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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Morehouse Man In The Mirror

Now, if you’re blue
And you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super-duper

Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or umberellas
In their mitts
Puttin’ on the Ritz

      — Irving Berlin, “Puttin’ On The Ritz”

Morehouse College, one of the flagship HBCUs in the country and the alma mater of generations of prominent African-American males, including Martin Luther King, recently conjured up some controversy by establishing a dress code on campus.  The new policy prohibits do-rags, hats, sunglasses, hoods or offensive clothing in class.   It also bans such items as “decorative orthodontic appliances” (A white female friend who is much more “Black” than I am tells me that these things are known, in the vernacular, as “grillz.”), pajamas, sagging pants, and bare feet.

However, the part of the policy that has drawn the most attention from the media — including a certain Philadelphia Negro — states “No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.”

Some believe, and I think that they are correct, that this policy is a not-so-subtle attempt by the College administration to control homosexuality and transgender identification on campus.  Homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues in the so-called Black community; and it is an open secret that Morehouse has a large population of gay men.  For the record, I do not believe that Morehouse is atypical in this regard.  College is (or should be) a place of experimentation and exploring boundaries.  If we expect intellectual awakenings on a college campus, why should we be surprised that sexual awakenings occur there, as well?  Given the generally conservative orientation of Black society, the freedom of expression generally associated with the college campus can be even more powerful for young Black men who do not define themselves — openly or otherwise — as heterosexual. 

By choosing to implement a dress code that at least appears to target a specific population of the College community, Morehouse is treading on difficult ground: the fault line between individual expression expected in an academic setting and the culture of conformity — including the “rules” of what it means to be a Black man.   Though I have certainly ranted against the extreme informality of undergraduate dress and — in my angrier moods — have even advocated a dress code, I find that ultimately, I cannot support this kind of regulation.   While being a “Morehouse man” does carry a certain mystique — in more ways than some would care to admit — attending Morehouse is not, or should not be, like joining the military.   The latter needs to engender conformity in order to prepare its members to undertake the serious business of killing people.   (The armed services can talk all they wish about education and training opportunities; but the bottom line is that they train people to inflict harm upon our enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible.)   Like other institutions of higher learning, Morehouse should encourage the creativity and diversity of its students — even if it means that a few of them look rather stunning in a nice frock.    

Each day I am more conscious of the fact that I am from a different time than the one I share with my students.  I wear button-downs and khakis, and whistle Mozart and Cole Porter.  I voted for Ronald Reagan.  The Establishment works for me.  I like it.   Would I prefer more “conservative” apparel on campus?   Yes.   But fighting for this is a waste of powder.   Morehouse would be wise to invest its resources in the development of young men of character and not the regulation of cravats.    

Ultimately, the late Bart Giamatti said it best when he chose to call his book about the purpose of the university Free and Ordered Spaces.   He believed that on a college campus (and everywhere else), freedom should not be subordinate to intolerance disguised as discipline.   He was right.