Reflections from the field
Photography by William Bear Braswell
"What does Oxford mean to me? Oxford, Mississippi is where I grew up. I don’t mean in the traditional sense, I mean it’s where I transitioned from a young boy into a young man. It’s been said that, "college is the place where the man you are meets the man you will become." I definitely feel like that is the case. Oxford is a bubble, and it’s also a town that insists upon itself. It tries so desperately to hold on to some sort of lost sense of nostalgia. Even as the town continues to grow, and get bigger and bigger the people, and ultimately the square, cling tighter and tighter to the idea of southern simplicity.
I love Oxford, but it definitely has its flaws . . . For instance, very rarely do I see great diversity on the Oxford square . . . Some people would argue that all of Oxford exists in a bubble. I don’t think so. The square is the bubble within Oxford. Outside of the square Oxford is impoverished, and there is definitely a discrepancy between the social classes. The differences are stark.
Oxford definitely has its problems. It’s not immune to racial insensitivity, and I think in a lot of ways Oxford mirrors the state it’s in. Mississippi is a conflicted state. The state is the home of William Faulkner, and yet holds the site where Medgar Evers was killed. In the same way, Oxford is conflicted. We have the square, and the beauty of the local art, music, and food, and yet we also have the home of the Meredith riots in 1962. Just in my time here, from 2012-2016, we’ve had two Obama riots, we had students hang a noose around the James Meredith statue, we’ve changed our mascot several times, and we’ve taken down our state flag, and then had a riot about that too. We’re not perfect, even though sometimes we pretend to be.
What does all of this mean to me? It means that my town and my school have issues. But, I find comfort in the knowledge that so does everyone else. Every college town, every state, every school has something that they are not proud of. We are not the only ones. I love Oxford. It’s the place where I had the best time of my life with the best people. I met my groomsmen here. I made my best friends here. I broke down barriers. I helped to run the most successful fraternity on campus. I met the absolute love of my life here. I cheered the Rebs, cursed the dogs, and learned a lot about what I was capable of doing. I got involved, I did the big event, I raised awareness for CP, I fell down, a lot, and I kept getting back up again. I went to New Orleans and Mexico, made an Indian friend, and buried a brother. I danced with debutantes (again), and killed ducks in the Delta. I did all of these things with clear eyes and a full heart, confident in the knowledge and understanding that these were the best days of my life."
-William Bear Braswell
"I personally identify as an Alabamian, and choosing to come to school in Mississippi was an “interesting” choice in my family. I do recognize that my experiences in Oxford are only based on the four short years that I have been here (and only in nine month segments at a time). As a student, life in Oxford is different. While papers and class can be overwhelming, in the end I go home to a different state. That does not, as I am often reminded, mean that what I do and what happens in Mississippi does not affect me or vice versa.
To me, Oxford is primarily the town outside of the University bubble. When I think of Oxford I picture the community of people that have been here since before I was born. I think Oxford is a tight-knit community that has been permeated by the university on almost every level, and as a student those are the parts that I am most familiar with. Primary and secondary schools here in Oxford are some of the best in the state and, from the outside looking in, I would say that is a direct result of the Oxford residents attracted by the University. On the other hand, this is Mississippi and there is poverty and other challenges here too.
The challenges of the area are not removed from the context of area history or regional commonality. Poverty, hunger, drugs, low socioeconomic mobility, both in terms of class and geography, are only a few of the problems faced by people in Oxford. I think that is why it is so important to capture the invisible Oxford, because the outside perception, at least for me, was of a thriving university community with wealthy benefactors. There is a lot of truth to that perception; however, it does not cover the Mississippians themselves as a whole. There is no one way to categorize an area that deals with racism, has such a wide variety of diversity, and contains individuals of all backgrounds growing and succeeding in so many different ways.
The challenges that I have personally faced and witnessed in Oxford have mainly occurred from within the University, but so have the biggest benefits. The biggest benefit overall, for me, has been the range of experiences and people that I have been able to interact with at the University. College in general is where I believe many people have the benefit of experiencing diversity on a personal level and that is the biggest benefit of Oxford to me.
More specifically, on Oxford as a place and space that I have occupied, I think that Oxford is both challenged and benefited by the small town size and the opportunities made available due to that size. For example, there is not a Target or a Michael's within forty-five miles of Oxford (which took some getting used to when I first became a student in 2013). The benefit of the town size has allowed many small businesses to flourish and, while your budget is going to have to grow a little, the comfort of having something unique is also worth experiencing. Networking and relationships within the community and at the University are another double-sided benefit. The community of Oxford both outside of and within the University are so connected it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. The amount of change, time, or challenges experienced in places like Oxford is directly correlated to the number of relationships fostered and nurtured. The ways in which that plays out in real life can be brutally harsh or wonderfully successful, and because of the connections within the area references are never far out of reach."
- Martha Grace
"Oxford is home. Oxford is where I created myself. Oxford has made me who I am.
Fresh out of high school at 18 when I thought I knew who I was and all I wanted in life, I moved 900 miles away from my roots in small-town Mechanicsville, Virginia. Boy, I was wrong; but, I invested in Oxford and Oxford invested in me. I’ve never regretted coming here, but it’s different than anything I could have expected.
I’ve only been in Oxford for three years and I’ve seen the challenges the town, and even the state, battle every day. I’ve heard people joke about “Well, Mississippi’s always the best at being last.” The state ranks poorly across the board: education, healthy living, economics, you name it. Oxford and Mississippi make national headlines regularly for “never moving on from a battle that was lost,” a reference to the Civil War, and sometimes it does feel like that. Equality in race, ethnicity, or gender is not even close to being achieved.
Most recently, I’ve seen the economic struggle. I’ve been to town meetings and read newspaper clippings on how people’s houses are being ripped from under them because of the lack of affordable housing… the lack of affordable living in general, really.
At the same time, I’ve heard and read so many success stories of people moving here to begin new businesses or how we’re a thriving place for artists of all sorts. There is no denying Oxford’s got a charm.
This town will always be home, but it’s not the same Oxford it was when I arrived in 2014 and it won’t be the same Oxford it is now when I depart in 2018. This town is an ever-changing place and that can be a scary thing if we let it be, but it can also be the best thing to ever happen.
The future is bright, though. There’s no way it isn’t. Locals who have been here all of their lives and people from across the nation alike are invested in making Oxford better. Locals may think very differently than students, who are only here four (or maybe five, six years…), about what should be done or how things should be handled, but both groups genuinely care. I hope to see the day when the locals and students make it a goal to work together and make Oxford the best possible place it can be for everyone. I do think that day will come.
It took a long time to write the history that came before us and it will take a long time to write the history that is happening now, but nonetheless it is being written and I hope Oxford falls on a side it’s proud of."
Personal Reflections and Experiences in the South
By Katherine Aberle
The most striking feature of the South is its contradictions. Our most celebrated alum, William Faulkner, once (allegedly) said, “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Although I had never heard that quotation before moving to the South, it largely sums up the major reason why I chose Ole Miss and why I chose to be a Southern Studies major. I often tell people that what I have learned most over the course of my ongoing undergraduate education has been the remarkable complexities of the human race. I am a mixed-race progressive from the Northeast who, at the age of nineteen, decided to move to “infamous” Mississippi at an institution that I felt I could be passionate about in the hopes of acquiring a better understanding of the world. Mississippi was regarded as “infamous” among my northern friends, but I was fascinated with the South before I stepped foot in it and I wanted to experience it for myself. My beliefs and knowledge of the South have shifted and evolved greatly over the four years I have spent in Oxford, particularly those involving racial relations in the South and how they may or may not compare with racial relations in the country as a whole.
My first introduction to the South was in my New Hampshire elementary school, when we were taught about the bravery of such individuals as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Without the words being said, there seemed to be a clear though silent understanding in the classroom that our region, “the North,” held the moral high ground historically. It was our region that offered freedom to Southern slaves as the final destination on the Underground Railroad. It was unspoken, but insinuated that while black Southerners were forced to boycott buses and march for civil rights, the North was already a “post-racial society.” There was no “Jim Crow” up North. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the history of the South is the history of the United States in an exaggerated form.
To many outsiders, the American South is one of the dark places of the earth. Preserving and expanding slavery, seceding in order to protect the institution of slavery, causing and ultimately losing the bloodiest war in US history, and then celebrating the decision to do all of the above, are all unsettling aspects of Southern history and are a source of anger for many living both inside and outside the borders of Dixie. To many insiders, though, the South is not a place of darkness, but lightness and warmth. The region’s “otherness” continues to be embraced generations after Southern secession and the end of slavery in America. Those that fought for a separate Southern nation were declared revolutionaries, not losers. We are the Ole Miss Rebels, after all. To many outsiders, the fact that the Deep South is statistically the fattest, poorest, dumbest, blackest, and hottest region of the United States is reason enough to ostracize the region and never set foot inside its boundaries. Insiders claim this is the friendliest part of the country, with Mississippi claiming as its nickname, “the hospitality state.” Northerners, many Southerners will discreetly claim, are cold and unpleasant.
I am an outsider that loves the South. I love Oxford, Mississippi. I love the University of Mississippi, which lies in the heart of Oxford, and because I love Oxford, I too love Mississippi. I love the place that is responsible for producing talents like Robert Johnson and B.B. King, whose blues inspired every great rock and roll group in history. Some of the most brilliant minds in history have belonged to Southerners, including Thomas Jefferson and William Faulkner. The Greco-Roman-Revival architecture found in Antebellum homes and on buildings on college campuses throughout the South are some of the nicest architecture in the country, and reflects the refinement and gentility the South is so often proud of. Poverty, however, also plagues the region. Admittedly, the vast majority of my time in the South has been spent in Oxford, which has largely shielded me from so much of Southern culture. However, going just a few steps beyond the Square and beyond the Ole Miss campus, Oxford itself is not without the severe poverty that affects the rest of the state. That poverty is disproportionately borne by Oxford’s black population. The poverty is here; it is just better hidden in our town.
The contradictions abound in many other ways as well. We celebrate the courage of Mississippi heroes like James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and Ida Wells. The irony, of course, is that such courage was only necessary because of the viciousness of racism in the South. My friends from home would ask me, “how’s Mississippi? How’s the racism?” I would always reply that I hadn’t seen or heard anything really racist. My freshman year at the University of Mississippi, however, I was confronted with my first major racial incident almost as soon as the semester began when some of my peers decided to put a noose and an old Georgia Confederate flag on the James Meredith statue in the middle of the night. James Meredith was the first black man to integrate the university in 1962, and the statue is meant to commemorate his struggle, his determination and bravery, and how far the university has come since its days of fanatical segregation and racial discrimination. The decision to put a noose around his neck and hang a confederate flag on his image was clearly meant to intimidate the black population in this town. It is an act of white supremacy. Prior to that incident, much of the rhetoric on campus proclaimed that this was a progressive institution, and that we were pretty much beyond racism, that part of our past was past.
In reality, I have heard plenty of racist rhetoric from other Ole Miss students and other Southerners in my years here. I have seen a white sorority girl scream “Nigger!” at a black man who allegedly touched her on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I have heard multiple students describe the difference between “Niggers” and other black people, while asserting that they themselves were not, in fact, racist. I have heard many women express their fears of seeing a white girl with a black male in public when integrated groups were in public. I have heard many other racist remarks about “Mexicans” and Indians. I have read thousands of racially insensitive posts on the anonymous social media outlet Yik Yak, a discourse which is as offensive and demoralizing as anything could possibly be.
But these are not specifically Southern in character. Is the South more racist than any other region of the country? I still don’t know. Yik Yak posts are racist all over the country. Black students are targeted pretty much every year in my town of Exeter, New Hampshire, oftentimes by young, white males yelling racial epithets from their moving vehicles (a typical occurrence in the South). I have never thought this country as a whole had moved past its racist history into a post-racial society as so many wanted us to believe after the election of our first black president and prior to the rise of Trump and his numerous supporters. After our last election, I think most would agree we are hardly a post-racial society.
My own racial identity has been tested while living in the black and white South. I am half-Nicaraguan, half-white. I have black hair and tan skin and as a result I am often asked if I am Mexican (if they don’t just assume that I am). I consider myself Latina, but not comfortably. Am I white? Some of my friends have been quick to tell me that I am. They have told me I look white, so I’m white and because I look white, I embody white privilege. But more often than not, I am asked “what are you?” or “where are you from? You have such a beautiful skin tone.” I believe I do benefit, in many ways, from light-skinned privilege, although maybe not as much as an even fairer-skinned, blonde individual might. However, I am proud of my Nicaraguan heritage and choose to identify as such. It is not out of the ordinary to be the only apparent Latino in a given class or in any given room. The typical Latino experience in Mississippi does not resemble my own.
The fact that I am not truly a Southerner, however–despite being a Southern Studies major at arguably the most Southern university in the nation–is a fact that shapes my education at this Southern school, as well as my perceptions of the South and my overall experience living in the South. Even my inclination to fight and protest against injustice has been consciously impaired because of my status as an outsider. I oftentimes feel that my opinions, as someone who is not a born and bred Southerner, are easily dismissed because of that status as an “outsider” and worse, a northerner. Even the largest student movement we’ve had on campus in my years here, the decision to fight to take down the state flag which has the Confederate emblem, is an inherently Southern one. So many times, I heard those who wanted to protect the Confederate symbol ask, “Are the people that call the flag racist or want it down EVEN FROM MISSISSIPPI?” The hospitality state does not like feeling threatened. You are not, in fact, welcome to have an opinion about the South if you are not a true Southerner, according to some whom I have met. While I am someone who does not deny the racism behind the symbol and agrees that the flag should be in a museum, and not flying on the grounds of our public institutions nor should it be our official state flag, I do not believe we can erase history, and I understand the power of that history.
Does the Confederate symbol oppress black students here? Does having a class in a building named after a white supremacist somehow affect the value of the education of the student taking that class? I don’t know. As someone who identifies as neither white nor black, I honestly have no strong convictions about changing the names of buildings or streets or mascots. The “Old South” is everywhere on this campus. I love the nickname “Ole Miss” and I love being an “Ole Miss Rebel.”
I love the South dearly, and I believe I always will, but the more time I spend here, the more I sympathize with Southerners who felt so compelled to leave and never come back. I understand the ambiguities inherent in loving the region without wanting to embrace the darker elements of its past. I also know how that past also inspired the region’s finest qualities as well. The tragedy of the South is that so much of what we love is embedded in what we abhor. Jefferson’s genius was unlikely without his wealth in slaves. The stunning lyricism of blues would not have been possible without the tragic suffering of those who developed the art form. The beauty of so much Southern culture, its elegance and beauty, its soulfulness and richness, was born and borne on the backs of slaves and poor whites who were constantly exploited and humiliated. Now at the end of my senior year as a Southern studies student, my relationship with the South has in fact become more complex, more enriched, more strained, more fragile.