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

October 21, 2015

The New Magnolia State in Bloom — Mississippi Wakes Up a Little Freer Today

It is with great delight that I declare a symbolic victory in this blog space, a victory for the New South over the Old.  Symbolic victories are not the same as sea shifts.  Rather, symbolic victories signal a long-fomenting sea shift, one that may have gone unnoticed.  It’s a bit like the blooming of magnolias.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Let me explain.  My Vicksburg home was mid-century, not one of those antebellum mansions (alas) for which the city is so rightly famous.  But we had one venerable piece of Mississippi heritage right in our front yard — a large magnolia tree. That tree had probably stood there while non-reenacting Civil War-era beseigers and defenders of Vicksburg sniped at one another through bull rushes and barley fields.  It had probably stood there when Native American tribes trudged through the marshes to gaze over the Mississippi River over the bluff, on the lookout for good places to camp for the night.  It had stood there before North was North and South was South, before slaves arrived in shackles and before cotton got picked in nearby areas.  That tree was a kind of deep-rooted truth about the region even before it was a State, a Mesozoic veracity, something subtle but undeniable.

During winter in Mississippi, things freeze over.  Often farmers burn the cotton plants, already harvested, into cinders so that the crops can get rotated next year.  The earth is partly scorched.  The trees are mostly bare.  The Earth is grey and brown.  Then, as the first harbinger of thaw, one sees buds forming on all the dusty-green-leaved trees, buds that grow the size of outrageous mangoes, already tropical before they even open.  Then one morning, people wake up and find that the entire state’s magnolias have exploded open.  They preen like debutantes making a fine entrance in white ballgowns into an exclusive cotillion.  They waft in the ruffles of their petals a vaguely citrus-y and honeyed smell, gentle except for the enormity and large number of the flowers; one magnolia smells like almost nothing, but an avenue of magnolias? It is a time machine back into our prehistoric selves, the waking of pterodactyls and dragonflies to buzz overhead, the invitation to even volcanic things to return to life and to thrive.  The season has changed, even though the week before it seemed like nothing was going on, nothing, that the dead things were always there, it seemed, and nothing was ever going to change. It turns out, every year, that this is a myth we told ourselves in our gloom. The renewal of the magnolia — this is the true thing we forgot.

Blooms like this are heady.

Blooms like this are heady.

Magnolias announce the start of a new season of growth.  The tree grows slowly but surely.  When the blooms appear, everything starts to buzz.

The University of Mississippi campus has an avenue of magnolia trees planted decades ago by women alumnae. When it blooms, it is heady.  It is a fair walk from the Confederate cemetery on campus, where the only blooms that one sees are in the form of wreaths left to remember very dead soldiers who died defeated.  The magnolias, on the other hand, they win every year, which is (alas) more than the football team of the university can say, despite its fans’ adoration.

The ASB (that’s student council, for you Yankees) of Ole Miss voted last night overwhelmingly to take down the Mississippi State Flag from the campus until there is no trace in that flag of a Confederate symbol, and they urged the state’s legislature (among whom are counted many Ole Miss alumni) to hurry the process by which they alter the flag to reflect the dignity of all Mississippians, black and white.  The pretty young Southerners blooming on that campus today have decided overwhelmingly that they don’t stand with the boy who got expelled for lynching the James Meredith statue a couple of years ago, with the Klan protesters, with old messages of hatred, the dead and killing things that made the South decay for years after the Civil War.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

But those dead things, those decaying things, it turns out — those things constituted a myth people told themselves.  The truth of Mississippi is that it is The Magnolia State, a venerable thing that thrives indiscriminately when it blooms.  The truth of Mississippi today is that young Mississippians plan to live an integrated and dignified life.  They respect their ancestors but intend to live together hospitably and equitably in the present, not the past.  They intend to be polite to others, those who share their ethnicity, and those who don’t.  It doesn’t mean they have figured it all out — racism (alas) did not die last night on the Ole Miss campus.  However, a sea shift many did not see happening was happening slowly and surely, like the growth of the magnolia tree, and now we see the blooming, inhale the fragrance of it, and it is heady and invigorating.

I congratulate my colleagues and students at the University of Mississippi for being harbingers of meaningful change.

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January 14, 2012

Pontifical Politics in Mississippi

Not only holding the keys to the governor's mansion, Bryant seems to think he holds the keys to hell, death and the grave.

That the new Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, teared up giving his inaugural address to the legislature when he told them he had been sworn in on his grandma’s Bible is not surprising, nor am I surprised that he quoted scripture a great deal in his speech — all that is standard operating procedure for politicians, especially in the South.  When thanking Governor Barbour, though, for years of service to the state, Bryant cast himself in the voice of the Lord when he told Barbour, “I think I can say, ‘well done, my good and faithful servant.'”  That is surprising indeed and is indicative of the mood right now in the far Right of the Republican party in this state and others, as they honestly think they speak for an authority beyond their service to the people who elected them.

The outgoing Governor, Haley Barbour, just pardoned some men who had murdered their girlfriends and wives because he got to know them when they were working the prison work detail polishing doorknobs in the gubernatorial mansion.  It reminds one of W. S. Gilbert‘s ironic operetta lyric about nepotism:

“I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!”

It’s as if Barbour, in current Republican mode, honestly couldn’t imagine the humanity of all the inmates of state penitentiaries, but when given the opportunity to talk to a few of the good ol’ wife-stabbin’ boys who come and call him “sir,” he is able to look upon them, Lord-like, with compassion, and remit their sins while still being tough on the others who have not had a personal audience in his Sistine chapel — I’m sorry — his official office.  Rather than imagine that all the inmates in the penitentiary are capable of rehabilitation given the right set of circumstances and a will to change, he responds with compassion to those he can see and disregards those to whom he can say, like it says in the Good Book, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”  This, of course, appears in Red Letters in the Gospel, and is the voice of the Lord as well.

Among those to whom he showed no compassion in pardoning these men arbitrarily are the families of the victims of these incidents of domestic abuse.  They worked no iniquity, and have reasons for concern that these men are back on the streets, because the ability to use Lemon Pledge effectively on the governor’s desk does not qualify as any actual sort of rehabilitation.  In Mississippi, the pardon gives them the right to bear arms, many arms.  Just how do you suppose they remember their last encounters with their former in-laws?  I doubt these families sleep well at night.

This knowing-better-than-the-stupid-people-who-elected-you fashion has extended down to the state legislature, where only in November, the voters of Mississippi voted down initiative 26, the so-called “personhood amendment,” that would have legally defined life as beginning at conception, complicating not only questions related to abortion but even of delivery of babies, birth contol, and in vitro fertilization.  The voters resoundingly defeated these initiatives with 58% of the electorate, even in conservative corners of the state, voting down this idea.  This week, two bills were introduced into the legislature to ratify the very text the voters rejected.  One is called something like “the treatment of embryos act,” and the other one is called something like, “the life begins at conception act” (no H.R. or S.R. numbers assigned yet).  Thinking the people can’t decide such a weighty matter for themselves, or rather, thinking they did not like the results when they did leave it to the people, the state legislators think they have an authority that extends beyond the will of the people who put them in a higher position.

I have been trying to figure out the Biblical text on which they have based this last dishonest double-dealing.  I’m looking at Psalm 118’s “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”  The stone, which is understood by the church as Jesus, would be in this case, their rejected ideas.  So appointed not by a fair election of the people who pay their salaries but by God Himself alone, why wouldn’t they adopt this as a method of justifying this?  Aren’t they capable of  declaring themselves infallible on any matter?  Didn’t you see the white smoke from the roof when the votes were counted?  We don’t have a state government — as they say at the Vatican when the new pope is elected — habemus Papam — “We have a pope,”  even if most of us are Southern Baptists around here.

 

 

May 30, 2011

Voter ID as the new expression of racism in Mississippi

What the cops used to do in Mississippi voters of color -- now the Republicans want to institute an ID requirement in the same spirit of oppression.

It’s a crime today in Mississippi to do what the cops in this photo are doing — preventing a black man from registering to vote.  However, the Republican establishment of Mississippi, given their fear of a black activist voting population, want to make it effectively harder to vote in the State of Mississippi.  The Republicans are trying to introduce voter ID measures in the state that are unAmerican and anti-human-rights.

How can it be that in a country that requires ID to drive and to purchase alcohol that providing ID would be anti-democracy?  Imagine for a moment that the white men in this photo holding the black man in submission let go of him.  Let’s say they let him register to vote, get to a polling place.  Then, looking him square in the eye, filled with the implicit threat of their hatred of his rights, they demand to see his ID before he casts his ballot.  In a small town, one perhaps like the one in Mississippi where the prom is still segregated, voter ID is a deterrent for the people of color of the community the way that these cops holding this man back from registering to vote was a deterrent in the early 1960s.  Fair-minded people ought to be outraged at the very suggestion of a voter ID bill by Republicans, who desperately would like the black population of Mississippi to stay home on the first Tuesday of November.

The Republicans claim their concern is for voter fraud, but they re not concerned about fraud at all — the only game-changing  frauds are in the GOP, given the low, low turnout for most elections.  In many of districts in Mississippi, the majority of adult citizens are black.  This is a consequence of slavery and generations of share cropping.  In some districts, the percentage of people of color is above eighty percent.  Yet the majority of eligible persons are not voting.  The Democrats bear some responsibility for this — in some cases they have failed to inspire a turnout.  However, no one will doubt that the majority of people of color, were they to vote in the State of Mississippi, would not vote for candidates like Haley Barbour, who is the darling of white racists and a former presidential hopeful for the Republicans.  They would vote for Democrats.  Yes, an election where less than half of the people who might have voted actually vote is fundamentally fraudulent.  This by itself is not the fault of any one political party, but an initiative to limit access in even the slightest way to the ballot should shock the sensibility of any American.

Ironically, often the Republicans run in Mississippi on the notion that government needs to get out of our lives,  that regulations are unAmerican.  The gun laws in this state, for instance, are so very lax that I don’t even need to have a permit to own one on my own land.  I could own an arsenal without showing ID, one that would make David Koresh look like he was unarmed.  That’s the way Republicans want it.  However, if they get squeamish at the idea of voting without ID, I wonder who they think they are fooling.  Frankly, their work reminds me, particularly given Mississippi’s very libertarian gun laws, of the revolt to racist thinking that inspired  Malcom X to write his  famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Is that a choice for any  citizens in the 21st century?  Have we overcome so little in Mississippi  since this photograph was taken about 40 years ago?  Republicans just want these cops in this photo to look the black voter in the eye, check ID — intimidate — and keep this  man and  his family away from the polling places.

They disgust me.

October 14, 2010

Ole Missed Opportunities — why voters should re-elect Childers, then dump him in two years

 

this man's staff is incompetent, or he is

 

The voters of the first district of Mississippi should re-elect Travis W. Childers (D-MS) to Congress on November 2, and on November 3, the local Democratic Party should start looking for someone to back against him in a primary, since he is bad for the Party.  He had an opportunity to make fellow and sister Democrats running locally matter in this election, and he kept the opportunity all to himself — stupidly, since the resulting political commerce, with every Democrat within a hundred miles owing him a favor would have made him a State Party Chairman with presidential potential.

Out of a combined sentiment that this election matters and a possible nostalgia, Bill Clinton chose to stump for Childers today in Oxford at the Ole Miss Grove of football mania fame.  He gave a speech far more humble than he needed to as a former President, and his Good Ol’ Boy charm remained intact despite looking tired.  He spoke to the people at Ole Miss the way one speaks to a Rotary Club luncheon if one is running for City Council — unpretentiously, with clear facts and figures related to fiscal issues that should make any — fill in the blank here — Democrat a desirable candidate.  He spoke in football metaphors and down home vernacular, in that Clintonian way that he does so masterfully — where we see that Bubba, or “Brother Bill,” as State Attorney General Jim Hood called him at the rally, is a genius.

Before Bill Clinton got there, the mayor of Oxford, the State Attorney General, a minister, and a very good Gospel Choir, took up perhaps fifteen minutes of a two-hour tardiness not uncommon when ex-Presidents go on the campaign trail for candidates.  What was glaringly obvious was that there was a crowd, for once, of thousands gathered in Mississippi, and there was an empty space of one hour and forty-five minutes when politicians could have addressed them.

Why weren’t the candidates of the Democratic party invited to speak, even under a “time permitting” invitation?  The crowd was restless.  Delays in such situations are predictable.  So why were there no other speakers invited?

Only two answers are possible, both of them quite plausible:

1) His campaign staff was incompetent.  If I were the candidate, I certainly should choose to fire them.  They could have made him bigger locally than he currently is, and his campaign communications director is the rudest woman I have ever met in politics.  She should be fired before the sun goes down tonight.  Understand that campaign communications directors are supposed to smile and nod at everyone, even when they think they are crazy, and they are there to promote the campaign’s agenda to the electorate.  She was snotty to me in a surprising way when I asked her for the campaign manager’s name — some kind of rookie since Joel Coon abandoned him — and she did not offer her own.   I wish I could type it here.  I also wish that I could think of a more sophisticated  word than the one that comes to mind to describe her — I only think of something that one might have drunk on a now-defunct airline — TWA tea.  She’s a rude cup of that kind of tea, and she has no business working in politics in any quarter.

2) Travis W. Childers is only interested in the good of Travis W. Childers, not the good of his electorate, and not the good of his party.  I have read that he said he had an “obamatross” hanging around his neck.  I somehow doubt he said it — it’s a bit cleverer than I imagine him to be, quite frankly, so I don’t think he said that.  “Let them eat cake” is more probable, as he voted against the Health Care Bill, and he did so in order to be reelected here.  He is probably not on the best of terms with the rest of the Mississippi Democratic Party.  He is short-sighted, because he could have, by sharing the limelight just a little bit, made a good number of friends here today, even among his enemies in the Party and his frenemies in the Party. A man that short-sighted is probably myopic because of an enlarged ego.

In either case, Bill Clinton is right.  The Democrats need not to give up this seat in Congress.  However, I have to believe that there are nicer, smarter and more forward-thinking Democrats in the Oxford area, and I believe that one of them needs to run against him in a primary in 2012.

Ex-Presidents carry a cachet with them.  This election is a tough one for Democrats.  Hoarding the wealth is a recipe for defeat.  Bill Clinton is eloquent and makes me proud to be a Democrat in Mississippi.  Childers should be ashamed of the way he played politics today and owes his Party an apology.

March 6, 2010

Pockets of fabulousness

My new friend

When I moved to Mississippi, I was determined to be a good immigrant.  I did not intend to complain about the total lack of skyscrapers in Vicksburg, the abominable dearth of good chopped liver bagel sandwiches, the lack of fashion week, or any other thing that is properly associated with New York City.  After all, it would be foolish to lament the lack of amazing grits in Brooklyn, wouldn’t it?  When one emigrates, one embraces the new culture.  That’s just what one does, that is, if one is fabulous.

However, I admit that I have missed certain things.  There is no place to lounge.  Setting a spell, as one says here, is quite possible, even inevitable, but lounging?  That’s just not imagined, not with Buddha Bar CDs playing and tapas, anyway.

There are very few speakers of foreign languages. Many tongue-talking Christians live here, but most people, even in my doctoral program, are astonished at my fluent French and conversant Italian.  I am convinced that at Columbia University, those skills would be standard issue at the doctoral level in literature.

I miss the air kiss.  I miss women who care too much, way too much, about shoes.

I miss the brawling attitudes of New Yorkers, so much so that I (God forgive me) decided to go New York on some teenager who gave me attitude and bad service at a McDonald’s one day last week.  She was giving very bad customer service, it was true, and I did not curse at her, but I sure went Brooklyn on her.  Honestly, I think if the incident had ended in a fist fight, I would have found it refreshing, a sorbet to clear the palate.

However, I have met several very interesting people in the last several weeks.  And they are, despite the total lack  of lounging, the  kind of people I would totally take to the Meat Packing District lounge for elderberry herbal seltzers and dirty martinis.

First, there’s Zonzie (see her photo above, already posted on the Net, since she won a competition last year).  She is a Christian college professor at the college where I teach, and she’s a health educator, as well as the picture of health.  Back in the day, she used to model with the supermodels, and now she competes in the figure competition of body building. She is funny, smart, well-traveled, and  all-around good company.  My only objection to Zonzie is that she has ambitions for my health – -she wants to take me  to the gym.  This intimidates me more than I can say, but because it’s Zonzie, and she’s so cool, I’ll probably go.  She’s just too fabulous to ignore.

Then, there’s Brian, this unusual 23 year-old I met at the cafeteria of my University for my PhD program.  He’s getting a degree in International Relations, and he intends some day to be governor of the State of  Mississippi.  As an out-of-the-closet bisexual African-American man, this will be an impressive feat when he accomplishes it.  He has already started a not-for-profit in the state capitol, Jackson, to end corporal punishment for schools –which, I have learned from him, is still legal, still practiced, chiefly on young black men, and still as offensive as it sounds.  Is it any wonder, Brian muses, that the illiteracy rate is the highest in Mississippi of any state in the Union while this practice continues?  Brian is recruiting me, and I’m joining the movement.  He’s the first person I have ever met who truly reminds me of myself when I was 23.  He’s not the kind of bisexual man who would use the word “fabulous,” but that doesn’t hide his fabulousness from me.

Last but not least is Sirobe, whom I met only yesterday at lunch — she’s the daughter of one of my husband’s colleagues, and when I came to sit down, she — much to my metropolitan delight — air kissed me on both cheeks.  She just got back a few months ago from Milan, where she got a Master’s degree in architecture.  We spoke in our conversant Italian together for a little while, not quite enough to be rude, but almost enough.  She was wearing a black sequinned tank top with a tasteful black angora shrug.  She was fabulous, or as they say in Milan, favolosa.

For my next trick, I need to get all these  people together to set a spell somewhere, bring some interesting beverages and hors d’oeuvres.   I’ll pop my i-pod with Buddha Bar CD tracks into a speaker system, and while it won’t quite be a lounge, perhaps with enough of  us, we can create a pressure system that changes the climate.  Forecast for the Vicksburg area:  Sunny, cool, followed by fresh air with pockets of fabulousness throughout the evening.

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