I wish I was in the land of cotton; old times there are not forgotten;
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land.
It is fall 1958, in Tampa, Florida and the Plant High Panthers run out on to the field, their breath huffing visible under the stadium lights. They wear their startling new all-black uniforms; the metallic gold numbers and the gold helmets, adorned with leaping black panthers, shine and wink against the green grass. The players, slim-hipped and broad-shouldered, are self-assured and menacing. They look invincible. This morning they were teenage boys: pimply, moody, subject to the whims of parents and teachers, but tonight they are gods.
They burst through the paper banner held by their handmaidens, the attendant cheerleaders, and thunder toward the home side benches to the deafening roar of the crowd. The opposing players, from some small farming community no one has ever heard of, look pale and weedy; the light blue numbers on their dingy white uniforms are almost invisible. They slink onto the field and occupy the away benches. Only a handful of fans have made the long trip from Turkey Creek (can there really be such a place?) and their cheering, a thin, sound, all but inaudible in the packed stadium, is quickly swallowed up by the booming drums and blaring brass of the Panther band.
Turkey Creek’s cheerleaders are unimpressive too: heavy bodied and doughy-faced or pale and slightly wormy-looking. Even their uniforms are wrong: too bulky, like something from a previous decade, and their bobby socks are rolled in great wads around their ankles. (The Plant High cheerleaders have recently taken to wearing their white socks pulled high up their smooth calves and this has quickly become the only way for socks to be worn.) The visiting cheerleaders are looked over, summed up, and dismissed as of no consequence. For the rest of the evening they will be invisible to me and my friends, except at halftime when the Plant cheerleaders, all really cute girls with outgoing personalities, will hurry across the field carrying trays of Coca-Colas to their opposite numbers. The Plant cheerleaders will stand and make small talk with well-practiced Southern hospitality and fixed Miss America smiles, while the visiting cheerleaders grimly down the soft drinks. Finally the host cheerleaders will wish the hapless visitors good luck and run back across the field, exchanging snickering comments about the general tackiness of the girls they have just honored with their attention.
The bleachers are full, as usual, with students and families from the surrounding middle class suburb. Plant High is the second oldest high school in Tampa, the same one my parents and the parents of many of my classmates attended, but it has grown to an unwieldy size, almost two thousand students in three grades. In 1960, my graduating class will number over seven hundred and the following year a new high school will open, siphoning off the excess students. And soon other things will begin to change.
But on this October night I sit with a group of my friends, all girls. In front of me a senior girl languidly pulls her hair into a French twist, all the while talking to a boy on the bleacher below her. I am ravished with the senior’s ease and assurance and the graceful lift of her arms. I study the other people around me: some couples are sitting so close to each other that they might be Siamese twins; others, those whose status of “going steady” is marked by a class ring on a very long chain around the girl’s neck, seem more casual, hardly noticing or touching one another. Conventional wisdom says that these non-touching ones are the couples who are screwing.
On the track that surrounds the field the cheerleaders – these chosen ones who on game nights seem somehow more alive than ordinary mortals – swing into a clapping dance routine as the band belts out the theme song from “Peter Gunn.” The cheerleaders are totally in the moment now: untiring, fed by the driving beat. The spectators clap, bobbing their heads and moving their shoulders in time to the music which goes on and on and on. I am clapping and bobbing with everyone else. I am uninterested in football (it will be several years before I understand the significance of downs and even this knowledge will do little to increase my appreciation.) But, like most of my friends, I'm there because on Friday nights it is, so to speak, the only game in town.
The PA system crackles: And now ladies and gentlemen, please stand for our national anthem. The stadium lights dim and the spectators stand. The parents – veterans and survivors of World War II, they who will come to call themselves the ‘greatest generation’ – come to their feet eagerly, proud of their country and their flag.
We students stand up more slowly, somewhat grudgingly. Patriotism is not cool. It’s something we learned about in eighth grade Civics but it is not something many of us actually feel. The players all have their helmets off and stand, more or less at attention, facing the flagpole at the end of the field where spotlights capture the fluttering red and white stripes as the ROTC honor guard raises the flag. The cheerleaders too, are ranged in order, their right hands laid flat just above their left breasts, their faces solemn, eyes wide with conscious emotion. At last the flag reaches the apex of the pole, a fortuitous breeze catches and unfurls it, the anthem comes to an end, and the crowd cheers perfunctorily and sits down.
A moment passes and the rousing sounds of another anthem demand attention. There is no announcement, no call for respect, but as the bouncy strains of “Dixie” fill the night air, the students stand up unbidden. My friends and I look at one another, half-humorously oh well, here we go again, dragged to our feet by some in-dwelling rebel pride. We stand in the cool air of an October night in Florida, a conquered nation, defeated but not beaten.
The recent dispute about the Confederate Battle Flag brought this memory back and sent me in search of the above piece I wrote a few years back. When folks talk about Heritage Not Hatred, I wince, remembering standing up for "Dixie."
I grew up in the segregated South, the daughter of a native Alabama mother and a pioneer Florida father. In our family the Civil War was never a topic of conversation; racism was ingrained but polite. We, and virtually every family I knew, had an African-American 'maid' to whom we were always polite but of whose life outside our house we knew almost nothing. And when those maids went home, they rode in the back of the bus. Water fountains in department sores had WHITE ONLY signs on them; the train station had a COLORED waiting room. My own beloved grandmother kept a separate set of dishes and silverware for the use of her maid and yardman. Having grown up with this, I never questioned.
We were taught about the Civil War -- that it was about States Rights and Economic Freedom. Of course we knew about slavery and considered it a wrong -- but somehow never quite made the connection -- states' rights to hold slaves --economic freedom -- an economy based on slavery.
We were blind; we were ignorant; we had little knowledge of the sufferings of the African American population. We just thought it was cool to be 'rebels' -- part of a noble heritage.
I do know that by the time I went off to college in 1960, my eyes had been opened. I was in favor of integration. It happened quickly -- almost as soon as the Civil Rights movement began, it seemed obvious to me that great injustices had been and were being perpetrated.
I once was blind but now I saw. As quickly as that.
And in my mind, all that Gone With the Wind romanticism became tainted and vile, just as the Confederate Battle Flag went from being the gallant symbol of the defeated South to the flag of the Ku Klux Klan, the flag of the hateful people screaming at black children on their way to school.
It's heritage, all right -- but not one I'm proud of any more. I got over that when I was a teenager.