Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Prom Queens of the Stone Age

With prom season once again mercilessly upon us, it's time for the usual outcry of surprise and indignation over the fact that there are schools in this country which even to this day stage segregated proms.

At face value, it's admittedly shocking that this kind of thing continues to go on -- but for some reason this year's outrage from everyone not still living in the 1950s seems especially pointed. Maybe it's the knowledge that there's a black man in the White House. Maybe it's that the arm of the Republican party which gleefully pandered to the most ignorant among us has been driven from power and utterly put asunder as a cultural force. Maybe it's just that smart people have finally wised up, had enough, and are now willing to drag the lowest common denominator, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the new millennium. Whatever the reason, there's been a hell of a lot of press over the past couple of weeks aimed at those few Southern high schools that still willfully practice Jim Crow-era racism when it comes time to celebrate that most sacred of high school traditions.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an extended column about a high school in Georgia that was, for the very first time in its existence, holding an integrated prom. This morning, I'm resurrecting that piece.

"The Dance That Time Forgot" (Originally Published, 4.26.07)

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 triumvirate 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 Stepford-esque 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 subtle 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 horseshit 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 forgo 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 reasoning 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.


Lily's Mommy said...

I had read that the students "chose" separate proms. However, I know that I wouldn't choose to go to a place where I knew that I wasn't wanted by at least more than a few people.

It's amazing how unenlightened some people remain in the 21st century. I won't go into how I've heard the n-word used "affectionately", as in "how's our little n----r doing?". WTF? I've met some of the descendants of Sally Hemming and they have all been really cool about explaining their fight to be accepted by the rest of the living Jefferson family. Regardless of whether it was Thomas or Peter that procreated with Miss Hemmings. But as one of the female Jeffersons proclaimed in a local paper, they will never allow the inclusion of the descendants of slaves.

I cannot believe that mentality still exists. I don't know how to grab someone by their bigoted ideological balls, but I surely need to learn.

Anonymous said...

The New York Times had a piece on this just recently, profiling another southern community where there were segregated proms. As you alluded to, I gather the schools themselves have gotten out of the prom business for a variety of reasons -- the cost, the hassle, legal liability, etc. As a result, it is left entirely to students and parents to organize as a private function. Of course, the white parents take this as an opportunity to organize a "private" prom for "our kids and their friends". (Read - whites only.)

There was, however, some hope in that NYT article. Interviews with the kids themselves, both black and white, clearly showed a strong desire for an integrated prom. They hated the notion of segretated proms, and it was clear this was only happening because the white parents wanted it that way.

It's shocking that these parents, most of whom would be in their early 40s to early 50s and all of whom came of age after the Civil Rights Movement, would still feel this way. Sometimes, though, it takes two generations to affect change.

In the NYT article, a few brave black and white kids were crashing each others prom, which was great. One of the best lines came from a black student who said, "You just know that when she gets home, that white girl is going to be texting a black boy."

With just a little more sunlight and pressure, I bet the last of these "white only" proms will fall away. Remember that in the Summer of 1989, most in East Berlin wouldn't have believed the wall was about to come down a couple of months later.

Chris said...

I'd read that NYT article the other day and wondered if you were going to pick up on it. I might have known you were years ahead of us.

I'm living here in Texas and some days I forget I'm in the South, other days I see behaviour like this and it's like a wet fish to the face. Days like that I realize I ain't in Kansas anymore (I'm really from the UK, but I don't get to use that line often).

Ally said...

You remind me (fondly) of my uncle who was forced to live in Atlanta for a few years. He loathed every moment in "hickville" as he called it, which made me laugh. Atlanta? "Hickville"? *shakes head* I went to high school in a town with one stop light.

A couple of thoughts:

1) The "New South" is bullshit. Ask any true southerner and they will very politely tell you this. It was a major fail from the moment it was proclaimed. Those of us who hail from both sides of the line were raised to never utter those incredibly bizarre and stupid words.

2) James Lee Burke is an excellent storyteller, as well as a keen observer on the nature of being southern. Besides telling some truly harrowing and rip-your-skin off tales based in Louisiana, he manages to articulately explain the idiotic reasoning behind these kinds of events. It's all fiction, but for a person in the know, it's pretty damn accurate.

And your mention of the shirt from Kentucky reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw here in Wyoming, just a few months after we moved up here. I can't recall the whole thing, but here's the end:

"Kaycee: ........1 cemetary and 1 hooker."

Small town southern living exists everywhere.

Jeremy said...

I grew up in Greenup County, KY. If we had had a segregated prom, we'd have had one prom with most of the class, and one with three black students.
The irony is that our traditional "white flight" neighborhoods of Russell and Flatwoods (who have their own independent school district so their kids don't have to mingle with us unwashed masses) actually have more black students now because their tony neighborhoods attract the well-heeled lawyers and surgeons who practice over across the county line, in Ashland and Boyd County.
While Russel-Flatwoods (Billy Ray Douche-bag's alma mater, by the way) doesn't have a segregated prom, you may remember some whoopty-doo a few years ago about a girl claiming that the school was suppressing her right to express her heritage by banning her from wearing a sequined Rebel Flag prom dress (or maybe you rolled your eyes if you saw it and forgot all about it, but I remember because I was so annoyed by the whole thing.)
The thing that kills me is that, while the little dunder-head was claiming it was her "heritage" she never stopped to consider
1) that the Commonwealth of Kentucky never actually seceded from the Union,
2) that in the eastern Appalachian coal field area that Greenup County touches on, there weren't any of the big slave owning plantations like there were down toward Lexington in the race horse and mint julep country, (our people were too dirt-poor to own slaves even if they'd wanted to), and
3) a quick survey of the local graveyards will show you most of our locals fought and died for the Union.

I wrote a piece at the time telling stating that if that were her heritage she needed to head back to Georgia 'cause we "didn't take kindly to outsiders 'round these here parts." (Tongue in cheek use of dialect, of course.)

But still, yeah... it baffles me. Even more so when I would go over into West Virginia (or Ohio) and see the folks with rebel flag t-shirts that say "Heritage not Hate" and I just think to myself "how could someone so wrapped up in their 'heritage' not realize that their home state became a state because they broke off from a slave state and stayed in the Union (or, in the case of Ohio, never left in the first place and gave the north its commanding General!)
Yeah... sure its about heritage.