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

June 25, 2015

Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful — and Why Taking Down the Confederate Flag Constitutes Substantive Change

Southerners have so much about which they might be proud.  I adore the South, truly, and I appreciate Southerners.

I started this blog having moved from Brooklyn to marry my husband in Mississippi.  We consummated our marriage on a bed that was slept in by Ulysses S. Grant in his antebellum mansion headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  That means our wedding night was practically a historical reenactment of a Confederate surge against Yankee defenses.  So with a sense of Southern heritage, my sojourn here began, and with respect for Southern traditions, my sojourn continues.

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

But what Southern traditions do today’s Southerners really want to embrace?  Is the average Southerner thinking that slave auctions ought to be brought back?  Do today’s Southerners believe in lynchings?  No!  The vast majority of Southerners are against what William T. Thompson, the creator of the Confederate Battle Flag, said about his stars and bars, namely, that his flag represents the struggle to “maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”  The majority of Southerners have intellectually accepted the idea of equality for all races under the law, and as for heaven, I am fond of the words that one Southern preacher, Kenneth Copeland, said: “If someone says he loves the Lord but hates another race, question his salvation, as the Word says he who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”  Southerners are capable of prejudice and of racial bias, but intellectually, the vast majority of Southerners don’t want institutionalized racism and violence.  They want things to be fair, though i wonder how clearly they imagine an equitable South.

When I talk to many white people here in the South, I sense they are hesitant to talk about race because it feels like a topic off-limits, though the racists in their midst are not at all timid.  Most white people I meet are not ugly racists, though their contact with people of color is limited by a de facto system of segregation that persists in many parts of America, even though the de jure system is officially abolished.  However, they all have at least one racist relative.  They often love that racist relative.  And in the South, it is considered very, very rude to contradict someone over the Thanksgiving turkey, especially if that someone is older than you are.

That said, it needs to be done. White Northerners are more likely, I think, to tell that racist relative that his or her comments are offensive.  I am definitely going to open my mouth when such a thing happens.  In fact, here’s a story of how I did one afternoon, and it will demonstrate how I have come to certain views about the quiet beliefs of Southern white people on the whole:

****

I had backed my car into a pole in the Ole Miss stadium parking lot, and I needed a new bumper.  I found myself an exceedingly honest auto body shop, Kenny’s auto body shop on University Avenue on the outskirts of Oxford, Mississippi.  Kenny told me I could wait while the work on my car was done by him and his several junior mechanics.  His is the kind of shop that attracts a number of middle-aged or older men who hang around and comment on the work being done, give unsolicited advice, or on the day I was there, stare at a Yankee woman’s chest and try to flirt with her in unctuous and illiterate ways.

The older man kept staring at my chest as he told me about how big his car was, and I ignored him as best I could until he told me in some manner I only half remember that he was better than those “n” -s (not using the word he used because it is so offensive.)

That’s when I turned to him and asked him how he knew I wasn’t an “N.”  He looked a little surprised.  He said, “With yer blonde hair and blue eyes, you caint be one.”

I told him I was a white “n,” and so was my husband — he, too, is a white “n,” and I told him that we liked souped up cadillacs, watermelon and fried chicken, and he’d better stop using that “n” word to stereotype us and insult us.

“Hey!” He protested, “I didn’t say all that!”

“Sure you did,” I said, “What else could you have meant by using a disgusting word like the N-word?  You brought it up, so let’s talk about it!”

He felt challenged in a way he was clearly unused to, and he left in a huff.

As the door shut behind him, I realized that all work by the men in this body shop had stopped some time ago.  All these guys were white, looking more than a little like Larry the Cable Guy, the kind of guys who chew tobacco and hunt on weekends, all Southerners, all white — and I admit I wasn’t sure what would happen next.  Would they send me away?  How would I get back to campus without my car?  Was I potentially in danger?

After a moment where you could have heard a Teitlist cap fall to the ground out of a blue jumpsuit back pocket, they came up one by one and shook my hand, congratulating me on finally serving up what this creepy man had been dishing out in their presence for many years, while they had stood silently and put up with what they, too, found offensive language.

“Why didn’t anybody say anything to this guy before, if everybody seems to feel the same way about him?” I asked.

They didn’t have a clear answer.  The man wasn’t a customer in their shop, just a guy who came to hang around and talk like that, they said, so it wasn’t exactly about customer service.

One finally offered, “Well, it’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody else, and nobody wants to be rude, because it will stick around as a story forever.”

This may be so, but the story that wasn’t sticking around forever was that this guy was a massive racist creep who deserved to be shunned.

Southern manners seems to allow the few truly rude Southerners to stay rude.  Southerners might live happier lives if they decided to stand up to jerks more often.

*****

So finally, Governor Bentley of Alabama decided to quietly take down the flag without a debate, and everybody is still who they were before — or are they?  Is this a cosmetic change?  Or is this a change that materially changes the discourse of the South?

The reasoning behind the decision to take down the flag is perhaps best expressed by AL.com writer Kyle Whitmire, who writes, explaining to other Southerners, “For the South, the Confederate flag has been what a face tattoo in a job interview is for everybody else. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what it meant for us if it scared the hell out of everybody else.”

A lot of people in the South will tell Northerners and each other that the Confederate flag only represents pride in one’s heritage — but this symbol got hung over State capitols again during the period of the inception of the civil rights movement, some time shortly after Brown v. Board of Education in most instances. The pride expressed was in a segregated South.  The symbol has been used as recently as last year in the lynching of the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  Meredith, who was the first African-American admitted to the university, whose presence caused a race riot at the time instigated by white supremacists, had his image defaced last year by some racist frat boys who left a noose around his neck with a Stars-and-Bars-emblazoned flag hanging from it.  What was the nature of the pride expressed there?  And more importantly, do most Southern white people want a share of that pride?

While writers like Nicholas Kristof of The New York TImes are right to exhort the South to make material changes, it is easy for outsiders to the South and its manners to miss the enormity of this change.  Maybe the Southerners haven’t told their racist grandmothers to stop insulting people of other races at Christmas dinner yet, but this gesture is a step in that direction.  It says that Southerners realize that wrongs have been done recently using a symbol of the past, and the South most Southerners want to live in isn’t violent toward people of color, and it’s fair, though the parameters of that fairness have yet to be defined by most people.

So I rejoice at this news.  When I heard that Governor Bentley had taken down that hate flag, I turned on the Lynard Skynard and danced, thinking about where the skies are blue, singing songs about the Southland — and does your conscience bother you?  If you are from Alabama, your state has taken a weight off its collective conscience.  Congratulations, Alabama!  I agree with your sign — Alabama is the beautiful, and your banner is one of United States, not divided states and divided people.

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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