Stuck on a Yo-Yo: Southern Origins, Diaspora and Homecoming

Part II: An interview with Jeff Livesay, Colorado College Sociology Professor

by Max Thorn, guest writer; photos courtesy of Jeff Livesay

What follows is the second part of the series “Stuck on a Yo-Yo: Southern Origins, Diaspora, and Homecoming.” The first installation appeared in the September 2010 issue of the Cipher, and was my own narrative introduction to a series of stories that belong to an underrepresented and rarely-discussed group here at Colorado College: Southerners. This piece is a transcript of two conversations I had with Jeff Livesay, professor of Sociology, about his own Southern story. Much of Livesay’s story is translatable to more universal kinds of experiences—leaving home, returning home, making sense of oneself in contexts both familiar and unfamiliar—but the specificity of time (the 60s) and place (Mississippi; Harvard) combined with his sincere reflections make Livesay’s a story worth telling and re-telling.

First, the basics:  Who are you? Where were you born?

I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, in 1948, and so came of age, you know, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, during the 1950s and 60s, right at the peak of white Southern resistance to the struggle to integrate schools and other public institutions.

My dad was an administrator at Millsaps College. My parents were relatively liberal, and not racist, but largely silenced by the closed, virtually authoritarian nature of white society in Mississippi. I grew up with this sense of deep, deep shame about being a white Southerner. I saw the South through the lens of the national media, and the way images of the South were reflected back as simulacra. I just wanted to get the hell out of there to a more humane place. So for me, growing up, the South was essentially the legacy of slavery and racial domination.

Had your family been in the South for multiple generations?

My dad was born in the mountains of southwest Virginia. He moved to Jackson with his family when he was five years old. Many generations of my father’s family were college-educated, and educators themselves. My mother’s family were pretty hardscrabble Mississippi farmers, but had moved to Meridian, in east-central Mississippi, not far from Philadelphia [a town in Mississippi], where the three civil rights workers were killed. My grandfather opened a grocery store/butcher shop, a small business. They were very conservative, very racist—although my mother wasn’t.

Did you see your mother’s side of the family a lot?

Yes, frequently.

Anyway, I wanted to get out. I left the South and went to Harvard as an undergraduate. It was, needless to say, challenging going there from a Southern public school in the mid-sixties—not just any public school, but one on what might be called the “wrong side of town.” My high school was an extraordinary place, but it was fed by middle-to-lower-class white neighborhoods. My senior year in high school was the first year the Jackson public schools were racially integrated. I think six black students entered the twelfth grade. They were not allowed in the honors tracks, so I didn’t have any classes with them. While I was in high school, I was becoming radicalized over the War in Vietnam and over the civil rights struggles. In the winter of 1966, I organized a Vietnam “teach-in” at my high school.

I went off to Harvard and joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and got really involved in anti-war politics there. Of course, I also confronted questions like “Do you have indoor plumbing down [in Mississippi]?” said in jest, but with a real edge. At the same time, I was discovering that racism was not confined to Mississippi or the South. I was confronted by the reality of racism in Boston, which was pretty virulent, and then became publicly visible later on in the anti-busing struggles of the 1970s. So I got really confused and experienced a serious identity crisis. On one level, I shared your sense that “I can criticize the South, but non-Southerners can’t!” On another, “The South is my home. And by criticizing the South, they’re criticizing me.” I found it hard to distinguish between criticism of my home and criticism of me.

I realized that I was bound up, that my identity was bound up, in all that I was so busy rejecting as I was growing up. I wondered: Who am I as a white Southerner? I benefited from all that privilege, yes, but at the same time I was speaking out and trying to change it. But then again I had only been a teenager. How am I implicated in this? Who am I? Is there anything at all good and positive about this place?

I then left Harvard second semester of my sophomore year, went back to Mississippi, back to take classes at Millsaps with an agenda of reading Southern history, Southern literature, and trying to figure out how this all fit together. So I went back and spent a year and half in Mississippi, continued to be politically active in the Southern Student Organizing Committee (the Southern analogue to SDS), and helped found an underground newspaper in Jackson. I was asked to go to Mary Homes Junior College up in northeast Mississippi to speak to a second wave of black students integrating the white public schools of Mississippi, as a white kid, to talk to them about what they would likely experience. I had that kind of status: if the people in “the movement” were going to ask any white kid in Mississippi to do something like that, they were going to ask me.

Did that position have any sense that you might be undermining something? Did it cause you to question your own involvement as an authority figure?

At that moment, not at all. For me at that moment, it was (no pun intended) a black and white issue. Segregation was immoral and oppressive, and it had to be destroyed.

I finally returned to Harvard, but while I was back in Mississippi I was developing—and I wasn’t alone in this—an image of the South as part of what was then called the Third World:  defeated militarily by industrial American/Yankee imperialism, systemically underdeveloped, and then ridiculed for its cultural backwardness. For probably ten years I had this quite hard-edged attitude. When people would criticize the South, I would just get in their face. People were operating with these binaries—North is good, South is bad; North is advanced, South is backwards—and doing it in a completely unreflective way, without any kind of understanding of the complexity of the South or a realization that its underdevelopment is related to a legacy of military defeat and political-economic subordination.

I still encounter that today, talking to people who really haven’t been there.

Yeah, I was really perturbed. But I went back and graduated from Harvard and continued my political activism. Then I found myself on this yo-yo with the South. I couldn’t live there, but I couldn’t not live there. It sounds totally clichéd, but it was really true. I left Harvard and went back South to go to graduate school at Duke. I left Duke and went to UC Santa Cruz, where I got a Ph.D. I missed the South tremendously. I came back and taught for a year in DC—which is more or less the South or at least right on the edge—and then I came out here to Colorado College. I was back and forth on this yo-yo:  When I was not there I kind of pined for it, and when I was there I felt pretty claustrophobic. I found myself condemned to this kind of marginal position of not being able to go back home, but never really feeling at home where I was. That has sort of characterized my life ever since.

When you moved away from the South, what kind of boundaries were most apparent, or were felt most immediately? I mean both a temporal immediacy but also “immediately” in the sense of “most felt.”

Well, there’s the Mason-Dixon Line . . .

Right, but I’m thinking about how boundaries of geography and boundaries of culture might interact, or how one or the other might be artificial.

In that sense I’ve experienced all kinds of boundaries. On the other hand, it was the absence of boundaries that was even more shocking to me:  racism wasn’t isolated to the South. It was clearly a more national phenomenon than I had imagined growing up.

It’s hard for me to disentangle the distinction between South/not-South and home/not-home. I think everybody struggles with the issue of leaving home. [ . . . ] Related to that issue of home is the experience of being around people who simply didn’t know me, who didn’t understand the context in which I had come to be, and therefore in some sense couldn’t appreciate me and stereotyped me. In 1966 there were a set of assumptions: “If you’re from the South, then you think this way, act this way, have this level of intelligence,” etc. I found that quite disconcerting.

The real boundary for me was that deeper one of not being understood—an experience that I think everybody probably goes through in the transition to college—but which was really charged at that moment because of what was going on in the South, and the way in which the South, and to a certain extent Jackson, were in some ways focal points of American social life and politics. It was a real crucible.

How did that historical context intensify those experiences? Is there something you feel you can claim, because of the context, which might be unparalleled?

I don’t want to turn my experience into something grandiose. Certainly plenty of people have experienced far more difficult transitions than I did. I faced a particular challenge of forging a coherent identity—because of the moment, because of the great gap between my own lived experience and other people’s perception of what someone like me had probably gone through, probably believed. That gap was a difficult one. Of course going back South to college was an effort to bridge that gap.

I was reflecting on my own journey, and realized that my experience might be understood as a dialectic. I went through two initial phases that were really antithetical to one another, the articulation of a hate/love relationship with the South: hating it as I was growing up, and then the confrontation with the North and the experience of the North, and then, as you mentioned, coming to love it in new and surprising ways, and going through that process in a kind of compulsive and reflexive way, trying to reclaim the positive elements in my own upbringing that I’d really neglected. Thus the yo-yo.

I guess what the long-term challenge has been—and I’m not sure how well I’ve accomplished it; I think fairly well—is to find some middle ground between the compulsive hostility toward the South and the compulsive defensiveness about it.

To sort of live in the boundary between them?

I don’t think you have to conceive of it as a boundary. Think of it as a space. In a way the initial stage—the stage of hostility—was a hand that had been dealt me by history and my own personal situation (my family and so forth) that led me to an oppositional stance. The deficit that I came to acknowledge when I went away then led to a kind of psychological repair, the defensive posture, defensive in psycho-cultural terms:  It’s not all bad . . . and therefore I’m not all bad. I didn’t really understand as I was growing up that it was me, this thing, this region that I hated was in some sense also me. It really took me at least a decade, probably more, to work through that second phase. I feel like I’m rather beyond that now.

I actually was just back in Mississippi over block break. My mother is almost 90, and I go back there maybe four times a year to check in on her. I was reflecting about this interview when I was back there and realized how the glaringly—what to say?—vulgar and even obscene dimensions of Southern culture were just so readily apparent to me. I felt I was really beyond my defensive Southern-ness, but at the same time I just loved going to the Fresh Market Cafe and eating pork chops and turnip greens and mashed potatoes and chess pie for lunch, and just reveling in it. Or appreciating William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Richard Wright or Mose Allison or Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf or Elvis or Jimmie Rodgers, the power of the history, the magisterial and tragic experience of that region.

It seems like that feeling requires a certain degree of removal. How do you see that removal in your ability to move beyond that kind of defensive Southern-ness?

[long pause]

Well . . . time is healing. It really is.

I feel homeless in a way. Growing up in a place that left its mark so deeply, but yet, at the same time, didn’t really provide me the space to be what I really wanted to be means that I’ve been cast out, sent into exile. I’ve never really been able to . . . to feel deeply at home wherever I’ve been. The South, Mississippi, is probably the only place where I think I could feel that way, or holds out the possibility that I could feel that way. It’s left such a mark on me that I really feel like a visitor everywhere else.

So you feel homeless but there still might be a possibility for home in Mississippi?

In some sense I feel like almost everybody is homeless these days. Certainly for people like us at Colorado College, my sense is that it’s probably a near-universal feeling. I doubt that many people who come to this place will go back and live in the neighborhoods where they grew up.

The great Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells talks about two different kinds of space: the traditional “space of place,” connected to the land and the physical proximity of face-to-face interaction, and the more recently opened “space of flows,” the space within which ideas and people and capital and commodities are constantly on the move, where people can share experiences without being physically co-present. People now come to inhabit the “space of flows” in ways that pull them away from the “space of place.” I think Colorado College is really located in this “space of flows.” Teaching here has felt like inhabiting an island in a river: class after class of students has flowed past me.

In certain sectors of the class structure, occupying this new sort of space might be a near-universal condition. How cognizant people are of that, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just burdened with the indelible imprint of home because of the extraordinary moment in which I was coming of age. Maybe other people aren’t quite as indelibly marked. We’re all marked, obviously—by our upbringings, our homes—but it might be more or less easy to let go. For me, it was hard to let go. My letting go has, I think, established a sense of being not-home that is . . . quite powerful.

Homelessness is a lack of boundaries, in a way, and—

—It’s exhilarating.

Right, that’s just what I was wondering.

It’s exhilarating and liberating and disorienting and dissatisfying.

Is it mournful?

Yeah, all at the same time.

How do you hold all that together, all these disparate—

With baling wire.

It’s just—what to say?—that the psychological stakes are significantly lessened. One just gets habituated to a different way of being. In a way being at Colorado College has provided a certain kind of equilibrium, as a “space of flows” has rendered the “space of place” less significant. [A long pause.] I hope that my lasting gift to Colorado College, to the place, is the Public Interest Fellowship Program, which I helped to found. The program provides internships for Colorado College students and graduates with non-profit organizations in Colorado Springs and Denver. PIFP is my contribution to this place as place. Otherwise, I think, I find myself occupying the “space of flows.” I think many faculty probably experience that. To the extent that they identify as teachers, their communities are highly ephemeral and constantly moving on. The idea of a teacher at a liberal arts college having a home is a contradiction in a way.

This is something I’ve never really thought about, this sort of alignment of my existential predicament and—

your job.

[Laughs] Yeah. Yeah, right . . .

Stuck on a Yo-Yo Part II (PDF)

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