Tuesday, November 27, 2018

where liberal is a dirty word for change


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A few weeks ago, in barre class, I overheard a woman mention she was going home to Mississippi for the holidays.

I blurted out, “I’m from Mississippi too! Which part are you from?”

“Oxford.”

I smiled. “Oh, I love Oxford. I go there because my dad is an MSU fan…”

The woman snorted. “Yeah, my husband is an MSU fan. I feel your pain.”

We laughed together, enjoying the understanding that only those who grew up around the deep-seated rivalry of Mississippi football could fully comprehend.

I didn’t pursue the conversation further, however. I knew if we talked more, I’d learn we had nothing more in common other than our place of birth and the desire to reshape our flat, white asses. I could almost picture the prayer requests that she probably had plastered on her Facebook wall, and photos of her family decked out in camouflage, smiling above the decapitated head of a deer, along with the caption, “First kill of the season!”

Maybe I was wrong. My dad always said, “For a liberal, you’re the most judgmental person I know.” He’s probably right. Maybe the woman had left Mississippi for the same reason I did—because she didn’t belong.

Still, the South has a way of sleeping in Southerners long after they have left it…in some more than others.

“liberal” was a dirty word

I, too, went back to Mississippi for Thanksgiving.

I spent the first evening sitting with my dad across the TV as he nodded off to sleep every few minutes.

The attack ads came on every commercial break, like clockwork.

Cindy Hyde-Smith is a disaster for Mississippi.

Mike Espy was indicted on fraud charges while serving as Clinton’s Agriculture Secretary.

Cindy Hyde-Smith voted for junk insurance policies.

Mike Espy ordered a salad at Panera Bread and asked for extra croutons.


And so on.

I did the math while my dad snored beside me. There were 49 Democrats in the Senate. 50 Republicans. If Espy pulled this off…

I flinched. Did I, in my Beto shirt, really have the nerve to hope? Especially in Mississippi, where “liberal” was a dirty word?

Liberal. That’s the trigger word in the attack ads against Espy. He’s being funded by liberal money. He’s tight with out-of-state liberals. Espy, liberal, Espy, liberal, liberal, liberal.

I know what their use of "liberal" really implies, though:

“White Mississippians! Vote liberal, and all those white flight neighborhoods you moved to, the private schools where you send your children, the churches and shopping malls that you build in the suburbs to replace the ones in the city overtaken by blacks, will all be for naught! Dear white people of Mississippi, be afraid. Be very afraid. Voting liberal means voting for change!

But it really doesn’t, I thought. Liberal doesn’t stand for change, but embracing change. It means welcoming change with open arms instead of clenched fists. It means acknowledging that everyone deserves a slice of the American pie.

Because change is coming, whether they liked it or not. One day, they’ll run out of suburbs to hide in. The only place they’ll have to flee is across the state lines, but change will be waiting for them there too. Then what will they do?

“When you choose love, everyone wins,” I said aloud.

My dad stirred awake at the sound of my voice and looked at the TV, grimacing. “Another damn campaign ad. I’ll be so glad when this election is over,” he said, and he fell back to sleep.

you can still see the bloodstains of the wounded and dying

There’s a church in Raymond that the Confederacy turned into a makeshift hospital during the Civil War, after the Battle of Raymond went on for days. If you look at the wood floors real close, you can still see the bloodstains of the wounded and dying.

A block away from those bloodstains, I sat by a fire and placed the last pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle into place. My son stood nearby, using a wire hanger to roast marshmallows over the flames. “This feels nice,” my son said. “Nice and cozy.”

“It does,” I agreed. “Makes me wish we were back in the time before electricity, when we had to sit by a fire to keep warm.”

My son scrunched up his nose. “I don’t think I would like that very much. People who weren’t white didn’t get treated very well back then.”

They’re not treated well now, I wanted to say, but stopped myself. Liberals liked to choke the sentiment out a statement until the words couldn’t breathe; to hell with the good intention underneath. Let empathy win tonight, I thought. My son had the rest of life to understand his privilege.

a bit flustered

The next day, I slipped on my Beto shirt and snuck away to Oxford with my mom and kids.

We ate lunch at City Grocery, a swanky restaurant in the square that served southern-style cuisine with a showy flare. The moment we entered, my daughter said, “Wow, I feel like I’m at a Trump rally.” I knew what she meant. Almost 40% of Mississippi’s population was African-American, but none of them were eating lunch that day at City Grocery in Oxford.

“Yeah, and I’m sure everyone here has been to a rally,” I said.

We were walking to our table when a woman suddenly waved at me. “I love your Beto shirt!” she said, giving me the thumbs-up.

“Thanks,” I said, a bit flustered, and for the first time, I regretted turning my back on the woman in my barre class.

I was Emmett Till’s killer. I was the ink on Faulkner’s page.

After lunch, we drove to William Faulkner’s house and walked the paths behind Rowan Oak. The air was cold, not like the icy cold they had up north, but a chilling, shiftless cold that spread across the red clay forests like a lost traveler searching, searching for a way home.

My son left my side and darted down a hill until he came to a dried-up riverbed. His hands gripped a tree branch, and he lifted himself up and began swinging in the air, his legs flying into a dusty sky where trees trembled and leaves of burnt orange and blood red rained down around him.

I watched until a gust of wind wrapped my hair around my eyes and roared in my ears, and for a moment,(the South has a way of sleeping in Southerners) I was no longer in Mississippi (long after they have left it. I was Mississippi (in some more than others).

I was Emmett Till’s killer. I was the ink on Faulkner’s page. I was the broken wheel on a pioneer caravan traveling down the Natchez Trace. I was the gun driving the Choctaw brave west. I was Hurricane Camille grinding her teeth into the coast, ripping houses from the homed and streets from the homeless. I was the blood stains on the church floors that never went away and the ghosts of war that marched up and down the highway, holding signs that said, it’s about heritage, not hate. I was the driver who saw the signs and looked away. I was my father asleep and my children awaking. I was my son’s shaky legs swinging upward into the silvery sky and falling back among the changing leaves, and like the leaves, I was changing and Mississippi was changing too—morphing from color to color, every hue more beautiful and holier than the last.
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