Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New at Ole Miss

On Thursday of last week I was in Oxford, Mississippi, where I delivered a lecture in the English Department at the University of Mississippi (usually called “Ole Miss” by its students and alumni.)  It was also an occasion to visit with old student friends, now prominent members of the faculty.   The weather helped a lot.  I left Newark in freezing cold and returned to Newark in freezing cold.  In Mississippi I walked about in shirtsleeves and enjoyed the flowering trees and masses of bright daffodils.  I had been on the campus once before—I believe it must have been in 1956.  I recognized a few campus landmarks, but the overwhelming sense was of a new age and a new creation.

            Growing up in Arkansas we used to say, jokingly, “Thank God for Mississippi!”  That was because in the statistical tables of shame documenting the scourges of poverty, illiteracy, illegitimacy, ringworm, and so forth, Arkansas was only forty-seventh out of forty-eight.  Mississippi also bore the special opprobrium of its appalling racial injustices.  I doubt that the situation in Mississippi was in fact worse than in most other parts of the rural Deep South, but such grotesque episodes as the murders of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till (1955) and of the civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (1964) have created an especially permanent stain.

            There were no black students at Ole Miss at the time of my first visit.  The first black student to matriculate there was a courageous and consequential contrarian named James Meredith, who in 1963 essentially forced the Kennedy Administration to put its money where its mouth was and back his right to admission with its coercive powers.  In 1963 Meredith was execrated by all the elites in the State of Mississippi.  Today those same elites have honored him with an imposing statue on the Old Miss campus.  That monument offers at least the pretext for this essay.

            America confronts serious racial problems, and racial prejudice has by no means disappeared.  It may never disappear until virtue and wisdom can be made universal by genetic modification.  But legal racial discrimination against people of color, and racial discrimination that enjoys broad social support, is a thing of the past.  In the politically correct context of most of our institutions of higher education it is not particularly popular to comment on the most extraordinary amelioration of our democracy to be achieved in the past century.  It is, however, very dramatic.  I was alive and sentient at the time the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown versus Board of Education (1952), and I followed the drama of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock (1957).  Southerners of my generation have witnessed a true social revolution.

            This brings me back to the statue of James Meredith, and to a recent nasty incident that in a counter-intuitive way can demonstrate my claim.  Few people have expressed dissatisfaction with the statue except for James Meredith himself, who has opined that it violates the second of the Ten Commandments.  (I think I mentioned that Meredith is a contrarian?)  But recently someone vandalized the statue in a particularly disgusting way—by placing a noose around its neck and decking it out with an old Georgia state flag that included the motif of the Confederate battle flag.  There is nothing even vaguely amusing in hints of racial lynching, and the student protests inspired by the episode were as appropriate as they were predictable.  What is more interesting to me from the historical point of view was the reaction of various power centers in Mississippi.

            Remember that in 1963 the governor of the state publicly threatened to use the state police to keep Meredith off the campus.  Attorney General Robert Kennedy actually did mobilize five hundred federal marshals to counter that threat.  In 2014 everybody of any consequence in Mississippi condemned the vandalism in the strongest possible terms.    The senior administrators of the university began a vigorous investigation.  The investigation was considerable aided by the Alumni Association, which offered a $25,000 reward for the identification and criminal prosecution of those responsible.  The Inter-Fraternity Council, or whatever it is called at Ole Miss, made the pre-emptive strike of announcing that should any culprit turn out to be a fraternity member, that person would immediately be expelled from his fraternity.  Strong suspicion soon fell on some callow underclassmen—all of them from Georgia, as the campus press was quick to point out.  Thank God for Georgia!  On the basis of mere suspicion alone a national fraternity suspended the Ole Miss chapter with which the suspects were associated.

            The episode is apparently still sub judice, and I know nothing more than what I picked up from the campus buzz and from a segment on NPR.  Nor do I know what is on the mind of people who would put a noose around a statue, but I suspect it is more likely to be a compound of alcohol fumes and appalling cultural ignorance than coherent racism.  Of course an unpleasant comeuppance is justly upcoming.  But a repellent social aberration universally condemned is not the same thing as a widely accepted social norm, and that’s a consequential difference.  This disgusting episode does not presage the return of Percy Grimm.

            Don’t let that obscure allusion annoy you.  It seems appropriate, perhaps inevitable, since one high point of my visit was a personal tour of Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s house, conducted by Professor Jay Watson, an eminent Faulkner scholar, who generously shared an hour’s worth of his amazing knowledge of the architectural and cultural history of the South in relation to sometimes arcane aspects of the textual history of Faulkner’s writing.  I am no Faulkner scholar, but reading Absalom!  Absalom! and Light in August was one of the experiences that set me toward a life of literary study.

            When I got home I searched out Faulkner’s justly famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1950.  It is grounded in the general gloom and doom of the early Cold War, which it seeks to confront with the “eternal verities” of the human spirit.  “I believe that man will not merely endure,” Faulkner said; “he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

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