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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September 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Campuses: Northern versus Southern college cultures

I begin this week, readers, with a confession: Nothing in this blog entry is scientific at all.  If you read this and say to yourselves, “I went to college down South, and none of this is true about where I went to school,” or “Northern universities are not at all what she says they are,” I take no offense — these words are based on my observations and experiences.

That said, I have taught students in the North and Students in the South, and this is what I have seen.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

Here is a photo of students attending the first college where I taught after I received my Masters’ degree, Notice the ethnic diversity of the student body, a truly enriching experience for everyone in the room, the vague weariness — most of these students had full-time jobs while they pursued their bachelors’ degrees.  Notice, too, that they do not grin the way Americans do in other parts of the country but look rather serious.  Indeed, they asked me deep questions as I taught.  If I called right now on the girl in the head scarf raising her hand, I guarantee you her question would impress you, blow your mind, and make you think a new thought.  I loved these students. They generally came to class hungry for debate.  I would throw a polemical discussion topic in the center of the room, and it would go off like a grenade.  For the next half hour, we would have the kind of conversation that makes college worth the price of tuition.  What was important in life?  What did good government do? What mattered more?  Which one betrayed the other?  Write an essay of no less than five paragraphs that argues your point of view.  My goodness, how New Yorkers know how to argue!  It’s our sport.  While the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium, the rest of the New Yorkers not in pinstripes scream at the ump, tell him why he got that last call wrong.  That is who we are. The debates were lively and passionate.  The written work of the students varied in quality.  The ideas were without exception dynamic. Though traditionally-aged, my students had survived things, emigrating from war zones, rescuing siblings from crack-addled parents, maybe just working really hard by age sixteen in a tough city.  Sometimes, they yelled at me in class.  I yelled back.  This wasn’t insubordination.  In New York, we call this conversation.

These young women call their professors

These young women call their professors “ma’am” and “sir.”

Then of course, I went South.  Here is a photo of the sort of students I am likely to teach down South.Notice the blonder hair, the conformity of pastels and Nike shorts and shoes.  They all look about five years younger (and less experienced) than the Yankees above, but they are not younger, only more sheltered.  Notice the smilier smiles.  These students all call me “ma’am.” I have to tell the students in the South that debate is not only allowed in the class, it is required, I have to put it in the syllabus.  And then we have to practice it. This happens because it is considered incredibly rude to contradict one’s elders in the South, even if your Aunt Lucille says that her chihuahua’s rump spot looks like the face of Elvis.  You’re not allowed to ridicule your granddaddy’s view that the Mexicans are about to invade with a huge army if you’re Southern.  In the North, by contrast, one of the most loving family gesture is to turn to your brother, slap him on the back of the head as hard as you can, and shout, “What are you, stupid?”  That is loving, Brooklyn style.  In the South, even if your brother is unimaginably stupid, you can’t ask the question, and frankly, if it’s that bad, you already know what he is.  He is stupid.  But this tradition of Southern respect makes my students unwilling to contradict one another and debate.  It makes class time polite but more dull as well.

As I believe in classrooms where debate takes place that the professor has a requirement to briefly disclose his or her biases on any topic, I often tell students in my classroom that I am a committed Christian.  In the North, the room of students usually slightly tenses.  Arms get folded across chests.  They wonder if  I will judge them for not being Christians (I won’t) or because they live a wild and reckless life (I don’t).  When I say the same words in the South, I hear an audible sigh of relief.  In all these students’ non-contradicting family’s gatherings, there is an uncle who pulls aside college student one by one who are there, and he puts his arm around each of them.

“Don’t let them steal your Jesus, boy!” He says.

I am not the professor who will steal, or even attempt to shoplift their Jesus, as I have mine chained to the luxury coat rack with an alarm so nobody removes Him.  So they are relieved.  I don’t want them to be Godless.  I just want them to be sort of rude, by their grandma’s standards at least.

I feel a little schizophrenic wherever I am teaching now.  When I am North, I notice the bumptiousness of my students and wonder why they are so nervy.  When I am South, I notice the passivity of my students and wonder why they don’t take more risks. The truth is, there is wisdom in being both courteous and bold, and I suppose that’s why we have a whole country full of college students, all of whom are delightful in their own ways.  On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, my students are optimistic, compassionate, and offer fresh perspectives when urged to do so.  That’s why I love teaching all of them.

February 20, 2011

Fiddle-dee-disempowerment — Why every feminist should watch the movie SOUTHERN BELLE

Last week at the Oxford film festival, I saw the scariest film I had seen in a good, long while.  The monster that re-emerged from its crypt was not a slime-covered zombie, exactly.  The thing that made me afraid of things that go bump in the night was not a decaying ghoul.  She was wearing a hoop skirt, a corset, and she was about sixteen years old, very cute, in fact.  My horror was not due to her so much as the people who were using her image to try to take away twenty-first century women’s sense of their own rights and leadership potential.

This girl is beautifully dressed for her disempowerment lessons

Makewright Films, run by two outstanding documentarians, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley, documented without apostrophe, for no comment is really necessary, the 1861 Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again, at least the version of it that a man who is clearly at odds with twenty-first century uppity Yankee women like me, founder and historical revisionist Mark Orman has concocted.

The sad thing is that the actual Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee in the actual year of 1861 (not the undead reenactment version) was a place that was exploring the possibility of conferring empowering educations to young ladies of the South.  The actual place, shut down some time after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, was a four-year college for young women — this at a time when women’s post-secondary education was a very new thing in this country, North and South.  However, Mark Orman, with the conspiracy of several older women, is painting a version of that academy’s past that has no historical foundation.  Rather, he gives a speech where he claims to twenty-first century high school girls that the war was over states rights (a view recently decried yet again by credible historians in The Washington Post as recently as this past week) and not slavery, that a greater percentage of freed negroes who remained South owned slaves than did white people in the South, which even if it proved to be true would in no way justify the institution of slavery.  He even draws on Paul’s epistle’s exhortation, “Slaves, obey your masters,” as a God-sanctification of the institution as it was practiced in Tennessee in 1861.  Let me tell you what I REALLY think, in that offensive Yankee way I have — Mark Orman’s views are repellent, they stem from a clear insecurity about real women’s agency in our current society, and if I were not a Christian (who by the way, would never own slaves or think God wanted me to), I would be out looking for him to kick his ass right now, preferably in front of a bunch of men who would laugh at him later for being beat up by a girl.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I have spent a year in the New South — and believe me, brother and sister Yankees, it is not like a black-and-white film strip with fire hoses plowing down scared African-American students praying on courthouse steps.  It is a place of vibrant questioning and repositioning, not always smoothly, but always toward a better place.  New Southerners are optimistic, progressive, intellectual, curious, and excited about new possibilities in their region and beyond.  Guys like Mark Orman are part of a South that New Southerners reject.

Again, I say don’t misunderstand me.  Look at this blog — you’ll see a hundred references to Gone with the Wind, a seminal document for Southern Culture.  However, at the 1861 Anthaneum Girls’ School, they tell the young women who come there to participate in what can only be loosely called a reenactment that Southern ladies are not allowed in hoop skirts  to behave as Scarlett O’Hara.  Instead, they exhort them to behave like Melanie Wilkes.  Even if I were the most racially and gender-issue insensitive teenage girl bitten by the fashion bug of 1861, I would drop my bustle and get out of the hoop skirt right then — because Scarlett is awesome, and Melanie is mealy-mouthed.

Once they have laid the foundation of  a false construction of racial issues in the South, they then proceed with their primary project — that of teaching twenty-first century girls that being a lady means being self-effacing, having no right to decide to move even from one part of a room to another without a proper escort, that it means never standing up to a bully in any direct manner.

Understand that the girls who attend this so-called school are marvelous young women — one was there poignantly looking for a trace of her deceased mother, whom she had seen in a period costume photo taken at Dollywood.  Another was clearly bitten by the aforementioned fashion bug, and with the complicity of her mother, she had a million outfits that were spectacular — making her the belle of any Edith Head Hollywood production set in the Old South.  Another girl, who won a prize for being the best lady of the term, was bright, lovely, kind to others, beautiful in old-world terms (think not slutty-looking), and mentioned a desire to climb the corporate ladder, but she had decided she wanted to do it — she actually said it — without equal rights.  If I were a relative of  hers, I’d be staging an intervention right now.  The last, and possibly the most disturbing story of the whole film, was a rather geeky girl who had tons of personality, lots of opinions.  The film leaves her looking more poised and grown-up, but she says that she has  learned that a lady is someone who doesn’t stand out — she is a part of the background, only part, as she put it, of the big picture.

That’s why I’d go to Tennessee, but for the love of Jesus, and beat that fat Mark Orman to a pulp if I hadn’t made a promise to God to behave in a manner not more ladylike but more Jesus-like — for that girl, the one whose character he apparently crushed.

Why do I take this so personally?  Because, I, too, received without irony the disempowerment lecture that these girls received.

When I was in eighth grade, I attended a girls’ school — Castilleja School for Girls.  On Founder’s Day, back in the 1980s, the year I was in eighth grade, they made us listen to a lecture from the vice president of the alumni association.  She told us in no uncertain terms that ladies  do not pursue careers and marriages — that the few most spinsterly among us might just need a career, but those of us with the slightest feminine charm should go trolling for a rich husband whose career we would support with our intellectual efforts and whose children we would raise without seeking something that credited us apart from this family unit.  Even in eighth grade, some of the girls there had already begun trolling, with their mothers egging them on.

This vice president of the alumni association was eloquent — I remember most distinctly something she said, even today.  She said that any woman who had ever protested or fought in any indirect way for her rights, including the right to vote was “a wingless valkyrie of questionable sexual orientation.”

What a vivid turn of phrase!  Clearly, she had done well in English before she quit thinking for herself.

I remember, at age 13, sitting there, in the front row (because I had arrived almost late), realizing that I had just seen it all spelled out for me.  On one side of an insuperable barrier — there were the ladies, like the woman with the face lift and the slicked-back bun in front of me, talking, insulting my grandmother and great-grandmother and mother, who were all pioneering heroines for women’s rights.  On the other side of the barrier — there were my ancestresses and women in viking garb, singing  but not flying, Marlene Dietrich, who had already impressed me with her powerful, pan-sexual ethos sizzling on the screen in fishnets in black and white, and other women, complicated, maybe not all happy.  However, at least they were not pretending to be happy like the women on the other side, the ladylike side, of the barrier. These wingless women were apparently talking in loud tones about things they really cared about, not like the Castilleja’s mother’s club, that pretended to like each other but stabbed each other in the back while wiping their vampirically lipsticked mouths with monogrammed napkins when any of  the others of them would leave the lunch table — yes, I had heard them, too.  I knew whose party I wanted to be invited to — it wasn’t the smug supper club.  It was the wingless valkyrie rave.

I thank Castilleja School for Girls for trying unsuccessfully to disempower me for the twenty-first century.  It clarified a bundle of things.

I left the next year and went to public school in no small part because of this speech.

I thank the makers of Makewright films for clarifying things, too.  I have never  been prouder of my ancestors who fought with the Yankees against slavery.  I have never been prouder of myself for speaking loudly, having opinions and demanding that others who may not find  them palatable hear them, for getting arrested for women’s rights and for the end of Apartheid.  I know which side of the barrier between Old South and New South on which I belong, and that Mason-Dixon Line I will never cross unarmed.

Every feminist should watch this film.  The fight isn’t over.  The grapes of wrath are still in the field waiting to be trampled.  If anyone wants to come trample them with me, let me know.

November 10, 2010

Drinking an “Autumn Collins” at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi

Autumn along the Mississippi River

Every New Yorker knows that there are times to worry, or at least where worry might be a first impulse.  In Mississippi, I am learning that there are times to relax, and autumn is definitely one of them.

As I drive down Interstate 55 toward Memphis, my I-Pod plays me this lyric sung by the Dixie Chicks:

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

By the time they hit the three part harmony for “Wide Open Spaces,” I’m singing along with them, and yes, in a state that has only 62 people per square mile, I do indeed have room to make my big mistakes, as the song goes, but I don’t think I’m making any big ones right now.

I hit the cruise control button on my husband’s new car — he has given it to me to drive because he loves me — and I take my foot off the gas.  I take a deep breath.

I see trees everywhere I look.  The trucks on the highway are distant.  I motor through a canyon of gold, brown, touches of red, some splotches of green.  The cows ignore me as I whizz past.  The haystacks, rolled round and bound with wire, stand sentinel in the field but don’t fire.

The Dixie Chicks continue:

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test

I don’t have any tests to take, but I am leading a panel discussion at a conference this Saturday morning at the University of West Georgia.  I need to turn in about 50 pages of text in a week or two, and every time I think I’ve finished my research, I find more to read on my subjects.

While this feels a little pressureful, it honestly is a walk in the park compared to other experiences in my life.  It is a cruise toward Graceland and Sun Records compared to a bad day in Brooklyn.  While there are certainly days in Mississippi where everything goes catastrophically wrong for some individuals, usually one at a time, in comparison to a semi-annual disaster that almost every New Yorker experiences — a burglary, a near-rape, a you-just-got-fired-right-before-Christmas, a your-husband-is-sleeping-with-your-friend and she sees no reason to hide this from you — in Mississippi, where there is right and wrong, where the roads are empty, where lines in government offices are short, where if you failed to fill out form 42 that was required, they might actually have a copy on hand that you can fill out right now, don’t worry — a bad day is not often a catastrophic day.

In Mississippi, my colleagues go out for drinks and tacos.  Last night, after a class discussing the implications to Victorian mores of the novel Dracula, instead of fearing rustling in the dark that might be from vampires, I joined a group of them around a long table at Snackbar on North Lamar, and I had an absolutely delicious cocktail they called an “Autumn Collins.”  Actually, I had two of them.  They had some kind of artisanal sweet potato liqueur in them.  I used to take vodka martinis at Dorothy Parker‘s old haunt — the Algonquin lounge — and I miss the dry martinis there, the tuxedoed waitstaff, and the cat named Matilda.  However, I wonder if the Autumn Collins might not become my seasonal drink from now on.

The Dixie Chicks wrap up:

She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes

The words are ominous, but the melody of the song, the song of my open road, it is blissful, and I stretch my leg out.  The cruise control works fine.  I am thinking deep thoughts and writing them down.  However, I might just find my way to a good conversation in Georgia, a juke joint, a falling leaf, a sizzling catfish in a pan, a hug, a hymn, a “momma says it’s gonna be alright.”

I’m learning to relax.  I might just set a spell.

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