Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'Way Down South It's Not Forgotten

This piece from NPR about racist origins of traditions at the University of Mississippi was thought-provoking, but the comments...well, the comments ranged from thoughtful to downright scary. I read them with growing unease for a very good reason: the son of my high school psychology teacher, who was also our football coach, is an associate athletic director at Ole Miss. My father has been their family doctor since before their daughter, who is a classmate of mine, was born. I think Dad may have delivered Derek, but I'm not absolutely sure- it's been a while, now, Derek being some six years younger than his sister and me. Derek deals with athletic academic compliance, something with which we're being hammered at the moment in light of the overwhelming cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill.

I was disturbed when Derek left the University of Louisville to accept a position in the athletic department at Louisiana State University, but when he went on to a new position a little while ago at Ole Miss, I got worried. It's nothing on Derek's part, mind you, but Ole Miss does have a history. (So does the University of Kentucky, by the way, if you dig deep enough; in the 1950s the University of Kentucky's athletics flag had the university seal on a field at the left edge, and the rest of it was the Confederate battle flag. The heavily romanticized Lost Cause still smolders unto today in some quarters.) Things seem to be okay, but I've never had the guts to really pursue this conversation with his family.

It was Derek's father, you see, who was called "boy" in my presence on the senior trip. It was about four a.m., in rural Alabama somewhere, and our bus had stopped at an all-night diner en-route to Panama City Beach, Florida. There were fifty of us or so, and only four of our party were African American: Coach C, his daughter, and two male classmates. The deputy sheriff walked up to Coach C, and said to him, plain as day, "Boy, we don't like your kind around here. You'd best get back on that bus and get on down the road."  I went perfectly still; I'd been raised to think that this kind of thing was a stamp of the lowest, trashiest sort of behavior...and in 1987, some backwater deputy called our football coach 'boy'! I was absolutely speechless. I thought at the time that I might be hallucinating from lack of sleep.

The coach begged his pardon, said we'd be on our way as soon as we could get everyone back onto the bus, and turned to me. His voice was calm and even as he told me to round the others up and get them back on the bus as quickly as possible. I must've started to say something, because he added, firmly, "Now." So I did it, and we left. The moment is burned into my memory forever; the comments on the NPR piece brought it flooding back to the surface. Has anything changed in the intervening time period? Have we really moved forward, or are we mired in the same muck?

At what point can we sift tradition from the bitter ashes of racism, Jim Crow, and slavery? When can we let go of the invective and bigotry? When will we ever move on? I worry for Derek's safety in a nagging, slightly seasick way, especially since this story clearly stirred some pretty angry sentiments. Let's hope that the people on the ground at the University of Mississippi, including Derek, can make a difference and help build a more amicable atmosphere where the pride is still there, but lacks the ties to an outmoded way of thinking and being. Moonlight and Magnolias was always a myth, anyway- a facade overlaying a darker undercurrent...dig it up by the roots and plant something new, folks. It's way past time.

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