Monday, August 01, 2005

Melina at Republican Woodstock: the Neshoba County Fair

My daughter Melina and I were doing parallel play last night, sitting in two comfy chairs in the kitchen - one of them the weirdly shaggy neon-colored chair I bought yesterday to match the one she just stowed in her jalopy for her trip north this morning - working on our laptops. She wrote this blog entry but is too sleepy to post it at the time I consider correct for blog-posting (that is, an hour ago) so I sucked it off her laptop and am posting it for your delectation - Melinama

I am now back in my home town for a full 48 hours before heading to New York and my new, actual, Real Person job (I am due there on Wednesday afternoon!) But I thought it wouldn't be right if I didn't write something about my last true Mississippi experience.

The day before I left town, my boss took me and Drunken Intern B (who has become a very dear friend of mine over the past two months, but he still doesn't get a new nickname!) to the Neshoba County Fair. This event, which my boss describes as 'Republican Woodstock,' takes place out in the middle of nowhere (by now, this should not come as a shock to you), in the heart of Neshoba County, an hour and a half northeast of Jackson. As usual, you drive and drive and drive and there is nothing. Then, in the middle of this nowhere, there is a campground right by the side of the "highway".

As you pull up towards the campground, you see a colorfully decorated shanty-town, where probably 100 or 150 wood cabins are all lined up next together along dusty curving gravel streets and cul-de-sacs, like in railroad towns from 1880s photographs. Many of these cabins are extravantly decorated: they are painted leaf green, or festooned with banners ("Jim and Cathy: Celebrating their 30th anniversary"), American or Confederate flags, or university paraphernalia. Others have painted wooden placards out front indicating their family name ("The Smiths"). Sometimes they have so many family names out front that it borders on genealogy ("Smiths: Tom, Jackie, Sarah; inlaws the Muskers: Dick, Sally, Rachel; Johnsons: Elizabeth, Robert"). Some even have titles ("The Briar Patch"). You know, like Tara, except in the woods. This year, to make things extra exciting, they were having problems with the water supply. So aside from the normal rickety-ness of the cabins, there was also only running water for four hours a day (god knows what they did if they needed to pee) and even then the water wasn't safe to drink, everyone had to boil it.

Though primitive, these shanty houses all have porches and balconies, and 24 hours of the day, for the week of the fair, there are always people sitting on these porches eating and drinking. Sometimes only the owners of the cabins sit on their porches (fanning themselves with whatever is handy) and sometimes (say, lunchtime) there are fifty people wandering through the tiny house to get at the lemonade and chicken and dumplings being served in the back. For some reason, the mistresses of these houses and their friends and associates are delighted to spend hours a day serving and cooking vast quantities of food for people they barely know.

There is no greater purpose to all these people getting together in Neshoba county. There is no particular significance to the location. But it's very popular - even if you don't own a house, you can just come to the fair and they charge you 15 dollars and you can come in and walk around. People just go, eat, drink and visit -- you sit on your porch and eat, and then you go visit your neighbors and sit on their porch and eat their food, and you sort of rotate through, that way. This is literally what hundreds of people do for the week of the fair. The lucky owners of these houses are generally hospitable - if you have any connection at all to them - a friend of a friend, a shared alma mater - they will usually invite you in to eat and drink or even to sleep in their bunk beds on the rickety second floor. (Although a member of my office warned, "If you stay over the last night of the fair, they will wake you up and throw you out the door in the morning - they're going to be *really* ready to go home!")

The shanty houses often sell for $200,000 - pretty remarkable considering they are only occupied a week and a half of the year (and also that many of them are barely managing to stay vertical!). Plus, there's a housing board, and if its members don't like you, they won't let you buy a fairground house even if you have the money. It doesn't seem to be okay to pitch a tent.

If this doesn't seem like quite enough to do, you will be happy to know that there are a couple other things to do in the woods there besides eat on porches. You can buy fried stuff and eat it while walking around. There are about fifty places where you can buy a Sno-Cone and at least one where you can get fried pickles, Oreos, and Twinkies. (There is another article in the New York Times this week about the resurgence of American cuisine and it mentions those Mississippi delights, fried pickles. But the article shows a picture of pickles fried whole, which is erroneous. Pickles must be cut up into slices before being breaded and fried.) There are also amusement park rides, so you can vomit up all of the fried food and make room for your next meal.

There are other traditional rural entertainments at the fair: judging of all kinds of livestock and produce, beauty-queen crowning, and drinking, I'm told, which only picks up in the evenings under cover of darkness (the cabin owners are too genteel to booze it up in the afternoons). There is a race track where they hold harness races that you can bet on, and mule races for both adults and the under 21-set. We did have the privilege of watching the junior heat of the mule races: six year old girls went careening around the track on mule-back at frightening speeds, whapping the shit out of their mules with little sticks. We couldn't decide which was weirder: that six year old girls were racing mules, or the fact that there was an adult division, wherein 40-year-old guys also raced mules. As far as I can tell, a mule is just like a horse except clumsier, bumpier, and slower. What's the appeal?

One VIP I met at the fair was the "Catfish Queen," a pretty but tense-looking high schooler in too much makeup and very tall green pumps, with a beauty-pageant-style "Catfish Queen" banner draped over her shoulder. Emboldened by all the southern hospitality, I walked right up to her and asked her what Catfish Queen was. She said the Catfish Council of Mississippi got together and held a pageant and chose her to be their representative for the year, so she had to learn a lot of facts about catfish and go to various meetings and events. And let people take her picture. I asked her if she could tell me some interesting catfish facts, but she kind of thought I was yanking her chain and so she didn't say very much. She had a little bit of a "what did I get myself into" face on, like she was maybe wondering how many county fairs she would have to go to this year and stand around in her uncomfortable green shoes. I tried to look her up just now, to see if I could get a better sense of how many events they were going to make her go to, or how much they had to pay her to get her to do it, but I couldn't find anything. I don't think she has a website.

My boss, Drunken Intern B and I also ran into two young women -- one black and a native Mississippian, one white and from New York -- who worked for the Racial Reconciliation Institute founded by former Mississippi governor Winter. The Institute's work often overlaps with these guys' work so we were happy to have stumbled across each other. (the New Yorker immediately noticed us and deduced who we were based on the way we walked -- she could somehow tell we were Yankees without hearing us speak a single word.) Both women were cute, charming, articulate, and self-possessed. They yakked with us for a long time about the work they were doing at the Institute (trying to get civil rights history on the curriculum in public schools, lobbying for public improvements in the Delta, etc). The Mississippian is entering Ole Miss law school in the fall. We asked her if she thought that was going to be difficult. She just smiled calmly and said, "there is a lot of work to do at Ole Miss." But she told us she tried to stay positive - and look at that as an opportunity. (Plus, since she's super smart, she really managed to rake in the minority scholarships and is going to law school practically free). She said her biggest problem was that so many of the white kids at Ole Miss have never really known anyone black, their whole lives. The greatest part of her work is to try to get people not to look at each other like they were foreign species or aliens.

The Neshoba County Fair's most famous role is as a venue for Mississippi political speakers. There are only 2.8 million people in the state, and a lot of the most important ones like to hang out at the Fair in their expensive hovels, so as a result, any Mississippi politician who is seriously stumping for office has to put on his shirtsleeves and take a turn sweating it out at the outdoor podium. It's traditional. Sometimes it's not just Mississippians who show up to pay their dues -- none other than Ronald Reagan kicked off his first presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair. This year was not an election year, so the schedulers tried to book current and former elected officials to speak. The turnout was great. There were about four former state governors who showed up, as well as the current one, which made for an astonishing sight. They put them in chronological order, so the first guy to speak was this old duffer who had been governor in the early 70s. Magnificently decked out in his seersucker suit, he strode up to the stage, gestured toward his 10 family members in the audience (so that they would stand up), toward the ceiling (for no discernable reason), and told a joke about the courtroom in an animated though barely comprehensible (to me) Mississippi burble.

Other governors were more thoughtful. Before any governors spoke, the state attorney general Jim Hood had spoken - briefly, but intensely. He was the one who made the decision to re-open the case of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, which had ended only a few weeks before in Neshoba County with the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, a native Neshoban. My boss was very apprehensive that he would not get any support from the audience when he spoke or that he might even be booed.

Well, he was not booed, but there was no standing ovation either. He got a little polite applause when he came up to the podium, but in the noisy outside auditorium, wood-hewn benches under a roof with fair-goers milling all around, you could hear a pin drop when he began to speak. And he didn't mince words. "Aren't you proud of Mississippi?" he started off. "Aren't you proud to be from Neshoba County and proud to know that Mississippi did the right thing?"

The audience seemed, I'd say, maybe a little bit proud. They did clap, a little bit. But many of them sat very, very quietly, thinking who knows what. Overt racism is not in fashion in Mississippi politics. You just get these little crypto-racist moments (famous Mississippian Trent Lott, for example, had one when he recently told a Republican audience that the country would be "a better place today" if they had elected Strom Thurmond of the segregationist party to be president in the 1940s) and also this weird overall attitude toward their history: as far as I can tell, the general mentality of white politicians and of many white Mississippians is that they work very hard to believe that there were never any Klan members and lynching-watchers and quiet racists among their parents and friends and family. They kind of like to think that Killen and the other men who murdered the civil rights workers were evil men from a little evil space ship, who made landfall in Neshoba county, did their evil deeds without any knowledge or support from the community, and were either brought to justice or quietly disappeared somewhere (perhaps to their evil home planet) where they are far too far away for the arm of justice to reach. And so, we should put the past behind us. And so, Mississippi and her fair native (non space-ship-based) citizens have nothing to be ashamed of. And so, everything is fine now and equal now. And so, it's not very nice of Attorney General Jim Hood to go on bringing it up, even if he is praising Mississippians for "doing what was right."

Essentially, they're fighting a battle to avoid historical context. Holocaust eduation is mandatory in Mississippi public schools. Civil rights history education is not.

Neshoba County is 20% black, and Mississippi is 36% black. But I only saw about two black families visiting the fair the entire day I was there, and one local said that she thought that *none* of the cabins were owned by black families. But it's not that they're not there --it's that they're not guests, not visitors. Black people maintain the fair grounds. They drive the horses in the harness races that fairgoers bet on.

Anyway, several of the more recent governors did offer their thoughts on the Killen trial. Governor Winter proclaimed that he was proud of Mississippi and of Jim Hood for doing the right thing. Governor Musgrove quoted almost the entire Gettysburg address, for reasons not entirely clear (thematically related? yes. Engaging to an audience? probably not.) Although he was very vague as to his own personal reaction to the trial, and although he did not really add any thoughts of his own to put Lincoln's thoughts in context, he gets points in my book for quoting the Union commander-in-chief in Neshoba county! Still another governor, enjoying what was perhaps a rare captive audience for him in his later years, made a blistering attack on the current governor's policies and failure to live up to his promises. He was so mean we thought maybe he was gearing up to run for office again. All the governors touched on the basic problem that, for decades, Mississippi tried to make itself the nations capital of uneducated labor. And now it's paying the price for that policy. Some politicians (like the current governor) take a business-centered approach to solving this, trying to lure in new companies with tax breaks and things. Others take an education-centered approach, calling for raises in teachers' salaries etc. Either way, they've got a ways to go. Mississippi currently ranks 46th in teacher salaries, and it's somewhere between 48th and 50th w/r/t median family income.

The current governor was the last to speak. He is this big red-faced guy who, rumor has it, is planning to run for president in 2008. He takes a lot of tobacco money and blah blah. He gestured to his wife in her salmon pantssuit and he wanted her to stand up, but she didn't really want to and she gave him a pretty cranky look. He gave a cheerful speech about his his successes (after a year and a half in office, he claims, job creation rates are at their highest since 1999) and declared Mississippi to be the safest state in the country for the unborn. He was also the only governor to not mention the trial at all. I guess he thinks it's over and done with, and that everyone should just be looking toward the future.

After all the speaking was over, Drunken Intern B, my boss, and I, were hanging out and chowing down in front of a most excellent shack owned by friends of the Institute (who share our political sympathies). The governor wandered by, shaking hands with the other former governors (several of whom were also happily eating in front of this house, sort of declaring their loyalties by where they put their forks). My boss introduced himself and dropped the name of the Institute, which the governor immediately recognized since one of his big right-wing donors was a guy who also had given a lot of money to the Institute. We chatted a little bit and got our picture taken with him - he shook our hands and smiled cheerfully for the camera, calling out, "Come on y'all. Smile and pretend like you voted for me!"

Drunken Intern B was fascinated. He is from Pittsburgh, which is liberal even by big city standards, and he had never seen this flavor of politics maybe ever in his life, let alone at such close range. He seemed astonished that someone he disagreed with so much would so cheerfully beam at him and put his arm around his shoulders for a photograph.


The very next day I drove back north. Spent the night with an acquaintance in Atlanta in a gated community. I hate gated communities. Feels like you're in jail. Feels depressingly modern and depressingly medieval at the same time. At least in medieval towns, during the daytime they kept the portcullis open! (Yale is like that and it feels okay to me). But when the entire "community" is locked all day long, when people go in with their cars and drive right up to their doors and go right inside - it made a sad contrast to the fair, where every door was open and every hostess was on her stoop delighted to chat with strangers.

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At 12:14 PM, Blogger AMBER REEVES said...


At 10:42 AM, Blogger SageSteph said...

What a surprise to find this randomly on the web! I appreciate this write-up on the Fair. Being from Mississippi, there is definitely a sense a pride that comes with tradition like the Neshoba County Fair. Glad you enjoyed your visit to beautiful and- most importantly- hospitable Mississippi!

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous Will Cooper said...

Wow, I'm quite surprised to come across such a random message about the Neshoba County fair. I was trolling the web for commentary about R. Reagan's kick-off of his 1980 presidential campaign at Neshoba Co. Fair. Never expected to find such a well written insider's commentary on the flavor of it.

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed --- well written and captures the flavor of Mississippi's Giant Houseparty extremely well. One glaring error, however. In your opening paragraphs you estimated the number of cabins to be "probably 100 to 150." The actual number of cabins is just a few short of 600!! The 2007 Neshoba County Fair ended yesterday. While your article was very well written -- I do wish you could have made your visit during an "on-political" year. There's nothing quite like it.


Lifetime Fairgoer

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have no idea of what on the edge of something bigger you were writing about. I could tell immediately you were not an insider or you would have found out why the cabins are decorated in such "outstanding ways". Also owning one of the cabins is more difficult than just passing the board's approval. There is another story in that itself. Would love to see you write another more insightful true story on this place.

At 2:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that your main purpose for writing this article was to stereotype the good people of Neshoba County and Mississippi as 'klan members.'
Did you attend the Choctaw Indian Fair in the previous weeks? If so, did you notice the absence of caucasions in attendance? Maybe it was,
"But it's not that they're not there --it's that they're not guests, not visitors."
During your visit you missed a wonderful opportunity to meet great people because you were to preoccupied with your goal of criticizing the Fair for being a racist organization. I, along with all of the other 'fair-goers' would appreciate it if you were to ask questions before you make such harsh assumptions.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Conscience Whig said...

Fascinating piece. The Neshoba Fair reminds me greatly of the Spanish ferias that take place every summer in towns big and small. A friend and I played the feria circuit one summer about 28 years ago. The Seville Fair is probably the biggest, and although it has elaborate tents instead of cabins, the basic theme sounds just the same.

At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say, to paint an entire community as racist because they didn't stand cheer for your boss seems a bit pretentious. I am from Neshoba County, grew up there and still have a lot of family there - and some of the comments you have made were very insulting. I am appalled to think you have the authority to label so many people when you only took an observation of maybe 200 people. I am not a racist, and I owe this to the face that I was raised with the understanding that we are all equal. And this isn't a recent generational revelation...this goes back very far for my family. Have some integrity and recant.

At 7:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was raised in Ms. also and I can tell you that racism, racist comments, and racial slurs were not used or tolerated in our home. The N word would have gotten me slapped just like the F word would have. Maybe, just maybe, the reason there weren't more black folks there is that they don't enjoy that type of fair. Does that make them racists? Rather than looking for snakes under every rock, I look for friends, and find them


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