“This, tonight, will be the only time in my life that I will look upon women with an Auburn connection without scorn, anger or bitter disappointment. So, thank you for that opportunity."
The crowd of primarily Auburn alumnae erupted in laughter. Rick Bragg, an Alabama native, was on the stage — tall, assertive and humble after a Pulitzer Prize and nearly a decade reporting for The New York Times.
Leah Dubberly, president of the Women’s Philanthropy Board of Auburn University, the group that hosted the event at the Gogue Performing Arts Center as part of its Summer Nights program Thursday night, called Bragg “the South’s premier storyteller.”
“I would like him to know that half of me is from the southern part of Italy,” Dubberly said. “The other half of me is from some of the places he describes. So, I would like him to tell me a story about the Southern place where my mom grew up.”
Susan Hubbard, dean of the College of Human Sciences and WPB benefactor, said Bragg's stories "have a way of reminding us what we have in common and help us to celebrate the little things in our lives together.”
Stories of pinto beans and ham, pit-roasted bologna and tomato sandwiches spilled out from the stage, fittingly decorated with a tire swing, a screen door, rocking chairs and two goats.
He talked about his favorite meal of slaw and cornbread muffins — if you don't like them, "then obviously you don't love the Lord," he'd said — and his mother, the woman who cooked them, calling her “the last of her kind.”
Now 61, Bragg has decades of reflection behind him — or, as he would say, a lifetime of “remembering.” His time overseas has stuck with him, but not in the way it did his father, a Korean War veteran. He had made light of his choice to write rather than join the military, saying he became a writer when he found himself “too old to run and too fat to duck.”
While at The New York Times, Bragg would often take weekly flights down to New Orleans. At the time, he was living in Atlanta.
Ultimately, his trips to New Orleans led him to the doorstep of Oseola McCarty, who he described as a philanthropist that might not have even known the meaning of the word “philanthropy.” The lateMcCarty was his introduction to philanthropy and was who brought him to the Gogue Performing Arts Center last night.
He went on to reflect on objects and events that stuck with him from his childhood: Green Tupperware with fading, layered writing on it, suitable enough for a spaceman helmet; the movies “River of No Return” and “Blue Hawaii” which held his full attention; and raccoon hunting with his brother on dark summer nights.
Bragg called his brother “the last, real Southern man,” who took in all the unwanted dogs and loved walking in the woods. Each raccoon hunt, Bragg remembers walking away from the city — full of lights and girls — toward an empty nothingness.
“And then I heard that sound, that song,” Bragg said. “Of blue chicks and red bones, and they just start singing. … It would rise on those ridges and disappear, … and you would follow it, like it was the theme of life.”
The room stood silent, as if they all understood. They leaned in a little closer when he mentioned his book “All Over But the Shoutin’.” He recited its first few lines, which he said "the critics seemed to like, but I like because it explains the Southern man – why my mama had to do what she had to do, why she had to go 18 years without a new dress – so that I could come here and talk to y’all.”
Bragg then took questions from the audience, using his experiences of living in the South to try and help others reflect on their own.
“You can’t live in the Deep South and not know what the rough edges of this life are like,” Bragg said. “Poverty, violence, jail — we didn’t see those things as things to be ashamed of. … And I guess, maybe we should be ashamed, but the fact is this old life is a damn boring slog if done right."
He continued, talking about the importance of helping future generations of Southerners.
“You’re not going to save young people from that grit, and that maintenance and that toughness," he said. "But you by God give them a fighting chance.”
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