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Chairman's Note

A Sense of Place

By William R. Ferris | HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

William R. Ferris is the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This article is adapted from a 1996 speech he made to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

No southerner speaks about their region without mentioning family. Black and white southerners are, in fact, a single extended family, a network of people who teach and support each other, as they did me.

I grew up on a farm outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi. My first teachers were the black and white families whose lives were closely entwined in our community. The first Sunday of each month I sometimes spent the day at Rose Hill Church where black families have worshiped since before the Civil War. There were no hymnals in the pews. Each generation learned to sing their hymns from previous generations. After church, a communal lunch of fried chicken, biscuits, and iced tea was served upon the lawn.

The church stands atop a tall hill covered with hundreds of marked and umnarked graves and commands a view of pastures and plowed fields that extend outward. Alice Walker visited Rose Hill Church in 1971, while she was living in Mississippi. She was so moved as she stood in its doorway that she composed a poem.

Here we have watched ten thousand Seasons Come and go.

And unmarked graves atangled In the brush Turn our own legs to trees Vertical forever between earth And Sun.

Here we are not quick to disavow The pull of field and wood And stream; We are not quick to turn Upon our dreams.

As a child I ran barefoot each summer in the fields of which Alice wrote. I rode horses bareback. I learned to love my family's farm and its people, who were my first teachers. At the age of five, I entered Jefferson Davis Academy, a public school that, like all public schools in Mississippi at that time, was segregated. Each teacher taught two grades. I was the only student in the school whose parents had attended college. In the sixth grade our teacher asked which students planned to go to college, and I refused to raise my hand, knowing that none of my fellow students would go. Our teacher Mrs. Barfield pointed at me and said, "Billy Ferris, you will go to college. Your parents will make you go." With every eye in the class looking at me, I replied, "I ain't going to no college. I ain't going to no college."

As she had predicted, I did go: first to Brooks School in Massachusetts, then to Davidson College, Northwestern University, Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and finally to the University of Pennsylvania where I received a Ph.D. in folklore. Without my knowing, these studies were a journey home, a way of running the academic gauntlet without forgetting the black and white people who taught me my most enduring lessons.

As director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi for eighteen years, I have learned that my understanding of the world is and will always be grounded in those early lessons. I have traveled to New England, the Midwest, the West, the Southwest, and to the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow to assist colleagues at sister institutions who have developed academic programs that focus on their own regional cultures. They, like we, recognize that people everywhere define themselves through the places where they are born and grow up. This relationship, which Eudora Welty calls the "sense of place," shapes each of us in deep and lasting ways.

Southerners in each generation have fallen in love with and hated with a passion the places in which they live. They have written about these places. They have sung about them. They have painted them. They have given these places to the world as a common artistic property. These artists help us understand what William Faulkner meant when he remarked that early in his life he realized he could write for a lifetime and never fully exhaust his "little postage stamp of native soil."

Each of you carries within yourself a "postage stamp of native soil," a "sense of place" that defines you. It is the memory of this place that nurtures you with identity and special strength, that provides what the Bible terms "the peace that passeth understanding." And it is to this place that each of us goes to find the clearest, deepest identity of ourselves.

As we look at our nation today, we see how memory and sense of place shape each of us as Americans. I have spent many hours interviewing, photographing, and filming southern storytellers, musicians, and artists whose stories became very special to me. Through their voices southern culture speaks its heart, whether it is Jimmy Rodgers's country music, B. B. King's blues, or Elvis Presley's rock and roll.

Diverse cultures have shaped the South in fascinating ways. My home town of Vicksburg is a community on the Mississippi River where Jewish, Lebanese, Chinese, Irish, Italian, Greek, and many other ethnic families have lived for more than a century. My father loved to play poker at the home of Shouphie Habeeb, a Lebanese friend whose mother served the poker players kibbe and stuffed grape leaves. My wife Marcie Cohen Ferris grew up as a Jewish southerner in the Arkansas Delta town of Blytheville. As the first director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Utica, Mississippi, Marcie worked with southern families who greeted each other, saying, "Shalom, y'all."

Shelby Foote, whose grandmother was Jewish, recalls the ethnic diversity of Greenville, Mississippi, where he grew up. "There were fifty Chinese stores in Greenville when it had fewer than fifteen thousand people," he said. "It was a true melting pot. Here they are bragging about moonlight and magnolias and pure blood lines. It's all foolishness. It's the exact opposite."

What have I learned from all this? That the early lessons are where the deepest truth is found. I left the South on a journey and, like a wanderer in Greek mythology, my travels brought me back to the place where I began.

By returning to the South, I cut against the grain. For we Americans are taught to devalue the places we come from. We are taught to abandon old worlds. We are taught that to achieve success and make a mark on society, we must separate ourselves from our roots. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture believes that these places, memories, and values are essential to life and should not be abandoned in the name of progress.

This sense of place does not balkanize us by region or by caste, class, and gender. It bonds us as Americans. The South is at once both the most American and the most un-American part of our nation. America is indebted to southerners like Thomas Jefferson for their contribution to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and each generation of southerners has reaffirmed the American institutions of family, religion, and patriotism. But the South was also the site of the most un-American institution, slavery. During the Civil Rights movement in the sixties, unpardonable racial intolerance and violence were common in the South.

Historian David Potter described the South as a sphinx who rarely if ever fully reveals her secrets. The South in many ways is like a third world culture where poverty and illiteracy are juxtaposed with great wealth. It is a world where past and present coexist. Look at the issue of race, for example. Many expect a Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi to glorify moonlight and magnolias. Instead, its focus is upon those who have been omitted from southern history--blacks, poor whites, and women. Our work is designed to heal the historic wounds of race, class, and gender.

Our curriculum deals with racial issues in a region that celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee. Our students talk together about their ancestors, black and white, who were slaves and slave owners.

What does our work at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture have to do with the rest of the country? We have a message for the heart of every adult and child. This is our ten-point lesson plan for America:

First, we must view the arts as a means of preserving and celebrating American culture. Our writers, musicians, and painters help us see ourselves clearly and honestly through their work. We ignore or attack artists at our own peril, for their contributions to society will endure long after most politicians are forgotten.

Second, we must discuss race, ethnicity, class, and gender openly within the classroom. We must use education to heal old wounds by teaching our students that America's diversity is her greatest strength.

Third, we must commit ourselves to historic preservation. Each of us can remember a historic building that has been torn down in our community. We know of others that are endangered. We are connected to these buildings, and their destruction diminishes our lives immeasurably.

Fourth, we must establish oral history projects in every American community. I often quote an African proverb that says, "When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground." It we tape a single hour of conversation with a grandparent, think what a legacy their voice will be for the grandchildren.

Fifth, we must encourage our students to be writers, historians, and teachers. We must educate students to understand the culture into which they are born and teach them to drink from its rich waters as they educate future generations of Americans.

Sixth, we must help our teachers. Primary and secondary schoolteachers desperately need the support that our Center offers through summer institutes that provide teachers with resources that enrich their classroom curriculum.

Seventh, we must rebuild our inner cities by celebrating their history and culture. In my hometown of Vicksburg, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture worked with community leaders to save a city block of buildings, some more than 150 years old, that were erected by the Sisters of Mercy. Their St. Francis School is being renovated as a southern culture center that houses a performance center and a museum in which the black, white, and ethnic traditions of Vicksburg are celebrated.

Eighth, we must strengthen our nation's resources for cultural tourism. Tourism is second only to health care as America's leading industry. Our Center is developing a corridor of cultural tourism that extends along the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans, from Beale Street to Bourbon Street. While the Mississippi Delta's economy is among the poorest in our nation, its cultural resources include Native American, Civil War, Civil Rights, literary, and blues worlds that draw thousands of visitors each year. We are working with communities in the Delta to build an infrastructure of museums and cultural centers that interpret the culture for tourists and also serve as educational resources for local schools.

Ninth, we must open the doors and windows of academe and reach out to the public. The model of the university as an ivory tower is not rooted in the American experience. It is inappropriate for our time. Our Center has embraced public audiences since its inception with a range of programs that include our quarterly newsletter the Southern Register and the magazine Living Blues; our "College on the Mississippi" aboard the Delta Queen, with speakers and performers such as Alex Haley, B. B. King, Shelby Foote, and William Styron; our annual symposia on William Faulkner, southern history, the book, and most recently Elvis Presley; along with films, records, and radio programs. One of them is Highway 61, a two-hour blues show every Saturday night that is broadcast throughout the Deep South on public radio in Mississippi.

Tenth, we must bond our generations together in this effort. Our problems in the South are no different than those anywhere. Our Center was made a member of the United Nations Non- governmental Organization, because every nation on this planet struggles to preserve its culture, and the Center's work is seen as a model for similar institutions in Russia, Africa, and Australia.

Those in politics have voiced their concern over the impoverishment of American life and values, but no one has found an answer to our problems. I suggest that the solution lies in the indigenous culture about which Alice Walker wrote, the familiar worlds into which we each are born. We must study and understand the worlds that make each of us American and through that journey we will renew American culture.

Southerners love family reunions, and I suggest to you that this approach to America's future is a family affair. As an elder in this family, I invite you to join hands with me to build a stronger, more compassionate future for all people.