Showing posts with label Culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Culture. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Invincible Dinosaur

 In August 1969, Hurricane Camille devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The destruction was unbelievable.  In some cases, shrimp boats were found as far as half a mile inland.  Many homes and businesses were destroyed.  Less than 100 yards from the water, the popular miniature golf course, Magic Golf, received some damage, but the popular concrete T-Rex received almost no damage.  Following the story, engineering and architectural students from around the world visit Biloxi to discover why the statue stood firm and resolute amidst all the damage and destruction.  

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Landon Talks. A Lot


A teacher at the Laurel Magnet School of the Arts and former winner of the Mississippi Educator of the Year, Landon Bryant is the creator of the insanely popular channel LANDONTTALKSALOT, where he discusses the fine details of Southern Culture in a way that reminds anyone from here of being here.  

He's on the advisory board of the Lauren Rogers Museum in Laurel.  A 2014 BA graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi, His wife Kate is a painter and journalist, also living in Laurel.

With the success of Ben and Erin Napier's "Home Town" on cable TV and now the sensation surrounding Landon, the renaissance of Lauel is unmistakable like a firework at night.

Laurel was one of the first locations of the Office Supply Company outside of Jackson.  It's there that my Uncle Boyd met Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm who involved him in the career of Lyontine Price.  On my many trips eastward to Laurel, I soon became enchanted with its picturesque downtown and the old homes off the square.  

Landon's videos have a hypnotic quality to them.  They invoke a feeling for your own childhood in your own hometown and a memory for people long moved onto another plane.  

Fresh out of college, Landon and Kate's first apartment with their baby burned to the ground with all their belongings.  Local fundraisers helped them get back on their feet without any hint of the massive success coming their way.  

Landon Talks A lot -- Youtube

Landon Talks A Lot -- Instagram

Landon Talks A Lot -- Tic Tok

The Coolest Kate -- Instagram

Katelyn Bryant -- Facebook

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Secrets in the East

I’ve been delaying working on this for a few days.  Sometimes, what I have to say makes me uncomfortable.

My father had eight children. Four were human: my two brothers, my sister, and me; four were not human: Missco, Mllsaps, Trustmark, and St Dominic’s. He tried his best to balance his time between us, but sometimes, living things are difficult to balance.  In the five or six years before his death, I would regularly meet my father and his office for a drink after work. He alone understood how dangerously unhappy I was and blindly helped me search for the solution neither of us could see.  On those nights alone with my father in his office, he told me many things as he reflected back on my own history and the history of my city.   

One day, not long before he died, he told me that he had searched as far into the west as he could see to remove anything that might be a danger to his children in the future, but he failed to look very far into the east. Anyone who grew up in a prosperous and successful and growing Jackson and then expected that to continue in their lives probably understands what he meant. Nobody expected the city to die. We were doing great, but we didn’t look into the east.

I always knew that my dad kept secrets.  I also knew that he kept these secrets because if he didn't, somebody would get hurt, and that made me sad for him.  What happened to Jackson, why it grew so rapidly, then broke and started to shrink, is a story he was deeply involved in.  Some of it he told me, and some of it he kept secret. 

To understand what happened to Jackson, you have to understand what happened in 1969 and 1970 when nearly half the white students abandoned the Jackson Public Schools and started something else.  I wanted to resolve, in my own mind, what his role was in all this.  He told me a few things through the years, but I wanted to validate what he told me through other sources.  I wanted to see his role in what happened to Jackson the way other people saw it.

My dad was in the school business.  Even if he weren’t in the school business, he would have been right in the middle of all this because that’s how he lived, trying to build his community.  He told me many things, but there were many more I had to find out on my own.  

I had dinner with my sister this weekend.  There are things in my universe where she really is the only person alive who can understand what I’m saying.  After everyone else had left, she waited with me for my Uber to arrive.  I talked to her about how I’ve spent over twenty-five years digging deeply and researching what happened to Jackson, our home.  I always felt like, because of who our family was and because of who I was, I might be in a fairly unique position to understand what went on here, why, and what the results were.

There’s been so much written about what happened in Jackson and in Mississippi during the “civil rights era.”  It’s become this really complex mosaic of different points of view and different perspectives, and I’ve tried to consume it all, to try and understand what happened in a way that satisfied my own mind.  Doing this for so long, I’ve cultivated a pretty substantial body of knowledge.

I told my sister I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with all this history I’d accumulated.  I could write a scathing tell-all that exposes all the secrets of Jackson’s society and its racist underbelly, but the story was so much more complicated than that, but even if it weren’t more complicated than that, even if it were just the story of a bunch of unreconstructed racists screwing things up, nearly all those guys are dead, and the ones who aren’t dead are in a memory care facility now.  There’s nothing I could write that could bring anybody justice, and there’s nothing I could write that would change the past or change the future.  Most of these guys are dead, but their children aren’t; their grandchildren and, in some cases, their great-grandchildren are still very much with us, still very much a part of Jackson.  Did I want to be the guy who put down in a book that somebody’s beloved Pop-pop did something horrible long before they were born?  

I still want to tell this story, but I have to be careful and be gentle with the memories people have of the people who lived here.  I have to try not to be a hypocrite here because I have already said some pretty rough things about Ross Barnett and Alan C Thompson, and I very much know their families and descendants, but I’m trying to make allowances for people whose histories are already part of public discourse, and people (like Barnett and Thompson) who made a particular effort to make things difficult.

That being said, in my studies, I’ve found that some of the people everyone assumes were the villains might not be.  My entire life, I’ve heard people from every angle blame what happened in Jackson on Billy Simmons and the Citizen’s Council.  I can’t posit that Billy was anything like a good guy.  He said, wrote, and broadcast some of the most vile racist stuff that I’ve ever been exposed to.  He was pretty bad, but If you look at the number of kids who ended up enrolled at the three Jackson Citizen’s Council Schools and the fact that they were out of business by 1981, you can’t really say they caused the problem.  There just weren’t enough kids in those schools to account for the nearly 50% drop in white student participation in Jackson Public Schools, and even if they were, they were out of business before the first class of kids who had never been in public schools graduated.

In 1981, former Nixon Aide and lifelong republican operative Lee Atwater was recorded as saying: 

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N____r, n____r, n____r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n____r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N____r, n____r.”

Here, he lays out the infamous “Southern Strategy” pretty plainly.  It was never more relevant than in 1969 and 1970 in Jackson, Mississippi.  There were guys who believed everything Billy Simmons believed but didn’t like the way he said it.  In their minds, as long as you didn’t say “N____r, n____r, n____r” then you were in the clear, even if that’s what you were thinking.  These guys wanted schools that ticked all the boxes that the Citizen’s Council schools ticked but without being affiliated with the Citizen’s Council.  They managed to introduce class into this gumbo of race, class, and gender.  They considered themselves in one class and Billy Simmons and all his Citizens Council pals in another.  I have a problem with that.  Billy Simmons had the courage to tell us what he was.  These guys who were the same thing but tried to tell us they were something different were less of a man than Billy, in my opinion.  I can’t say that any of the things he believed were right or decent, but he had enough respect for other people that he would at least be honest and upfront about it and not hide it behind dog-whistle words like what Atwater was talking about.  

One of my fraternity brothers, a man by the name of Dick Wilson, tried to tell me not to judge Simmons too quickly.  “He’s a lot smarter than people realize,” Dick told me.  It took me a while to understand what Dick was saying, but he was right, Billy Simmons was kind of a genius.  You can look at his library now at the Fairview and see evidence of this.  What might tempt a guy with such a vast intellect down such dark avenues is something I don’t understand, but I’d really like to.  I’m fascinated by his story.

The influence of Kappa Alpha Order is waning in the world, and I think that’s probably for the best.  In 1969, it was at its peak.   When I look at the names of the men who organized and funded these non-citizens-council segregation academies in Jackson, a good two-thirds of them were KAs, mostly from Ole Miss.  We’ll be judged for that, and I think that’s fair.  These guys were community and business leaders; they could have said, “Let’s take all this money and effort and dump it into the public schools, and the Justice Department be damned!” but they didn’t. 

In 1969, most of these guys considered themselves at war, not with black Mississippians, but with the federal government.  Kirby Walker, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, had a plan to gradually integrate our schools.  In interview after interview, he was proud of the fact that he had introduced black students into every school without incident.  I honestly think Mayor Thompson wanted a big, violent confrontation like what happened in Oxford.  He kept buying equipment and building up his forces to be ready for it, but it never happened.  

In the Alexander v Holmes County decision, the court decided that “justice delayed, is justice denied” and ordered the Mississippi schools to be racially balanced immediately. And in some cases, like Jackson Public Schools, they put the Justice Department in charge of it.  Kirby Walker spent ten years out of a thirty-year career trying to desegregate Jackson Public Schools.  He believed he had done a good job, only to have it torn from him and given to Washington Bureocrats.  In 1969, he retired rather than serve under the federal Department of Health Education and Welfare.  Upon retiring, he told my grandfather to say to my father, “Tell Jim to get those boys into private schools.  I just don’t know what’s going to happen with Jackson Public Schools.”  

That caused a bit of panic in my family.  Both my mother and father were products of the Jackson Public Schools.  They were our best and most profitable customer, and even with Dr. Walker retiring, my dad had many friends who still worked at Jackson Public Schools.  At the same time, nearly everyone he knew from Ole Miss was sending their children to either JA or Prep, and his fraternity brothers served on every board.  There was a time when four members of the Jackson Prep board of trustees had consecutively been the president of the Ole Miss Chapter of Kappa Alpha after my father.  For good or for evil, in the second half of the twentieth century, we got mixed up in everything that happened in Mississippi.

Announcing that the Justice Department was taking over our schools caused a full-on panic.  In it, with pressure from his own father and his father’s friends, I think my dad also panicked.  In his mind, sending us to St. Andrews quieted the voices, yelling that he had to do something while not giving in to the pressure to join a “segregation academy.”  Without a doubt, there were parents who were sending their kids to St. Andrews because it was almost entirely white, but there were also parents who sent their kids to St. Andrews precisely because it wasn’t entirely white.

There were heroes in those days, although we don’t talk about it very much.  Andy Mullins couldn’t have been much older than twenty-five or twenty-six when he fought off efforts from without and from within to force St. Andrews to join the Mississippi Private School Association, so boys at St. Andrews wouldn’t have to worry about playing football against any black boys.  Andy went on to fight a number of important battles, but that one must have been pretty tough, considering how young he was and how uncertain the times were.  As I understand it, St. Andrews still plays in the league he got us into.

I’ve made no secret about how much I fought David Hicks when I was at St. Andrews, but there’s something important I need to say about him.  David pretty quickly assessed the situation in Jackson and what was going on with the other schools almost as soon as he got here.  He very firmly drew a line in the sand and said, “This is what they’re about, and this is what we’re about.  Don’t ever get it confused.”  The school still operates under that principle today.  

In 1950, Jackson had one of the most successful and friendliest public schools in America (so long as you were white.)  By 1970, nearly half the white students in Jackson Public Schools abandoned it rather than stay and be a part of the Justice Department's efforts to balance the school’s population racially.  They left, and they never went back.  People who couldn’t afford to keep sending their kids to private schools left the city.

I often think about what would have happened if the scores of families who left Jackson Public School had banded together and decided they were going to make the best of whatever the Justice Department had in mind.  I think, within just a few years, they would have realized that they could handle this, and with a strong public school that everybody supported, there never would have been the massive white flight that decimated Jackson.  There were efforts from several prominent private school educators in the 80s and 90s who returned to the public schools and tried to undo the harm they had done.

Jesus talks to us about shifting sands.  There’s even a pretty great song about it.  Mississippi twice built its house on shifting sands.  Once, when we started importing people from another part of the world to serve as slaves here, and then again, when we decided that we had to keep these former slaves under our thumb and forever separate from us socially and politically after slavery ended.  What Jesus said about building a house on the shifting sands was true; our foundations came tumbling down.

None of the people in this story meant to choose the wrong thing.  That choice was made decades before they were born.  The people in this story were trying to navigate the world as it was left to them.  Their biggest sin was not questioning the assumptions they were working under.

In the story of what happened in Jackson, there were bad actors, that’s for sure.  Because I’ve been doggedly pursuing this story for thirty years, I’ve uncovered a lot of them, even the ones my father tried to keep hidden from me.    Most people weren’t bad actors, though.  Most were regular people trying to do the best they could for their families during a time when nothing made much sense, not the world they knew before and not the world laid out before them.  Faced with a very uncertain future, a lot of them just panicked.  Moving their kids out of the public schools into a private school seemed like the safe thing to do, and when your children are involved, nearly everyone wants the safe thing to do.

So, here we are.  Fifty years later, and I’m keeping the same secrets my father kept.  Maybe that’s my legacy.  Maybe that’s what he was trying to keep me away from.  What I know is this:  there were bad men.  There were many painful and ignorant and short-sighted things–but most people were good.  They may have been short-sighted or misguided by our tangled and snarled culture, but they all wanted something better for their children, even if what they were afraid of wasn’t even real.  

Jackson survived.  It just moved to Madison, Brandon, Pearl, and Clinton.  The city itself sits like a scar on the landscape.  A reminder of the good we failed to do.  I wanted to know what happened to my city.  I wanted to know if my father or I were culpable for what happened.  I think he was, and I am, but so is everyone else.  People use the word “simple” to describe Mississippi.  “We’re simple.”  “We have simple minds.”  “We have simple lives.”  None of that is true.  There’s nothing simple about living here or about being born here.  Our history is a mass of rose thorns, kudzu, shards of broken stained glass from churches where no one meets anymore, cornbread, and piercing sunlight.  It’s really hard to make any sense of it unless you were brought up in it.  Look as far as you can to the West, but look to the East too, when you can, and sometimes decide to keep secrets.

Monday, August 28, 2023

UMMC Urban Myths

For quite a while now, I’ve been collecting the urban legends that emanate from students and employees at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  Now that I live next door, I’m looking for some new ones.  Urban legends are similar to myths.  They tell a story that’s usually related to something historical or factual but doesn’t have to be, and the story reflects some sort of moral value, as interpreted by the culture the story comes from.  They are cautionary tales that are disguised to not look like cautionary tales.

Being told in Mississippi by Mississippians, there’s some effort to make the stories more vivid, more interesting, and more local than, say, stories from the University of Pennsylvania Medical College, no offense to Pennsylvanians.  Stories generated in Mississippi will have our unique flavor and perspective on things like race, sexuality, gender, religion, and people from Mississippi State University.

I’ve been doing this for around forty years, and there are a lot of stories.  These are the categories I’ve organized them with.  

Stories about Cadavers:  Like the Greeks, UMMC students are obsessed with the moral implications of death, the relations between the dead and the living, and the influence of living morality on the dead body.   Stories about cadavers often have the elements of ghost stories but are couched in a medical scenario to give them extra vitality and credence.

Stories about Swelling and Exploding Cysts:  What goes into the body must come out of the body, and what more interesting way to come out of the body is there than exploding cysts?  Often, these stories involve elements of new ties/shirts/suits that are destroyed by detritus shooting out of a cyst.  These are often tales of how dedicated a young doctor might be who sacrifice his new tie or designer glasses to open the cyst, often on some fat woman’s taint.

Stories about Catheters:  The Greeks did this, too.  Stories about the phallus and its misadventures are both the stuff of comedy and morality.  A malfunctioning phallus and what must be done to make it function can encompass all sorts of memes about morality, culture, and body horror.

Stories about Aids:  Although they’re not as prominent now, there was once an entire genre of stories about Aids.  To the myth-maker, aids was not only a disease but a moral judgment against the people who violate the cultural mores about sexuality and gratuitous sexual encounters.  Stories about men, often upstanding citizens, who got aids by cheating on their spouses were common.

Stories about Strippers and Prostitutes:  Much like the aids stories, these are stories about sexual morality and the perils of wanton sexuality.  Strippers and prostitutes make a lot of money, but they end up at the hospital with fatal diseases or gunshot or knife wounds that prove fatal.  These stories are precautions both against using prostitutes and becoming one.

Dumb Mistakes/Darwin Awards:  There may be no greater cautionary tale than “Don’t do dumb things.”  Especially in the South, stories about “y’all watch this” or “y’all hold my beer.” are perfect for urban myths, and their arrival at the hospital with fingers/testicles/teeth/ears/toes blown off make great stories.    

Crime Doesn’t Pay:  Stories about criminals who show up at the hospital after the police or other criminals shoot them are pretty common.  While there’s sometimes a racial element to these stories, they all have moral implications.  If you hadn’t have been doing that, you wouldn’t have ended up here with a gunshot wound.

Because University is a communal experience, they are great places to generate stories, particularly myth-building stories.  Most of the stories I’ve collected about UMMC I can’t reprint here because they’re either really gross, really depressing, and sometimes obviously bigoted.  There are guys who spend their entire lives and careers studying the memes broadcast in stories like these.  It’s a fascinating area of study.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Signs and Omens

 Ken Stribling messaged me last night with corrections about a piece I wrote at 3:00 a.m.  What would I do without friends who can’t sleep either?  

Janie messaged me during coffee hours with some really vital information about an aspect of my Mississippi History project.  If this thing ever comes together, it’ll be due, in large part, to her input and influence.

Nearly all the boys I knew fell in love with Jane at one point or another.  If you ever saw her, you’d know why.  I did, too, but when a girl takes your friend’s heart, there are rules a gentleman must follow, or at least try to.  

I told her that I thought seeing Ruma’s photo at Hal & Mal’s was an omen.  Ruma had been the city attorney at a very young age.  She was an unusually brilliant lawyer and a valuable asset to the city.  A boy I knew loved her more than anything.  When she died so young, a lot of us felt like we lost a limb.  Jackson’s in constant trouble now.  The kind of trouble where the advice of a good lawyer could make a really big difference.  

Ruma loved Mississippi.  She died exploring it.  If I were to meet her in heaven today, I’d have to explain why I let Jackson get as bad as it is.  Maybe that’s what an omen means.  It’s a reminder of where your course lies.

Jane and I were born into a kind of bubble, a gilded age in Mississippi history.  We had very politically and socially active parents at a time when the worst of the Civil Rights stuff had passed, and Jackson’s population was growing at a pace never experienced before.  We had two very strong, locally owned banks.  Our electricity came from a company based here in Jackson.  Our clothes, our shoes, and luggage all came from stores based here in Jackson, where we’d see the owners at parties.  Millsaps was at its peak enrolment, and the academic world was falling over itself trying to copy the success of George Harmon.   The entire medical profession was amazed at the success of a bunch of nuns from Chicago who moved to Mississippi.  William Winter and Ray Mabus were governors–without a scandal in sight.  At certain parties, you were fairly likely to see Willie Morris, Eudora Welty, Michael Rubenstein, and Dale Danks wandering around.  Long-neck beer was a buck at CS’s, Cherokee, and Dutch Bar, and the Jackson Mets were Texas League Champions.  

Bubbles don’t last, though, and when bubbles break, it can break your heart.  The city of Jackson is facing the possibility of their insurance increasing by 300% because they can’t seem to manage their affairs.  My beloved Zoo is valiantly fighting to hold on, but I’m basically watching it die.  Violence in the city is at terrifying levels, and nobody in the city government seems to be taking it seriously–at least not to the level that the situation would seem to warrant, and nobody seems to have answers.  

Her children, my step-children, my nephews, and the children of nearly all my friends are asking if they should stay in Mississippi and will we be hurt if they don’t.  It’s not their job to worry about how we feel if they leave Mississippi; it was our job to make sure Mississippi is a place where they felt like they could grow–and I guess we didn’t do that.  

Some people, like Jane, tried to keep building Jackson and Mississippi a lot harder than I did, and I feel pretty bad about giving up for as long as I did.  I guess I thought maybe I was the problem, and if I stepped out, smarter and better people would take over, and that’d fix everything.  It didn’t.  The bubble around Jackson broke, and we were left naked, looking around and saying, “Oh.  I don’t think I know how to fix this.”

I think my plan was not to be here at sixty still, looking at all this.  I think part of me wishes I’d left this mortal coil when the bubble around Jackson broke.  That was a pretty shitty plan and a cowardly move on my part.  

When I look at Jackson now, I see so many green shoots.  The signs of life and growth are everywhere; we just have to provide the right environment for it to thrive.  There’s nothing that says there can’t be more than one Gilded Age.   Seeing that photo of Ruma reminded me of the path I’m on and energized me to keep pushing.  

Keep correcting me while I post parts of this project on Facebook, and keep messaging me these details that I missed.  The past isn’t the only avenue to the future, but it’s the only one I understand.  

Friday, August 25, 2023

Reading The Other Side

If I'm going to write about what happened in the sixties and early seventies, I feel like I need to be able to at least understand and articulate the opposing viewpoint, even if I don't agree with it.  

In Mississippi, most of the argument in favor of segregation came from the Citizens Council, and most of that came from Bill Simmons.  There's such a vast gulf between the things the guy said and wrote and my personal experience with him that I struggle to rationalize it all, and yet it's all true.  

No one sets out to be a villain.  Everybody believes they're working for the greater good.  Medgar Evers thought he was working for the greater good.  Bryan De La Beckwith thought he was working for the greater good.  Obviously, they weren't both correct.   Either that or the actual greater good isn't something we can understand.  

Most of what Bill Simmons wrote, I attribute to what Stephen Jay Gould called "biological determinism," or what I call "really bad anthropology."  What really helped me with all this was Richard Dawkins' theory on "The Selfish Gene," where he introduced the idea of the "meme" as a unit of cultural evolution to help the gene maximize inclusive fitness.  

There's an awful lot more to the word "meme" than funny pictures of cats or animated gifs from 90's sitcoms.  "Meme," as Dawkins intended it, could be the key to everything.  Once you infest yourself with a certain set of memes, then everything Bill Simmons ever wrote and everything Bryan De La Beckwith did starts to become understandable.  They're serving not truth but a meme, and that meme serves some level of genetic inclusive fitness.  

The wrongness of what these men said and did was the result of the selfish gene and the memes it spun to protect its agenda.

George Lucas simplifies the story so that red light sabers mean bad and light colors mean good, and that makes a great story, but there's more to it than that.

I'm starting these stories with the idea that everybody in the are trying to do what's right, but there's a big difference in what they all consider "right" to be.  Everybody is working to serve the memes they start with, but everybody starts with different memes.  

It's possible that the same flaws in my brain that make it difficult to read or speak also give me a way to see these things differently.  Either way, every time I turn on the television, I see where an old enemy of my culture has returned.  Understanding them is vitally important.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023


I’m working on a project.  I don’t know what to call it yet.  Part of it might be “Lies My Mother Never Told Me.”  For this project, I’ve made a timeline of all the significant events in my universe that involve the Civil Rights movement.  “My Universe” here includes Jackson, Mississippi, Millsaps, Galloway, Ole Miss, St. Andrews, The United Methodist Church, Prep, Casey, Murrah, The Jackson Zoo, Riverside Park, WLBT, WJTV, The Office Supply Company, Mississippi School Supply Company, First National Bank and Deposit Guarantee Bank.  

The timeline starts in 1954 when Brown V Board of Education was handed down, and goes until 1990.  Some might say 1990 is too late a date for the Civil Rights movement, but keep in mind how long it took to settle the Ayers Case, or, as I like to call it, Millsaps Alumni defend the State of Mississippi from its own mistakes.  

I suspected and confirmed by making the timeline that if you made a heatmap of events based on date and geographic location, there’s a significant cluster surrounding the day I was born.  A superstitious person might think I was the cause of it all.

I use Uber a lot.  I have a high rating because I’m polite and tip well.  Not long ago, I was meeting a lady at Bravo.  My Uber driver was a black man about my age.  Some of the drivers don’t talk at all.  This one did.  “Where you from?” He asked.  I said I was from Jackson.  I grew up here.  “Where did you go to high school?”  I said I went to St. Andrews but didn’t graduate in a typical fashion, so I went to college a little early.  “I went to Murrah.”  He said.

He noted where I was going and asked if I knew Jeff Good.  I said I knew Jeff Good really well, primarily through his dad, and I knew his wife primarily through her being a girl at Millsaps.  My driver explained that he and Jeff graduated from Murrah together.  

People who graduated with Jeff at Murrah aren’t just regular kids.  These are the kids who started public school in 1970, the year that the Department of Justice took control of Jackson Schools and a year after Alexander V Holmes County, where the US Supreme Court changed the wording of Brown v Board of Education from “all due haste” to “immediately.” All the schemes Mississippi came up with were over.  We had to integrate.  Jeff didn’t live in Mississippi yet; he lived in a state where this sort of battle didn’t have to happen.  My driver did, though.  He and I were born in the same hospital.   That class who graduated with my driver were the first Mississippians to have gone all the way through school without ever facing public school segregation.

You have to think about why fighting Brown V Board of Education was so important.  If you’re in a state that believes it’s better off if everybody is educated, what does it matter if a black kid learns to multiply fractions sitting next to a white kid?  There was no Civil Rights Act yet; you could still refuse to seat black diners at your restaurant if you wanted.

It mattered because our schools taught math and science. Still, they also taught language, literature, history, civics, and religion; these courses are all gateways to culture, and in Mississippi, the last thing people wanted was to admit Africans into the white culture.  

Schools are cultural gateways.  You’re given a mascot.  You’re taught to have “school spirit.”  You cheer for your school, mainly when it plays other schools.  More importantly, though, you form relationships, like my driver who wanted to tell a total stranger that he shared this cultural connection with a man I knew, and in many ways, that made us equal.

I’ve written extensively about when and why my parents decided to take me out of public school.  Had I stayed in public school, I would have spent most of my high school career with this guy.  We would have been alumni together.  Forty-five years later, it seems alien that anyone would try to keep us apart, but they did.  

Many people say that there’s no reason to write about these things, that there have been a lot of other people who wrote about it already, and obsessing over the past is no way to bring on a happy future.  You’re supposed to write about what you know, though, and write about what you feel.  What I know is what happened to Mississippi, and what I feel, more often than not, is haunted,

As a man, Jeff became a gatekeeper to a new kind of culture in Mississippi.  It’s been challenging and sometimes painful, but we’re forging a new, blended sort of culture in Mississippi.   James Meridith was the first African to graduate from the University of Mississippi sixty days after I was born.  Today, he walks around Jackson like a movie star, and whatever he did, it wasn’t really that big of a deal.  It was that big of a deal.  They shot the guy.  The only reason he lived and Medgar Evers didn’t was because some redneck had lousy aim.  Nobody knows who Aubrey James Norvell was, but they ask James Meridith to sign autographs for their grandchildren.  I’m okay with that outcome.  

Much has been written about why Mississippians were adamant about not allowing black faces through our cultural gateways.  Questions of why always matter, but in this case, the questions seem to go round and round in circles.  I’ve been told, my entire life, that Mississippi would have corrected itself eventually.  I don’t think I believe that.  Even with tremendous pressure, some men fought this to their graves.  

I’m not a very good gatekeeper.  I don’t like to talk to strangers, and I don’t like to talk to anyone at all unless I know you pretty well.  I prefer books to pickleball or cocktail parties.  I’m grateful that there are gatekeepers, though.  Some open restaurants, and some drive Uber taxis.  Both open the passages that allow us to blend our lives together now that the worst part is over.  

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Third Graders in the Light House

Because I'm old, I take a diuretic to make sure my body doesn't retain water because my body works about as well as a 1982 Ford.  It's a tiny dose, and I split it in half, but even then, I still gotta pee for two hours when I take it.  

Normally I just make sure I don't have to be anywhere for two hours when I take it.  This morning, because I make bad decisions, I decided that I was a grown damn man, and I gotta go to church in 30 minutes, but I can still take this tiny little half pill and not have any problem.

I hate having to leave a room with something going on for a latrine break.  Once you've done it, there's the awkward business of retaking your seat.  About two-thirds of the way through Sunday School, it hit me.  I wasn't going to make it till the end, which I hated because it was a really good discussion about how we decide what morality is.  

After visiting the cis-gendered, handicap-enabled little boys' room across the hall from what most of my life had been the fourth and fifth-grade Sunday school, I decided there were only five or six minutes left in class, so rather than facing the walk of shame back into the room, I decided to find a spot in the sanctuary for the eleven o'clock service.

Getting settled in the sanctuary early, I got to see our youth minister working with her third graders as she explained to them the ritual of the church, presenting them with bibles.  I knew this was coming because I actually read the church bulletin email, but I wasn't really ready for the wave after wave of memory watching them produced in me.

Fifty-eight years ago, it was my turn to sit on the front row to receive a bible with my name stamped on it.  Five or six of my readers were there too.  They're much, much younger than I am, but we were third-graders together.  In the congregation were my parents and grandparents, who can't come anymore, just like Eudora Welty, Lance Goss, Ross Moore, and others, but there were some people there today who were also there fifty-eight years ago, Kay Barksdale, TW Lewis, Red Moffett and more.

None of my classmates were there.  Some are current members of Galloway, but they either attended the 8:30 service or didn't come today.  Others don't live in Jackson anymore.  Some are not even in Mississippi.  One runs the most famous restaurant in Oxford.

Membership in Galloway isn't a comfortable kind of Christianity.  As I study our history, I'm learning how many times Galloway was the steady ship in a bad storm with a hull thick enough to break the ice in uncharted waters delivering its cargo to calmer seas.  Yesterday, Galloway helped host over six thousand people for the Mississippi Book Festival.  Galloway is uniquely suited to do this, both because of its physical proximity to the Capitol but also because of its historical connection to Mississippi writers.

Most of the people in my Sunday School have Ph.D., MD,  or JD after their name.  One is a judge, and one is the first boy to become a Rhode's Scholar from Millsaps.  My daddy always thought he'd be governor one day.  That never happened, but he did fabricate governors all over the country.  He'd probably object to my choice of verb here, but if you're in his party and you want to win an election, he's your guy.  We're readers.  We read in several languages and look for things to read to challenge our worldview.  I can't think of a congregation better suited to the broad spectrum of thought that makes up the Mississippi Book Festival.  

Christianity is ancient.  It is the conduit of so many of our cultural threads going back through the millennia.  It connects us to all the wonders and beauty and pain and regret of the centuries.  Galloway acts as a light-house through time.  There are rough seas ahead, there were rough seas in the past, but Galloway provided a beacon then, and it provides a beacon now.  

It hasn't been easy forging a culture in this country, particularly in Mississippi.  We've made horrible, painful mistakes, but if you build your house on solid ground, you can weather any storm.  Matthew and Luke both recount the parable of building on solid ground.  

Galloway is built on an ancient site.  Did you know there was a graveyard underneath it?  A small plot with the mortal remains of some of Jackson's earliest residents, the sanctuary was built over it.  The graves and the gravestones still stand undisturbed, save for decades and decades of organ music.  We are a light-house to history.  Their history sits with us every Sunday.

Generations and generations of eight-year-olds have been folded into and made a part of our congregation.  There's so much more to it than just accepting the Lord and learning a few bible verses.  At eight years old, you become part of something ancient.  You're eight, so you don't understand this, but the thread of culture going back to the pharos continues through you.

My diuretic stuck again, and I couldn't finish Cary's sermon, but I listened to it on Youtube.  

Driving home, I thought, the world is a confusing, sometimes frightening place.  Bringing eight-year-olds into this ancient battle seems like such a strange thing to do, almost cruel, but it's an ancient and honorable ritual.  Standing up in front of your parents' friends and accepting the gift of a book seems like an odd thing to do, but it's the start of something.  It's the entrance into something very ancient that struggles to find the good in life and fight for it and fight for you as you fight for others.  You're eight, but now you're a light-house keeper.  Even if you don't stay here.  Even if you move far away and transfer your membership out of Galloway, you take some of us with you, and we keep some of you with us.  Don't be surprised if you look at your books when you're sixty and say, "Wow, that's my third-grade bible."  

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Where Do The Children Play?

Our mom's generation tells us about how they would put on starched cotton dresses with half a dozen petticoats and white kidd gloves and go shopping downtown with their friends.  Everything they could ever dream of was in three or four stores, and their entire school, which was the entire town, would have hamburgers and milkshakes and cokes at the Woolco lunch counter, and she'd talk about how great it was, and it was great.

My generation tells their children about how they put on the coolest stone-washed denim mini dress, half a bottle of aqua net, and twist beads and went with their friends to the mall.  Their entire school was there, and the kids from all the other schools and we'd meet in the foodcourt and have those corndogs they make in front of you and Orange Julius, and then maybe go play a video game, and we'd talk about how great it was, and it was great.

Our kids talk about how they'd call each other on Skype but not turn the camera on because their hair looked like shit, and they were wearing the same hoodie they wore the night before, and they'd log into Amazon and see what the prime deals were.  When we asked why they never go out, they said the mall is gross, and it's not safe downtown, and they'd talk about how shit it is, and it is shit.

We could have made a world for them where the malls were cooler than ever and shopping downtown was beautiful and safe for everybody.  We could have done it, but we didn't.  We tried to make a world like that, but your mom had that operation, and maybe I had a couple of affairs, and it's not our fault anyway; it's the woke liberals and the conservative fascists.  You don't know how hard it was to raise yu kids, and I fucking hate my job, but I did it for you! It's George Soros and Bill Clinton and Donald Trump--they did this; I was just trying to live my life, man; nobody told me it was gonna be like this.  Nobody told me it was up to me!

When you get my age, you start looking around, and that guy in Washington was in your pledge class.  That guy in the governor's mansion was on your brother's baseball team.  That chairman of the bank used to try and call your sister, and you took his ex-girlfriend to the prom.  We made this world.  It wasn't somebody else.  It was us.

Every day, I talk to guys who want to blame somebody else, some other party, some other culture, or some other part of the country.  It's a lot easier to sleep at night when you think it was somebody else who did this.  It's a lie, though; we did this.  

Our kids are graduating high school, graduating college, and some are hitting that thirty-year goalline.  Pretty soon, we'll be handing the ball off to them.  They won't know we're handing the ball off to them because you never realize you were carrying the goddamn ball until you're sixty and look back on what happened in your life.  This is the world we made.  This is the world they'll make.  Maybe they'll do it better.  

Oh, I know we've come a long way
             We're changing day to day
                         But tell me, where do the children play?

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Tolkien and Creation

Because his life wasn't as full of so many personal tragedies as his friend Lewis, Tolkien never vacillated between belief and atheism as Lewis did.  Tolkien was born a Roman Catholic and remained one all his life.  Many people have written about how Tolkien's theology helps inform and shape his fiction.

Despite his devotion to Catholicism, Tolkien believed that the Romans, by converting Britain to Christianity, had destroyed, displaced, and erased the complex cultural mythos that existed there when the Romans arrived.  He held up Stonehenge as proof that, before the Christianization of Britain, there existed a thriving, complex, and developed culture with a fully developed mythos of their own.  

Whatever these proto-Britons believed, all we had left of them in Tolkien's time were these stone "henges," massive rings of carved stone distributed around the middle and south of the island nation.  Tolkien died in 1973, Missing the discovery of the Lindow Bog Bodies, which date to the time around the building of the henges, and suggested a surprising (and disturbing) possibility that the proto Britons practiced human sacrifice.  Greek and Roman writers had for generations accused these so-called "druids" of human sacrifice.  Here was the proof.  

In Leeds and again at Oxford, Tolkien made a living for himself as a linguist.  In particular, he was an expert in Germanic and early English languages, making a name for himself by interpreting and studying Middle English epic poetry.  Before and after the First World War, Tolkien was known for his study and interpretation of Beowulf.

Tolkien decided he could use fiction to replace the lost British mythology, and he would use Beowulf and the Prose Edda as his models.  This became The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Simmilarion.  

Like all mythologies, Tolkien had to address the issue of creation, in particular, the creation of man.  Like many cultures, the proto-Semitic races that became Judaism proposed a creation story where the progenitor god created men from the soil.  Nearby cultures suggested clay, dust, and even the foam of the sea.    All these near-eastern myths shared a similar concept.  Men were impotent copies of the progenitor god and would be used by the god or gods as pawns in some larger game.

Tolkien was aware of the pointy-hat, fake beard-wearing "neo-druids" who pranced around Stonehenge on the equinox, but he didn't think much of them.  He was convinced that they and the horror writers of the sixties who produced works like "The Wicker Man" had it all wrong.  

In Tolkien's mythology, men are still pawns of a progenitor god, but he creates several levels of creation, each possessing less and less of the divine spark.  First was the Istari, the Wizard class, which had a shade that became the Balrog.  Then came the Ents, and their shade, the trolls.  Elves and Orcs, Dwarves and Hobbits, and then men.  As the creative spark of earth wore on, all these sentient creatures would filter down to men, and men were all that was left.

Tolkien never intended for his creation to replace or weaken Catholicism, but I've heard quite a few uninformed people call it satanic.  We assume that most mythologies come from generations of people blending their stories together; Tolkien does a pretty credible job of it working alone.  Perhaps it always was just lone writers working alone all along, only we renamed them prophets.  

Friday, July 21, 2023

Sins of the Father

In the larger world, we talk about the baby boom generation, generation x, and millennials.  In Mississippi, there's only one generational marker that matters:  Those of us who were in school when the order for segregation came and those who weren't.  That moment in history, that turning point of history, changed the future of Jackson and Mississippi and might have destroyed it.   

If you look at Jackson now and many other parts of Mississippi, you'll see a school system that's just about as segregated now as it was in 1970.  There are some white kids in black schools and some black kids in white schools, but for the most part, all of our schools are either almost entirely white or almost entirely black, with a fairly predictable outcome of underfunded black schools and overfunded white schools.  

White schools have buildings named for wealthy white benefactors (who usually paid for them) while black schools have buildings named for people who died for the cause, that were either paid for with what federal dollars trickled down to us, a bond issue Jackson can't afford, or they just renamed an older building that had been named for a white person, sometimes a Confederate hero.  

I'd like to report that successful middle-class and upper-middle-class black families stepped in and replaced the lost financial support of white people with their own financial support, but that's not happening.  Middle-class and upper-middle-class black families are, by and large, sending their kids to the same private schools the white parents send their kids to, but there are far fewer of them, so they end up being a small minority in their school that sits inside a city where people who look like them are actually the majority.

It's awfully easy to say, "Boyd, you were six years old.  You don't bear any responsibility in this." and there have certainly been times when I believed that.  I don't say that anymore.  These days, I tend to say, "If you're alive, and you live here or did your best to escape from here, then you bear some responsibility."  Leaving Jackson, leaving the Delta, even leaving Mississippi doesn't make you not responsible anymore; it just makes it easier to live like you weren't.  

Part of dealing with the sins of the Father is that you're left with some portion of what they left behind, just like they were left with the sins their Father left behind.   Breaking the cycle isn't easy, but until you do something different, you won't get nothing different.  Any generation can break the cycle.  They just have to choose it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Women Who Don't Celebrate Holidays

 Wayne LaPierre and the NRA are big fans of the idea that a "good guy with a gun" is all you need to solve the problem of "bad guys with guns."  They believe in it so much that they plaster it all over their social media every time it works.  

That's the problem; every time it works is between one and two percent of all the gun violence in the nation.  One or two percent make their evidence in this argument almost anecdotal.  While it does work at some level, their strategy simply isn't solving the problem.

Usually, their social media post will go like this: Larry Smith takes out Rico Warez with the AK47 he kept in the back of his truck in case he wanted to go deer hunting.  Their posts are filled to the brim with racial dog whistles. Then 500 middle-aged men will comment how great it is to be an American and FU Brandon!  

Problems like gun violence amplify problems with economic disparity.  The darker and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be the victim of gun violence.

Going to the grocery today, I was struck by what a terrible job we do of governing the people who live here.  Morgan Place is so filled with potholes you can't navigate it with a normal vehicle.  Inside the grocery, the women at the deli counter were talking.  I suppose the topic before I walked up was why they're working today (July 4).  One of them said she didn't mind working on the fourth because that's when her cousin got shot, and her family doesn't celebrate it, and the other woman said she felt the same about Christmas because that's when her daddy got shot.  

Two women, Americans both Mississippians and Jacksonians, laid out a testimony before me of what a horrible job we've done of governing the world they live in.  By "we," I mean me too!  There certainly have been thousands of times when I could have done more, said more, and tried more to make things better but didn't.  

Our city has an administration that was elected on the premise that they could and would do something about economic disparity, but they've done such a shit job at maintaining the basic functions of a city that they've actually made the effects of economic disparity much worse.  Our state has a decidedly conservative legislature and administration, by word, absolutely devoted to providing security to its citizens but failing utterly for these two women.  Both ends of the political spectrum made promises to help these women, and both failed.  Their lives are bad and getting worse.  

I think we have to admit that conservative gun policies are a failure.  I think we also have to admit that liberal policing policies are also a failure.  I think we have to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate everything we're doing and look for solutions to the problem rather than ways to protect our empire of ideas.  

It's not fair that these women have to work on July fourth while I get to fuck around and do what I want.  It's also not fair that in one of the world's most advanced countries, we can't keep that woman's father safe on Christmas Eve or the other woman's cousin safe on the Fourth of July.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Lee and Agamemnon

 In Lee: The Last Years, Flood quotes one of the "KA Five" as saying of Lee that "We likened him unto Agamemnon."  I always found that strange because things didn't end well for Agamemnon.

For a white Southerner, college-educated in the nineteenth century, it's not at all surprising that they read and studied the Illiad.  Agamemnon, drawing the Greeks together for this great cultural and political, and military adventure, probably did remind him of his service under Lee, both as a soldier and as a student.  

Apparently, whoever taught Greek literature, at Washington College, after the war, didn't include the Orestian Trilogy in their lessons.  Agamemnon's life may have been the origin of the Greek State, but his death was the origin of Greek justice.  Their professor only told them half the story.

Unlike Robert E Lee, who I'm absolutely certain was real, I'm not at all convinced that Agamemnon was ever a real person.  If he was, I can't imagine his real story matching up to the myth at all.  That's not what myths are for.  

Myths create stories that explain societies.  Sometimes they build up over many years, and disparate stories are combined and remade to fit the narrative the culture builds.

Every culture needs two creation stories.  The first is a metaphysical story.  The earth was a woman, and the sky was her husband.  The gods came as horses rising from the foam of the sea.  The Greek stories of metaphysical creation are fascinating and beautiful.  

They also need a myth about their political creation.  In Judaic culture, that's Joseph and Abraham, and Moses.  These are stories about what sets our people apart from other people.  They are vital in creating a cultural identity.  For the Greeks, the Illiad serves this purpose.  The Greek culture created itself with a story about defeating Troy, fighting over their ideas about the honor of a woman.

There are other very important myths, though.  Myths about where our cultural values come from.  In the bible, you have stories about Cain and Abel sewing the seeds of ideas about justice.  That's what the death of Agamemnon and his son's quest for redemption does for the Greeks.  It creates and describes in them the idea of Justice and just redemption.

It's entirely possible that the myth about Agamamemnon's life and Agamemnon's death was originally two entirely different people that were merged together into one story.  I think that happened a lot.  

Lee's political campaign might have created the political culture of the South, even though he lost the war, but there's been a much longer struggle for justice to come out of the Civil War, one that we're still fighting today.  I can't really say that Lee was part of that battle.  His purpose after the war was to get these boys, who had been his soldiers, prepared to be productive citizens again.  The question of Justice in the South would not be answered in their generation.  I'm very much starting to doubt that it will be answered in mine.

Education is a funny thing.  You can't ever really fit a complete understanding of any subject into any one lifetime, even if what you're trying to understand happened thousands of years ago.  Whoever taught the KA five about the Illiad didn't mention what happened to Agamemnon when he got home.  That was a pretty serious omission. 


Friday, June 30, 2023

Mississippi Airplanes

 For guys in my dad’s generation, for those who were also from here, there wasn’t much more impressive than an airplane.  Some, like his cousin Ben, went for sailboats instead.  Sailing has the advantage that you don’t fall to your death if the wind goes out of your sails, but you may end up shark food, so it’s a trade-off.

Part of this phenomenon might have been driven by wanting to impress people that there was something more to them than just another country boy, and a machine that can actually fly is a pretty good way to do just that.  In some cases, it was a thing that their parents had only read about.  It’s hard to imagine what that would be like today.  I guess my father never dreamed of such a thing as a submersible that went to the Titanic, so if I got one, it’d be impressive to him, although apparently ill-advised.

Bob Neblett was the first weatherman in Mississippi on the first television station in Mississippi.  He was a weatherman because he was also one of Mississippi’s first private pilots.  Besides doing the news, he was in charge of Mississippi’s only airport, Hawkin’s Field, out by the zoo.  Today, pilots check their phones for weather reports before going out.  Neblett didn’t have that available to him, and NOAH didn’t send out weather reports on the wire, so he learned basic meteorology himself.  When WJTV went on the air, Bob was the only choice.  He also sold ice cream and introduced Mississippians to Reddy Kilowatt.

Serving in the ROTC, my dad wanted very much to be a pilot.  He was in ROTC, so when he went into the service, he would be an officer.  His father insisted.  He was completely ready to fight the Nazis in World War II, but it ended before he graduated, so he served in Korea.  The airforce said he was too tall for a pilot, but he could be an engineer, so they sent him to school to learn this fancy new thing they had called “radar,” and he spent his entire military career listening for Russians flying over the border into West Berlin, and learning the specs of every aircraft on the base.

Most of Dad’s friends were as plane obsessed as he was.  When Brum Day ascended at Trustmark, Trustmark got an airplane.  My uncle Boyd loved trains.  He was part owner of a railroad in North Mississippi for a while, and Missco had a sleeper car they could attach to the City of New Orleans for trips to Chicago and beyond.  When my dad took over, the sleeper car was replaced by a Beechcraft King turboprop airplane.  The first of three, each one a seat or two bigger than the last.  His last aircraft had previously belonged to Roy Clark, the singer, who traded it for a jet.

There are scary moments with airplanes.  The Missco plane was hit by lightning twice and by geese several times.  Ben Puckett, one of his best friends, was flying out of Hilton Head when they crashed and killed six passengers, including Roger Stribling.  Ben had a broken back, and it took him months to recover.  One of Roger’s daughters was in my class.  The idea that this could have been my family was very clear to me.

Not rated to fly a craft the size of a Beechcraft King, my dad had to hire a pilot.  A retired WWII pilot named Tony Staples came highly recommended.  Tony was a square-shouldered, steel-eyed gent with shocking white hair.  

Tony was the most fastidious guy I ever knew.  He was so good at taking care of airplanes that each of our airplanes sold for more than what we paid for them.  While his voice had great power, he used a very controlled tone.  This is a trait often found among pilots whose lives depend on radio communications.

Tony, very conspicuously, wore a gold Mason’s ring.  From what I understand, he never missed a meeting.  He talked to me about it a few times but never pressured me to join.  I was interested because there were several Freemasons in my family, but never joined.

One of my favorite stories about Tony is that once, we were stopped at a small airport for fuel, and inside the fuel center were four young men wearing denim and t-shirts but with their faces painted in elaborate designs.  We assumed they were clowns and avoided them.  Tony never met a stranger and struck up a conversation with the boys and came back reporting that they were a band, and their gimmick was that they never appeared without their makeup.  He even bought one of their albums.  Showing me the album, I could see the artwork of the same four boys in makeup and the words “KISS” on top.  I always heard they did pretty well after that meeting.  

When my dad died, the man who took over his position hated flying, so it was clear the days of our airplane were numbered.  They were having a pretty terrible year and hoped this infusion of cash would improve the bottom line.  Tony had retired, but the new pilot passed me in the hall.  “They’re selling your daddy’s airplane.”  He said.  The comment was more potent coming from him because it meant he was out of a job.  “Things are changing,” I said.  Things are really changing.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Monkeys at the Zoo

I've always had an affinity for primates.  Because I learned how to make websites early, I became weirdly famous for writing about King Kong.  It wasn't just movie monkeys, though; I also loved real-world primates.

When I was little, the chimpanzee exhibit at the Jackson Zoo was slightly upstream from the Monkey Island exhibit.  The water exhibits at the Jackson Zoo were built so that fresh water from the sea lion exhibit flowed into the alligator exhibit, then poured into the Monkey Island exhibit, then into the first and second duck ponds, where it then flowed into the sewer, pretty full of animal poop.

The chimpanzee exhibit was roughly fifteen feet by fifteen feet, with a concrete floor, a tile roof, steel bars, and a covered area behind it where the animals slept.  This was pretty standard for the forties when it was built.  The emphasis was on containing the animals and keeping the exhibit clean.  Like most exhibits in the Zoo, cleaning mainly happened by a high-pressure fire hose--the kind you saw in the riots in Selma.

By the time I was old enough to know anything, we had two chimps, Roy and Venus.  Roy was an unusually large animal, one hundred and eighty pounds, close to a record for a chimpanzee in activity.  He was famous for two things.  First, he smoked cigarettes like a human being and would demand them from the Zoo's guests.  Roy was like half the guys at the KA house in college after they'd had a beer or two when they saw somebody with cigarettes.

Roy and Venus 1968
Roy and Venus 1968

The other way Roy was like a fraternity boy that he was famous for was that he could throw his own poo with distance and accuracy that could easily qualify him for the Millsaps baseball team.  Guests who annoyed him (or didn't give him cigarettes) would sometimes take one on the back of the head with enough force to make them stumble.  

Sometime in the seventies, the city decided they were no longer interested in West Jackson.  They built an industrial park where Missco and McCarty-Holeman moved and developed the interchange where Ellis Avenue went under I-220, but that was it.  By 1975, West Jackson was in steep decline, including the Zoo.  Everything that mattered in Jackson happened in the North East and the South West.  

It had been ten years since Mayor Thompson shut down the city pools, including the giant one in Livingston Park.  As the city grew away from West Jackson, despite the many beautiful things there, the city government, who ran the Zoo, became less and less interested in it.  Decay and attrition began to set in.

The city hired Jim Swigert as the director, who worked with local architects to develop a master plan, starting with a petting zoo, but failed to fund most of his ideas.  The city gave lip service to building the Zoo but with little money.

A group of Jackson residents who loved animals and loved the Zoo formed Friends of the Jackson Zoo.  a volunteer organization that helped maintain the landscaping at the Zoo and raised money to upgrade old exhibits and build new ones.

Members of the friends had an idea.  Maybe they could privatize it since the city wasn't very interested in the Zoo anymore.  A private organization focused on maintaining the Zoo could do a better job of running the Zoo than the city could.  The idea intrigued the Mayor and the Council.  The city would make a yearly contribution to the Zoo but wouldn't pay their employees or involve themselves in the day-to-day operation of the Zoo.

The Jackson Zoological Parks board was created to lease the Zoo from the city for one dollar, and they would take over all operations, saving the city a considerable amount of money and effort.   

Needing a director, the JZP board interviewed several people but hired a woman named Barbara Barrett.  She was an energetic redhead of remarkable charm and beauty who somehow had remained unmarried (although that wouldn't last).  Barbara had a natural affinity for running Zoos.  One of her first tasks was raising money to realize the planned African Rainforest exhibit, which included moving our growing chimpanzee troup to a naturalized island with a waterfall and a moat.

With all this new growth at the Zoo, I became very interested in it.  Still working for my father, my office was just around the corner.  Having seen my face so often, Barbara asked me to be on the Friends of the Jackson Zoo board, even though I was only twenty-three.  A move that meant I would be at the Zoo even more.

Our little chimp troupe was getting a lot of attention.  Jackson, the first chimp born at the Jackson Zoo, broke his back during an epileptic fit.  He was rushed to the veterinary hospital at Mississippi State University for emergency surgery, which was successful.   While I was very proud of our work to help Jackson, I always felt bad for him until his body hair grew over the surgical scars.

In a new, larger exhibit, the AZP sent us enough chimpanzees to make two troops, who took turns in the exhibit.  Keepers were slowly acclimating the two groups together, as ordered by AZP, and it was going well until one morning, the main group, headed by Darwin, a massive, white-bearded animal, was in the exhibit, and Jo-Jo's smaller group was allowed on.  

Normally, fights for dominance among chimpanzees aren't fatal.  Jo-Jo had been mistreated before he came to Jackson; that's one of the reasons they sent him here.  Early one morning, Jo-Jo attacked Darwin from behind, breaking his jaw and flinging his body into the moat.  Darwin drowned in the moat water and his own vomit.  The keepers were right there, but it all happened so fast that they could do nothing.  

I arrived two hours later, not knowing anything was wrong.  Not finding Barbara in her office, I was told where to go.  The staff was responding as if one of their own had been killed.  It was a mortifying shock.   Our keepers had reservations about merging the groups; now, there was no choice.  There was only one dominant male left.  

About a year later, one of our females named Belle had a baby in May, named Maybelle.  With most of the group in the public exhibit, the keepers allowed me to go into the night cages and see the baby.  The trick I learned with chimps was that if you dipped your shoulders down so that you were not taller than them, they weren't as threatened by you.  Jackson, who was also inside, hooted loudly until I stooped down.  Approaching her cage, Belle carried her baby to the front of the cage, where I could see it.  She showed me her baby, even pointing to it.  People question how close chimpanzee intelligence is to human intelligence.  In my experience, it's very, very close.

Most of my life was pretty miserable in those years.  My job was sucking the life out of me, and I was involved with a woman in another city, who I would find out was not entirely faithful despite the enormous amount of effort she required from me.

The Zoo was my respite, safe space, and my one beautiful thing.  My friends from the friends of Jackson Zoo were remarkable artists and architects, and more.  It was the only place on earth where I felt like I fit in.  

One day I'll write about the end of the JZP board and returning the Zoo back to the city.  We have some remarkable people working there, but unless we can figure out a way to inject life back into West Jackson, I wonder if we can do much with the Zoo.  I would favor saving West Jackson, even if the Zoo wasn't there.  There are many remarkable things in West Jackson; we just seem to lack the resolve as a people to save it, and city leadership doesn't seem to have any answers.  

Even now, when I dream of happy things, many of them are at our Zoo.  I don't really have any answers, but I have many, many memories.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Pride Month

 June is pride month.  I don't like the idea that we have to assign months where people can be proud of who they are.  That should be every month.  We started assigning months and holidays to marginalized groups around thirty years ago in an effort to recognize what the larger society had put them through in the past in hopes that remembering it would keep it from happening again.  It's not actually keeping it from happening again.  It's not.  I'm not very good at fighting this.  I've tried, but obviously, it's not enough.

La Cage aux Folles was a 1973 French film about two gay men who pretend to be straight for the sake of their son.  In 1983, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman got the rights to turn it into a Broadway musical comedy.  Harvey Fierstein was the first American playwright to come out and live as an openly gay man.  You'd think that stage people would have led the way, but it didn't happen that way.  Fierstein wrote, directed, and starred in the first gay-themed play, first off and then on Broadway, Torch Song Trilogy.

Maybe one day, we'll get to the point where we don't have to have a pride month for this or a pride month for that.  I bought a pride sanctuary pin. It's simply a rainbow with the words "SAFE WITH ME" on it. I wear it because I've known people who didn't feel safe being what they were.  A couple of them read my stuff.  I've gotten nasty looks for wearing it.  That's ok.  I'd rather somebody hate me for accepting someone else than take it out on them.  If you're going to hate somebody for what they are, then hate me too.  Might as well.  Meanwhile, I'll go to drag shows and protests and all of these things because maybe me saying "I accept you" can help make up for the people who don't.

Friday, June 2, 2023

What's In The Box?

A lot of people find things they don't understand are intimidating.  It's a natural reaction.  If you don't know what's in a box labeled "X," it could be anything.  It could be a puppy, it could be a chocolate cake, but it could also be a tiger or a diamond-back rattlesnake.  Until you open the box, you don't know.   Some people find the chance that it might be a rattlesnake much more important than the chance that it might be a chocolate cake, so they presume this box labeled "X" is a threat and act like it.

I think that may be part of what's happening with some of the hate we're seeing lately with transgenderism.  For most of us, me included, the experience of transgenderism is utterly alien and quite far from our daily experience.  We make our physical gender part of our identity, and even people who understand that identity is a construct find it very difficult to see beyond it.   

Over the last fifteen years, a lot of LGBTQ people and their allies have been operating under the presumption that if they raise the awareness of gay and trans people, it will make the larger public more accepting of them.  The idea being that if we open the box and show the contents, people will see it's not a threat.  In many cases, that's worked.  It worked on me.

Some people are so concerned about the possible threat in the box that they don't want to look, even if it's open.  Efforts to raise the awareness of LGBTQ people and normalize their presence make some people feel threatened, like this thing they're afraid of is growing and being "forced down their throat," which is exactly the opposite of the original intent to show that LGBTQ people aren't anything to be afraid of or concerned about.

It's really hard to cross the lines of culture, sexuality, and identity.  These ideas become the core of how people define themselves, and far too many people don't feel confident enough of their own place in society to be accepting of people who are different.  Anytime you see somebody with a chip on their shoulder, jealously guarding their spot in the world, it's a pretty good bet they're going to have trouble with bigotry.  

It's particularly painful to see people who themselves were once marginalized because of their culture or race, or religion participate in the hate and rejection of LGBTQ people.  You'd think they would be the first to recognize this syndrome in other people, and most are, but some become even more reactionary, almost as if their seat at the table will be taken away if they allow someone different to sit next to them.   

This is one of those situations where I don't really know the solution.  I think there's some merit to staying the course and continuing to raise the profile of differently-sexualized people and continue to try and educate people that they are not a threat in any way.  There's going to be pushback.  The slate at the last session of the Mississippi Legislature is a pretty good example of push-back.  Recent political pressure to shut down the LGBTQ clinic at the University of Mississippi Medical Center is another example.  

All I can suggest is, don't respond to hate with hate.  Be firm but understanding.  Fear of the unknown is legitimate; continuing to try and make known the unknown is still the best course.  Maybe cut back on some of these basic cable shows exploiting the lives of teenage transgender people and focus more on the experience of adults.  A lot of people are responding with near violence to the idea of trans people participating in sexed sports.  It's actually a pretty rare event, but concern over it has exploded.  Maybe there's some merit to trying to understand and cooperate with these fears, even though it's really very rare.

Reaching out to people who don't fit the larger cultural patterns isn't a hill most people want to fight on.  It makes people wonder why you can't just go along to get along.  This is something Jesus specifically shows us to do, though.  There's a reason why he made a tax collector his disciple.  There's a reason why he told the parable of the Samaritan.  It's incredibly liberating for your own mind to take these lessons to heart and make them part of your life.  Living without fear of other people is one of the greatest gifts you can I've yourself.  

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Bogart and the Anti-Hero

In 1935, a young actor named Humphrey Bogart (his real name) got his first starring role on Broadway in a play called "Petrified Forest" with costar Leslie Howard at the Broadhurst Theater.  Lance Goss directed the play at Millsaps several times, with the last one in the 90s with Paul Hough as Duke Mantee.  It would be Bogar's last major role on stage.

Bogart played a few small roles in films, some so small they were uncredited, but in 1936 he returned to Hollywood with a triumphant contract with Warner Brothers and shot "The Petrified Forest," again with Leslie Howard and introducing Bette Davis as Gabby, a role played by Christine Swannie at Millsaps.

Over the next five years, Bogart made almost fifteen films, all variations on the criminal he played in Petrified Forest, including his stint as a crooked lawyer in "Angels with Dirty Faces," and the Science Fiction thriller "The Return of Doctor X."  Bogart never doubted his abilities and fought with Warner Brothers to let him try roles that weren't criminals.  

In 1941, Bogart received the big break he wanted playing a new kind of character, dubbed the "anti-hero" he played the hard-boiled detective in "The Maltese Falcon" based on the hit novel by the same name by  Dashiell Hammett and also introduced Sydney Greenstreet who would act against Bogart again.  

Sam Spade reinvented Bogart as an actor and reinvented the entire genre of crime drama.  There are just a few films you can point to and say, "This changed the direction of the art form,"  "The Maltese Falcon" is one of those.  Again, Bogart would spend the next several films mostly typecast again, this time as the anti-hero detective, but his career was starting to be on his own terms. 

The success of Sam Spade did allow Bogart his first chance to really act against type.  In 1942, a small play called "Everybody Comes to Ricks" was the subject of the rising patriotism and anti-fascism in America as a result of the Pearl Harbor invasion.  Bogart was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for playing Rick Blaine in "Casablanca."

In 1944, Bogart won the role of Harry "Steve" Morgan in the screen adaptation of Hemmingway's "To Have and To Have Not."  Hemmingway refused to write the script himself, so director Howard Hawks hired Jules Furthman to pen the first script.  Not pleased with the final product, Hawks hired Mississippi novelist William Faulkner to mend the script.  This film is perhaps most notable for introducing a nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall to the world as Slim.  In his forties, a spark between Bacall and Bogart struck up that became a  Hollywood legend.  Humphrey Bogar and Lauren "Baby" Bacall made an unlikely love affair for the ages.

Bogart went on to play many more anti-heroes, but 1951's "African Queen" with John Houston and Katharine Hepburn, shot on location in Africa, remains one of Bogar's most memorable films.  Bogart finally got his Best Actor statue for playing Charlie Allnut.

In 1955, Bogart released "We're No Angles,"  still playing an anti-hero, but this time a comedy.  Co-starring Aldo Ray, Peter Ustinov, and Basil Rathbone, "We're No Angles" has been one of my Christmas tradition films since I first saw it on TNT in 1980.  

Bogart would make three more films, but a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker, he would die of esophageal cancer in 1957.  

Baby Bacall was thirty-two when Bogart died.  Bogart was fifty-seven.  Bacall bore Bogart two children.  A son named Stephen, named for Bogart's character in "To Have and To Have Not." and a daughter named Leslie Howard for Bogart's co-star and friend.  Hepburn and Spencer Tracy would visit Bogart in his final days.

Bogart and Bacall were both liberal democrats and fiercely anti-fascists.  Like many Hollywood liberals, Bogart was called before the Committee on Unamerican Activities to defend his political viewpoints.  Afterward, he wrote an article entitled "I'm No Communist," defending not only himself but those found in contempt of the hearings.

I've profiled a lot of actors, but Bogart is one of my favorites.  His is a very American story.

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Origin of Barbeque Sauce

 While the technique of pit cooking is pretty much universal, nearly every food historian posits that the origin of Barbeque is the Caribbean and a combination of native and African influences during the colonial period.  I'm willing to accept that.  The word itself is Spanish if that tells you anything.  If you look at how Barbeque spread and where it's distributed, even today, a Caribbean origin is the most likely.  Considering how many Southern enslaved people came from or through the Caribbean, it kind of seals the deal.

What about Barbeque Sauce, though?  Traditional food history says that Jamaican Jerk Sauce is the most likely origin of Barbeque sauce, which makes sense, but here's my issue:  the principal ingredients of Barbecue Sauce are tomatoes, chilis, and some form of acid.  Traditionally, the acid is vinegar, but let's assume that the acid might originally have been citrus, maybe limes, but what about a pre-Columbian acid, like passionfruit juice?      

Here's what I'm getting at: all of the main Barbeque sauce ingredients are pre-Columbian and originate in central and south America, not the Caribbean.  I don't believe that Mole sauce is colonial in origin, the name might be, but I refuse to believe it was the first time somebody used a molcajete to grind chiles into a sauce.  

Here's my theory, and I'm not a professional, so don't beat me up.  If you want a professional opinion, ask George Bey or David Woodward.  I think Barbeque Sauce is much older than Carribian Barbacoa.  I think the people pit cooking in the Carribian already knew of the sauce.  They inherited it from Central and South American ancient sources and had been putting it on meat for generations.  If you look at the development of chiles and tomatoes and ceviche and the molcajete, you have all the essential ingredients of Barbeque sauce, and they all pre-date Columbus by thousands of years.  Surely they weren't waiting for the arrival of Europeans to put it all together.  

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Ayn Rand and Andrew Ryan

For many years, I studied Ayn Rand's Objectivism pretty closely. I saw her ideas, combined with libertarianism, as the solution to most of our social and economic shortcomings.  

I had help, too. Libertarian commentators like James Randy and Penn Jillette guided me through the process, and I criticized, especially conservatives, who strayed from Rand's precepts. I never really considered the other side of the argument, though. I tend to be a very stubborn person and sometimes suffer from myopia on some issues.

A video game called Bioshock opened my eyes to the full spectrum of what Objectivism really meant. Rapture is The Fountainhead, and the introduction of a science fiction element called "plasmids" makes Rand's utopia unravel in the face of true human nature.

Never let anyone say you can't learn something from a video game.

Official Ted Lasso