Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty, Who the Hell are We?

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Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty, Who the Hell are We?On highway 6 there is a billboard just outside of Oxford that you can see coming east: the Mississippi state flag as background, the words “You take our taxes, you fly our flag” emblazoned from left to right, top to bottom. The founder of the “fly our flag movement” believes that the University of Mississippi was wrong when it took down the state flag from our campus. The flag was removed because of the Confederate battle emblem that still exists in the top left corner of the flag.

The second billboard, a few miles down the road, is of a well-dressed white woman walking toward Oxford. The backdrop is a soft baby blue. She has on heels, a purse over her shoulder, the word “Cicada” underneath her in black sans serif. She seems rich. Her back is turned to the traffic.

*

It is a game weekend and all around the square students and folks from out of town randomly burst into the school’s chant. From somewhere, anywhere really, a voice will scream “Are you ready?” to which everyone in earshot will reply “Hell yeah! Damn right!” There is a ripple effect that occurs, which is honestly somewhat amazing to witness. More voices join in and finish in a wild chorus: “Hotty toddy, gosh almighty. Who the hell are we? Flim flam, bim bam, Ole Miss by damn!”

Voices echo around the square as bodies and cars move slowly around the courthouse and its statue. The question strikes me as profoundly important, their answer, not so much.

 

(from: William Faulkner and the Tangible Past. Thomas C. Hines, U of California P., 1997, p. 17)

Public slave auctions were held at the Oxford courthouse before it was burned down by Union soldiers on August 22, 1864. The sheriff acted as auctioneer for the sales. The courthouse has since been rebuilt and is now joined by an obelisk of a Confederate soldier (left). His gun clasped between his hands, he stands alert looking not to the enemy in the north but to the south, toward the state capital as if awaiting orders. The Confederate flag is on the southernmost face of the pillar. An inscription translated from Simonides reads “Go, stranger, and to Sparta tell, that here, obeying her commands, we fell.” Originally inscribed to commemorate the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae, in 480 BC, the modern setting of the inscription not only recognizes the “ancient example of civilization” mythos to chattel slavery (often used as an excuse for its continuance), but also to the “Lost Cause” narrative that was to follow Confederate defeat. You can still hear people—eating plate lunches at the gas station, shopping for toilet paper at Wal-Mart- talk of the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Because of a conflict within the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, Oxford Mississippi has two of these statues. The statue on the right was erected on UM’s campus and strangely faces east, toward the other statue (most if not all of these statues face south). This statue was meant to specifically commemorate the “Rebel Grey’s” student soldiers of Company A of the 11th Mississippi. Of the 139 students enrolled at UM, 135 went to war and either died or were wounded during Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg.

*

The windows are open to the house. I can hear the cars on the highway and the insects in my backyard and, occasionally, a dog somewhere on my street. It’s nice living like this, with the windows open and the house to myself. I look through my books, hoping that something good will happen if I think hard enough about the words inside, if I just give it a moment to sink in. There are two books involving my mother’s family line propped up on the shelves, The Red Clay Hills of Neshoba County and The Bear Went Over the Mountain. I touch their spines with the tips of my fingers and nothing special happens.

Somewhere there is a party on a Thursday night. I can hear the shrill voices of drunk students like a beam of light from outside. They seem so sure of their place in the world, so sure of everything. I imagine their bodies for a moment, their lives, the ways their flesh cuts lines in the world that gape open long after they are gone.

*

My students have just finished The Saga of the Volsungs in which Volsungs are killed by a she-wolf who might be their grandmother-in-law. They dress like wolves, kill a dragon, exchange bodies with a man who is about to marry the other’s wife, etc.

One day, a female student from the Delta—a journalism major—asks why everyone is so violent in these stories. I tell her that these are the stories white men tell, the violent ones where everyone dies, almost dies, or may want to die. The ones where all the women are ignored. She is young, like all my students at UM. We talk for a moment about feminism, the strength of humanity always from women. She leads the way; I stop teaching and listen, her soft words like a hundred knives outlining the edges of my body.

We start The Ramayana next Monday.

*

Today, I am fishing for the first time in months. The lake is the same, but there is no one else here, either because of football or the season; I’m not smart enough to know. A blue heron stalks across the outer bank on the north-west side of the lake. The bird moves with such meditative precision that sometimes I catch myself holding my breath, already light-headed.

My movements are clumsy, a little too quickly made, too angular. But I look across the surface of the water and wait for something good just like the heron does. I tie and re-tie different lures and think in little un-philosophical bursts about water and the human body and I don’t catch a thing. When I text my partner’s ex-husband that we should grab a beer sometime soon, he doesn’t respond. We’ve been doing this for a year now, back and forth, unwilling or unable to continue our complicated lives. The day moves along for all of us pretty much in the same way, with the same light and the same noises and the same space. The birds and fish and the two of us somewhat lost—skins tramping through the leaves.

 

(Lists of Confederates Captured at Vicksburg, Mississippi, July 4, 1863; National Archives Microfilm Publication M2072, 1 roll; War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109; National Archives, Washington, DC)

Darling Barber Yates, my great-great-great-grandfather, was a Confederate POW in Vicksburg, MS, along with his two eldest sons (of nine children): Thomas Eli and William Lafayette. The figure above shows the names of the sons, #227 and #226, respectively, in a Union ledger. George Washington Yates, my great-great-grandfather, was Darling’s youngest son. He was two when the war started. Both great-great-uncles agreed to the following oath[1]: “I will not take up arms again against the United States, nor serve in any military, police, or constabulary force in any Fort, Garrison or field work, held by Confederate States of America, against the United States of America, nor as guard of prisons, depots or stores, nor discharge any duties usually performed by Officers or soldiers against the United States of America, until duly exchanged by the proper authorities.” This is written proof that they betrayed the Confederacy for their freedom.

 

(“Neshoba County Fair Guards’” from a family photo album)

Pictured here are the “Neshoba County Fair Guards” in 1890. Top left to right: James Oliver Yates, 36; Andrew Jackson Yates, 32 (both great-great-uncles). Bottom left: an unknown man; George Washington Yates, 30 (previously mentioned). Revolvers and clubs. George Washington Yates and M.E. King begat Claud and Earl Yates. Claud Yates married “Deedah” Audie Mae Harrison, and they begat Frank, Kenneth, and Cecil Yates. Frank Yates, M.D., married “Sissy” Catherine Simmons who begat my uncle, my aunts, and my mother.

My great-great-grandfather on my father’s side came from Prussia in 1866. He renounced kith, kin (save one brother), and king for Grafton, Jersey County, Illinois. Somewhere along the line they changed the last name from Freyman to Freiman. My father can never remember any of the important dates, just so long as they weren’t in Mississippi during the years of slavery. The Freimans eventually came down the Mississippi River, either working on the levies or making boats. It appears that, occasionally, someone opened up a store.

None of my siblings live here, although both Freiman and Yates generally do.

*

We called my partner’s office “the womb” because it was painted in wild strokes of pink and orange. She burned incense and candles, brewed tea by the window. When we were lucky the building was filled with her singing. She moved her furniture in over the weekend. I watched from down the hall, not wanting to interrupt. Her poems, at that point, were about old houses on farmland up north, about familial strength through feminine bonds, and how her body moved with the natural world. Ferns and fireflies and moths, everything getting jumbled together. Some about an ex-husband, whispered beautiful pieces of pain and love. Some about her daughters that coalesced at the end like sudden sandbars in a river. My poems where folded bits of paper about gardens and the world which were impossible to understand. I was afraid of being truthful in my work and so I hid the truth under artifice, the origami of the page, convoluted syntax, a riddle, or something like it.

*

I abruptly left workshop one day after a conversation with the professor about the nature of art. He believed that art was definable and always re-creatable; I disagreed. To me, art is amorphous; you know it when you see it. I believed, then at least, that it must be and feel new. It was a juvenile argument, to be honest. But I quietly packed up my bag and walked out while he was still talking.

My partner wrote me a letter afterwards telling me how one of my first poems made a long overdue period finally begin to flow from the center of her body. I read the note in a friend’s car completely shocked. I asked them what they thought it meant. “You’re in love,” they joked.

*

In 1859, a young woman named Jane was raped on UM’s campus by two white students[2]. No one talks about this. At the time, Jane was enslaved to chancellor Frederick A. Barnard. The brutal crime took place in faculty housing. Frederick A. Barnard tried to expel the students, J. P. Furniss and Samuel B. Humphreys, for brutally beating and raping Jane, but no one recognized the testimony of anyone other than a white, Christian, land-owning male as trustworthy. The crime never went to trial and, as far as I can tell, the two men continued their education at UM.

Barnard then became the target of a smear campaign as a northerner and as a sympathizer to the slaves, even though he adamantly refused the claim that he was “‘unsound’ on slavery.” He eventually resigned and moved away. I can find no more information on Jane, but we can imagine that it got worse, at least until the war ended six years later, if she survived. A picture of Barnard, taken in 1961 (two years after the rape was committed in his house) shows him in a suit and vest, with a large flouncy bow tie. His top lip shaved, a bushy beard on his chin and cheeks. Long hair, parted to his right side.

There is more violence, torture, rape, that I can’t see. A volcano underneath the country, this county, this town, and this campus. The effigies burned or strung up, the nooses made. The slurs, the mascots, the flags. The land. I try my best to figure out how to tell my students, how to convey that under our feet is a plantation, corn or cotton or tobacco. Anything that would grow. Anything that could be sold. There is no nice way to tell anyone this. Instead, I just blurt the news out as soon as I walk into the room: “This is a plantation.” No one knows what to say. My students sit there awkwardly. The white students go red, the black students stare at the table.

Instead of opening up a dialogue we move on to the Aeneid.

*

My father tells me this story about integration: “When James Meredith tried to get into Oxford, all of us at Mississippi State were young and stupid and didn’t know any better, so we all got in the car and drove up there. Everyone’s gathering on University heading to the circle by the Lyceum. The Guard is all over that area. When we got there it was already packed with people. Just all types of men moving around. People throwing bricks and yelling. As we walked up to The Grove a man in overalls steps out of the crowd, an older man, probably in his late 40’s—I mean we are just 17 here, Freshmen. Just boys. So, he yells, ‘Ya’ll boys better go home,’ and shoots a shotgun into the sky toward the Guard.” Then, he says, they “just ran and got back in [the car].”

There are hundreds of photos, articles, and books about the riot. I pause at every picture, looking for my father, expecting his face to jump out from the crowd. So far, I haven’t found him, or at least I can’t recognize him.

 

(ca. 1962, Oxford, Mississippi, USA — Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS)

This is the eastern side of the Lyceum. My father isn’t in this picture either. He says it was all broadcast live and they could hear screaming and guns going off. I haven’t been able to find any of these radio broadcasts. I’ve eaten lunch on these steps before. Drank coffee. Waited for cars or class.

Just last year, the school’s NAACP led a protest to take down the Mississippi state flag. Just fifty or so feet from these steps. The Associated Student Body voted in favor of a bill for removal. The Faculty Senate agreed. Then Interim Chancellor, Morris Stocks, took the flag down.

Some days I dress like the guy in the sunglasses, just left of center, but I have a beard. “Colonel Reb” (our previous mascot, a plantation owner) can be seen in the bottom right-hand corner on a young man’s polo shirt. If you look at the 1962 UM yearbook, they talk about this moment as if the school was under siege by foreign invaders.

They didn’t even print Meredith’s picture.

*

I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I.

Between 1882 and 1968, five hundred and thirty-nine black citizens were lynched in the state of Mississippi[3]. To better conceptualize this tragedy, above are five hundred and thirty-nine black letter “I’s” to represent the persons, families, histories, loves, lives devastated by this violence. There is a good chance that you have seen the pictures of whites celebrating such scenes of state sanctioned brutality, the picnics, the Sunday clothes; you’ve seen the whites smiling. Over the eighty-six-year period, it comes out to roughly six lynchings per year. It is more than statistically probable that someone in my family tree, Yates or Freiman, has gone to a lynching or has known someone who has. This is not part of the family stories we tell ourselves when we all get together. We tell other stories, ones that don’t require so much condemnation or create so much shame. We talk about family farms that have been sold, or of horses our grandparents used to own, of saddles lent out to the wrong people, of hunting trips.

We never talk about the problems of our lineage, the way ropes were measured, the way bloody rumors got around, the way pecan trees were avoided because of their weak branches, the way someone, a boy or a girl, a man or woman, had to pick the place where it happened.

Yes, right here. This is it.

*

When the sun weaves through the trunks and hits you full in the face it is welcome and warm and bright. On the high points driving to the lake you can see through the undergrowth and see the canopies of the trees beneath, some still changing color, shimmering through shadows and light, rustled by a wind I cannot feel. Across the lake, the blue heron continues her tyranny. A family of waterfowl swim from the far bank, too far away to make out, even with my glasses. They seem to have buff sides, white heads small like thumbs, beaks like the toe box of a pair of heels. I cast out a crawfish plastic. 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon. 60 in the sun, 50 in the shade. I drag the rushes of the small y-shaped peninsula: reel in, pop the tip, reel in, pop the tip, reel in. I catch two spotted bass, one after the other.

For the next few hours I stand with my toes in the rushes and listen. The wind stirs the water and branches. A few birds sing, geese call somewhere out of sight. A young girl, camping with her family, asks for another sandwich. A few minutes later she asks, louder than before, “Why did we come out here like dogs to be with all these bugs?” Farther away on the downstream side of the levy, someone lets off five or seven shots from a handgun. The bursts are quick, tightly grouped together. The echoes off the far hills start to overlap the new blasts. Probably just some young men shooting stumps or squirrels or bottles. Blowing off steam, having fun. The silence after the gunshots is so thick you can feel it.

I let the fish go.

 

(From the author’s family photo album)

This photo was taken in Memphis in 1988. I am in the background. T, the middle child, is in the foreground. Q, the youngest, is in the middle.  Our mother has probably said something surprising to us, that we are out of candy, or that trick-or-treating has been cancelled because of rain. It could have been a joke or maybe she said a word that we knew was off-limits. Maybe she promised cake later or McDonald’s or that class would be cancelled the next day.

This is decades before I knew the truth. When love wasn’t complicated by living, and blood was simply the punctuation we used to end a dispute between us boys.


[1] Blaisdell, Bob (Ed.). (2006). Famous Documents and Speeches of the Civil War (p. 123). Dover Publications.

[2] Enzweiler, Stephen (2010). Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (pp. 29-32). Mississippi: The History Press.

[3] Lynching statistics provided by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, complied by the Tuskegee Institute and retrieved from the following url: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/ projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingsstate.html

Photo of hook with Lyceum used under CC

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Andrew M. Freiman received his MFA in poetry from the University of Mississippi in 2015, where he is currently a Ph.D. candidate. His poetry and paintings have been published (or are upcoming in) Bayou magazine, Dreginald magazine, About Place journal, and Radar poetry journal.

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