On Silver & Ghosts
August 28, 2019
Writer and anthropologist Kelly Alexander reflects on a photograph by Southbound artist McNair Evans. As part of our Call & Response series in conjunction with Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South, we’ve asked artists, writers, and poets to respond to a photograph of their choice in the form of short written pieces.
By Kelly Alexander
This is a photograph about ghosts.
It is about the ghosts of family suppers past. It depicts the way in which some Southern families value all of the aspects of sitting down to a meal. You do not see them, but this photograph contains all the people whose mouths were graced with morsels delivered by these stunning sticks, each shiny one decorated with an ornate pattern of delicate scrolls and flowers.
You do not see them, but this photograph contains all of the people whose hands washed, dried, polished, and lovingly looked after the wellbeing of these forks, knives, and spoons. They were probably women—unless there was a man in the family who was charged with the polishing, as I understand happened in some households that took particular pride in the family silver.
It is too easy to say that the people sitting down to eat at a table are its most important attribute. Such a view neglects to acknowledge the attention given to setting a table in style, to providing the elusive and taken-for-granted quality of ambience that, although it need not be fancy or upscale, elevates the individual act of eating into the taking of a communal meal.
If you have been bitten by the desire to collect things, then you already know, as McNair Evans seems to, that our “things” contain a brand of magic. You also know that it does not make you a craven materialist to acknowledge the pull such objects have on a person’s heart.
Johnny Cash knew: He was an avid collector (I have heard “hoarder” used) of home goods, particularly rugs, furniture, table linens, and fine china. Yet he was conflicted about the hold his possessions had on him. Roseanne Cash remarked that her father’s favorite saying was: “Every possession is just a stick to beat yourself with.”
We who see the ghosts in this sink of silverware, are we all Southerners? Is it an especially Southern quality to be attached to the items that inhabit our kitchens and dining rooms?
This is a serious question that archaeologists and historians have taken up since the South has existed. The consensus among them is: Yes. The theory goes that there is a tendency among Southerners to valorize their things because ours is a culture built on excessive class awareness. The (im)perfect storm of European colonization, the Atlantic slave trade, and the disastrous process of Reconstruction set up an emotional landscape that allowed Southerners to become inordinately attached to our stuff. Faulkner wrote about it explicitly in Absalom, Absalom! So did Marcie Cohen Ferris, American Studies historian at UNC, when she deconstructed The Old South, the trailer for Gone with the Wind (1939). Ferris argues that there are no better images for depicting “a noble, grand South” than one of “lavish scenes of plantation dining” featuring tables adorned with fine china, polished sterling silverware, starched linens, and domed food warmers.
McNair Evans’s photo here is not about grandeur. In fact, it is about the everyday and the quotidian, the real work and special pride taken in owning objects that help us establish our identity as people who have nice things. We do not see the table, or the meal, or the diners, but we see the evidence of how they lived. We see that although a fine meal may have ended, the stuff used during it will go on to have many more lives.
My favorite aspect of the photograph is the cake server peaking out of the bottom of the pile. Ghosts like dessert, too.