I wrote this after a week-long visit to Oxford, Mississippi, in 2016.
Oxford is a pretty, unpretentious Southern town with a graceful shape, though with some misfit later additions to the cityscape. The square surrounds the 1872 courthouse, with shops and restaurants all around. Though the university is just down the road, within easy walk of the square, the foot traffic in town doesn’t match Fredericksburg’s, at least on this night. Maybe the students and locals don’t come downtown. I suspect that’s evidence of an all-American set of strip malls somewhere nearby. Too bad for that.
Hanging from the banners around the square are images of Ole Miss athletes, welcoming us all. I was struck by the woman with a gun slung across her shoulders (apparently she is on the school’s shooting team). I suspect the town and university meant nothing by it, but it screams “bad-ass southern woman” and “don’t mess with us.” I wonder if any other town in America welcomes visitors with gun-toting college athletes.
The state flag, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag [note: no longer, of course, and the new state flag is quite nice], flies outside the courthouse, but was notably absent elsewhere (I didn’t see the state flag anywhere on the way down from Memphis.). The mandatory Confederate soldier atop a pedestal sits outside the courthouse, and William Faulkner sits on a bench not far away, looking no worse for the wear after his encounter with the bumper of my father-in-law’s Model A in 1957 at UVA in Charlottesville (yes, he hit Faulkner in a crosswalk, then remedied it by giving Faulkner a ride around town in the Model A). Just down the sidewalk from the oracle of Oxford is an authentic phone booth–maybe old enough that Faulkner used it, had he occasion to make a phone call from downtown Oxford (I doubt it). The phone booth even has a working phone in it. [I am since told that the phone booth is a gesture to Oxford’s namesake sister city in England.]
The town clearly has an uncomfortable relationship with its past–it is the site of one of the largest white-engineered riots of the Civil Rights era. The only interpretive sign I saw went to pains to point out that “since then the city has worked to build a more progressive community.” We would hope so.
At least two people in the group I am working with this week had previously declared they would never come to Mississippi. I don’t think anyone with a knowledge of history can come here for the first time without a sense of curiosity, if not unease. The past is not very past. One woman from Mississippi told me that in her town the public school is 99% African-American, while virtually every white child goes to private school. Such realities squash all prospects for outside investment or internal growth, but, she said, no one is willing to do what’s necessary to change things. And so, segregation and stagnancy prosper to a far greater degree than does her town.
Here in the mind’s eye of Faulkner was born his “every Southern boy”–the lad who wonders in perpetual suspense what might have been had Lee succeeded at Gettysburg and the Confederacy triumphed. While we can cheer Faulkner’s Southern Boy as a literary being, the reality of what followed over the next 150 years ought to have sapped the Boy of some of his hopeful historical enthusiasm. But tradition dies hard. I have met hundreds of “every Southern boys” over the years (some of them from the North) who wonder at, even lament, the defeat of the Confederacy. It likely will be a while yet before the Boys’ historical fantasies rest and Faulkner’s literary imaginings become a memory largely forgotten. But when the fantasies –the lament over the defeated Confederacy–of every Southern boy pass, maybe some of the harsh realities of Mississippi’s present will go too.