Thursday, October 14, 2010

Black Bears and Black Confederates: The complex racial heritage of Ole Miss's new mascot

After several years of having no "official" on-field mascot, the Black Bear has been chosen by the University of Mississippi as its new symbol. For decades, the mascot of Ole Miss was an old, Shelby Foote-esque southern plantation owner named "Colonel Reb." Sporting a cane, a stetson hat and a frock coat, Colonel Reb is a stereotype as equally unrepresentative of the South and southern whites as Jethro Bodine would be for residents of Appalachia, or the cast of Jersey Shore would be for, well, the whole of New Jersey (my apologies to Colonel Reb and Jethro Bodine for inclusion in such company).

Despite the fact that "Ole Miss" is itself a term veritably dripping with racist connotations rooted in slavery (Ole Missus is slave parlance for the plantation mistress); despite the fact that the campus of Ole Miss is dotted with monuments to the Lost Cause, including two monuments to Confederate dead and a stained glass window honoring the University Grays, a local unit which was almost totally wiped out at Gettysburg, the school administration thought dropping the Colonel Reb image - perhaps the most inoffensive image of all - would signal that finally Ole Miss had left its racist past behind and was moving forward. After removing Colonel Reb by executive fiat (much to the consternation of students and alumni), appointing committees to draft new mascot ideas (which included the laughable "landshark" and unspeakably stupid "Hotty Toddy"), a new mascot, a black bear, was chosen.

There are, as far as I know, no longer any black bears in North Mississippi. But the bear has at least some tenuous connection to local lore and to Mississippi history. "The Bear," widely considered to be one of William Faulkner's greatest short stories, is set in Faulkner's fictitious Yoknapatawpha County - a parallel version of the real Lafayette County, Mississippi. The tale, which deals with guilt over man's destruction of the land, as well as his cruelty to man (particularly, in this story in the form of slavery), is a brilliant meditation on human nature and on the character of the South. The story centers on a hunt for a massive, seemingly invulnerable bear named Old Ben (think of the bear in the movie "Prophecy"). Despite being shot dozens of times, he always manages to survive. Literary critics consider it to be the greatest hunting story ever told. I think Faulkner, who was considered an oddball by Oxonians, would have found it funny that his tale would be cited as the inspiration for the university mascot.

But even at the center of this tale of the bear - this new symbol seemingly free of all racial baggage - is a dark past of violence and exploitation. The new factor, however, is guilt. The story centers around the guilt of Ike, who is slated to inherit his family's plantation. But guilt over slavery causes him to renounce his inheritance. The story isn't merely a lively tale about a ferocious bear, but a meditation on the evils of slavery; and as such I feel as though citing it as the inspiration for a college sports mascot is rather strange. But given the context - a school wishing to shed its past associations with slavery and racism - perhaps it is fitting. But Ole Miss has not fully repudiated the image of Colonel Reb - it still owns his image, and even a cursory online search reveals that products bearing his likeness are still for sale.

Mississippi is, apparently, rich in bear lore. It was to Mississippi that Teddy Roosevelt repaired for a bear hunting expedition in 1902. At the invitation of the governor, Roosevelt had come to play the rough, virile figure he was by then so practiced at playing. As his guide was selected Holt Collier, a near mythical figure who is rather like someone who stepped out of one of Faulkner's novels. But Collier is perhaps more fantastical than anyone Faulkner could conjure. Born a slave, Collier was hunting before he had his first pubic hairs. By the age of 10 he was an accomplished marksman and had killed his first bear. When the war broke out between the States, Collier wanted to join his master on the battlefield. He was told that he was too young. Collier snuck away from the plantation, boarded a river boat, and joined up with a Confederate unit in Texas. He served as a scout and apparently as a "spy," although all of the details remain to me, as yet, unclear. As a hunter, Collier was unparalleled; he was rumored to have killed 3,000 bears. Collier is easily the equal of such legendary figures and pioneers as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie - only quite possibly more badass. A highly praised book by the scholar Minor Ferris Buchanan on the subject of Collier has been added to my "to read" list.

Holt Collier

But I digress. During the legendary hunt which would spawn the "teddy bear," Collier cornered a black bear for the President. When Roosevelt failed to appear to dispatch the beast (the President was apparently off somewhere only pretending to be a badass), Collier was faced with the possibility that it would escape. Rather than look like a trifling fool for letting the President's bear get away, Collier took the butt of his gun and went toe to toe with the animal. By himself, Collier subdued the animal and tied it to a nearby tree. When Roosevelt arrived, he refused to shoot an animal that had been tied up. The lesser known part of this story is that Roosevelt was in awe of Collier, who then regaled Roosevelt and his coterie of hangers-on with stories of his experiences in slavery, the Civil War, and in the days of Reconstruction. Roosevelt was so impressed with Collier that he went on another hunt with him years later.

Yet again, at the heart of another story which the bear mascot draws upon, we have another complex set of circumstances which reach back to the Old South. Only this time it is perhaps more confounding. While the story of "The Bear" has the guilt of slavery, the figure of Holt Collier is a "loyal" slave, who fought alongside his master on the side of the Confederacy. An acquaintance of mine is constantly harping on how memorialization of the Confederacy is a "whites only" activity - and as such it should be jettisoned from a public university like Ole Miss. While I do not deny the centrality of the ideologies of white supremacy to the South (and really, the ideologies of white supremacy were central to American history as a whole), to say that it is a "whites only" activity is an oversimplification. Several of the "civilized" Indian tribes sided with the Confederacy, for one. Moreover, there were slaves, whether we like it or not, who served in some battlefield roles. This does not mean that slaves made up a large contingent in the Confederate army, or as some in the SCV like to claim, that the Civil War was not about slavery. There were men like Holt Collier - slaves - who because of ties of affection to their masters (I know academics who would roll up their eyes in horror at such a suggestion) sided with the Confederacy. The Old South, for all of its cruelty, was also in the words of Eugene Genovese, a culture that bound two peoples together in a complex "organic relationship."

And Confederate memorialization has been reclaimed by some - I stress some - blacks. Two come to mind: On one end of the spectrum is the oddball Lost Cause advocate H.K. Edgerton, who gave the most rousing pro-Confederate speech I have ever heard (I met him at a reenactment in North Carolina). On the opposite end of the spectrum is Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the illegitimate daughter of Strom Thurmond, who has encouraged African Americans to join the UDC/SCV in order to get in touch with their white roots.

Confederate memory, like southern history (and indeed all of American history) is complicated. And that complexity comes through even in the figure of a seemingly innocuous black bear. We aren't just dealing with a mean animal that can potentially intimidate opponents or that little kiddies will enjoy at football events; but something that is meant to represent the essence of Ole Miss, as an entity that is bound up with the traditions of locality and state. The lore surrounding the black bear is deeply tied up with the South's complex racial past; it is by no means a figure uncomplicated by race. While this racial association is not visibly written on the figure of the black bear - it is there, embedded in the stories which give the symbol its life. And in an ironic twist it even manages a backhanded paw swipe at those who would dethrone the Confederate symbolism of Ole Miss.

Whether the bear will be able to reverse Ole Miss's fortunes on the football field is doubtful. Houston Nutt continues to confound me.


At 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Make Holt Collier with a black bear the Ole Miss mascot and everybody wins.


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