The South Will Rise Again

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, “Don’t hang around”
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

      “A Change is Gonna Come” — Sam Cooke

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has left the building for the summer, but not before handing down a pair of significant and — depending upon your orientation (pun intended) — earth-shaking decisions. By striking down both a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the High Court might appear to some observers to be suffering from some sort of judicial schizophrenia. Others may see these rulings as reflections of American society’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality on the one hand and its deep ambivalence about race on the other.

I am not a legal scholar and am by no means qualified to expound upon the Constitutional implications of these decisions. Rather, I am fascinated by the possibility that these judgments could have a profound effect upon my native region of the country: the South.

Obviously, it is not necessary to review here the South’s disgraceful history of racism and homophobia. Academic and legal careers have been and continue to be built upon these twin pillars of shame; and the popular media have made and continue to reap billions depicting Southern culture and exporting it to the world. Southerners continue to be the butt of jokes and are pitied/hated as hopeless relics of an age long past and best forgotten. (Consider the latest Exhibit A: the Paula Deen controversy.) Black Southerners, in particular, are in a bind. On the one hand they decry the Voting Rights Act decision as a blatant attempt by a conservative Court to roll back one of the most momentous outcomes of the Civil Rights Era. On the other, they denounce same-sex marriage — not to mention the very existence of homosexuality itself — as an abomination before God. (I have more to say about Black people and homophobia, but will save those comments for another time.)

As I pondered the consequences of the Supreme Court’s rulings in these cases, it occurred to me that SCOTUS has handed the Southland a unique opportunity to change not only its “brand” (to use modern parlance), but also its soul. Finally in the second decade of the twenty-first century, my beloved Dixie can lead the nation into the post-racial, post-sexual orientation Promised Land. Who will be the New Moses to lead us on this fantastic journey? Perhaps it will not be a politician or a preacher or a prophet who will (or should) do this. Perhaps this Utopian goal will be achieved instead by neighbors meeting and getting to know each other in the sames ways our parents and grandparents did — and through the new platforms brought to us in the Age of Social Media. If change is gonna come, it must start at the kitchen table, around the water cooler, in the pews, on main street, in Google+ Hangouts, on Twitter, on Facebook, and anywhere else that We the People gather and exchange opinions.

Let me be the first to admit that this idea — this fervent prayer — seems at best far-fetched. But then, sometimes the best ideas are like that — just beyond our grasp, but not beyond our imagination. And to my fellow pessimists out there, I leave you with this grain of hope: it was a loyal son of the South who, as President, signed Civil Rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act, into law. Surely, we can be as tough, determined, persuasive, and creative as Lyndon Johnson was half a century ago.

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Where’s Waldo?

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841

Shake it up is all that we know,
Using bodies up as we go
I’m waking up to fantasy
The shades all around aren’t the colors we used to see
Broken ice still melts in the sun
And ties that are broken can often be one again,
We’re soul alone and soul really matters to me…Take a look around

You’re out of touch, I’m out of time (time)
But I’m out of my head when you’re not around

— Hall and Oates, “Out of Touch”

Recently I spoke to a group of freshmen who were being inducted into several different honors societies on campus. My theme was the quest for excellence. As I have few opportunities now to actually interact with the rising generation, I was eager to say something that would have some resonance with students over twenty-five years younger than I am. For some reason, it seemed to me that the best way to do this would be to draw upon the idea of “the quest” as represented in history, mythology, and popular culture. Intoxicated by this IDEA and fortified by the power of Google, I put together a brief series of images that I believed were iconic representations of “the quest”: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Jason and the Argonauts, the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, Indiana Jones, the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, and Mulder and Scully. I gave my talk; I got a few laughs from the audience, and left the stage thinking that it went better than I had hoped.

During the reception after the induction ceremony, a student approached me and admitted that she has never been able to understand a thing that I say, including the presentation of which I had been so proud just minutes before. I was stunned. She was an honors student and reasonably bright – the type of student I work hard every day to attract to my institution and inspire—and I could not reach her. Suddenly I was awash again in the disappointment and frustration that I so well remember from my days as an assistant professor of history. And like any good denizen of the Age of Social Media, I jumped onto Facebook and asked my digital friends to tell me what I had missed. Surely, I thought, they would see the brilliance of my approach and depth of my commitment to being relevant to my students.

My bruised ego was soothed by several of my friends; and I thank them for it. However, a well-respected colleague who is also an award-winning teacher chided me for failing to use cultural reference points that actually come from the world experienced by my students, not the one I remember from the last millennium. I was indignant, firm in my belief that a truly intelligent person would know and understand the examples I had used – examples which surely rose above the flotsam and jetsam of what passes for popular culture today. Why, in my day…

My colleague was absolutely correct. I had dismissed the era inhabited by my students – i.e., NOW – as irrelevant and inferior to the Golden Epoch of my youth. I had closed my eyes, willingly, to a world that was continually and stubbornly remaking itself. I was not the teacher or mentor that my students deserve. Somehow, at the ripe old age of 43, I had transformed into an embittered old codger.

I used to joke that I became an historian because I understood the dead better than the living. I cannot laugh any longer. I see now that I must embark upon my own quest out of the realm of shades and back into the world of the living. I am not sure that I am up for the challenge, but I have to try. Jim Kirk and Indiana Jones would not have it any other way.