I come from a long line of North Carolinians, and I’ve lived most of my life below the Mason-Dixon line. I’d rather sweat through a thousand summers than endure one week of winter. Even so, I’ve long been guilty of downplaying my Southern roots. My voice carries little trace of a Southern accent. I’ve always called a cola a “soda.” “Y’all” wasn’t in my working vocabulary.
Oxford, Mississippi drew me deeper South—and deeper into the comforts and complexities of Southern identity. I’ve since embraced “y’all” because to avoid that contraction creates a conversational distance I find uncomfortable and counterproductive. I’ve soaked up hill country blues and submerged myself in local literature. I’ve spent a little time exploring Southern foodways.
But like many who move here, I’ve held Mississippi at arm’s length, even while I’ve consumed its culture with gusto. I’ve engaged in this place tepidly, knowing I could leave whenever I wanted. I never bought the cow because I could get the milk for free.
Last month, that changed. The day Gov. Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 was the day I bought into Mississippi.
Before I could proclaim “No Hate in My State,” I had to own my state. My state is no longer North Carolina, where my parents are from, and where residents suffer parallel pain in the wake of HB 2. It isn’t Georgia, where my children were born, and where threats of corporate backlash pressured Gov. Nathan Deal to veto HB 757.
My state is Mississippi. My stance on HB 1523—as well as my notions about civil rights and gay marriage and public education and social justice—has been informed entirely by Southerners, and especially by Mississippians, many of whom I met through my connection to the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The Southern Foodways Alliance was born in Mississippi. It is our home, the place from which we draw strength and inspiration, the place to which we invite 500 members of the Cornbread Nation each October for our annual symposium.
In light of HB 1523, some thoughtful SFA members have recommended that we move the fall 2016 Symposium to another state. Others have suggested that, rather than stage our annual event here, we cancel the 2016 Symposium. We respect those suggestions and honor those voices. But we are hanging tough. Come October 13, SFA will fly the rainbow flag and welcome all to Oxford and the University of Mississippi.
In a lovely New Yorker piece this weekend, Ralph Eubanks summed up a mentality that plagues Mississippi politics:
“Rather than facing problems, most Mississippians who want to change things give up trying, or learn to sidestep the issue. “
In this environment of resignation, progress stagnates.
If we relocated or cancelled our annual symposium, we would be complicit in that stagnation. We would be telling ourselves and others that we don’t believe Mississippi can reach its welcome table potential. We would telegraph to those affected by such discriminatory legislation that we won’t stay and fight alongside them. That’s a message we’re not willing to send.
SFA World Headquarters is proudly and deeply rooted here. Our annual fall symposium is staying here. And we urge other progressive-minded Mississippians to stay here, too. Mississippi needs you.