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

December 13, 2011

Measuring change one school hallway at a time

The founders of my step-daughters non-racist school were Klan in all but name and sheet

My stepdaughter’s school is a quiet Christian private school with good teachers and affirmative values of the kind that most any member of the political Left today could embrace, but its founders intended it to be a white supremacist enclave.  My husband and I sent her there because she is bright, and the local public school is run like a prison,  not a place to imagine a future.  The place where we have sent her is simple, with a building whose roof often leaks, no  state-of-the-art technology, but with instruction that emphasizes critical thinking, core academics — the very thing that makes some people going to school in dirt-floor school houses in the third world better prepared for American universities than our own students in schools with smart boards and WiFi.  It is now integrated, at least as much as most private schools in the country are integrated.  This means that there are a few African-American students on campus.  The school does nothing whatsoever explicitly to foster a spirit of racism in the community today.

However, the school used to be called a Council School, one of the schools founded immediately after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, by the White Citizens’ Council of Mississippi — you know, by those people who thought that something horrible would happen to white girls if they learned multiplication tables sitting at desks near black boys.  The White Citizens’ Council was secretly funded by a scary J. Edgar Hoover-ish organization that used to spy on pro-integration citizens in Mississippi — the Sovereignty Commission.  It was a horrible chapter of this state’s history, one that should cause any thinking person to shudder.  The school used to send out racist propaganda to school parents out of the PTA.  The current principal there tells me that the school at that time was Klan in all but the white sheets.

Today, however, the school is run by Christians who formally reject notions of racism as an anathema to their system of belief, whatever pockets of cultural bias they may still individually foster.  I could wish for more African-American history in the US History class, but that would also be true if we sent my stepdaughter to a Catholic school in Yonkers, New York.  I could wish for more titles by African-American authors in her English class, but the English teacher is fantastic, and she is focusing on good literary American classics, so I can provide perhaps a greater rainbow in the curriculum.  There are surely racists who attend the school, racist parents who send their children there because there are more black students at the public school.  However, the school’s mission teaches a spirit of service to the community, the imperative of putting character before career, principle before profit.

I consider this an air sample to test to show the progress that Mississippi has made over the past decades in terms of racism.  The Sovereignty Commission was de-funded in 1977 by the governor.  The Council School was disbanded and integrated the same year, reconstituted under a Christian board that changed the school’s mission statement and its actual mission.  Most of the people who felt the way the founders of the school felt are dead.  Their children may not have many, or any, African-American friends, but they have few enemies and draw no color lines in public life at least.

At school, my stepdaughter has both white and black friends.  She socializes with both.  She has learned from me and from her father that racism is akin to Satanism in our system of belief.  The pictures still hang on the hallway walls of the old classes of Council School graduating classes.  Like all such photos, they appear dated.  It is good that the kids who walk the hall neither find that history buried, nor do they find it celebrated.  It is a truth, a sad truth, much like the truth of ruins left from the time of Sherman’s march.  Things were one way.  They are that way no more.

Mississippi is changing.  It does not change quickly.  Nothing happens here quickly.  As Dr. King said in his letter from Birmingham Jail, the time is always right to do what is right, and no one should be held back by others’ reluctance to be fair.  However, racism is something that does not only hurt the group that is oppressed directly by it; it hurts the character and the spiritual health of the perpetrators as well.  The only ones who are owed redemption are the oppressed, but the paradoxical truth is that in relenting from racism, a potential opens up for the oppressor to become whole again as well.  Like green shoots from a ruined antebellum mansion, I see this former council school, now a Christian academy, as a reason for Mississippi to hope for better things to come.

January 27, 2011

Entering the Jungle Room — Why a Visit to Graceland is a Requirement for American Citizenship

Americans may not like the decor, but we somehow all meet here

Elvis Presley was the embodiment of the public social experiment which demonstrates what happens when someone without education or what Europeans would call “refinement” gets a lot of money and wins a social position that puts him above the kind of ordinary criticism that most of us endure daily.

Good friends will tell us when our clothes are too gaudy that they don’t flatter us.  That happens because we’re not iconic rock stars.  No one told Elvis that it was absurd to wear jewel-studded suits and enough bling to make Liberace blush.  No one even whispered that in so heavy a regalia he might come off gay — perhaps because Elvis carried himself with an unmistakable heterosexual cruising swagger, procreated with Priscilla, and never, ever lost screaming female fans.  That said, if your average straight man, even if he were handsome in the way Elvis Presley was undeniably handsome, were to show up at a party rattling, jangling with jewelry the way Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie remembers him from her early childhood, he would be met by the howling laughter of his best friends.

Nobody ever laughed at Elvis, at least not to his face.  They also didn’t stop his pill-popping, question his excuses for not attending church but only watching Rex Humbard on television.Perhaps if someone had said to him that loving thing, so common in New York City, so rare in Memphis, apparently — “What are you, stupid?  What’s wrong with you?  Have you lost your mind?”  — He might have survived his uncensored excesses.

People who knew him really did love Elvis.  Over and over again, in documentary after documentary, colleagues remember a soft-spoken, almost-shy man who had the fortune and the misfortune of a great musical range, a handsome face, a smoldering sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to phrase a song so that an audience would never want to hear it any other way again — this gift of his, the thing that made Elvis Elvis and nobody else — without a genius for money, for negotiation, for contextualizing his fame and success in a larger picture of a more complex world.  As a result, he made dumb decisions, and nobody somehow dared tell him that despite the jumpsuits studded with semi-precious stones, the emperor often had no clothes.

He took his money, overspent for a medium-sized house, and with the ministrations of a wife with no decorating sense at all, overspent for some of the tackiest furnishings the world has ever seen, bar none.  The living room with its wall-length mirrors and incongruous peacock stained glass panels screams a dollar amount without even the sense one gets at Versailles — that the rococo gilding has produced a unified effect.  Here, in Graceland, where the shiny things are  disjunctive, the living room announces as one enters the house  that the occupants are nouveau riche, uncultured, and somewhat spiritually adrift.

I was at Graceland a few days before Elvis’ birthday, an anniversary still celebrated by an unyielding group of faithful fans, painting a hagiographic picture of the man buried out by the kidney-shaped swimming pool, complete with miraculous sightings of “The King.”  In his tacky living room, there was one of those all-white tinsel Christmas trees with blue balls on it — something from which I doubt Elvis ever suffered, given these hysterical fans throwing themselves at him non-stop.  To his credit, Elvis would not allow his fans to call him “The King” to his face, even once refusing to sing when a group of them held up a large sign that proclaimed him king.

Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not Jesus.

“Jesus is the King,” He said, to his credit.

The fans, though, never stopped trying to grab off a piece of him in every sense of the expression, as if he were the Cross, a type of shroud, a holy relic of an unnamed mystery.

The worst by far of all the rooms on public display at this shrine to the uncanonized Southern Baptist saint is the Jungle Room.

Both the ceilings and the floors are carpeted in avocado green.  The expensive furniture is artificially wrought to look rustic — think of Marie Antoinette’s hameau, only less quaint, more horribly, unspeakably tacky.

Elvis used to entertain here, and apparently, nobody dared stage an intervention for him in it, neither for the drugs, nor for the style.  He recorded a later song in the room.  His voice might have bounced off the walls of this monstrosity, but it is a shame now, and shame on us, all of us, for not stepping in and dissuading him on any count of his over-reaching.

A man with gifts without genius, a man with money without sense of how best to create a lovely home for himself or to clothe himself in dignity with it — this man is a perfect allegorical figure for the prosperous but often lost United States of America.  We are still too much of a superpower for those close to us to dare tell us to stop with the fries and the pills that affect our serotonin levels.  Our flashy guns and our flashy war planes — no one told us in a way we have listened to or obeyed that we should buy an education for ourselves instead.

Elvis owned three large televisions — one for each major network — but not one book, not one.

We have gifts, we citizens of Graceland, but we are not as good at everything as we think we are or that we wish we were.  We love God, but we don’t act like penitents.  We are inventive, but more often than not, we are just plain tacky.

Because I have visited Graceland, entered the Jungle Room, and because I, too, remained silent in the wake of its evidence of one bad decision after another, I am an American now, like any other.  Like Peter betrayed Christ, I, too, have betrayed Elvis in that I secretly thrill as much at his emptiness as at his whole, rich voice, a voice that made every song into a hymn, a private confession of adoration, even though the lines were out the door at the tacky house on Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandising was always in season, even at a time when penitents remember the poor, not the wealthy.

This is not Elvis’ fault.  It is ours.  With our culture, we crucified him, and we are hypocrites, all, who visit to gawk or even just to hear the unending plea to love him tender.  His death is the consequence of our excesses and indifference to those who need the truth from us.  In an era of global warming, of war, of closed American factories and foreclosed American houses decorated in better taste than this one, he is the symbolic but ineffective expiation of our wrong-doing.

Elvis has stopped singing.  Jesus is the King.  May He have mercy on America.

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