Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Dance that Time Forgot


For a short time, a few years back, my wife and I lived in "The South." It's important to clarify right off the bat that the area of which I'm speaking, despite seeming to owe its designation solely to where it happens to sit on the map, is in fact not so much a location as it is a declaration. The southern portion of the United States as a whole bears little resemblance to "The South." I grew up in Miami, which is about as far south as you can go without leaving the country -- although I'd argue that once you cross the border into Miami-Dade county, for all intents and purposes, you have left the country. Still, Miami in particular and a good portion of Florida in general only serve to prove my point; neither represents The South as a corporeal entity -- a way of life, as it were. Instead, Florida seems more like The South's basement, which would explain why The South apparently keeps so many of its deranged and retarded cousins stuffed down there; it's as if the bottom dropped out and all of the truly worthless adherents to the Southern modus vivendi just tumbled down into that elongated, penis-shaped pit, to be heard from only when the crew from Cops shows up.

For a guy who had lived his entire 32 years in the coastal triumverate of Miami-New York-Los Angeles, and a girl who had grown up just outside Philadelphia, adjusting to life in The South proved to be an adventure -- one fraught with constant challenges and the occasional unfortunate pitfall. There was the positive: an excellent and affordable lifestyle, a daily pace which all-but-assured that we would remain healthy and comfortably ulcer-free for years to come, good friends, free time which allowed us the opportunity to explore, decent cultural events, some truly spectacular dining, etc.; the negative: a pace that made us feel as if we were stagnating in ultra-slow motion, the lack of a nearby large body of water, an odd feeling that we were looked upon as morally bankrupt Northeastern carpetbaggers by some of the more Stepfordesque elements, the constant and sometimes less-than-friendly reminders that as far as politics were concerned -- we were way behind enemy lines, the inability to get a decent pizza, the fact that it wasn't New York, etc.; and the, well, Southern: the ubiquitous insistence on deriving pride from a 140-year-old war which it lost and was on the wrong side of in the first place, a law forbidding the sale of alcohol on Sundays, a law enforcing the placement of anti-evolution nonsense in public school science texts, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, NASCAR, Zell Miller, etc.

As somewhat of an unrepentant prick, it's entirely likely that I infuriated quite a few of the people my wife and I encountered during our stint in Dixie; this was due mostly to my propensity to argue ferociously with anyone who tried convincing me that my prejudice against certain elements of Southern culture was based on a long-since outdated model -- that things were different in the "New South."

A lot had apparently changed over the years, and I just hadn't paid attention; it wasn't all Dukes of Hazzard under the Mason-Dixon line anymore.

While I'd never cast a wide net over such a large area and everyone contained within -- both my own mother and a very dear friend of mine hail from Kentucky, a state whose motto, as proclaimed on a t-shirt, is "Electricity in Almost Every Town" -- there are simply too many instances in which the stereotypically indigenous Southern mentality has raised its ugly, toothless head as of late for the evidence to be ignored: in some places, the New South is still very much the Old South.

Case in point: last weekend, Turner County High School in Ashburn, Georgia held its first integrated prom. It's first integrated prom ever.

144 years since the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves; 137 years since the passage of the 15th Amendment which ostensibly guaranteed voting rights, regardless of color; 53 years since Brown v. Board of Education ended the underhanded tyranny of "separate but equal;" 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1957; 9 days since Don Imus was fired from his radio show for calling the Rutgers Womens' Basketball team "nappy-headed hos" -- and one Georgia high school is just now getting around to integrating its prom.

It would seem that Ashburn forgot to set the alarm clock and somehow slept through the last five decades.

Before I draw any comparisons to those fabled Pacific islands where, even today, there may be stranded 108-year-old Japanese soldiers who believe that WWII is still being fought, let me make something clear: I don't much care how Turner High School, or any other school for that matter, chooses to celebrate its prom (and that by the way is the mitigating factor school administrators cite when faced with having to defend the practice of a segregated prom -- that the students have long chosen to party separately). If the kids want something a certain way, it's not my place to say otherwise; I have far better things to do with my time than argue for the "liberation" of group which doesn't feel that it's being in any way oppressed in the first place. That said, I'm not sure that the situation that's existed in Ashburn has simply been a matter of inertia all these years -- that an object at rest has stayed at rest until the students suddenly got motivated and decided to give things a push. On the contrary, a quick glance at the reaction by some of the "towns-folk" -- and yes, I fully expect for that word to be taken with the spirit of derision in which it was offered -- to this past weekend's landmark event would seem to prove that Ashburn really is the land that time forgot, thus proving that time may be smarter than I thought.

According to Turner County School Superintendent Ray Jordan, it was indeed the students themselves who pushed to finally integrate the prom -- a bold step forward which Jordan says fills him with a sense of pride in the students. The fact that such an obvious undertaking -- given that it's now the beginning of the 21st century -- can be lauded with such fanfare tells you everything you need to know in this case: either the student body of Turner High is comprised of borderline retards who deserve acclaim for the accomplishment of mundane round-peg-in-round-hole tasks, or, more likely, the act of integration was in fact a painful one that forced the kids to break a tradition many would rather have kept intact.

Evidence in favor of this latter possibility comes courtesy of one white Turner High student, anonymous of course, who said that despite wishing them no ill-will, her mother and mother's friends would rather she not associate with "coloreds."

This is probably a good time to once again remind you to take a look at your calendar.

Unfortunately, before you assume that the flag of progress planted by the brave kids of Turner High signals the end of the Ashburn Apartheid, it's important to note that the integrated prom was a supplement to, rather than a replacement for a private, whites-only party which took place two weeks earlier. When asked about that gathering, one Turner senior dismissed accusations that it was racist, instead calling it "tradition." In other words, the white kids get not one but two parties -- one privately funded -- and also get to use the time-honored and thoroughly laughable excuse that, even if the original aim of the exclusive function was racist in every possible way, now it's simply done out of a sense of well, whatever -- and make no mistake, that's exactly what they're claiming.

It goes without saying that mixing-up the Turner High School prom, while still clutching to a separate event for white students defeats the purpose of desegregation entirely. Likewise, the belief that to forego the "traditional" white prom would be to abandon a proud heritage -- the unstated reality -- is symptomatic of an ideology that's haunted the South since Lee put pen to paper at Appomatox. It's the same faulty thought process that's been at the core of the fight to keep the Confederate emblem on state flags across the South, despite its negative connotation to just about every living human being not writing to former Judge Roy Moore to enlist his help in securing the triumphant return of Hee-Haw to network television. Laying claim to a legacy automatically assumes that the legacy is worth perpetuating. Nobody celebrates the day they found out they had herpes (although the whole "Confederate Pride" thing is, admittedly, just as stubborn and arguably twice as nasty).

Segregation in any form isn't a legacy worth preserving or honoring.

The students of Turner High School have taken a bold step forward -- into the 1960s. And while it may wind up being the necessary first of many to come, them and others like them run the risk of walking in place as long as the New South holds on to the tired heritage of the Old South.

Because in the end, tradition is nothing more than a lack of imagination.

36 comments:

Emily Blake said...

My first year as a high school teacher I was in rural North Carolina and assigned a persuasive essay letter that we were actually going to mail. The assigment was to choose a policy you'd like to change and convince someone in power to change it.

One of my white honors students wrote a letter to the principal demanding that we have segregated buses and lunch because "they get me in trouble" and "they are stupid."

She had so many mispelled words and grammar errors in her paper I almost couldn't read it.

VOTAR said...

It begs the question: was there up to this point also a blacks-only prom?

Can you imagine the scene if some of the white kids ever got the wrong invitation, and showed up instead at the Dexter Lake Club...

"You mind if we dance wif yo dates?

RottweilerTOM said...

We should remind/ask her mother, what color are we talking about when she wishes her daughter not mess with those "coloreds?"

We now have reddish brown coloreds (aztec mexicans); black or brown coloreds (african american, mexican, filipano, islanders, middle eastern); yellow coloreds (asian american - actually yellow is somewhat of an antiquated yet wrong description - should be white or brownish such as (Thai, Vietnamese) etc.

VOTAR said...

tom, as any self-respecting good old fashioned racist redneck would tell ya, the answer to the choice you pose is, of course, "YES"

Emily said...

I lived in a small town called Childersburg in Alabama. Therefore, I completely understand how you felt in the south. Everyone kept calling me a Yankee. I'm from West Virginia.
There are definite lines drawn in the south. Alabama was awful. Tennessee however, might have been worse. People used racial slurs in everyday conversations at work, at restaurants, and at convenient stores. It's really unbelievable.

TK said...

As a dark-skinned, racially mixed liberal male, married to a lily-white Irish Catholic girl who's aggressively and outspokenly pro-choice and anti-death penalty... let's just say we avoid the southern states altogether.

And Votar, if I remember correctly, there was a "black prom" as well, because, well, otherwise what would the "coloreds" do on Prom night? And as a fun little addendum to this story, apparently the white kids had their white prom anyway, which was highly attended, with far fewer of them going to the integrated one. Awesome. Someone needs to wipe this town off the map.

protest said...

all i have to say to these kids is 'good job on trying to bring your town up to speed with the rest of the country, now hurry up and graduate so you can get the hell out of there!'
also, both the black and white kids had separate private parties.

litelysalted said...

Is it just me or does one of these integrated prom stories turn up out of the woodwork every few years or so?

When I was in my early 20's, I went to visit a friend who had recently moved about 40 minutes North of Atlanta. I was appalled at the prevalence of the confederate flag, which was pretty much plastered everywhere. I didn't stay long enough to really interact with many locals, who suspiciously eyed the punky girl with bleached hair and facial piercings (hey, I was young!) but I'm not in a rush to go back to give them another shot.

Lauren said...

Let me start by saying that I am a white girl from Texas and I've got a lot of pride for my state. I mean, I lived in California for 2 years during my mid to late teens and most of my sentences started, "Well in TEXAS we did this...". So you understand where I and my pig-headed stubborn southern love are coming from. That said... it saddens me that THIS is the picture that people have of "the south". There are enough of these backwoods locations left that do shit like this to make all of us (even a non-conservative, like myself) look like Deliverance extras. Most of US (you know, city-folk) can't stand these in-breeds either. So, on behalf of all Southerners, I apologize that these guys have been shot or whatever, yet. I also firmly suggest that if any of you, for any reason, ever have to move to "the South" go to a city (my personal favorite is Dallas, but I'm hugely biased. Austin is another really good one, since it's the most liberal city in Texas). Again... my apologies!

slouchmonkey said...

TK, I'm with you, mate. I'm white and my wife is Chinese. I think we'll be avoiding the South as well.

Bob said...

For most of you, the good thing about the south is we have managed to keep all the racist, toothless, bigots, in our region. Because of our efforts, racism doesn't exist north of the Mason Dixon, or west of an imaginary line that may or may not include Texas.

If you are married to someone who isn't a redneck, then you probably should stay away from the south, for it would only be a short time before the men in white sheets marched through your lawn with crosses a blazin.

Uh, are you people really as shallow as these responses indicate?

RottweilerTOM said...

Bob, Yes.

But to defend your point, I went to high school on Long Island and NOT one colored, as understood by Southern parlance. All sons and daughters of international bankers (jews); sons and daughter of drunks (irish); and sons and daughters of mafiaso (italians.) What a bummer, no coloreds!!!!

Robb Bobertson said...

I'm dumbfounded. Maybe I'm just too young.

slouchmonkey said...

Bob, Yes.

But, there are racist everywhere. Even L.A. And, they're not necessarily the white sheet/cross burning type. Sad, but true.

QueBarbara said...

Bob does have a point; I grew up in a small town in the north and I can tell you that the South hasn’t cornered the market on racism. North of the Mason-Dixon line, it tends to be subtler and more patronizing; I have heard different versions of “We don’t have a race problem (insert place name here) because ‘they’ know how to act around here.”

In other words, they don’t get too “uppity.”

Chez, your post has been simmering in my thoughts for the last day, and raised an uncomfortable question:

If the mainstream news happened to come across one high school in the southern U.S.A. that still has a segregated prom, then there has to be more. Why hasn’t this been brought to light before now? Why aren’t there more people up in arms about this? Why do the parents of the black kids in these towns continue to let them eat this shit?

TK said...

Hi Bob. Read the posts out loud. Maybe if you listen reeeeeal close, you'll hear the sarcasm.

Manny said...

That, and a Ukelele playing in the background, TK.

I'm back, bitches.

VOTAR said...

So THAT'S how you spell ukelele.

Harris said...

Did you enjoy Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day as much as I did? What about Confederate Memorial Day? I was a cops reporter in Florence, Ala., so interviewed a lot of cops and sheriffs. Every single person, the first time I met him, asked me, "You ain't from around here, are you?" I was always grateful when they left the "Boy" off the end of that sentence.

And the Blue Laws drove me nuts, too.

Manny said...

Dammit, I meant to say "banjo".....

Shane said...

Ugh, yet another high-and-mighty rant about the horrors of The South. As a native Alabamian, I'd like to note that we didn't all grow up in towns where the schools taught creationism. We don't all burn crosses as a form of recreation. And we certainly don't all fuck our cousins.

The South, while perhaps not as progressive as The North (or West or East), is saturated with a sense of pride and solidarity that I haven't experienced in any other region of the United States. I enjoy that sense of pride, that harkening back to a day and time when things were a bit more slowly paced, and a feeling that it's still ok to let your kids run free down the street to see his friends.

And you know what? I say this is a homosexual lawyer, not as just another uneducated conservative, as one might guess.

It might not be in your nature, but you could try looking at the bright side in stories like this: that progress is being made. It may be slow for sure, but considering how well the rest of the world deals with rapid change, I, for one, am ok with communities who are still this backward taking it one step at a time.

Focusing instead on the South's shortcomings and lack of movement toward political correctness to date really isn't much better than racism. It's just regionalism, wrapped up in a pretty, wordy package and presented to make non-Southerners feel a little bit better than.

Not exactly the message of unity I think our country needs right now, Chez.

-s-

Chez said...

You know something Shane, I think it's time I made an example of somebody and since you're the resident contrarian argument to pretty much anything and everything I say -- the hell with it, it may as well be you.

First of all, you may have noticed that I specifically stated my desire not to cast a wide net over everyone in the South, labeling the entire population as racist, because of course nothing could be further from the truth (it may have been difficult for you to read little details like this in the column, given the height of that goddamned soapbox you're standing on). But make no mistake about it, when you hear about a black guy dragged through the streets until his head comes off, or a school that's literally stuck in the 50s when it comes to racial equality, it's not even necessary to point out where it's happening -- you can pretty much be all-but-assured it's south of the Mason-Dixon line. The bottom line is that most Southerners are not racist -- but most ass-backward racists seem to be Southerners. Sorry to burst your bubble and offend your sense of genteel solidarity kid.

There's nothing quaint or honorable about the fact that in this day and age, institutional segregation is only now being overcome in some places. It's just offensive no matter what you call it.

Oh yeah, and do me a favor -- is it possible for you to write a comment in which you don't mention the fact that you're gay, as if your sexual orientation somehow lends your opinion extra heft? I don't envy you as it is; being a professional homosexual must be really tough -- but for Christ's sake it doesn't make me take you more seriously. That said, I love it when people argue with me; I like discussion and I have no problem with dissenting opinion -- but given the way you seem to disagree with everything you read on the pages of this blog, I have to ask: why the hell are you still bothering?

Actually, forget it. I don't feel like another fucking lecture.

Manny said...

I thought it was a great post. And I say that as a heterosexual blogger, by the way.

Now if only they would close down the Woolworth's that must surely be where all the girls there are buying their prom dresses, we can see some REAL progress.

Shane said...

Do me a favor. Delete my comments. And delete your responses. It seems to me that YOU are just one who doesn't like to be argued with, and to be honest, though I was just trying to interject a thoughtful and dissenting opinion, I don't need your sissy-ass, cry-baby tirade directed toward me. I write to you with care. You write, as usual, with venom and with a litany of four-letter words to make you seem, I don't know...tougher? Smarter?

Indeed, all you come off as is a know-it-all jackass. And don't worry. I won't be reading your blog again. Promise.

Shane

Anonymous said...

C'mon with this Chez. You tellin me you didn't feel warm hatred of racism in LA and that you don't feel it in NYC? Maybe it's because you don't really have to walk with the scarlet "M" like some of us.

The only interesting thing about racism in the south is that it has managed to remain stagnate and not evolve like the organic thing racism has become.

I was just at a production studio last month and was told how I looked like (insert black actor here who I look nothing like) by a producer, but I was probably "a much nicer negro then him"...and if I hear how smart I am and how well I speak too many more times I'm gonna go on a 47 state slapping spree (hmm..i wonder if whites ever hear that as a supposed compliment?!). As is very obvious to you, racism has now become much more of a mental oppression then a physical intrusion.

The real story here is the souths impressively stubborn insistance on emploring old school racism and not moving to the new era that is able to exist more ambiguously in the shadows.

This may be my inner shit coming out, but miss with with rants in which you single out 1 needle in a syringe filled landfill. They're counterproductive at best, distracting from the entirety of the issue at worst.

Lets talk about racism at its most progressive point and leave the Duke boys to fly there confederate flags. I'm not concerned with them, they're easy to see, with there banjos and that whole inbred look, I'm more concerned with finding a solution to the 21st century version being employed that's much harder to see and define.

~Jaedon

Chez said...

You'll be missed Shane.

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

And as a German-Irish-Welsh-Scottish-Norwegian student, I must say that there is nothing quaint and peaceful about racism. Pride is only worth having if what you're proud of is something that DIDN'T make anyone else into second-class citizens.

Jayne said...

I've been told that I'm "well spoken." I'm not sure in relation to what- my age? my ethnicity (you know us Welsh/German/Slovaks)? my gender? my fantstic figure?

regardless, I assume that it's meant as a compliment and I accept it as such.

namron said...

No one has brought up my favorite Southern rationalization: Except for that "slavery thing" the South was right. My favorite response:
The National Socialists sure did cure that inflation bugaboo in Weimar Geramny. Too bad about that "Jewish thing."

Anonymous said...

hahahaha....sorry, Shane's last post was CLASSIC.

I think you two need a sitcom..

~Jae

RottweilerTOM said...

If I may (or may not), as a proud uprooted Northeastern homo, now living in the great state of California, you can bet your ass Shane (sorry nothing intentional or literal there) will I EVER want to live in the South or Florida for that matter. I say Viva la California and all us progressive republicans AND democrats!!!

Jennifer Sulkin said...

An amusing tale.

My mother moves to the south. She is being dragged in tow by my father, who has just been transferred there due to his job. Both of them were born and raised in Philadelphia their entire lives, and have only left that area on vacations.

My mother is Italian. And when I say Italian, I mean, REALLY fucking Italian. She's half Napoli, half Sicilian, with beautiful deep olive skin, that tans extremely dark if so much as the wind blows on her. At this point, she had long raven hair down past the middle of her back. She has high cheekbones, a defined jawline, eyes so dark they are nearly black, thin lips, and classic pronounced Italian nose.

She's also, as one might gather from the ethnic background...

Catholic.

In the south.

Looking like that.

So... they move in to their new house. The welcome wagon lady comes wielding biscuits. She proceeds to in classic southern hospitality style go into her welcome speech, "Down that way's the YMCA for the kids... oh you don't HAVE kids yet? Hmm... well, over there's the Piggly Wiggly, they're having a sale on tomatoes right now..." etc. She has been addressing most of this speech to my father. About halfway through, she seems to thoroughly notice my mother for the first time. Her mental gears slowly grind to a halt, as she has a very distracting issue to settle in her own mind before she can continue with her civilities. She stops her torrent of information briefly, to ask this.

"I beg your pardon Ma'am, or wait, Miss, I guess? You Northern gals don't like Ma'am, they tell me. But Miss? Er, I don't mean to be rude, but... what ARE you?"

"Excuse me?"

"Er, oh, goodness me, that didn't come out right... I mean your eth-ni-ci-ty."

"I'm Italian?"

"An EYE-talian? I've never seen an EYE-talian before! Is that a kind of Indian?"

"Er, no?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes?"

"You look awful Indian to me. Maybe you got it back a few years and just don't know it."

"Well, that would be rather difficult, seeing as my father is off the boat Sicilian, and my mother is off the boat Napoli."

"Well, I don't know what you're getting at with the boats, but Na-po-leen sounds like some kinda French, and Sissy-land... oh wait, si-SI-lian?"

"Yeah."

"Like the pizza?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, THEM! Okay! I know what you mean! I'm sorry for all the questions, but you know, we get curious. And if you were Indian, that woulda been okay anyhow, I mean, it's not like we're LIKE that around here."

Well, the same people that "weren't LIKE that" around here, proceeded to deny my mother work on the basis that "I know you're over qualified, but I just know my workers won't take orders from a Yankee Catholic woman."

When she finally managed to actually get a job, she offered an asprin to a co-worker with a headache, who declined the offer saying that she couldn't accept any of that "Catholic asprin".

CATHOLIC ASPRIN?!?!? For FUCK'S sake, PEOPLE!!!

And she wasn't even black.
Or Mexican.
Or Chi-nee.

They didn't know what the hell she was, and that irked them more than being able to discriminate on sight. This is the "New South" I grew up in.

I was born in Georgia. I was raised the first six years of my life in South Carolina, and then another one in West Virginia. I was adopted.

Now, it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that I'm likely of Irish descent. I'm so pale I'm clear, I have red hair, freckles, and ocean blue eyes.

And for most of my early life, when I was out with my mother, we got the strangest looks. I was asked if my father had married an immigrant. I had others request that I ask her questions, being unsure as to whether she would understand them in English. It was assumed by most of the white people that we met that I was bi-lingual in something.

People commented constantly, "It's a wonder she came out so FAIR!", with the implication being that I was fortunate as a result of it.

And when corrected and told that I was adopted, the most common response was, "An orphan? Oh, you poor little dear." Incidentally, I was not an orphan. My birth mother was a 22 year old commercial artist who could not afford to keep me.

This is the South I grew up in. The South where I had to learn to switch dialects on a dime, because going to school with a Northern accent was a sure way to get teased or pelted with rocks, and coming home with a Southern one was a sure way to get criticized or punished. This is the South where certain children were not allowed to come to my birthday parties or play with me because I was Catholic. This is the South where once my mother was denied entrance to a diner on the basis of the color of her skin, then allowed to accompany ME as my mother. But they weren't pleased about it.

I sincerely hope things have improved since then, but they were supposed to have improved BY then.

Now there are certainly things about Southern culture that I admire, and will defend to the end. I think that in general, Southern people have a consistently higher level of politeness than people in other parts of the world. They will go out of their way to hold open a door, especially if they see you have your hands full. They will pull out chairs, let you into traffic, buy you rounds in bars just for being from out of town. Provided you're white, and Protestant, preferably Baptist.

God dammit, most of those people seriously know how to cook. I have a very soft spot in my heart for good old fashioned artery clogging southern cookin, and to this day, will seek out grits, green bean casserole, and fried chicken. And they will fix you up the most lovely meal just for joining the neighborhood, shower you with cookies, and smother you in cobblers. Provided you're white, and Protestant, preferably Baptist.

I truly think that the Confederate flag thing is mostly harmless. It's simply a Southern pride thing, more celebrating Southern culture than anything else. And there are many aspects of Southern culture worth being proud of outside of being racist shitheads. And I'm certain that many Southerners AREN'T racist shitheads, and celebrating Southern culture need not be connected in any way to racism, religion, or political assumptions.

This is your "New South", people. Saying, "But, it's making progress!", is like saying "Well, the bus was only a day late..."

Bus shoulda already been there by now. Time to leave the station and start hitchhiking if you have to.

Oh, and I'm female, bisexual, and pagan. And double jointed. So clearly MY opinion is worth more than all of yours combined. =)
(couldn't resist, Chez.)

Damn, that got long! It's almost like it turned into it's own...... blog! Yes! I will go blog that on my own site now.

Chez said...

I'm sorry Jen -- I wasn't paying attention to anything until you got to the pagan, bi, double-jointed thing. Can you repeat everything else?

: )

VOTAR said...

I'm not sure which one, between Jen and her exotic stepmom, I'm more turned on by at this moment.

RottweilerTOM said...

way to lay it on the line, Jen. Great contribution.

Jennifer Sulkin said...

danke schon, tom. glad you enjoyed it. you know, if y'all want, i do have my own lil soapbox, you can visit it from time to time if you like. i occasionally actually WRITE stuff on it. =)