Clinging to nostalgia will only hold back everyone at our university
It was my second semester of Ancient Greek class at the University of Mississippi when I finally raised my hand and asked.
“The statue on the Circle, of the Confederate soldier,” I began earnestly — I was still excited about learning new things — “has a Greek inscription on the side. Could you translate it for us?”
The answer came the next time class met. It was an elegiac couplet by the Greek poet Simonides, engraved first on a monument to the Spartan dead of the Battle of Thermopylae, presented to us by The Histories of Herodotus. My professor had taken the time to copy the inscription on individual slips of paper for all of us to keep, then read it aloud, the Greek consonants somersaulting over his lips, before he offered us one of its numerous English translations.
“‘Foreigner, go tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their commands,’” he said. “Quite a sentiment to put on a Confederate statue.”
It took half an hour of research that night for me to realize how much of an understatement that was. The voice of the poor dead Spartans begs you to return to their loved ones the news that they didn’t tap out for nothing. That they died defending Sparta, Spartan ideals, and Spartan soil from foreign invasion — their glory in defeat is forever memorialized with that epitaph. The Spartans were heroes. According to the statue that thrusts its imposing figure over the Circle, the Confederate dead of Oxford and the Ole Miss campus, are, too.
Unfortunately, Ole Miss can’t seem to make up its mind about who its heroes are, or, at least, how much to value them. The statue of the Confederate soldier stands within a section of campus designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark due to the riots that accompanied the enrollment of James Meredith, the university’s first black student, 52 years ago next month. Just a few hundred feet away stands a statue of Mr. Meredith. It is made of bronze, and, for now, it is free of nooses and Georgia flags.
It is not for me to decide whether or not Confederate soldiers deserve glory, but I do know that it is not the responsibility of an educational institution and its students to maintain the last bastion of the Confederacy, or to stand as a symbol of the “Old South,” a period of assumed refinement and class that would maybe seem more romantic if it hadn’t all been built on the backs of slaves. Ole Miss has spent too long marinating in such an idyll, willfully and disappointingly ignorant of the antebellum period and its shame, and claiming that those who are not blind on purpose are traitors whose criticism should not be heard; but, as another professor of mine claims, nostalgia is about forgetting, not remembering. Selective memory and a painful lack of racial consciousness, however, are for the enjoyment of the privileged only. Minority students have no opportunity to forget, and it is irresponsible to tell them they have no voice to criticize aspects of a place that cheerfully romanticizes a society that would have enslaved them. As it stands, white privilege is a horrible litmus test for the acidity of racism. White students must no longer talk only to other white people about racism, or accept the myth that racism does not exist and that talking about racism is somehow worse than racism itself.
I teared up when I read the letter from Chancellor Dan Jones that detailed his action plan for the continued diversification of the university, which includes creation of a vice chancellor position for diversity and inclusion, the establishment of a Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement, and the cultivation of a National Pan-Hellenic Council garden to give Black Greek Letter Organizations a permanent physical fixture on campus. Chancellor Jones also calls for not using the school’s nickname within an academic context; though referring to the university as “Ole Miss” is unlikely to change soon (I continue to use it when I’m not speaking about academics, simply because it’s much shorter), the nickname has paternalistic origins.
His leadership reflects the acknowledgement of the university’s — whatever you choose to call it — much- and long-needed diversity measures. The action plan inconveniences literally no one, but has received criticism from people who feel as if a tradition is being snatched away from them—people who view their own contrarian rather than constructive opinions above the offense they undeniably incur. One Ole Miss student (who is not from Mississippi) who objected to these changes wrote in an open letter to Chancellor Jones that she felt that “one of easiest forms of diversity a campus can attain is by attracting students from other states.” Out-of-state-ism is real, y’all.
Luckily, out-of-state tuition is not a recognized form of discrimination. Neither is it a “problem” unique to the university the way that romanticizing racist traditions is. The fact of the matter is that this plan of action is not an indictment of students for choosing to attend Ole Miss, for joining Greek organizations, or for being white; rather, it is a call for awareness of the discriminatory climate of campus. Reactionary students who will never be subject to racial slurs when they’re walking on campus in broad daylight, who were never afraid that their skin color would subject them to violence in a place where they’re supposed to be protected, who didn’t experience terror the night a noose appeared around the Meredith statue, shout their perceived victimhood so loudly that those whose lives would benefit most from the action plan cannot be heard.
Those who truly love Ole Miss push forward for necessary change, leadership, and inclusiveness for all who wish to be educated here; it is laughable to act as if impeding progress is somehow healthy for the university’s continued success. For Ole Miss to grow and rightfully be the flagship university for the state of Mississippi, its students must not only support this plan of action, but also allow those whose experiences are germane to the issues to lead the conversation.
Sierra Mannie is a rising senior majoring in Classics and English at the University of Mississippi. She is a regular contributor to the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, and her writing has previously appeared on TIME.com.