Sunday, August 30, 2009

Miss Pride

I’m from Mississippi and proud of it. That’s the name of a group on Facebook. A friend invited me to join this group.

It’s terrific that the Internet allows us to connect and reconnect with old friends. I’ve been able to reestablish friendships with a lot of wonderful people I grew up with in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Most of them, true to their Southern heritage, are politically conservative. I’m not. We tend to not talk a lot about politics.

Among these old friends only two are self-professed liberals. Ironically it was one of these two who sent me that invitation. I’d like to join if I could just think of something about Mississippi to be proud of.

First off, I’m not even so sure that pride is a good thing. Isn’t it one of the deadly sins? Doesn’t pride “goeth before the fall”?

Well, there are different definitions of pride. The meanings of words evolve. Black pride and gay pride, for instance, are seen as good things—unless you’re a bigot. They instill a feeling of self-worth in people who have been abused, cast out and made into second-class citizens. If you happen to have been born white, male and privileged, on the other hand, pride in that is probably not such a good thing. In that case, pride might be more akin to arrogance.

Pride in another person’s accomplishment, a parent or child, for instance, is also a good thing.
But to be proud of where you happened to have been born or that you grew up in a certain place makes no sense at all. That’s not an accomplishment. I grew up where my parents lived. I had no choice. So that’s no more something to be proud of than it is something to be ashamed of.

But if you grew up in a place that is looked down upon by other parts of the world pride of place may be akin to black pride or gay pride in many ways. Like African-Americans and gay Americans, some of us who grew up in the South have been scorned and laughed at because we’re Southerners. People hear that syrupy Southern drawl and immediately assume they’re talking to a redneck or a bigot.

Ironically, I can relate to African-Americans who can’t get a taxi to stop for them or who are followed around stores by security personnel because I have experienced the unwarranted assumption that people with Southern accents are trailer trash, country bumpkins, dumb as a fence post—except that in my case I have to open my mouth and say something for that to happen where assumptions about a person of color don’t take that long.

It is understandable that people from the Deep South, probably more than from any other section of the country, become easily defensive. It’s understandable that they get sick and tired of seeing their fellow regionalists portrayed as idiots in movies and in television shows, and it’s no wonder that a little pride of place may bolster their self-esteem.

I left the South in about 1973 and returned in 1977. The South had changed a lot during those years. There was a lot of talk about “the New South,” which I was told had cast aside its racist attitudes. Fine upstanding white business people in town were quick to brag about the New South, which they portrayed as not necessarily more liberal but more open minded and welcoming. We were happy to have elected a governor, William Winter, who was much more liberal than predecessors such as Theodore Bilbo and Ross Barnett. People that we interacted with on a daily basis were black and white and sincerely sought to bring about racial harmony. But we also knew many white people who were defensive about race relations in the South, quick to brag about the progress we’d made and blind to the holdovers of the institutionalized racism from just a few years before. Even many liberal white people, for instance, got incensed about any move toward restitution based on past wrongs or about affirmative action, because they saw it as giving minorities not just a leg up but a decided advantage over whites. It’s not our fault, they would say, that our parents and grandparents were bigots. We’ve overcome that and shouldn’t be make to feel ashamed, and there’s sure as hell no reason we should have to pay for the sins of our parents.
That’s sounds sensible on the surface, but it simply masks a more subtle form of racism.

During our sojourn back home in Hattiesburg from 1977 to 1988 we lived in a sort of bubble. Because we were the publishers of the only alternative newspaper in town the more liberal-leaning people tended to cluster around us. Sometimes it felt like the whole town was much more progressive than it had been when I was growing up. But then we’d run into some good ol’ boy who would remind us that it was he and his friends, not we and our friends, who epitomized the local populace. There was a lawyer who had an office across the street from us. He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and on the team that defended Byron De La Beckwith, who was finally found guilty of murdering Medgar Evers thirty years after the crime was committed. There was a neighbor who showed us his old Klan robes and said, to his credit at least, that he joined for a short time but got out after he realized “those people were crazy.” I remember once when I was covering a city council meeting for our newspaper there was talk of a black man who had gotten off with a reprimand after committing some minor offense. A member of the council, a white man (they were all white) said, “Back in the day they would have taken him out back of the courthouse and hung him from an oak tree.” And everybody laughed. I didn’t.

There were no gay rights activists in my home town. In fact, there were no openly gay people at all that I was aware of. The few gay men I knew drove 90 miles away to New Orleans in order to date. At home they were securely closeted.

I was told that the South had changed. I was told it back then and didn’t see a hell of a lot of evidence to back it up, and I still don’t. Granted, I have seen some changes. They did finally convict De La Beckwith, and I recently heard about some active gay rights groups in Hattiesburg.

To their credit, no matter what their politics may be, the people of Mississippi are as friendly and caring for one another as any people anywhere. Southern hospitality is no myth. We were taught from early childhood to be polite and to treat other people the way we wanted to be treated.
For the bigots, of course, the Golden Rule applies only to their own kind.

Almost everybody treated us decently when we were publishing the newspaper in Hattiesburg, including old friends who may have sharply disagreed with our politics. Similarly the people I grew up with and have recently reconnected with are fundamentally kind and decent human beings. If and when we discuss politics or sensitive social issues, which we usually avoid, our disagreements are expressed with respect. We try not to insult anyone of hurt anyone’s feelings because that’s the way we were brought up.

I cannot understand how year after year they can continue to vote for right wing demagogues like Trent Lott and Haley Barbour and support causes that are bigoted and mean spirited. That’s why when my friend asked me to join the group I’m from Mississippi and proud of it, I could not bring myself to say yes.

Postscript: I began this by mentioning two self-professed liberals among my old friends from Mississippi. I saw one of those two in Seattle yesterday and met her husband for the first time. He is a history professor at a community college in the Deep South, and he said that he has seen changes among young people. He said that in the past decade he has not heard a single racial slur from anyone under that age of 30. Maybe there’s hope after all.

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