Looking at Southern Culture is a little like looking at a UFO for me — I squint at it; should I declare it a sign of intelligent life or a weather balloon? I am wandering among strangers, hospitable strangers, but strangers nonetheless.
Consider this my X-File reportage, then. Here’s what I saw about a week ago:
The colonnaded antebellum building is called the Lyceum. It is the administration building of Ole Miss. When the first African-American students arrived at Ole Miss, apparently violence broke out, and there are, legend would have it, still bullet holes in the facade of this building. I have yet to see the bullet holes.
The young women in green t-shirts are a sorority. I’m not sure which one. I can’t tell the sororities apart, even when they wear t-shirts of different hues to distinguish themselves one from another, which they did this day.
These young women gathered in a cluster. Near them, a cluster of yellow-t-shirted women gathered as well, near them, a cluster of periwinkle blue-t-shirted women stood. Near those, a group of young women in salmon-pink t-shirts. Almost every single one of these women, like the women in this picture, were white.
There were some clusters also in front of the Lyceum of African-American students as well. They did not all wear the same t-shirt. Some of them were in t-shirts, but a few of them were in prom dresses, with hair and make-up done. These young women belonged to all African-American sororities.
Sororities and fraternities are still largely segregated in Mississippi. Last year, on the day we got engaged, my husband and I attended a wedding of two African-American friends of his. They were both out of school well above a decade, but at their wedding, they had fraternity brothers and sorority sisters sing a song related to said sorority and fraternity. They still gave each other handshakes related to this custom. When I saw Spike Lee’s film School Daze about this phenomenon, I did not realize that when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first living breath to your last dying day — well, it’s not Jets and Sharks. It’s an incomprehensible, even to sorority and fraternity members, series of Greek letters and a complex series of rituals that accompany them.
In this crowd of Ole Miss students, with very few exceptions, blacks and whites stood apart. So did salmon-pinks, yellows, periwinkles, and greens. They looked like a large flower bed, one where the gardener had separated the peonies from the pansies and the impatiens. They were standing in impatiens, or rather, impatience, waiting twitchily.
There were some men scattered throughout the crowd as well, white and black. They wore stickers on their caps or their back packs, some of them, with the names of certain of the sorority girls.
All these students had gathered to hear the election results of the homecoming vote. Apparently, only people in the Greek community on campus have anything like a shot of winning a title in this election — and by Greek community, I’m not talking about people who say, “Epharistoh para kala” to thank each other or who have a keen appreciation for Spanikopita. I lived in such a Greek community in Queens for years and felt less like a Xena — foreign woman — than I do in this Greek community.
The young men, some of them, were waiting to hear which of them had won the “honor” of playing Colonel Reb, a white Confederate slaveholder old man — think Colonel Sanders in a tacky bright red suit with a cane. The college is doing away with the mascot, but apparently, he gets trotted out for the odd ritual of homecoming.
The young women were waiting to hear if one or more of their sorority sisters had won the honor of homecoming queen, homecoming princess, and a dubiously-named, but apparently deeply esteemed title — Miss Ole Miss — which sounds like, “Miss Old Maid” to me. There were other homecoming honors to be won, titles and distinctions inferior to the ones mentioned above, but their roles mystify me. I’m not sure what one does at a homecoming game. Where I went to school as an undergrad, Sarah Lawrence College, we didn’t have homecoming. We didn’t have much in the way of teams. We didn’t , at the time, even have a gym, just an “athletics room” not large enough to hold a proper basketball game in. At The City College of New York, where I got my Masters Degree. there was a football team, but no one knew when they played or whether they won or lost. Most students were too busy with their complex city lives to have time for a game.
Here, though, in Oxford, Mississippi, I saw several hundred people gather in protest near this colonnaded building, and my first thought was that this must be some kind of a protest. We had protests in front of buildings on my campus when I was an undergrad. I participated in one to urge the trustees to divest from holdings in South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed. As this was the administrative building, I thought it might be a plea for something like that.
No — they just really, really cared who won Miss Ole Miss and the other titles.
I saw two girls near me look at each other as if it was Christmas morning, tears brimming in their eyes. As the administrators came out on the steps with the official count, they clasped hands, and one gasped, “Oh, my God! This is actually happening!”
As each of the Homecoming court and princesses was announced, as a name of a particular sorority sister was called, the whole sorority jumped up and down and gave — not a whoop, but a lady-like hoot. I’ve only heard this hoot once before, and it was in the movie Gone With the Wind. When it was announced that there would be an auction to dance with the ladies, the ladies let out this noise. Is it a lady rebel yell? I think so. The teams of Ole Miss are called the rebels. So they let out that sigh-hoot, high pitched, not in ululation, but something just as exotic and particular to them.
Many of these women hugged each other with real tears running down their faces. The ones doing the crying did not seem to be the losers, only those who had campaigned for these titles for friends.
Hysteria broke out in one of the colored t-shirt clusters when Miss Ole Miss was announced. Apparently, that was the loveliest title to have, better, perhaps than Homecoming Queen, but I have no idea why. Apparently, the next day, someone accused the winner of cheating and demanded a recount. Again, I have no idea why.
What is this place, and why do they care about the things they care about? Why don’t they care about the things I cared about at their age? Why do they all want to conform to an exclusive group’s standards? I was desperate to be an individual when I was their age. Why don’t these sororities integrate more? Everyone, black and white, is smart and pretty here.
And what am I doing down here among them? How did this happen? When I teach my students that Immanuel Kant said that the slogan of the Enlightenment should be, “Don’t be afraid to use your own reason,” do they feel afraid to use it anyway, in case they might offend sorority sisters or fraternity brothers? Have I entered a culture, like in certain Asian cultures, where the needs of the group are traditionally paramount, valued well above the needs of the individual, and my rugged individualism feels like a fundamental rejection of their values? Is it odd that these conformists call themselves “The Rebels” and elect a Colonel Rebel?
I left a little confused. I heard one sorority, the one that had Miss Ole Miss in it, chanting something in unison. I could not make out the words, quite. I am Xena in this Greek world. I am a Goth (perhaps former Goth) invading Rome. I don’t speak the language, not quite. Despite careful study of the grammar, something is lost to me in the area of idiom.
Who are these people? Who am I among them?
I am squinting at them. It might just be a weather balloon. I don’t know. I know it seems to follow a direction other than the wind. This might be my close encounter of the third kind.