The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 1, 2010

Southern Rituals That Mystify Me

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:

Not little green men, but a little green sorority

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.

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August 31, 2010

Rebels Who Don’t Rebel

My students at Ole Miss are the sweetest, most polite, most lovely group of young scholars ever to set foot on a campus, and it’s freaking me out.

They file in quietly, having read the text in advance, wearing a veritable uniform — all of them, male and female — flip-flops, shorts, and a tank-top or t-shirt.  The boys sometimes wear caps.  The girls sometimes wear jewelry.  But they are in lock-step fashion-wise. I don’t know them well, yet, but they appear to be perfect angels.  I am spooked by this.  New Yorkers who are young are twitchy, pierced in odd places, and check out their large  pupils — they might be on something.  They wear some black.  They expose midriffs that have tattoos.  I have to tell them to turn off the music which is bleeding out of their ear buds.  I catch them texting.

I should be thrilled.  I am thrilled.  My students are wonderful.  Their mommas should be proud of them.  I am proud of them.  However, something is wrong with this picture.

I think they are not yet sure whether they are allowed to disagree with the authors presented to them in class.  When I say emphatically — I say much  emphatically — yes, they can disagree, they aren’t quite sure whether or not to believe me.  This might be a Yankee ambush.

They call themselves The Rebels, and Rebel sports are a serious business.  People here care passionately about the football team in particular, but look at their current mascot:

Yes, the Rebels still have an old man representing them

There are, of course, lots of things to say about this image:

  1. Perhaps most importantly, they are in the process around here of choosing a new mascot.
  2. This Civil War slaveholder is offensive as an image.
  3. Oddly, per an article which appeared on ESPN’s web page, the mascot — known as Colonel Reb — has only been around since the 1970s, post-integration of Ole Miss, so what were they thinking?
  4. Here’s the kicker for me  — He’s an old man!

That’s right — my Rebel students have an old  man with a cane as their symbol.  How can that be rebellion?

Ole Miss is known as one of the top party schools of  the region.  I have no doubt this is true.  However, according to Dean of Students Sparky Reardon, most of the students party Saturday night and crawl into church on Sunday morning.  If they have sinned, we may assume also that they repent. I am a Christian, and I believe in repentance.  I repent.  However, I can’t honestly say I regret being in an environment of non-conformity and rebellion.  The parties, from what I understand, that these kids go to at Ole Miss are largely the same — frat house, booze, music, shouting, drunk sex.  Before they take their clothes off, everyone is dressed the same.

I went to parties when I was their age where I danced with a man who looked like Young Vincent Van Gogh — only  he was wearing a diaphanous floral print dress, a floppy garden party hat, and waving an  organza scarf in my face.

My friend from college Becca, who later became a professional opera singer, almost got kicked out of school for using a flame thrower in an experimental musical performance.  She almost torched the front row and might have burned the auditorium down.  She had a  mohawk and a pet weasel.

I went to a night club and met one of my favorite movie stars, who treated my girlfriend, who was ga-ga over him, with a lack of respect.  A guy there beat up the movie star.  I made out with that guy in the ladies’ room.

More than once, I went to an abandoned warehouse where there was a party going on with art videos and punk rock bands.  The cops usually shut these down.

We never called ourselves rebels.  We rebelled.

Yet somehow, my students are all there in their places with bright, shiny faces, and they are the rebels who don’t rebel.

This shouldn’t bother me.  This is wonderful.  I have good kids in my class.  All the boys are handsome and clean-cut.  All the girls look fresh-faced and pretty.

These are smart kids, too.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure, based on Northeastern biases, how well-prepared they would be for this subject matter, but they are better academically prepared than most of the students I saw in similar classrooms in New York City.

The rebels have a cheer, referred to as “Hotty Toddy” for short.  It has some curse words in it, but what is striking is that this, too, is a group activity based on conformity.  It is a cheer that people shout in unison.

I have never  been very good at understanding conformists’ motivations.  I see no particular joy in being like the others.  I distrust group-think in all its manifestations.

Is rebellion a fundamental rite of passage to individuality?  Some psychologists say yes.  However, in  an era that is post-9/11, these sweet kids have wanted somehow to be good.  In fact, it was all they could do to make this place better, the United States.  They could not give their parents any additional headaches.

I should appreciate them more.  I do appreciate them.  I just hope that they don’t miss something on their way wherever they’re going.

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