02 December 2012

Happy Birthday Holly Springs...

Holly Springs celebrated its 175th birthday this weekend.

Sort of.

The town was founded in 1836 so technically last year would have been the 175th anniversary. I'm told time got away from organizers last year so they put off celebrating until Spring 2012.

But Spring crept up on them and before they knew it, Summer was busting out so they postponed the official birthday show for later in the year, setting it to coincide with the annual lighting of the city's Christmas lights. That was this weekend.

On this last day of the celebration (under skies that threaten rain), with the wisdom of retrospect, I can see how the hit-or-miss, lackluster quality of the celebration flowed from the similarly marked lead up to the celebration. It was as though the town believed it would be improper and embarrassing to let the birthday pass without an observance of some kind but lacked the imagination and enthusiasm to produce a truly celebratory event.

On Thursday, I strolled up to the Visitor's Bureau to pick up a Schedule of Events for the weekend. I was greeted warmly by a heavyset young woman seated at the front desk over a styrofoam plate heaped with fried chicken, mashed potatos, etc. and a large Coke. She introduced herself as the soon-to-be Executive Director of the tourism bureau. She directed my attention to a rack that held half a ream of 8 1/2 by 11 sheets titled "Holly Springs, Mississippi: All Kind of Character. Celebrating 175 Years." I pondered whether the typo changing "Kinds of Character" to "Kind of Character" was intentional.

The bulk of the space on the flyer was taken up by an uncaptioned sepia-tone ink drawing of the town square around the time of its founding, a black-and-white photo of "Senator Hiram Revels: First African American elected to U.S. Senate" and a paragraph of copy that began "Cheerfulness will spread throughout the city as we celebrate 175 years defined by a rich and varied history." Although all other sources I've consulted list the founding year as 1836, this flyer asserts it was 1837.

In a narrow sidebar bearing the title "175 years of Homes, History & Holiday Happenings in Holly Springs, MS!!!" the schedule of events for the weekend was printed in a tiny font. Most but not all of the items mentioned the time of the event; most but not all of the items mentioned where they would take place.

Friday night's Opening Ceremony on the Square included "Lighting of Christmas Tree & City Lights." Drawn by the alluring prospect of seeing a quaint small town bathed in holiday lights, I walked up to the Square a little after 5. Judging from the astounding volume of vehicular traffic along Van Dorn Avenue, I anticipated a large crowd on the square. There were perhaps 60 people standing on the grass around the gazebo when I arrived. Besides the Mayor, I spotted only a handful of other black residents in attendance:   one or two standing a distance away on the periphery of the "crowd" and one well-dressed black woman standing inside the throng.

When I arrived, the Mayor was at the microphone, finishing his remarks. After polite applause, another man took the mic, welcomed the crowd and introduced the next speaker who would "lead us in prayer." Although the sight of a small crowd of "white" people gathered on the courthouse lawn where day to day there are mostly "black" people gathered was slightly unnerving, this man's prayer disturbed me even more.

It was a long prayer, delivered in what struck my ear as a domineering tone, demanding that "Father God" return the city of Holly Springs and the State of Mississippi and "our great nation" to our true roots as Christian people believing in the saving grace of God's only son, Jesus Christ. There was something of a warning in his request "Let everything we do be a testimony to our faith and done only to glorify God."

I wondered what he was not saying about non-believers:  Jews, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Unitarians and others who do not worship the Christian God. The implication was that all of these people are unwelcome transgressors in this city, this State and this country.

I did not bow my head. I looked at the quiet people with bowed heads. The dark blue velvet of the night sky above us. The bumper to bumper cars crawling the streets around the Square. The vacant storefronts lining the Square. I felt like an alien. I felt at risk. The narrow-minded exclusivity of the prayer and the antiquated belief system underlying it was offensive and disheartening.

The prayer concluded with uttered "Amens," some of them impassioned.

The unidentified but apparent Master of Ceremonies returned to the mic and thanked the minister for his prayer. He admitted his bias as a member of the pastor's congregation but assured us this man was the finest preacher in the city and urged us all to visit First Baptist to witness his exceptional oratory firsthand.

Senator Roger Wicker spoke next. He expressed his great pleasure to be in Holly Springs again. "My family came to this city 160 years ago," he told us, "and I'm always happy to return." His remarks were generic, with the expected focus on hopes for "continued economic growth". And I wondered, a) where in this city can "growth" be perceived, and b) what kind of growth--economic or otherwise-- is possible in a place where only Christians are welcome and all enterprise is focused on the glorification of "God."

The emcee was notably excited as he reclaimed the microphone from the Senator. He had a "surprise" to announce:  this year, instead of lighting a Christmas tree, Holly Springs would light a nativity scene.

I'd observed the installtion of the creche on the courthouse lawn the previous week. Is that legal? I'd wondered. "We in Holly Springs want to be in the forefront of returning our great nation to its Christian roots and the true meaning of Christmas," the speaker intoned with pride. And, with that, they flipped a switch and the all-white figures and objects of the life-size nativity were flooded with white light.

I was mortified. Not that I have an especially strong attachment to Christmas trees or distaste for nativity scenes. What bothered and confused me were questions like "Who made the decision?" and "Does it have to be either or?" and "Is this display financed by tax dollars?" and "Is the in-your-face exclusivity of installing Christian iconography on the front steps of a courthouse a sign of ignorant blindness, intentional disregard or outright bigotry?"

I was first in line at the Finale:  distribution of cupcakes, packed tight in a box to resemble a large sheet cake. White cupcakes with white icing.

I walked back down the hill toward home sobered, a little bit afraid and a little bit broken. What kind of art is possible in a place that evidences this level of narrow mindness, fear and lack of imagination? How do I reach these people?

On the recommendation of the young woman at the Visitor's Bureau, I stopped by the Square on Saturday to catch the "Historical Play". She warned there would likely be some grumbling in the community because the coordinator had reportedly chosen all the actors from the local Christian academy, a 99.99% "white" school. I don't know if the play ever happened; I waited about 15 minutes and left after seeing no signs that a performance was imminent.

I stopped in the Visitor's Bureau office to ask if perhaps the play was being enacted at some other location. The same young woman was at the front desk -- this time with a full meal from McDonald's before her. She was on the phone but introduced me to her husband and young children and said she was at that moment trying to find out what had happened with the play.

As I left downtown to put in some piano time in at Christ Church, I learned from a woman selling commemorative T-shirts that the decision to replace the traditional Christmas tree with a nativity scene was made by the city clerk after numerous requests from town residents.

The final event of the weekend is a Christmas concert at Rust College. Two days ago N______ invited me to be a backup pianist for carol singing at Rust College on Sunday night. He's had some health challenges lately and was insecure about his capacity to accompany the singing. When I read the promotional flyer, however, and saw the event described as a "concert" I contacted N_______ to get clear on what kind of event I'd agreed to attend.

By that time, he'd learned the event would celebrate his decades of service as music faculty and that the organizers had already lined up another pianist. He emailed his hope that I would still attend and sit with him. I responded my congratulations and assurance that I would be happy to accompany him...to which he responded, yesterday, 

I have had a chance to think –to reflect—I couldn’t have been more wrong.  As I used that term surprise party I knew it was not what I really meant to say ... this message that I am typing to you right now is meant to say that ...there is an edge to this thing that I have to be very cautious about and leery about. ...Sometimes they have you in the well before you realize you were even near it.  Retirement dinners or “going away “ celebrations—beware of them . Normally a good rule of thumb is probably to decline –resist say no retirement celebration for me please.  ...YOU MIGHT WANT TO SEE IF THERE IS A DOOR OPEN TO CHANGE YOUR MIND...  
 The event is slated to kick off about 60 minutes from now. I am undecided about attending.


A few hours later...

I attended...  Let's just say the weekend ended much as it began.