaut that they constructed. Working 14-hour days, subjected to torture, physical abuse, mental cruelty, family dissolution, substandard clothes and housing–as Ken Burns’ "The Civil War" documentary points out–only four slaves out of 100 made it to age 60. Moreover, the devastating impact on black families didn’t end in 1865.

The fact that whites currently have 22 times the wealth of blacks has its roots in slavery. When it comes to the economic legacy of enslavement, as famed Southern writer William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."

But even if Deen is blithely unaware of the vicious racial reality behind her family’s and nation’s Antebelleum wealth, she’s certainly seen enough of the recent past to be able to separate racial rights from racial wrongs.

Deen grew up in Albany, Ga.; a city which was at the heart of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s. Deen was a young adult at the time.

Albany was the only city in the South where Martin Luther King, Jr., registered a clear defeat. Albany so eluded King that he went to Birmingham afterwards where he thought the civil rights movement would have a better shot. In Birmingham, King ended up facing off with the violent legend, Bull Connor. Even with these difficulties, Birmingham was a better arena for King than Albany. Albany is where Deen spent her formative years.

Though she told Matt Lauer on "Today," "I is what I is and I’m not changin’," the bottom line is that Deen knows better. It’s just that like the country she inhabits; sometimes she conveniently erases lessons already learned. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act last week reinforces the point.

The sad part is that, like everyone from the South, Deen is actually a product of the very black culture she scorns. She’s built an empire valued at close to $100 million by profiting directly from that culture. Many of the dishes and cooking styles that scream "Southern" have their roots in Africa–black eyed peas, yams, red beans and rice, and bar-b-que are among the many plates that can trace their beginnings to the homeland of America’s enslaved people.

The fact that she can’t recognize and accept this reality is one of the reasons that her company, Paula Deen Enterprises, is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Given the young, increasingly people-of-color demographics of the 21st century U.S., it’s far too easy to castigate Deen, dismiss the horror of her comments and move on to the next thing. But that would be a mistake. The reality is that Deen embodies the selective amnesia that’s allowed America to paper over and too often ignore its racial, economic, and political contradictions right from the start.

The inconvenient truth is that America’s early freedom and global rise to prominence was underwritten by economic cruelty. Until Deen and every other American can accept this fact, the nation’s past will continue to shape the country’s present, and we’ll continue fighting a "two steps forward, one step back" battle to live up to our most cherished ideals.