Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The college that refused to die

Someone in New York greeted me recently by saying, "How's it going at the most famous college in the country?" That may be a slight exaggeration but there certainly has been an astonishing amount of coverage in the major newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post) with evocative photographs and almost breathless text.

I met Teresa Tomlinson, the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, who gave the commencement address at Sweet Briar College in June, and I'm not sure I have ever seen a woman with such stunning oratorical and political gifts. She's been the Winston Churchill of the rescue effort, mobilizing words and sending them to war. She is now the new chairman of the board at SBC.

Teresa Tomlinson giving her speech at Sweet Briar

Sweet Briar, in my day and no doubt afterwards, was always known for its powerful alumnae support. I had almost forgotten that. The alumnae are now the saviors of the college. This tiny, rural, Southern liberal-arts college, often the recipient of jokes about its name, its May Court, and its supposed "riding major," was a powerhouse after all. It makes me proud of women. I think quite a few of us alumnae are a bit ashamed of the way we played dead when the announcement was made about the college closing. I have not been feeling emotional or nostalgic about Sweet Briar for decades, but that's changed now; this paragraph from the Roanoke newspaper brought a mist to my eyes:
"In a strange, wonderful way, what nearly killed Sweet Briar might make it stronger. It certainly gives the school a big, fat talking point. Other colleges have closed and their graduates weren’t able to save them. Sweet Briar’s did. Stone [new president] says he’s gotten inquiries from prospective students and faculty who were interested in the school because of what happened, not despite it. 'There’s something special here,' Stone says."
I am only sorry that the new president is a man. I was always so proud of the fact that almost all the presidents had been women, including especially the founding president and the four presidents after her, till 1970 when there was a man for a few years. His wife drove a lot of people crazy. My cousin Ross Dabney, who was professor of English for many years, writes in his memoirs that she complained to him about Isaac Bashevis Singer being asked to speak at Sweet Briar. She thought he was too rarefied. When asked whom she would prefer, she suggested (to the speechless horror of Prof. Dabney) Barbara Walters.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Thoughts from a Virginian about slavery and the Confederacy

My sister has lived in South Carolina with her husband as long as I have lived in New York with my husband. They lived in Charleston first, then Columbia. She is a longtime faithful member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, directly across the street from the State Capital and the pole with the Confederate battle flag. She and I and our husbands are as deeply rooted in the South as it is possible to be, all of us from pre-Revolutionary forebears. Our great-great grandfather, Thomas S. G. Dabney, left Virginia in the 1850s to become a slave-owning planter in Mississippi. Our great-grandfather Virginius Dabney (the first of that name) fought for the Confederacy for four years. My husband, who is a Middleton as well as a Rutledge, is descended from major slave-owning South Carolina families. In addition, Betsy and I are direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson's sister.

The point of this is that we are profoundly and deeply involved, regardless of degrees of separation, with slavery. We grew up in a small town in Virginia where the population of black people was perhaps 60%, yet invisible to us except as our housecleaner, our cook, and our "yard man." I never gave a thought to this setup until I heard Dr. King's "dream" speech live on television, with my "cleaning woman" sitting beside me, and was converted on the spot. I have been a committed supporter of civil rights, and a serious student of the civil rights movement, ever since (scenes from the movement have a significant role in sections of my forthcoming book The Crucifixion)

And yet there has been, after all these years, something profound that has reached me from the events at "Mother Emanuel" church and its unfolding aftermath that has caused me to examine my background and culture even more deeply than before.

Here's the point I'm trying to wrestle through. My husband's and my particular heritage (his mother, a Virginian, was a "liberal" when that was uncommon) led us to scorn "rednecks," to eschew the n-word, to try to be extra-sensitive to black people, to appreciate black culture, and so forth. Virginians always felt that our attitudes to race were more refined than those of the Deep South. And yet today, when I read an article in The New York Times about a "redneck" county in South Carolina, I felt deeply conflicted because I could see  (such was the skill of the journalist, Richard Fausset) myself and my much-loved relatives in the people being interviewed. Here is the link:

The people in this article, we might have said in our family, are "common" if not "rednecks." The featured character, Brandon Heath (a name that could have come straight out of my own family) never went past high school. And yet, I thought I understood him when he said, "It's just about where we come from, and locally here, we're just real proud of that. It's all about your school, and your upraising, and who you are." Mr. Fausset has worked hard to understand this man. He writes that "here in this county of 29,000 people, as in may other stretches of the white, working-class South, the flag remains a revered symbol, not only of the Confederate dead, but of a unique regional identity." I  graduated from public high school in Franklin, Virginia; many classmates did not go on to college at all. Yet there remained a bond between us that called me and my sister back for our 40th and 50th reunions. That is an aspect of the "unique regional identity" of the small-town South. So, I am musing, there is really not so much difference between me and the "rednecks.

One of the people from my high school that I kept in touch with was an unreconstructed Confederate. He continued to speak reverentially of "The Cause," which would have evoked scorn and ridicule except that I knew him well enough to know that there was more to him than that, and that he just had this blind spot. Don't we all have blind spots of one sort or another? His wife, I must say, had decidedly racist tendencies, but he did not. He would not use the n-word, and was embarrassed by his wife's remarks. He just had this reverence for "the Southern way of life" as it was almost universally called then, not recognizing--whether willfully or not I cannot say-- how much that way of life continued to depend on the subjugation of black people. Every Memorial Day he and his friends were out putting Confederate battle flags on the Confederate graves in the cemetery. Alongside an equal number of American flags for WWII veterans, they made a spectacular sight as the flags fluttered in the May breeze, but in recent years, for the first time, I began to think about what the black citizens felt as they drove past.

Many people, not just Southerners and not just "rednecks," have difficulty conceiving of systemic unjustice.  This is highly visible right now in the debate over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. People simply cannot, or will not, see beyond their own perceptions. This has been the case in all parts of our country as the economy recovers and income inequality grows apace. There continues to be a well-documented lack of empathy among the rich for people struggling on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

But to return to the race issue, I have lived my whole adult life feeling ashamed of the way the South treated black people, yet keenly aware that the North and other parts of the country cannot call themselves innocent. The Help (movie and book) notwithstanding, there really was sometimes a comfort level that some Southern white people had with black people--especially among Christians--that ought to be recalibrated, brought forward, and put to work at what might be a turning point in our history.

The New York Times offers this glimpse of the hope that remains as the South continues to confront the race issue:

Angelica Griffin is also an African-American, and also played sports at the high school. She said she was “terrified” to criticize the flag while she was there. Ms. Griffin, 28, recently completed law school at DePaul University in Chicago and is studying for the bar exam. After the Charleston shootings, she said, she posted her displeasure with the flag on social media, sparking debate and pushback from white friends back home. “People were so apt to defend it, without even thinking about other people and how that flag makes them feel,” she said.
But Ms. Griffin also spoke about the time, in 2008, when her mother lost her job. White Haralson County neighbors showered her mother with money and gift cards so she could afford to drop her off at college.
“You know what? It doesn’t make sense,” Ms. Griffin said. “It’s the great conundrum of the South.”