William Faulkner and the 1962 Ole Miss Football Team: "The Ghosts of Ole Miss"

During one of the class periods for my course on Ernest J. Gaines and his influences, I had my students watch the ESPN 30 for 30 film Ghosts of Ole Miss. (For Wright Thompson’s article on the film’s subject, go to ESPN.com.) I saw this documentary when it originally aired, and at the time, I knew that I had a couple of problems with it. However, the historical footage and commentary that the film provides outweighed my nagging thoughts. I have suggested that students, colleagues, and anyone see this film to get an idea of a time an historical event that had such a great impact on this nation: James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi in September 1962. I still think that anyone interested in the history of this event, the Civil Rights Movement, or the South, should view the documentary, but rather than recommending this film outright, I have to say that caveats are in order.

Maybe it was because I was finishing William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!the same day I showed Ghosts of Ole Miss, but I couldn’t help but feel some eerie pull between the 1936 book and the 2012 documentary. Faulkner’s novel ends with the memorable scene of Shreve (a Canadian) and Quentin (a Mississippian) in the cold, New England dorm room. Shreve’s comments that “in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere” immediately brought me to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett’s comments regarding Meredith’s integration in 1962. In what appears to be a televised address, he tells Mississippians, “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide.” Eerily, these lines echo Shreve who, while not saying genocide, believes that the miscegenation (integration) of the Sutpen line will eventually destroy the world as he and Quentin know it. Of course, all of this is complete nonsense, but it has a long history throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America.
For me, Wright Thompson’s search to find answers about his past parallels Quentin Compson’s in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. There is not a one-to-one correlation, but there are similarities. He wonders why, even after taking a class about Mississippi history in school, he did not know about some of the things surrounding Meredith’s integration. He basically says that the class did not cover those topics; instead, they only spoke about Native Americans in the state. After seeing the name of a deceased great uncle in a small notebook that a guard, protecting Meredith, carried, Thompson asks two questions that essentially drive the narrative of the film: What is the cost of knowing our past? and What is the cost of not? To me, the film centers on these questions, and it centers on these questions not in regards to James Meredith but in regards to the way that the white students on the Ole Miss football team that year dealt with everything that surrounded the campus in the fall of 1962.

The film does not center on Meredith; instead, it chronicles the football team’s undefeated 1962 season. The focus reminds me of films like The Blindside or A Time To Kill, films that tell the stories of how whites helped African Americans. Yvette at the Booker Wright Project has written about this recently. Meredith does appear, but not frequently. What appears are interviews with the football players, interviews that talk about the riots before Meredith’s first day of class and about their feelings about the situation. What comes through is that the players, like Quentin, struggle with what happens. Some of them mention that they did not realize the extent of segregation. Some of them comment that segregation should have never existed. However, watching the interviews, it becomes evident that they have not fully reconciled the past in regards to race relations in Mississippi or the South. For me, this is what evokes Faulkner, the ongoing struggle to come to terms with a place that offers so much but also caused so much damage to so many. Thompson speaks about this throughout, commenting on his Mississippi roots that run deep. Perhaps Quentin provides the best comment on this tension when he responds to Shreve’s question about why he hates the South so much. Quentin responds “quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I dont hate it,’ he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!‘” (378)

A couple of students picked up on these aspects of the film. If I had more time, in class and on the blog, I think a discussion of these topics would prove fruitful. Thinking about them in regards to progress, or the lack thereof, would be a great avenue to explore. Faulkner does not provide progress because everyone dies. In the documentary, do we see progress? Thompson does provide a section at the end of Ole Miss’s first female African American student body president, Kimberly Dandridge. Dandrige speaks about the hate she faced 50 years after Meredith, and after someone hung a noose on Meredith’s statute, she talked about her experiences at Ole Miss in a piece in the Washington Post.

What do you think? How would you approach these types of discussions in your own classrooms? What other texts (films) would you use? Please let me know in the comments below.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Print.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and #boycottstarwarsvii

Last week, I, like millions of others, waited for the premiere of the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens during the Monday Night Football game between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles. For me, the trailer did not disappoint, and as I sat there with my son, a feeling of nostalgia crept over me as I thought back to the impact the original trilogy had on my own childhood. I watched the trailer then went to bed. The next morning, while browsing Facebook, I noticed that one of the top trending stories involved the trailer, and an apparent backlash. Staring at me from the screen, I saw a story about #boycottstarwarsvii. Essentially, the hashtag calls for individuals to boycott the new film because British actor John Boyega, of Nigerian descent, plays a prominent role in the narrative. 

When I saw this, I could not help but wince and the absurdity and think about James Baldwin’s discussion about going to the movie theater to watch a western and questioning why he identifies with the cowboys as they fight and oppress the Native Americans rather than identifying with the subjugated characters. Along with the above hashtag, another story made the rounds the day after the trailer debuted. This story plays along the same lines of the hashtag, but it ultimately takes it a step too far. A website reported that a 53 year old man in North Carolina committed suicide because of Boyega’s prominence in The Force Awakens. The man’s wife found a note next to her deceased husband; it read, “Make America white again.” Within the note, the man wrote, “If white people aren’t in Star Wars, then or money must not be either. I’m tired of seeing N***ERS taking over great white films. I cannot live in a world being overran by blacks.” 

At first, I thought the story was real, and I just couldn’t conceive of an individual killing his/herself over the prominence of a black actor in a film. Seeing the story in correlation with the above hashtag, I cringed at the very thought of a man killing himself and leaving such a racist note to his spouse and the rest of the world. A couple of days later, I discovered that the story was a hoax, satire if you will. This made me even more concerned because while it shocked me that a man could kill himself because of Boyega’s role, the underlying thoughts of his action did not necessarily surprise me; however, realizing that the story is actually a hoax made me think about the reasons why an individual would even think about writing this piece.
Nestled within humor lies truth, so seeing this article as humor or satire leads me to really question of the underlying factors that led the author to write such an article. I cannot speak for the author’s motivations, whether or not they were to pander to or counter the #boycottstarwarvii. I can say that the choice to do it in such a manner causes problems. Presenting a man who kills himself over the representation of characters in a film, based on their skin color, makes me think that more exists here. Right now, I cannot articulate that feeling, but I know that it’s something taint should be discussed in some manner. 

To conclude, I want to leave you with a clip from Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. In the clip, Hooper X, a gay African American comic book creator, comments on the “racist” elements apparent in Star Wars. Hooper takes on the persona of a black militant to help the sales of his comic, and while this is the case, he speech holds some truth. Hooper says, “Those movies are about how the white man keeps the brother man down” because at the end it turns out that a white man exists between the visage of Darth Vader. While watching this scene, I can only think of the semiotics of language and where we get our ideas for connotations in regards to words like “black” and “white.” I think about the student’s comments to the minister in Ernest J. Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray” and about Walker Vessels comments about language at the beginning of Amiri Baraka’s The Slave. Walker says, “Brown is not brown except when used as an intimate description of personal phenomological fields. As your brown is not my brown, et cetera, that is, we need, ahem, a meta-language. We need some thing not included here” (45). Walker mentions that language contains slippage, different meanings to different people. Thinking about Star Wars, as Hooper comments, a clear distinction exists between good (white) and evil (black) because the villains appear in black, sometimes grey, outfits. This typically occurs in the first two films. Luke Skywalker dresses in all black in Return of the Jedi

While the suicide story is clearly a hoax, some have purported that the hashtag is as well. Whether or the not the hashtag’s origin is legitimate or not, its mere existence should warrant a conversation on why someone would want to promote something of this nature. I know this post is semi-rambling, but I am trying to deal with these topics in regards to the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars and wondering how to possibly bring this discussion in to a classroom setting. Have any of you had classes where you have talked about the boycott Star Wars hashtag or the bogus news story? If so, let me know in the comments below. 

Jones, Leroi. Dutchman & The Slave. New York: Quill Books, 1964. 

Brother Ali and P.O.S. and the American Dream

The past couple of posts have touched on the American Dream, and after talking about Lecrae’s “Welcome to America,” I want to take the opportunity to share a couple of more songs with you that may be beneficial when discussing the topic with students in the classroom.

The first song is Brother Ali’s “Only Life I Know.” In the video above, Ali breaks down the song, stating, “It deals with the idea of poverty, specifically what it feels like to be trapped in poverty.” He goes on to mention “centers of poverty” such as trailer parks, projects, reservations, and other spaces. What really caught my attention, though, was when he comments on people falling into poverty. He says, “More and more people today are falling into poverty. People who used to be middle class, people who used to be called working class, now are living below the poverty line.” Here, Ali voices some of the ideas I have been pointing out over the past couple of posts, specifically that the American Dream does not necessarily mean unlimited money and fame. Instead, we should rethink the focus to the necessities of life. All of these are available here; however, the capitalistic society, which Ali mentions in the video above, creates a competitive atmosphere that does not always work as a a meritocracy, even though it should. Rather, it bases upward movement on other factors. This does not always occur, but it happens more often than some would like to admit.
With all of this in mind, I want to point out a couple of items from the song that I think are pertinent to this conversation. The first verse paints the picture of trailer parks, projects, and “raggedy apartment complex[es]” where single mothers wait on the steps for checks, boys stand around looking for respect, young girls look for love and settle for sex, people use tattoos as armor and protection, and ultimately people resort to drugs in order to survive. After painting these images, Ali moves to the “opportunities” available to those stuck in poverty. “How many routes can [oppressed] folks really choose?” Ali asks. According to Ali, three options exist: follow the rules but get stuck with a “shitty apartment” or a “sub-prime mortgage in a failing house market,” revert to selling drugs for fast money, or end up on welfare where no matter what a person does it will never be good enough to satisfy the system. Essentially, “You’ll never get caught up, you caught up in a cycle.” Ali says a lot more in this song, but for me, the list he provides at the end serves as a starting point for discussions regarding the accessibility, or lack thereof, of the American Dream to individuals.
The other song I have been thinking about lately is P.O.S.’s “The Basics (Alright).” Talking about the song in a video from 2009, P.O.S. states that “The Basics (Alright)” deals with shedding the excess, stripping down the material, consumerist “bullshit,” and focusing on the necessities. In many ways, this is partly what Kamp gets at with his discussions of television shows in the Vanity Fair article. There, Kamp references countless shows from the 1950s through the 2000s to show the changing shape of the American Dream. When talking about this piece in class, I made it a point to show how the incorporation of these shows is important to the argument because Kamp highlights how media influences our perceptions of the American Dream. The hook in the P.O.S. song sums up the false images that the media produces for consumers.

We don’t want nothing from no one.
We don’t need nothing you’re selling.
We don’t see anything moving.
We don’t have the time.
We just need something to eat.
We just need someplace to sleep.
We need the basics baby and we are gonna be

The song only contains two quick verses that paint a more abstract picture than Brother Ali. P.O.S. raps that as a culture we are “sleepwalking” thinking it’s a hobby because “it’s just do damn easy.” We could question the false “realities” that we receive from media that tells us that everyone has the opportunity to fully succeed and accomplish the American Dream; however, that is not the case. Kamp’s article, Lecrae’s “Welcome to America,” and the two songs presented here are only a small sampling of the multitudinous texts that work to counter the argument that everyone has access to the mythological American Dream of fame and fortune. As I have said earlier, I would concede that Kamp’s recalibration is something to consider. The Dream should focus on “the basics.”

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below!