Old times are not always forgotten - even in Dixie

By DAVID GUSTAFSON,

Needless to say, the racial makeup of my small hometown in northeastern Oklahoma is nothing like it is here in the Pine Belt of south Mississippi.

In my graduating class of 168 students, I only had one black classmate and when he moved to town when we were in grade school, he was not only the only black kid in our grade – he was literally the only black kid in the entire school.

 There were two Latino kids in my class (I’m pretty sure they were cousins) and an Asian girl named Ann whose mother was Vietnamese – making her our lone bi-racial student.

The remaining 164 students were as white as this page of newsprint – or at least most looked that way. In reality, roughly one-third of the kids were Native American, which wasn’t surprising since our community was located right in the heart of the Cherokee Nation.

A quick glance at today’s demographics in that region shows that things haven’t changed much. Less than one percent of the population identifies as being black.

Despite the cultural makeup of my hometown, to the best of my recollection, there was never an occasion for me to go anywhere in blackface ­– but some members of my immediate family certainly did.

Sometime in the mid 1970s, my older sister, Debbie, dressed up as Aunt Jemima one year for Halloween and my mother used burnt cork and cold cream to darken her face.

She carried a wooden spoon and stuffed pillows into her dress to fatten her up.

It was innocent enough at the time and certainly would have been culturally appropriate in 1975, but looking back, my mother now cringes at the thought.

Twenty years earlier in a neighboring community, my uncle’s senior play featured two different student actors in blackface.

I’m sure if I dug deeper, I would find plenty more examples – and I’m guessing so could most of you.

In fact, in the wake of the recent discovery of a racist photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, old yearbook photos featuring blackface students are popping up everywhere – even here in Mississippi.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, both of whom would like to be this state’s next governor, had college fraternity photos appear last week featuring fellow members in blackface.

No photos have surfaced yet shown either candidate themselves in the controversial make-up and both men have denounced racism of any kind.

In a speech given Monday in Jackson, Hood said he felt like candidates should be judged on policies they believe in and not the actions of others they may – or may not have – associated with in the past.

Instead, Hood implied the liutenant governor should instead be judged for a 2013 speech he gave to the Sons of Confederate Veterans while surrounded by Confederate flags.

SCV is a pro-Confederate organization that pushes a revisionist history designed to dispute the idea that the South fought the Civil war because of slavery.

A photo of Reeves standing in front of a sea of Confederate flags while speaking at the 2013 event was recently deleted from his public Facebook page, leading some Mississippians to believe the lieutenant governor was embarassed for the photograph to be circulated during the campaign.

Reeves admitted he spoke to the organization, but has declined to go into details – other than pointing out the black mayor of the Vicksburg also spoke to the group.

So should politicians – or any of us – be judged for our past actions?

I suppose it depends on the context.

There were plenty of things I did in my high school and college years that have absolutely no bearing on who I am today and I’m sure the same can be said about Tate Reeves and Jim Hood – and most of you.

But that doesn’t mean we should defend our transgressions.

A few years ago, a wave of guilt came over me because of the way I treated certain members of my graduating class and I made it a point to seek them out and apologize for my ignorant, rude, and inappropriate actions.

In some cases, they didn’t even remember me saying or doing the things I was apologizing for, but that didn’t matter to me. I knew what I had said and done and I needed to make amends – if only for my own sake and sanity.

In this day and age of extreme partisanship, I’m guessing that we haven’t seen the last of the “gotcha” moments involving Reeves, Hood, and others.

When Election Day rolls around in November, Mississippi voters will go into the polls to make their decision about who they want to lead our state into the future and I doubt very seriously there will be much consideration given to the actions of the candidates’ fraternity brothers back in the day.

In fact, I’m guessing 90% of state voters already know exactly who they’re going to vote for in November and nothing – even a photograph of the candidates themselves in blackface – is going to change their vote.

At the end of the day, I’m afraid voters could care less about the moral compass that a candidate may – or may not – have. I’m not sure what that says about our society these days, but it’s not good.

 

David Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor/publisher of The PineBelt NEWS and Signature Magazine. According to a recent DNA test, 62 percent of his bloodline comes from the United Kingdom and Ireland. Another 32 percent comes from Scandinavia with the remaining 6 percent from Germany. He considers himself an Okie by birth and a Mississippian by choice.