Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Neshoba County Fair

Like the rest of America, the Neshoba County Fair has grown more conservative, and incrementally wilder, in the last decade, which is about how long it had been since I was last there. I attended the fair, which is held just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, for two days last month for a much-needed refresher course, and noticed, first off, that the Democrats have more or less gone underground at an event that historically has revolved around political debate.

The Dems are still there – my friend Chuck Lewis’s cabin, where I stayed, is a notable liberal way station on Founder’s Square -- but you'd hardly know it from the look of things. Their voices are quiet and exceptional. The fair is now primarily a mecca for white Republicans, a change that is probably more noticeable to someone who hasn’t been there in a while. Not that it's becoming a giant tea party -- far from it. The fair’s rustic cabins, the venues for what National Geographic magazine once called “Mississippi’s Giant House Party,” are welcoming places, and political differences are tolerated if not necessarily embraced.

The fair’s demographic has always been conservative, though it once voted solidly Democrat. The shift in political party allegiance came slowly, as it did elsewhere in the South. In fact, nothing changes rapidly at the fair, unless you count the occasional natural death among the generations who return each year to their respective cabins, and even then, while the change is keenly felt by family and friends, the fair goes on. There's always another elderly lady, one porch over, with her own scrumptious recipe for ambrosia salad. To make serious inroads, enough time has to pass to kill off all the old ambrosia makers, which is certainly happening, though their offspring are poised to take up the mantel. Continuity is the thing. Ambrosia endures alongside other traditional southern foods in the spreads laid out on Formica dinette sets and other time-worn hand-me-downs that have found their final uses at the fair. The drift toward conservativism is likewise nothing new. It’s something handed down from generation to generation. Those who were once conservative Democrats are now conservative Republicans. That's not to say there's no difference -- there is. But you could see it coming.

The fair, which lasts a week, is the largest and one of the oldest camp-style fairs in the U.S., dating to 1889, and is a much beloved local institution among its fervent but fairly narrow demographic. The rest of us are guests or, in some cases, part of the entertainment, such as the carnies, the jockeys who race the horses on the red-dirt track and the politicians who speak at the pavilion in the square. What the fair is really about is socializing in a friendly, relaxed, and hot and dusty (or muddy, as the case may be) environment. It is a safe redoubt for its participants. Children wander, unsupervised among the crowds, the horses and the carnival rides, or play in creeks that thread through the cabin lanes. My friend Catherine said that when her son Ian was small they would release him on his own recognizance with his cabin number written on his shirt so he’d be returned to his home base if he got lost. There are rounds of political speeches, with blowhards echoing off the cabins on the square to polite applause. There are talent shows, which are entertaining in large part because they’re hopelessly amateur. There is drinking, eating and socializing late into the night. If you’re part of the demographic, it’s a comfortable, reassuring and fun place to be.

Since the fair is held in Mississippi in July the weather is invariably hot, which has made it one of the final holdouts for a once-ubiquitous southern prop, the hand-held cardboard fan, which typically advertises a local funeral home or a political candidate. Air conditioning was once reserved for the newer cabins, on the less rigidly traditional alleys off Founder’s Square, but today most cabins have it, though people still spend most of their time outside, fanning.

People still try to be a bit discrete about their alcohol consumption in the dry county, though you do see flagrantly displayed beer cans late at night, when young people roam the grounds on what appears to be a communal outdoor club cruise. There are still all-night sing-alongs, where strangers and old friends and extended family members who see each other once a year gather around a piano under a bare light bulb in the open air pavilion to sing old standards such as “My Wild Irish Rose.” The sing-along I attended had the look of an old Norman Rockwell painting, until the crowd got around to singing a song about… smiling darkies. The song illustrated the comfortably white-centric dynamic of the fair, for better or worse, and how things change very slowly, in subtle ways. As the sing-along crowd crooned the lyrics from their hand-out sheets, I noticed one young guy who’d been belting out the songs suddenly covered his mouth with his hand when they got to the part about the smiling darkies, yet continued to sing. Not far away, a guy in a group of rougher-edged country boys blurted out, in surprise, “Did you hear that? They’re singing about darkies!” and laughed.

The darkie song notwithstanding, I sensed no hostile racial overtones. Race rarely even comes up in conversation. The fair is simply a place where traditional southern whites can bask in their natural habitat and take advantage of the opportunity to sing familiar songs, including “Dixie,” unhindered. It's an outcropping of Mississippi’s cultural diversity. “Dixie,” for the typical fairgoer, is about how old times here are not forgotten. Pain over certain of the memories is not on public display. No one I spoke with at the fair mentioned the burial, back in the sixties, of three murdered civil rights workers in an earthen dam down the road.

The failure to ruminate about old times that people would just as soon be forgotten was noted in the blog of a man named Tim Murphy, whom I met at the fair, which was later posted on the liberal magazine Mother Jones website ( Murphy, who lives in Boston, showed up at the fair while on a cross-country, post-college graduation road trip, and could not resist mentioning the lack of mention about Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, though he did so without judgment, which was itself something of a surprise. My thought was: Is the lack of mention really unusual? Would it have made sense to hear someone say, “Welcome to our cabin! Make yourself a plate of food, pull up a chair and we’ll talk about the civil rights workers who were executed outside Meridian and buried in an earthen dam not too far from here”? It’s alarming to think that good people the world over have allowed such atrocities to be committed in their midst, but from the perspective of fairgoers it’s just a matter of people going too far, which is a tendency that is roundly frowned upon. It doesn’t mean anyone’s forgotten; they just have a lot of personal catching-up to do.

Conservative fairgoers have no reason to attempt to drive the Democrats from their midst, and anyway, the cabins are legacies handed down, so no one is going away any time soon. They also have no reason to make the occasional black guest, who is not a jockey, a housekeeper, a member of the Neshoba County Fair Security force or a neatly groomed political operative, feel uncomfortable. Still, the political drift is unmistakable, and the aggressively Democratic Jackson city council has contributed to it by ceasing to participate in Jackson Day at the fair on account of the perception that it’s just a bunch of white people doing white-people things, which it most assuredly is, just as the Medgar Evers Homecoming is about black people doing black-people things. The difference, I suppose, lies in the responsibility white people have for the state’s troubled past. Fortunately, and contrary to popular mythology, there are a great many integrated events in Mississippi today; the Neshoba County Fair doesn't happen to be one of them.

When someone mentions the handful of Confederate flags hanging from cabin porches, it occurs to me that every group celebrates its culture, and doing so often drives a wedge between them and other groups. The flag is only offensive to people, black or white, who choose to see it so. In my view, black people should simply co-opt the iconic symbol. They should take to flying the Rebel flag themselves, and perhaps even wear Rebel flag belt buckles. They should just take the flag and run with it, so we can all be done with it. While it’s obvious that fairgoers generally appreciate that people there can fly the flag without being called out on it, the truth is most don’t take it seriously. You can say that’s troubling in and of itself, but the main problem is that such displays become the inevitable take-away for the media and black visitors, to which the natural cabin host’s response would be: “Have a piece of pecan pie!”

At one point, when Murphy, the guy from Boston, took shelter on a cabin porch during a sudden summer downpour, he was welcomed by the hosts, though he was a stranger. I choose to think this would have been the case even if had he not been white, because the fair is, if nothing else, a polite, hospitable place. One of the hosts filled him in on the fair’s history, the high point of which, from her perspective, was a visit by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. Murphy and his traveling companion happened upon the fair by happenstance, and he pronounced it kind of wonderful and “wild.”

Later, as we sat on Chuck’s cabin porch, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a former Republican lobbyist who is seriously conservative, took to the stage on Founder’s Square to ruminate about politics and to exaggerate about the impact of President Obama’s drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, his wife sat on the porch of the cabin next door sipping her chosen beverage from a Styrofoam cup, and a Republican candidate with perfectly coiffed hair worked the crowd. A guest on Chuck’s porch looked through one of the photo albums chronicling the decades his family has been coming to their cabin at the fair, observing the comings and goings and the passage of time.

Congenial as the fair is, you can’t gather thousands of people together for a week at a time without the occasional hiccup. During the course of my stay, one of the horse groomers was impolitely stabbed during a late-night altercation with an acquaintance in the stables, and an elderly woman who failed to put her car in park rammed her family’s cabin and suffered a broken bone. But the next day everyone except the old lady was back to socializing, and the word was that she was most concerned about the possibility that she may have cast a pall over her family’s annual reunion. As one fairgoer noted, concerning the stabbing victim, “He was back at the fair by noon the next day, with stitches.” Such events are absorbed into the continuum of the fair. Soon enough, everyone will return to the real world, with all that entails, but for the moment, they're free to sing, with communal gusto, “To Dixie’s Land I’m bound to travel, Look away! Look away! Look away!”

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