Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The South

At 13, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. With my catechism classmates, I knelt at the altar rail, head-bowed, and waited my turn. When the giant in white robes appeared, I steeled myself, knowing from previous experience that the Bishop was huge, with large hands and manly strength. He pressed his hand on my head in blessing -- pushing me into the cushion, the wood, the floor.
I felt the imprint of his Bishop's ring.

My mother loved Bishop Carpenter, had long loved him. I never knew exactly why; she died before I was old enough to ask. I wish I could ask her now.

I didn't realize until I was an adult that he was one of the religious signatories to the published response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." (Even though I was a young Birmingham teenager when it appeared in the Birmingham News, I don't remember even being aware of it then.) When I first read the names, among whom many were familiar, I was shocked, but I'm not sure why. I should have known. I didn't, and I was disappointed.

Today, after dropping off a book at the library, I wandered next door to the University Archives. There, I walked through an exhibit titled "Founded to Make Men: Explorations of Masculinity at the University of the South," organized by a your graduate  (class of 2015) and a history professor (of American studies and history). I hadn't planned to see the exhibit, but I am glad the weather pushed me inside, for there, I experienced another shock. This time a good one.

Panels placed Sewanee honestly (admirably in its honesty) within a complex history of its milieu: southern, white, privileged, male, paternalistic. For once, I felt a personal sense of connection because I have long lived and been witness to much of what I read about race, sport, manliness, and homosexuality. And there was, of course, the surprise of the Bishop, pictured with a Vice-Chancellor opposed to integration and later to admission of women. (I should have known.)

At home, looking out at the dying fire of sunset through my screen of trees in lines of fore-, middle-, background, I finally had a sense of personal connection to a place where I am otherwise a stranger.

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