Maurice Bessinger, South Carolina’s Most Famous Embarrassing Uncle, Leaves This Mortal Coil

Maurice Confederate flag

An exercise in non-satire: The late Maurice Bessinger in portraiture, bearing the sacred barbecue sauce to be offered at the alter of the reborn Confederacy.

Lots of people who’ve never lived in the South look upon it as this weird hinterland where regressive politics, loose interpretation of incest laws and strange culinary traditions make it our own little bit of the Third World here in the United States. One person who helped perpetuate this unfortunate image – particularly when it came to my home state of South Carolina – was Maurice Bessinger.

Bessinger, who was once considered South Carolina’s king of barbecue (that’s pulled pork to the rest of you), died over the weekend, sparing those of us who hail from the Palmetto State yet another embarrassing point of conversation whenever our home comes up in discussion. You can read his excellent obituary by John Monk at The State newspaper here.

Not long ago, I wrote about how characters like Maurice fell under the designation of the “embarrassing uncle” – someone who might sit next to you at church, speak with you at family gatherings and generally seem like an OK person, but happens to hold some pretty reprehensible views on the way things “should” be.

Maurice made some awesome barbecue and was probably a good family guy and active in his church. But all that tends to fall by the wayside when you realize the guy stood on a national stage and made himself the leading son-of-a-bitch in favor of unpopular things like slavery, segregation, denying service to non-white customers and spreading literature in his restaurants that supported and endorsed all of the above.

A dilemma of the Southern progressive that not many folks outside the South understand is the tendency to wish entire generations of politicians, public figures and even acquaintances and relatives would just keel over so they’d finally keep their damn mouths shut and let the rest of us get on with dragging the region out of the dark ages. I’m guilty of it, and I’m sure if you asked a number of my friends who abandoned the South and those of a progressive mind who still live there if they were guilty of it, they might nod their heads yes.

Hell, even Strom Thurmond, who was for a long time the Boogeyman-in-Chief for those outside the South who wanted to point to the region’s political horrors, came around to embrace his African-American constituents. For many, he was still No. 1 on the death watch, with the hope that with his departure from the living things would turn around a bit.

Unfortunately, he’s in the dirt and not a lot has changed. Many of the Baby Boomers who were the first generation to experience what Southern desegregation was really like – and who had the potential to carry the torch of equality forward – have let that torch go out and crossed back over into the old rhetoric of “states’ rights” and whining about how it’s really the white folks who are being oppressed. Do we have to wait for them to croak, too?

Add to that the fact that Generation X, which was supposed to be long past all the racial BS that used to go with being a Southerner, has a representative in the governor’s mansion. Too bad she’s one of the folks likely eulogizing Maurice as a “great businessman.” And alas, there are plenty more like her and far, far worse – those not beholden to the conventions of politics and who feel free to spout any sort of regressive BS that crosses their tiny brains. And worse, they are having children, and spreading their old-timey thinking to their Gen Y offspring.

But with the demise of Maurice, his too-often wide open mouth is permanently shut. His grandkids now run his barbecue joint and have stripped the place of much of its divisive past, hopefully making it a place where non-white customers can spend their money on a big plate of pork with the knowledge that it won’t eventually pay for tracts talking about how they should still be in bondage.

And in the meantime, those of us who call the South home but who always wish for it to be better will be waiting for some more of the old guard to kick off, change their minds or just shut up and allow those with some sense to make it happen.

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