Not that I want to bring too much attention to “Ole Miss” — or Mississippi State either — because the greatest university in the state and in the world is the University of Southern Mississippi, down a ways at the steamy but pleasant city of Hattiesburg.
But back to Oxford where “Ole Miss” (the University of Mississippi) is located. Quaint, storied Oxford is just under a hundred miles northwest of Starkville, the home of “State,” which is just under a hundred miles south of Tupelo from whence came you-know-who.
At issue is the nickname “Ole Miss.” Those who want to ditch it claim that its etymology is ignoble. Although it originated from a university yearbook contest in the 1800s, “Ole Miss,” they argue, is racist because it was also a name slaves used when referring to the “mistress” of the plantation, that is, the plantation owner’s wife.
Could we pause for a few seconds and promise ourselves we will not allow such maudlin sensitivity to affect our blood pressure? The swastika was a cross, and the KKK used the cross symbol, but shall we allow the misinterpretation or misapplication of something we treasure to become its definition? Shall Christian churches rid themselves of the cross? (Quite a few have.)
Even before the cross became a beloved Christian symbol, it was a horrific instrument for execution. It might surprise us how ignoble is the history of many group names, particularly those that originated in derision: Puritan, Christian and Cajun for instance.
Of course those who want to drop the time-honored university nickname are the vast majority of students, alumni and financial supporters of “Ole Miss.” Nope! Not a chance. The supporters of the change are, according to University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones, “a few, especially among our faculty, who are uncomfortable using the name ‘Ole Miss,’ believing that the term is racist.”
Why does so much of the excessive sensitivity for just about everything spring from university campuses? We know the answer to this question. Though less so than in the past, many universities still consider themselves “groves of academe,” idyllic islands of contemplation, exemplars of all things proper. Technology is rapidly changing this, but many university communities are still condescending toward those who don’t hold to sensitivity ideology.
To respond to “the few” who are pinning racism on their very benefactors, Chancellor Jones in early August announced — in such tired language — his plans to make the university a “more inclusive and welcoming environment,” plans that are fairly big for just “a few.” He proposed a vice chancellor-level position for diversity and inclusion, history classes that tell the story of Mississippi’s struggles with slavery, segregation and their aftermath, and efforts to imitate Richmond, Va., in that city’s endeavors to address the negative aspects of its history. Confederate history, of course.
OK, I’ve done just about all I know to do to affect racial justice in the two Southern states I’ve lived in. I have written, spoken and tried to teach my children to respect all people. Forgive me, but I am particularly proud of my two sons who, as high school and college students, were shining, active examples of how to view, treat and befriend people of all races.
But empty symbolic moves are non-productive and often divisive. They also trivialize the real problem. I suspect most people who cry “insensitive” have never taken a single, concrete action to improve human relations. Marching, holding campus symposia and banning time-honored words that a few people may not like are all non-starters. And instead of paying a vice-chancellor a big salary to think up yet more symbolic gestures, why doesn’t a university president lead by word and example? Whatever happened to the good ole bully pulpit?
I’ve researched “Miss.” It is indeed a clipped form of “Mistress,” except when it refers to Mississippi, whether the state, the pre-Columbian Native Americans, or the great river. As for “Ole,” it is a variant of “old”: “ole buddy,” “same ole,” etc.
I’m not worried about the affectionate name “Ole Miss” being banned. It won’t be. I do worry about the trivialization of serious, social problems brought on by uber-sensitive lovers of fruitless symbolism.
We don’t need more “dialogue on race.” We need to read and obey the Bible on the matter. We also need families (with moms and dads) who teach their children never to steal, loot or hate. Simple, simple.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.