It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want: The sacred nature of “tradition” and the south

This isn’t a post about technology.

I have been itching to make this post for a few weeks and haven’t because I’ve been hung up with the fact that this blog is supposed to help teachers with technology. But there are social issues brewing, and my home state is currenty divided and struggling with ghosts of our past.

Hence the title.

And I really want to post about this. Even though it could cause my parents some grief. Please, my parents had nothing to do with this. Know that they have never been able to control me appropriately and don’t blame them for this. They raised me the best they could considering the “me” God gave them.

So here’s the deal.

I come from a small town in Mississippi. There are a lot of things we don’t talk about in my small town, even now.

In my small town, where I lived until I was 18, we didn’t talk about delayed desegregation of schools. No one talks about why Academies became the place to go for certain families (including my own). No one talks about the teachers from the black schools who taught us in High School and were afraid to teach for the most part because they didn’t want to do anything wrong. No one talks about the white teachers who weren’t sure how to manage a mixed race classroom. No one talks about how we didn’t have dances or proms or why that might have been, and why instead we had banquets. We didn’t talk about how black people lived on “the Hill”  – which is actually a low flat place at the bottom of a hill – and we rarely went there unless accompanied by another black person. We didn’t talk about how those houses ended up stacked so closely together in that valley or why there was a town within a town for the black people. We didn’t talk about why, even in 1984, black people and native Americans sat in the balcony in the theater.

Most of those things we didn’t talk about were codified into tradition. Things just were that way. Those people of my generation didn’t know why. We didn’t notice that it was strange at all. It was just the way it was.

I really had no idea that other schools had dances. I thought all schools quit doing that in the 50s.

I thought private schools were just good schools. I didn’t know that the teachers didn’t have to be trained or certified. I mean why would someone pay to send their kids to school unless the teachers were GREAT and it was a better school?

I never wondered why “the Hill” was so separate. I thought black people must want it that way, and maybe that was all they could afford.

My parents taught me never to judge, and I didn’t. If that was how the black people wanted to live (I thought) they should be able to live that way. Although I didn’t understand why anyone really would want to live in that little valley with those houses so close you could reach from one and touch the other. When I was a senior in high school, I went to “the Hill” with a black friend to get something from her house. Her house was a very narrow, new, brick house, beautiful on the inside, wedged between two rows of the older more typical houses on the Hill. I wondered why someone would build a nice new house so narrow and deep in that neighborhood? I didn’t ask.

My parents taught me to be polite, and that stuck – to a fault I must say.

It never really occurred to me to ask why black people sat in the balcony at the theater. I wanted to sit in the balcony, but I knew it wasn’t allowed. No one said it wasn’t. There was no sign saying it wasn’t. But I knew. My place was in the boring ground floor.

Tradition.

We didn’t know it – but there were some pretty messed up reasons behind these traditions. No one enforced those messed up reasons. Those may not even have been the actual reasons anymore. They had transformed from messed up reasons to benign time honored traditions.

So let’s look at the messed up reasons behind the time honored traditions:

1. The original reason that we went to Academies, was so that we wouldn’t be educated with black people.

2. The original reason we didn’t have dances was the people in the community didn’t want us to socially “mix” with black people.

3. The original reason Black and Native American people sat in the balcony is because it was that way during segregation, and no one ever proactively changed it.

3. The original reason that black teachers didn’t teach was that they were afraid of physical repercussions to themselves their families or their livelihoods if they “crossed” a white child.

4. The original reason white teachers did the same thing was that they were very afraid that if they actually got us actively involved in learning, something would happen that would have repercussions for the racial relations in the town.

5. The original reason all those houses were on “the Hill” is that after Brown v. Board of education in 1954, the white businessmen in the town moved them there so that the black people would have their own school district. Schools remained segregated by this means until 1970, when desegregation was forced.

Like I said, messed up reasons. REALLY messed up.

But by 1984 this was “tradition”.

I know Mississippi is in turmoil right now. Here’s how I know, even though I live in Alaska.  One of my very best sister-friends made a post pleading for people to stop fighting. She doesn’t talk politics. She is one of the most polite and open minded people I know. But she has – for the first time I have seen since she’s been on social media – several years now – reached the end of her rope. People in MS must be fighting amongst themselves in the aftermath of South Carolina’s decision to take down the rebel flag.

Of course world view plays a big part in the “side” people are on. Conservative radio mouths like Rush Limbaugh aren’t helping. The media portraying the south as backward, redneck and lawless isn’t helping.

People are defending “traditions”.

But why is the flag a “tradition” in Mississippi? It isn’t the flag our ancestors fought under. None of them would recognize that as representing their cause.

The confederate flag was an official symbol of segregation. Lots of messed up things were done – by our people – in the name of that symbol – in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  It became tradition and therefore benign to the dominant culture. It is even shrugged off by many black people. Tradition. But for some really messed up reasons.

It’s in the past. Yes. Now some of us are telling ourselves, “The Flag isn’t the Problem. The problem is hate.” Okay. Is there only one problem?

The reason the flag was adopted in Mississippi was to symbolize its commitment to separation of the races. This symbol grew into tradition. Ole Miss recognized the problem with this symbol 20 years ago and was brave enough to stand up to and start a new, more inclusive tradition – on purpose. It refused to let the history behind this symbol be silent and invisible. It rejected the “heritage” argument.  In short, Ole Miss got right.

These days in Philadelphia, Mississippi, things have changed.

1. Black people attend the Academies. Now, the segregation isn’t racial, it’s financial.

2. I see on the Neshoba Central High School page, that students have a Senior Prom.

3. The old movie theater is closed, and the new one has 7 screens, and no balcony.

4. White and black teachers are held to accountability standards, and must demonstrate they are teaching effectively.

5. Black people live in neighborhoods throughout the town, next to white people.

The flag is one of the last remnants of those segregationist “traditions” that we held onto. Who flies it – why do they fly it? Well those are personal questions I suppose. But should a state that collects public dollars fly it? I think if we look at the other traditions from that era that our state once embraced, and look at the flag in that same light, we have an answer.

Looking through the lens of our traditions, I gotta say – fighting to keep this flag flying is really messed up. Like in a dysfunctional “we need counseling” sort of way. You can’t fix anything from the past unless you accept the truth about it. We have to try to accept the truth behind this particular “tradition.” And the truth doesn’t lie in the Civil War. It lies in the track record of the 20th Century. Think about it…

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6 responses to It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want: The sacred nature of “tradition” and the south

  1. This post resonated with us, too, Lee. Jack got his master’s degree at the College of Charleston and spent another two years teaching in Charleston. Your observations about Mississippi apply to the South Carolina of the 1990’s that Jack grew to know. The South is more complex than either “side” sometimes make it out to be. We closely followed the process that led to the removal of the battle flag flying next to the South Carolina State House. In our view, this was a great day for South Carolina… It is a place from which to move forward. Thanks for writing and posting this article!

    • akedtech says:

      I am so proud of South Carolina – and so frustrated with my home state. From the politicians who are playing fast and loose with their inflammatory language, to the friends I have who are the kindest most generous people I know, but who are defending this symbol. I can only think people have forgotten the 60s way too fast. Mississippi has to be able to start talking about the things we did that were simply indefensible. I know what it’s like to live down there and be completely silenced, but it’s time for good people to get a backbone and do what’s right, finally. It shouldn’t take a church shooting to make us own up to the mistakes of the last century.

  2. Claire says:

    It’s interesting to read about the Mississippi you grew up in while reflecting on the short part of my childhood that I resided there. I remember very little about noticing race. I don’t think I really remember understanding what race even was until I was maybe six or seven. My schools were never segregated, and my education actually never explored segregation at all until I moved to Ohio. We read Bible stories in the morning and sang songs to God. We never asked why, we just did. Tradition.

    The flag is a small portion of our nation’s issue. I think South Carolina has taken a great step in the right direction, but we as Americans should not misunderstand; the real issues are the murders and hate crimes and prejudices wrongfully committed against “minority” groups in America. Americans. The “Confederate” flag is merely the backdrop of these crimes. As such, it should be permanently disposed of and we should refocus our lenses on the next steps for equality for every American! 🙂

  3. Ms. H says:

    Kudos for initiating an uncomfortable discussion and sharing your experiences. We need to talk about this, in order to grow from our history. I hope more people take your initiative.

  4. Ms. H says:

    Kudos to you for talking about the hard topics. This is difficult to discuss and we need person experiences to create valuable opinions. This really resonates with my opinions and experiences. Thank you for all you do for education and human rights.

  5. Chris Carlson says:

    I’m on season 1 Episode 4 of Ken Burn’s The Civil War documentary for some historical perspective. There seems to be no reference to the flag found on the top of Robert E. Lee during the civil war. (Growing up in Alaska, everything I know about the south came from Dukes of Hazard)
    I found #3 & #4 to be my “holy #%?! epiphany. That makes sense and I find myself falling in the same trap. Thank you. I believe that our initial response to self reflection manifests as a heavy defensive in favor of our pruned identity. this slowly changes with every well written blog…which I plan to share on FB & G+. Twitter too.
    One more thing. I’ve found solis in the fact that we are all prejudice. Most of humanity recognize the lack of utility that prejudice has. It’s the small few who don’t in which we are talking about.

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