Searching for the Neshoba Metaphor

via Jackson Free Press

I didn’t know specifics about it before I went. Much of what I knew, I pieced together here and there from hearing conversations about it. The facts were all cut and dry. They pretty much went like this: “Racists are there. … It’s where the three civil rights works were buried under the dam. … Ronald Reagan launched his “southern strategy” there when he was running for president. … It has cabins. … The Choctaw reservation is not far away. … And even more racists are there.”

I never had much of a desire, even as I got older, to learn anything else about the Neshoba County Fair. I was content with my ignorance. Last Wednesday, when my co-worker Ward Schaefer topped off my gas tank on our way to the fair, we had two different plans. His was to report on speeches, and mine was to see if anyone reacted to us posing as a couple. Barack Obama is president, but it’s still the Neshoba County Fair.

The red mud squished beneath my thong sandals. I was happy I’d left my peep-toe stilettos at home, jealous of the Timerland boots he was wearing.

“They’re like actually cabins,” I heard myself say aloud. I knew there were going to be cabins, but I had no idea it was a neighborhood of cabins, lined up like row houses. People sat on their respective porches, looking on as Ward and I awkwardly consulted the map, trying to figure out how to get to the square. We left the suburbs of cabins and entered the main square.

Attorney General Jim Hood had just finished speaking, and music blared from speakers. It was break time. After we oriented ourselves, and Ward got in a brief conversation with Hood, we decided to settle in under the pavilion. Sitting on the last row, I snuggled up as closely to Ward as heat and humidity would allow.

“Let’s count the black people,” I said to my boyfriend-for-the-day. I’d already spotted one black man walk into a cabin while Ward talked to Hood. At least 30 minutes had passed, and he’d yet to come back out.

“Like an index. A BPX. A black people index,” he responded.

As he took out his notebook to start the tally, we spotted two black gentlemen pouring drinks for passersby. I looked right over my shoulder and spotted an older black woman, donning a black cotton muumuu with festive flowers sprouting up from the hem, handing a younger white gentleman a cold drink. Sweat glistened on her forehead.

“We should also count the Asians,” said Ward, the child of a Chinese mother and Irish-German father.

“So far, I’ve seen zero,” I assured him.

The man to our left kept eyeing us suspiciously. I saw him tap his friend and point in our direction. I feigned a sweet smile. He smiled a curious, “Are they ‘together’ or just together?” one.

The band closed out its joyous song about whiskey, beer and being southern, and introduced another.

“I know y’all know this one. It’s going to close us out,” the lead singer announced. I hoped for Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” until the lead singer said, “It’s a familiar hymn we sing up in north Mississippi,” and the band started playing “It Is Well.”

I love that hymn, but there was something unsettling about singing it at the Neshoba County Fair. The band reached the chorus, “It is well …” I told Ward he was supposed to echo. He did. I didn’t. All was not well with my soul. I spotted the sign behind the band, boasting that this year marked the 121st fair.

“There’ve been 121 of these?” I mumbled. I picked up my phone to do a quick Google search.

“There’s a black man with locs!” Ward pointed out excitedly. He was walking alongside a white guy. The two looked to be friends. I wondered if those two knew that six days after the FBI found civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner buried 15 feet below the ground’s surface in 1964 fewer than six miles north on Highway 21, the fair kicked off. I’d just learned that. Then I wondered if they cared.

As the crowd cleared out, I looked for a handheld fan that wasn’t endorsing a political candidate, and Ward made a call back to the office. I found church-style fans with “pur air” stamped on them. “Beautiful lies,” I thought.

Ward asked if we could go grab a bite to eat before coming back to the square to hear congressional candidate Alan Nunnelee’s 10-minute speech. We walked slowly, chatting, and a woman caught my eye.

“Y’all hungry?” she asked. “We have plenty of food.”

Ward and I looked at one another. I knew he’d want to go in. It was, after all, an offer for free food. I obliged him.

Up one, two, three, four shallow stairs, I could feel the woman’s eyes on my back. “You’re probably just being paranoid again,” I thought. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed I wasn’t; I caught her still looking.

The four people in the cabin’s kitchen introduced themselves quickly, as did we; then they ushered us to the island in the middle of the small room where food sat buffet style. We put food on our plates, and I sat mine down to get drinks.

“Do you want tea, lemonade or bottled water, sweetie?” I asked Ward. The little girl who sat on an adult’s hip couldn’t control her mouth, as it dropped open.

Ward chuckled. “Water is good.”

“Y’all can go out on the porch to eat or upstairs,” someone said.

We walked up the stairs and positioned ourselves on the modest balcony. A black woman dressed in an apron and hair net walked out of the back door of a cabin across the way, tossing a bucket of water out, as Ward ate from his plate and mine.

“There’s another black person,” he said.

“Yep,” I replied, letting the sip of water I took punctuate my one-word sentence.

A gentle breeze blew, and the American flag I was sitting behind reached back and hit me in the face. “Wow,” boyfriend-for-a-day said.

“I just got hit. In the face. With an American flag,” I said.

“Wow. That’s a metaphor for something,” Ward said, chuckling.

“Yeah; it’s a metaphor,” I agreed.

We threw away our plates, thanked our hosts and went back down to the plaza to hear Nunnelee speak.

“Together, we can write history. … But how will our grandchildren and their grandchildren know of the greatness of America?” Nunnelee asked during the opening few sentences of his speech. “Will posterity enjoy the blessings of liberty secured for us by our grandparents and their grandparents before them? … (W)ill the greatness of America be barely a chapter in their history books? A record of what once was? The answer to that question is in our hands,” he declared before going on with a Nancy Pelosi-obsessed diatribe.

The crowd hooted, hollered and agreed. I sat, finally figuring it out, as I looked over and spotted two more black people. I wasn’t uncomfortable chiefly because of my race. I was uncomfortable because I didn’t belong. The liberties Nunnelee preached about and the ones the American flag that licked my face in the breeze over lunch symbolizes weren’t always meant for me. The disparities in this country and “our” Mississippi are just as much about class and the natural-born, government-acknowledged right to stake claim and pursue happiness as they are about race. It just so happens the powers-that-be granted some posterity and their inalienable rights a few generations after everyone else.

A total of 20 blacks and zero Asians later, Ward and I left the fair, headed to the Choctaw reservation. The closer we got to the exit gate, the less oppressed I felt. Florence Mars writes in “Witness in Philadelphia” about the fair of 1964, after FBI agents found Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner buried:

“The fair almost seemed the same. There were the same speakings, bands, horseraces, community exhibits, dances, sings, and carnival activities; the same crowds milled near the pavilion … and there was the same talk about how good it was to be back. The unpleasant events of the summer were not discussed. … Still, there was an air of unspoken tension greatly heightened by the bizarre presence of the auxiliary police.”

The unspoken tension, for me, 46 years later, still clung to the air. Maybe there’s a metaphor for that, too.

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~ by MsInklination on August 4, 2010.

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