This post is written by Education Fellow Allison Poirier.
I live in Mississippi now, but I remain a very proud native of Massachusetts. I know Bill Belichick is the most brilliant NFL coach of our generation, I think the rest of the country has us to thank for Thanksgiving and the Revolutionary War (you’re welcome), and until the age of six I thought the word was pronounced “idear.”
But last week I was embarrassed on behalf of my great state.
A few weeks ago, I went home to visit my family for the weekend. My visit coincided with the special election to fill the senate seat John Kerry vacated to become Secretary of State, and my parents had received an ad related to this election in the mail. The advertisement, sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters, said in big bold letters “THIS IS MASSACHUSETTS, NOT MISSISSIPPI.”
The point was to show how Gabriel Gomez, the republican candidate, held values not in line with the priorities of Massachusetts residents. Gabriel Gomez was born in California, and grew up in Washington (state), and now lives in Massachusetts – and has no apparent connection to Mississippi. So what does the ad mean by saying “this is NOT Mississippi?”
I get that the big idea here is that Mississippi is “backwards.” And yes, there are a number of issues on which Massachusetts and Mississippi find themselves at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Mississippi numbers among the most conservative states, Massachusetts among the most liberal. This flier obviously hopes to evoke some sort of fear that “Massachusetts could become Mississippi,” but the portrayal of Massachusetts a Good State, and Mississippi as its polar opposite Bad State, is a drastic and unfair oversimplification.
In the process of moving to Jackson I discovered a lot about my new state. Yes, there are problems here, but I have found that people in Mississippi talk a lot more honestly and openly about these issues than people in other places, where they may think they don’t have that problem. There are many organizations devoted to community building and “racial reconciliation.” The recent controversy over Mississippi’s open carry law has prompted a great deal of discussion about gun control and how it should work. People are talking about the challenges, and working hard to address them.
There are also many aspects of Mississippi that are simply wonderful. On my first Friday night in Jackson I attended a synagogue potluck dinner and ate the most amazing home cooked southern food. All my neighbors have introduced themselves and assured me that I am living in a friendly place where everyone watches out for each other. I have thoroughly enjoyed the art, music, and culture I have encountered. I am also looking forward to my first snow-free winter.
The people who sponsored this campaign ad, people who have obviously never lived here, ignored the good qualities to make a point about the bad.
Portraying Massachusetts and Mississippi as opposites ignores and negates the complications of life in both states. Instead of throwing Mississippi under the bus (or, in this case, onto the bumper stickers), stick to the issues – because using the bully-tactic of building yourself up by putting someone else down is what’s really “backwards.”
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. They had arranged a viewing of the College World Series because our very own Mississippi State Bulldogs were playing in the championship.
I must admit that although I was raised an avid Yankees fan and then secretly (well, now not-so-secretly) converted to being a Red Sox fan when I moved to Boston in 2004, I haven’t watched a single baseball game since I moved to the South. Besides a rogue Atlanta Braves fan you might stumble across every now and then, football reigns in these parts. But when your local team makes it to a national championship, you buckle down, eat a hot dog, and show your support.
Typical of a museum nerd, I was wandering through the exhibits during most of the game while my friends gathered around the multiple TV screens. It was the bottom of the 6th inning by the time I sat down, and Mississippi State was behind. The crowd was quiet and the mood was sullen. I looked up at the screen. They were showing aerial views of Omaha, Nebraska, the city where the College World Series had been held for the past 63 years.
“So..why is this in Omaha?” I asked my fellow fans.
“Not sure, it’s just always been there,” one fan answered.
Not sure? Not acceptable. I pulled the internet out of my pocket. I read the information from the College World Series site aloud “The College World Series was first played in Omaha in 1950 and total attendance was 17,805. Although the College World Series is now a profitable event, it lost money for 10 of the first 12 years that it was in Omaha – 1950-1961. Four Omahans who maintained their faith and interest in the College World Series during those lean years are due much of the credit for the tournament’s continued presence in Omaha. They are the late Ed Pettis of the Brandeis Stores, the late Morris Jacobs and the late Byron Reed, both of Bozell & Jacobs, and the late Johnny Rosenblatt, Mayor of Omaha and an avid baseball fan.”
“Jews!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, right. The old stadium was Rosenblatt field,” my fellow fan replied.
I spent the rest of the short and sad innings reading about Johnny Rosenblatt, the mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, from 1954 to 1961. He was one of six children born to Jewish immigrant parents, and played semi professional baseball for 20 years.
My reaction to “Jews in Omaha” is probably pretty similar to the reaction people have when they hear about “Jews in the South.” I don’t know much of anything about Omaha (except something about steaks and that it’s home to one of our favorite scholars, Dr. Ron Wolfson). I would have never guessed it was a hub not only for college baseball, but also for Jewish community involvement.
I look for these instances often. After all, I’ve had to arm myself with similar Southern Jewish trivia bits when I’m asked about Jews in the South. Locally, my favorite response actually involves Mississippi State fans again, when I surprise them that their voice of the Bulldogs local sports announcer Jack Cristil is Jewish and from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Clearly, I enjoy the feeling of discovery – and luckily, we’ve got resources like Wikipedia, Google, and more specifically, for those not familiar with Southern cities, we’ve got the great Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities to help make these discoveries more often.
Living with these resources makes it a great time to be curious, especially during boring sports events. Have to sit through another little league tournament this weekend? Here are a few searches to get you started:
For the music lover- Where was Dinah Shore from and what was her original name?
For the history student- Who was the secretary of state for the Confederacy?
For the traveler- Who came up with these crazy South of the Border signs?
Have fun discovering!
I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Many others have, too, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal – but I’ve also heard plenty of people saying it’s “not about race,” suggesting that the death of Trayvon Martin, and Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, comes down to guns, laws, confusing jury instructions, prosecution not making their case, and so on.
But let’s be honest – it’s a lot about race.
I am a white woman, born in 1964 in Jackson, MS. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, attended private schools for most of my education, and worshipped at the local synagogue where, at that time, all the members were white.
I didn’t question my insular upbringing or privilege; my parents owned a restaurant, and worked long, hard hours to provide for us. But lately, I have considered this: if I had been born into an African American family, same year, same city - what would my childhood have been like? And framed by those experiences, what would my adult life look like now?
How can I possibly know? Do I even live in the same United States as Charles M. Blow, a columnist and parent of black sons, who wrote in the New York Times recently: “As a parent… I am left with the question ‘Now, what do I tell my boys?’ We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?”
Reading that, I think I don’t live in the same United States. I get to live in a society where I don’t have to tell my kids how to walk home safely, because of how they look to others. I don’t have to fear immediate judgments being made about me, or my children, based on the color of our skin. Because I am white. Yes, I am in the minority because I am Jewish, but unless I’m wearing a Star of David, no one sees my Jewishness when I walk down the street. So how can I relate?
I recalled a movie I had seen some twenty-odd years ago. I couldn’t recall the title at first, but then I found it, and the lines I was trying to remember (thank you, Google). The movie’s title is Soul Man. It came out in 1986, with C. Thomas Howell in the role of Mark, a white student who poses as an African American to receive a full scholarship to Harvard. James Earl Jones played the role of Mark’s professor and when the deception finally was revealed, Mark and Professor Banks engaged in the following dialogue:
Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.
That awareness is key: it’s not the same.
We need to acknowledge this, and we all need to learn more. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued the following statement after the Zimmerman verdict: “There are serious, unresolved issues of race in our country, and this trial underscored the need to explore these issues more fully. Hopefully, the debate concerning the justice of the verdict in the Zimmerman case will inspire a continued much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
There is hope – now, and in decades past. In a glimmer of light this week, NPR featured this story of photographer Joseph Crachiola and a photograph he took 40 years ago in Detroit, of two white children and three black children, clearly friends, in a neighborhood known then (and now) as “racially divided.” The photo I’m sharing again here, in this blog. A photo of friendship. A reminder that we can find connections, and bridge the divide. We are not born divided.
But none of us can do it alone. We need to talk to each other.
Jackson 2000 is an organization here in Mississippi dedicated to bringing the community together in the Jackson metropolitan area by promoting racial harmony through dialogue and understanding, facilitates “Dialogue Circles”– groups of people who commit to a 6 week series of facilitated meetings to meaningfully engage on issues related to race and community. No one is naïve enough to think that 6 weeks of conversation will solve all the problems/issues/inequities that exist, but these conversations, and just as importantly, these connections, help us all move forward, together.
And maybe someday, we will all live in the same country, where all of our children are safe.