Thinking about Oxford, MS

April 3, 2010 at 11:20 pm (Uncategorized)

I got back from Oxford, MS, about two weeks ago, but it’s taken me a little while to digest the whole experience. I can’t say I’ve finally sorted through it all, but at least I’ve started — so here is a first stab.

Oxford is a small town about two hours outside of Memphis. It’s home to Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi’s flagship school, which at this point is probably its biggest employer. The town is tiny — there is a small “main street” area of shops which is positively charming, made even more so by the fact that all the shops are independently owned (ie, no Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, etc). Sports are huge (football, in particular), but there is a large foodie culture that is quite notable, and everyone talks about how Faulkner once lived there.

More or less, I knew all of this before I arrived. It was different actually being there. One of the things that impressed me was the intense amount of town pride I experienced, which felt so completely alien. I think it was Lou Reed who said that everyone is either trying to get to, or get out of, NYC — which means that the people who actually live there are ones trying to leave. I remember stumbling across a youtube video of Lydia Lunch in which she gave an interview about how lame NYC was and how nothing interesting was happening there, and how all the great things happened several years ago… and the interview was given in 1983 or something. This is how people talk about NYC — always. We hate it but we stay. It used to be better and it’s never going back, but where else are you going to go?

So there was something really strange but very, very nice to be in a place where everyone was really psyched to be. I sort of wanted to be cynical about it (to think that it wasn’t real in some way), but any sort of cynicism I had quickly faded. Surely somewhere in Oxford, there is a surly teenager who dreams of moving the hell out — but if so, I never met him or her. The affection for the town that everyone radiated was something I had never experienced; it was impossible to ignore and was wonderfully infectious.

My second strong impression is that everyone was really concerned about my impression, not only of Oxford, but as the South as a whole. To me, this meant two things: 1. I was surrounded by terrific hosts, and 2. Those terrific hosts were convinced that I was going to show up completely biased against the South. And I was — look, Ralph Nader carried my hometown in 2000; it was a little weird for me to be spending time in a “red” state. The idea of visiting a university where football is king is completely foreign to me — the school where I teach doesn’t have a single sports team.

But I kept having the weirdest conversation with various people. Shortly after asking me what I thought of Oxford (“I’m having a great visit, everything has been really lovely” — which is completely true), the conversation would branch out into two directions: “See? The South isn’t like what the media portrays it to be, is it?” or else “You don’t seem like a Northerner! You’re not from the North originally, are you?”.

This is all so depressing in its honesty. Yeah, I had low expectations of the South because (I guess?) the media; and apparently people expected me to be stuck up and snobbish being from the North, also because of the media (I think?). I’ve put those hesitations in parentheses because I’m not really sure exactly where they come from or if it’s even fair to dump it on this big scapegoat of The Media (what the hell does that mean, anyway?), but I also don’t know what to blame it on. But in short, I wasn’t shocked to find Oxford to be a really nice place to both visit and live, but I was really surprised to find people shocked to meet a nice Northerner.

I have no identity as a Northerner — I literally never thought of myself as that before going to Mississippi. I’m from the East Coast, but not New England; I guess I’m from the Mid-Atlantic, but who the hell says that? I’m from NYC or NJ, depending on how you look at it. I don’t think of where I live as being The North; I think about the Vietnam War way more than I ever think about the Civil War. How did all this happen? What the hell has happened to our country that I felt that way, that Mississippi seemed so impossibly far away from where I lived?

The name of my show at the University is The Space Between Us. It’s from a Robyn Hitchcock song that I think about all the time; the line goes:

The space… between us… turns… into animals!

and it’s always really fascinated me — I’ve tried to draw what it describes so many times and I feel like I know what it means without being able to really articulate it. But it wound up being this really ironic title for a show, given that the space between Mississippi and NYC is apparently a lot further away than I originally thought. I had enough people around me chuckle and wish me good luck when I told them where I was going for a week that the night before I left, I seriously questioned why I was going. I guess for a minute I was that Northerner snob everyone thought I would be.

I honestly loved it there, had a fantastic time, and hope to return. It’s exactly the kind of small town I’d love to be a part of. But the larger issue I come away with is, what do we have to do to collapse this space a little? I shouldn’t feel like I’m going to a foreign land when I’m still in the US, nor should anyone coming to visit up here. So what, exactly, is the solution?


1 Comment

  1. emcegielski said,

    I’m glad you had an amazing time in Oxford! I go to Ole Miss, just happened to run across your blog, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to thank you for the kind words you wrote about our town. 🙂

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