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GADFLY: Carnival Memphis an Anachronism?

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Contrarian though I like to think I am, I'm still a big believer in tradition, at least some of it. I love traditional weddings, traditional religious services (albeit as a spectator), traditional symphonies and operas and traditional meals on holidays (to me, turkey is the "other white meat"). Memphis, I have found, is a traditional kind of town, with all of its own traditions. Traditional food (barbecue has become one of my sacraments), traditional restaurants (you know, the ones people go to not because the food or service are any good, but because they've been going there for a thousand years) and traditional celebrations (e.g., Memphis In May) are all a part of the ingrained culture of the River City.

There is, however, a fine line between tradition and anachronism. There are things in this town whose time may have long since passed, and yet continued to be observed. The Mid South Fair was one of them, as its declining attendance indicated, and has died an ignominious and overdue death, being moved to, of all places, Tunica, Mississippi, a place where many well-intentioned plans go to die. Another of those anachronisms is a tradition known as "Carnival Memphis." It is, in my humble opinion, a pathetic attempt by the members of what used to be called the "landed gentry," the remnants of Memphis' feudal society (what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called the "power elite") to preserve (more accurately, revive) the memories of the antebellum South, with all of its attendant pomp and circumstance, but worse, with all of its caste-like exclusivity, privilege and elitism.

Carnival Memphis has something of a checkered past. It started out as a celebration of the place of "king cotton" in the city's commerce, and indeed, started out being called "Cotton Carnival." It was always a whites only event (except for the parts that allowed the hoi-polloi to stand on the outside looking in, like at the increasingly pitiful---and, thankfully, now defunct---Mardi Gras-like parades Carnival sponsored where the haves---almost exclusively white---would throw worthless trinkets from their lofty, mobile perches to the have nots---almost exclusively black--- waiting anxiously along the parade route). The whole ceremony of "Carnival" is one in which the social stratification is painfully evident, as the erstwhile plantation owners celebrate their power and privilege, while the surrogate field hands are forced to press their noses to the window. After all, how would cotton ever have become king without the characters in that drama knowing, even if not being totally comfortable with, their respective roles.

Oh sure, at some point the powers-that-be recognized the awful appearance of this celebration of white dominance (if not supremacy), and let a minority "krewe" into the festivities. Hell, they even started "honoring" minority businesses and activities, as they did this year by honoring http two of Stax Records' most notable (and black) celebrities, but this was, at best, an exercise in tokenism (and a certain amount of guilt asuasion). At some point, perhaps when cotton lost its luster during the market scandals of the 90's (or lost its position as the "king" of all textiles), the decision was made to drop the word "cotton" from the name of the celebration. To this day, even in the publicity for the various events associated with this festival, you will search in vain for any mention of the word cotton. Yet, the tradition lives on, even if its raison d'etre doesn't.

One of the traditions of Carnival Memphis that is alive and well is the designation of a bevy of young beauties as "princesses" of the event. Every year our local newspaper features a multi-page spread announcing the names and displaying the pictures of these ingenues, and this year was no exception. So I curiously perused the abbreviated CV's of the "royal court," staring out at me, all sugar and spice, from last Sunday's paper, trying to find some kind of redeeming value in this exclusive enterprise. One of the designees actually listed membership in her school's "frisbee club" as an achievement, and many of them give what seemed to be an obligatory nod to one or another beneficent or eleemosynary activity, more, I suspect, as an exercise in resume polishing than anything. I don't blame, or want to denigrate these young women. They don't know any better. They were born and bred to take their place in this throw-back ceremony, much as thoroughbred horses are bred to run around mile long dirt tracks. Their pedigrees, also prominently displayed along with their pictures, proudly announce all the members of their immediate (and not-so-immediate) families who participated as "royalty" in Carnival celebrations gone by.

Of course, the first thing that jumped out at me from the display was the fact that, with one notable (and somewhat sore-thumb-like) exception, all of the young women whose smiling visages look out from the pages of the paper, were white, and lily-white at that. I have to admit, that startled me. Oh sure, I know there are vestiges of official discrimination left in this city, including country clubs that have, since time immemorial, excluded minorities from their membership, and even large companies who are sued on a nearly daily basis for violating anti-discrimination statutes.

Tokenism is alive and well in Memphis, whether it's the exception made to the rule for a sole minority member of an exclusive country club, or the exception made to the rule for the sole minority ingenue to an event that celebrates the separation of the races. But an event that proudly, even chauvinistically, celebrates the unbearable whiteness of being? What are these people thinking? And, as if to emphasize the shameful heritage of this celebration, I couldn't help but notice how many of these accomplished young women, who could probably attend prestigious schools in other areas of the country, chose to attend college in Mississippi, a state which still, in many ways, hasn't overcome its history of racism, the best examples of which are its recently-departed United States senator singing the praises of the segregationist, Strom Thurmond, or its current governor, Haley Barbour, who achieved his office, in part, by failing to disassociate himself from a white supremacist organization and wrapping himself in the Confederate flag.

I've been participating in an exercise in racial reconciliation for the past two months, called "Common Ground." It is a program of structured dialogues among multi-cultural members of the community designed to explore the causes of racial division and strife in our community (and goodness knows, there's enough of that to explore) and, hopefully, to come up with some kind of action plan to improve that situation. And here, in the middle of this constructive attempt at racial understanding, tolerance and acceptance, comes this big, fat example of everything that's wrong with the racial attitudes of this community. There is a giant disconnect when an event like "Carnival" can be trumpeted, even as our country is celebrating its embrace of the concept (and indeed the reality) of diversity with the elevation of the first black candidate for the presidency of our country.

But then again, some traditions in this town die harder than others. After all, cotton may no longer be king, but at least Elvis still is.

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