The Duality of the Southern Thing January 17, 2012Posted by Matt in personal stories, race.
Tags: drive-by truckers, duality of the southern thing, Martin Luther King, Mississippi, peace, racism, Robert E Lee, self-righteous indignation, the South
What does it mean to be Southern?
It’s an interesting question and one that I’ve been pondering quite a bit over the past 24 hours. After spending the first 26 years of my life in the great state of Arkansas, I moved across the river to Southaven, Mississippi, which in turn sits within walking distance of Memphis, some eight years ago. The process of leaving the safe confines of small town Central Arkansas and entering the urban/suburban area in which I now reside was an interesting one to say the least.
I’m an educated guy and have long considered myself to be an intelligent, progressive person, one whose mind is open to all sorts of views and peoples, one who believes strongly in justice and peace. That being said, these years of living in Mississippi have been challenging ones in a multitude of ways. In that time I’ve chosen to confront my own inner prejudices lurking back in my subconscious, the byproduct of being raised in a largely homogenous small town environment, and I’ve emerged a better person than before, one who truly tries to practice what he preaches.
But at the same time, having largely conquered feelings of prejudice in my mind, I often find the balance swinging too far in the other direction, that of self-righteous indignation. I think to myself, “I get this. Why don’t you get it?”
This internal struggle came to light again yesterday on Facebook as I wrote with some incredulity about my children’s school letting out for “King/Lee Day.” Yes, that Lee. Robert E. The famous Confederate General. Every year I see that and every year I have a similar reaction, shaking my head with consternation at the perceived backwardness of others, summoning that self-righteousness again to wag my finger in their faces.
This time, though, something interesting happened. Barbara, a friend, mentor, and someone for whom I have immense respect, put me in my place. I don’t think she minds me reprinting her response and I would rather do that than put it in my own words:
Oh, the need to explain that “dual” holiday. The date was historically for Robert E. Lee’s birthday and was a state holiday. When the day became a federal holiday to honor Dr. King on his birthday this is what happened. Now, if you object to honoring REL, a true son of the South, you can honor MlK, another true son of the South. If you want, you can honor both guys. Just think of King and Lee meeting in heaven on this day to share a beer and talk about how things have changed. Maybe not fast enough, but things have changed. I would like to think that we’ve learned that peace and nonviolence is a better way to address our differences (Dr. Kings message) than violence and war. But,I’m a dreamer…..
With my scorn sufficiently placated by Dr. Jones’ words, I decided to again look inward, to reflect on what this meant to me, as a progressive Southerner, one who loves the place and the people, but struggles with reconciling the past with the present. As often happens, this train of thought then brought me to a song, this time by one of my favorite bands, the Drive-By Truckers. “The Southern Thing” is found on their sprawling and incredible album Southern Rock Opera, a personal favorite of mine that once led me on a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals and then on to the small community of Zip City.
In this particular song, Patterson Hood sings of this internal struggle for reconciliation between pride and shame brewing inside the hearts and minds of those below the Mason-Dixon Line while at the same time trying to deal with those who don’t understand, those to whom this seems so foreign, saying,
You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright
You wonder how I sleep at night
Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the southern thing.
“The duality of the southern thing.” I think that explains a lot. It may be impossible to define “Southerness,” but the inner struggle of those dueling forcing is certainly an aspect that cannot be swept aside.
Things are continually moving forward and changing in the South, and though that does not absolve us of nor does it cause us to forget the past, it aids us in building for a better future. As Hood later says in the song:
Four generations, a whole lot has changed
Robert E. Lee
Martin Luther King
We’ve come a long way, rising from the flame
Stay out the way of the southern thing.
So, while I may never venerate Robert E. Lee, certainly not to the extent of Martin Luther King, I can recognize and respect his place in the history of my people. And maybe, as Dr. Jones said, the two of them are having a beer in heaven talking it over right now.
Riding to Freedom May 17, 2011Posted by Matt in politics, race, television.
Tags: Freedom Riders, Jim Crow, Little Rock Central High School, nonviolence, PBS, racism
Last night proved to be one more reason why I love public television. In case you missed it, PBS aired their latest American Experience documentary, this one celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, a truly heroic movement of the 1960’s in the struggle for Civil Rights.
The movement was comprised of young people (as most movements tend to be), both black and white, who joined together to challenge the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South. Together they rode public transportation and used public facilities, purposefully and nonviolently flouting the unjust segregationist laws, and for their trouble they were beaten and jailed, many of them on numerous occasions, as they brought national attention to the prevalent racist attitudes of the South.
In many ways, this level of hatred seems so foreign to those of us who were born years after these events took place, as if it couldn’t have possibly happened here. It’s particularly heinous now when I consider that some of our closest friends are black and how just 50 years ago that could not have happened – at least not without severe repercussions.
It was a very moving program, perhaps even more so when I consider the words my mom said to me a few weeks ago, one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received in my life. She had just seen the Freedom Riders on Oprah and called me to let me know about the upcoming documentary and that was when she said this to me, “Matt, it’s the kind of thing you would have done. I don’t think any of the rest of us could have done it, but I know you could have.”
That means a lot.
P.S. I also want to give a shout-out to Brian Schwieger, a former classmate of mine at Harding University who is helping to put on an event later this month marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders at Little Rock Central High School. Those of you who are in central Arkansas should check it out.
My Black Church Experience July 5, 2010Posted by Matt in church, race.
Tags: black church, church of christ, common meal, race, Southaven, Temple of Light Church
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Sometimes I think I was born the wrong color.
You know that scene in The Jerk where Navin Johnson (played by Steve Martin) looks at his adopted black mother and says, with anguish in his voice, “You mean I’m gonna stay this color?” A lot of times I feel like that and yesterday marked one more instance.
I had several reasons for deciding to stay in Sunday morning – earlier on Saturday I came away with a scratch on my eye and was forced to wear glasses, which meant that I was not too keen on driving, we had stayed up late the evening before and all of us were tired and wanting to sleep in, and Diana was working overnight, so I was taking care of the kids alone – so, I made the decision that we would sleep in and take it easy. I arose from my nightly slumber before the kids and prepared a big brunch-like meal of French Toast and bacon to meet them when they awoke.
A little while later, after we had finished eating but before any of us had gotten dressed and ready for the day, I heard the doorbell ring. Once I realized what it was, I quickly rushed down the stairs and threw open the door, where I was greeted by a little girl who is a friend of Rachel’s from school that lives nearby. I greeted her with a smile and she proceeded to invite our family to their church that afternoon at 1:00. By this time it was around 11:30 and I knew getting the girls and I (Jackson would be down for his nap by then) fed, bathed, and dressed in time would be difficult, but I told her we would do our best to make it.
The girls did well, and by the appointed time of 1:00 we entered the Community Church sanctuary that stands just down the street from our home. On Sunday mornings and evenings, the building houses a moderately sized white, suburban, Evangelical church, but for a few hours on Sunday afternoons, the clientele is a bit different. For it is at this time that the Temple of Light Church, headed by the grandparents of Rachel’s little friend, occupy the worship space. In case you haven’t figured it out, the Temple of Light Church is a black congregation.
My experience with black congregations is lacking, so I was not exactly sure what to expect. The membership of our church home in Memphis is close to an even split between white and black, but services are still fairly close to the white bread ones I grew up. Though there is a little more soul and a few more amens flying about, the format is still a familiar one. Given that, yesterday’s experience was one I will not soon forget.
It is a small, newly formed with church, that filled out to around 30 people by mid-service, but they more than made up for their lack of numbers with the amount of spirit and soul swirling around the place. Accompanied by a keyboard and drums, the wife of the pasturing couple and two other young ladies moved through song after song of upbeat praise, and you just couldn’t help but stand with the rest of the small crowd, moving and clapping around the room, despite my Navin-esque lack of rhythm. There was a little boy no more than 3 year old seated next to us who was dancing in the aisle like a young Michael Jackson, the spirit of the music moving him about in a form of physical worship so alien to those of us born and bred in the Church of Christ. The call-and-response of “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” filled the entire oversized room, despite the fact that the congregation only occupied a small corner.
And the preaching was really something to behold. I’ve been attending one Church of Christ or another for most of my 32 years, so I’ve grown accustomed to the academic, and sometimes admittedly boring, lectures that make up most sermons. In those circumstances, a sermon is a lesson, a time for transferring objective information to a group of people. Yesterday, though, the tables were turned. Pastor Roy, the grandfather of Rachel’s friend, stood behind the microphone and held the small crowd in rapt attention, moving them to periods of loudly shouted exclamations of, “Praise God!” and times of quiet meditation. His cadence rose and fell and with it the congregation moved about like a singular organism. He read from the Bible for part of the time, but much of the time was spent with him just talking, his improvised words accentuating the main point that we make our “Day of Independence” a “Day of Dependence” on God.
During the invitation he invited those present to come forward as the crowd arose (the sermon was one of the few times people spent sitting) in song. As each member would come forward, Roy would place a hand on their head and loudly say a prayer for them as the music went on in the background. Every word spoken was done so with reverence and emotion, and the parishioners responded likewise. It was a welcome reprieve from the icy stoicism that so often characterizes our denomination.
After worship I took the girls to the pastor’s home for a late (or early?) 3:30 barbecue dinner. The girls ran off to eat with the other kids and I sat with the pastor and most of the rest of the congregation to eat through piles of pork, beef brisket, corn on the cob and a wide selection of pies and cakes. We sat and visited until around 5:00, talking at great length about our families, churches, and work situations (the pastor doubles as an art teacher in Memphis City Schools). They are wonderful people who made me feel right at home, as if we are all part of the same family, one in which racial differences matter little. It was a true community of faith, one in which everyone belonged. He made sure to invite us to come over to their house anytime so that they can “feed us,” and those of you who know me know that is an offer I can’t refuse.
It was a truly great experience, one that will stay with me for some time. Though I love my church and wouldn’t entertain thoughts of leaving, this did cause me to reflect a bit on what is missing in my spiritual life – spirit. That being said, I may do a series this week over that very thing – what my ideal church would consist of. Yesterday I saw one aspect, but there are certainly others that are just as important. It should be interesting.
A Diverse Raising May 10, 2010Posted by Matt in family, race.
Tags: children, demographics, diversity, friends, Mississippi, population trends, race, suburbs
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Like Steve Martin in The Jerk, you might say that my kids are growing up as black children in Mississippi.
Last night my oldest daughter, Rachel, was doing one of those little girl playground chants and I was halfway listening when two words caught my ear – “black power.”
“Honey,” I said, “what did you say again?”
She repeated the lines for me, complete with the two words that grabbed my attention earlier.
“Where did you get that from?”
She looked at me with a sly smile on her face, “I learned it from T____”
I smiled back at her, “That’s cool, honey,” and she scampered on her way, saying the little rhymes she picked up from her friends. It’s not often that you hear a 7 year old little white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes use the term “black power.”
Later on I was talking with Diana about it and we both found it very interesting that most of our daughter’s friends are African-American. It seems as though they gravitate toward each other. In close proximity to our house there are six little girls around Rachel’s age (she is 7, so I’ll consider anything from 5 to 9) and of those six, three are white and three are black. While she is friends with and plays with all of them, she shows a definite tendency to prefer the company of the black girls – including the aforementioned T. From what I gather from her about her school friends and who she invites to our home, the pattern tends to hold steady. It’s the same way at our church as well. Though she has close white friends, they are outnumbered by the black ones.
While some of this stems from us – her church friends are the children of our friends – much of it comes directly from her. It is so amazing to me the way that kids do not see color as an issue, a barrier that separates them from each other. The continued experience of diversity is the answer to the prejudice problem that still plagues our society.
I read an interesting article today regarding race and society, this dealing with the changing face of America’s suburbs and how they are moving from being deliberately lily white to something that more matches the general populace. The article details a sort of reverse white flight trend, in which many whites, particularly young professionals, are moving back to the cities, while at the same time the suburban areas are seeing an influx of racial and socio-economic diversity. It’s quite fascinating to look at the numbers.
We live in Southaven, the largest suburb of Memphis, and have been here for six years. During that short time I can tell you that we have seen a good deal of demographic change. According to the latest population estimates I can find, Southaven has about 45,000, making it the fifth largest city in the state – though I suspect that once the latest census figures are tallied we will move ahead of Biloxi and maybe even challenge Hattiesburg. Though our city retains a decidedly white majority (65% vs. 25% black and 10% other), it is quite smaller than the other towns in our county (Olive Branch – 86%, Horn Lake – 83%, Hernando – 76%). In addition to that, our kids’ school is among the most diverse in the county, with a racial breakdown of 62% white and 30% black. This stand in contrast to some of the newer schools in the county which have much larger white majorities (80%+). So, in our section of the Memphis metro area, we have seen many move out to greener (or should I say whiter?) pastures farther away from the Memphis city limits – either to the far, more rural, reaches of the county or out of it altogether.
A large part of me would much rather live in Memphis than where we do now, but if we are going to be suburbanites, at least we can hold know that our children will grow up with diversity. I can think of few things as important as that.
White Men Can’t Jump…or Can They? January 20, 2010Posted by Matt in race.
Tags: All-American Basketball Alliance, race, white people
According to an article bouncing around the Twittersphere (has that word been copywrited yet?), a new professional basketball league, the All-American Basketball Alliance, is looking for cities to house its 12 proposed teams. So, you ask, what’s the big deal? What makes this any different from, say, the CBA?
Well, the league has certain requirements that differ from other leagues. According to their official press release:
Only players that are natural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race are eligible to play in the league.
For real, it’s a white guy basketball league. Don “Moose” Lewis, the AABA commissioner, says that racism does not play any role in the league, though.
There’s nothing hatred about what we’re doing. i don’t hate anyone of color. But people of white, American-born citizens are in the minority now. Here’s a league for white players to play fundamental baskeball, which they like.
Lewis later says that he wants to emphasize fundamentals, rather than the “street ball” played by “people of color.”
I don’t really know if anything else can be said…
P.S. I was really wanting to include the old video from Saturday Night Live with the white Harlem Globetrotters, but I couldn’t find it. If you know where it is, let me know so I can post it.
The Great White Hope January 19, 2010Posted by Matt in race.
Tags: Avatar, race, The Blind Side, The Great White Hope, White Messiah fable
In the early 20th century, boxer Jack Johnson seemed unbeatable, becoming the first African-American to hold the World Heavyweight Championship title in the face of a multitude of opposition from the general public. The masses called for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson and reclaim the title and thus the phrase denoting the wish for a white savior to arise and reassert the dominant status of the majority race.
In America today this mindset is still somewhat prevalent, though it has taken a different turn, one that is not as concerned with exerting power (unless of course you are talking about preemptive war and building nations into our own image, but that is outside of my scope today) and is more interested in fashioning themselves into a Savior, thus bringing about what is sometimes called the White Messiah fable.
I was thinking about this phenomena based on two recent films, both of which are favorites for this year’s award shows – Avatar and The Blind Side. These films are very different from each other in many ways, but the underlying theme of the need for a white savior is certainly present in each of them. In The Blind Side, the savior takes the form of a wealthy, white suburban family that adopt a poor, black teen, thus “saving” him from poverty. Avatar revolves around a primitive, indigenous population whose only hope against outside forces resides in a white, dragon-riding Messiah.
It’s an interesting concept and one that certainly causes me to rethink my views on things. What do you think?