Southern culture center studies blues, folk art, racism

In an attempt to make the University of Mississippi (''Ole Miss'') the Harvard of the South, chancellor Frederick A. P. Barnard decided to build the best observatory in the world. He talked a Cambridge, Mass., firm into grinding a 19-inch lens for the telescope - the biggest they had ever made. The mammoth lens proved useful, finding a companion star to Sirius, the Dog Star, when it was tested. But by the time it was ready, the North was at war with the South. The lens ended up in Chicago, and the Barnard Observatory never got its telescope.

Maybe it didn't need one. What is now going on in Barnard Observatory might make Harvard yearn to be the Ole Miss of the North. The scholars hard at work in the old brick building with its faded floral wallpaper and telescope tower full of books haven't found any new stars, but they haven't been looking. Instead, they are staying in touch with Faulkner scholars from Poland, studying the blues , and talking to artists who make musical instruments out of canes or play wires attached to the sides of their houses. The observatory is now home for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Its scholars gaze intently, not at the stars, but into their own back yard.

The center is a hub for American and European scholars interested in the South. They come from all over, attracted by:

* The Ole Miss Blues Archive, including a collection of 5,000 blues records donated by B. B. King and the archives of ''Living Blues,'' a Chicago magazine.

* The ''Dictionary of the South,'' modeled on Mortimer J. Adler's Encyclopedia of Western Thought, with 20 subject areas divided into at least 20 categories each (including ''goopher dust'' under ''Folklife,'' but also ''the defense of segregation'' under ''Political Ideology and Culture'' and ''lynching and racial violence'' under ''Black Life and Race Relations.'') The dictionary is expected to be finished by 1985.

* The Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, a consortium held every summer to allow Faulkner scholars from all over the world to visit his house (a mile from the university) and read papers on his work.

* The Oxford Folklife Festival, a gathering of folk artists (this year on Oct. 15) from Mississippi, Alabama, and western Tennessee.

The center is also the home of the university's Southern Studies department and a clearinghouse for information on regional studies (an interdisciplinary field that uses sociology, anthropology, folklore, and history to study a specific area). There are regional studies programs in New England, the Great Plains, and the Northwest, but the Center for the Study of Southern Culture is the most active, according to professors here.

The center's director, William Ferris, says, ''The South is hot.'' Though he is acutely aware of the region from Baltimore to West Texas that the Center concentrates on, he isn't talking about the weather.

Dr. Ferris is a folklorist who talks to the folk as well as studying their artifacts. Mississippi, with its large rural population of living folk artists, is, indeed, a ''hot'' research area. Steven Milner, a black sociologist educated at the University of California at Berkeley, says he chose to come to Ole Miss because he saw Mississippi as a ''lab'' for studying his special interest, race relations. ''I had chances to go to other places, but Ole Miss was perfect,'' said Dr. Milner. In the future, he says, ''you can expect to see more young, serious, black scholars being attracted to Ole Miss. For Afro-American culture, the research possibilities are flabbergasting. This is the place to be.''

This is a far cry from the Ole Miss that rose up in race riots in the fall of 1962, when James Meredith, a young black man, broke the 114-year-old barrier against blacks at the university. Meredith registered, but not without the help of some 30,000 National Guard troops. Two people were killed in the fracas. This year, there has been controversy about Chancellor Porter Fortune's decision to ban the Confederate flag as an official school symbol because black students say it connotes slavery.

But, though Milner says he's ''not surprised'' by the racial problems still existing, he is pleased by the progress in the last 25 years. His classes are attended mostly by white students who treat him, he says, with the respect they give white professors.

Ferris says: ''Programs like this can take a university which, as Ole Miss has been, was virtually unknown for anything other than football and Meredith and make it a national leader in terms of at least one focus. And that focus, by touching all of the departments, has a healthy kind of catalytic effect on the institution.''

Ferris's life and travels make him especially well-suited to study Southerners' strong sense of place. He is a Southerner who has seen the South from a distance and close up. He grew up in Mississippi, went East to prep school, and returned south for college. ''There was a sort of love-hate relationship in the '60s. I did a lot of civil rights work. I was an outspoken critic of a lot of things that the South seemed to represent, and yet I felt that I needed to be in that struggle rather than to leave the South and be in a Northern university and looking back at a distance.''

He came back to the South via Ireland. After college in North Carolina, and an MA in English at Northwestern University, Ferris went to Dublin to study James Joyce. He had written fiction, and he enjoyed interviewing people. ''The spoken word was something I felt I could do fairly well in my fiction. That somehow led me to an interest in interviewing. . . . Then I discovered over breakfast in Ireland that there were schools of folklore and I didn't have to try to struggle in English to do my own work in folklore.''

After getting a PhD in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and teaching at Mississippi's Jackson State College and Yale, he still has a love of the spoken word. To read his books on folklore, ''Blues from the Delta'' and ''Local Color: A Sense of Place in Folk Art'' is to sit on the porches and in the workshops of a varied group of artists. He makes some analytical comments, but seems to have a gift for getting the artists themselves to make the one pungent remark that sums up what they do.

After being in the South since 1979, he says, ''Somehow I think, because of the '60s and the incredible focus on the South, things have changed here and that the South is ready to move ahead and make commitments to the future which they were not willing to make earlier.'' He sees the center, which was started by the faculty at Ole Miss, as one such commitment to the future.

''I think one of the distinctive features of our program is that it's created not to hold to the past or try to remain static, but to prepare for the future, '' he says. Sitting at a desk in front of a wide fireplace, he manages, with his gentle Southern voice and easy good manners, to be both a genial host and a university administrator. He looks both professorial and folkloric. With his longish black hair, boot-shape sideburns, and scholarly manner, he could easily be an escapee from an unusually intellectual country-western band.

''You prepare for [the future] by bringing in good scholars,'' he continues. The scholars have been able to point out past mistakes and find solutions to past problems.

Another way to prepare for the future, of course, is to educate young Southerners. The Southern Studies department offers a chance for Ole Miss students to examine the myths and realities of what it means to be Southern. The courses offer a unique forum for discussing race relations. In a time when racial tensions erupted over the use of the Confederate flag as a school symbol, Ferris remarked that this kind of scholarship is ''very engage'' - what he teaches and discusses is what's being fought out on campus. The biggest course is Southern Studies 101, on ''the Southern sense of place'' from the antebellum South to the civil rights movement. Dr. James Cobb, Ferris, and Dr. Evans Harrington teach from historical, folkloric, and literary perspectives, respectively.

Jimmy Henderson, a junior from Choctaw County, Miss., said the course made him question Southern values about race relations, even though he had gone to an integrated school. '' 'Mules and Men' and 'The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman' [books by black authors read in the course] helped me understand folk culture other than what I've seen back home in public,'' he said. He also ''learned from watching other white students in class who were dead set in their opinions,'' he said. Henderson, who is on the student advisory board of the center, said he observed and ''argued the point in there, too, that there was too much about black people and not enough about whites. People might be turned off. Some of them want to hear old Confederate war stories.''

''For a Southern historian,'' James Cobb comments, ''this is front-line duty.'' He said some students come to Southern Studies expecting ''a rehash of 'Gone With the Wind.' '' What they get is Faulkner's ''Absalom, Absalom.'' ''There's so much emphasis here on the 'Old South.' The Greek organizations have 'Old South Week.' When students read 'Absalom, Absalom,' they see the brutality, greed, and racism that went into building the Old South. They tend to mouth the words 'tradition' and 'heritage' automatically, without much reflection.'' He says he points out the disparity between the ''Gone With the Wind'' Old South and actual history in ways that are sometimes ''completely unsubtle. A lot of them open up. I see the changes [in attitudes] in terms of the kind of questions they're asking at the end of the semester.''

The course includes a lot of Afro-American material, says Cobb, partly to give white students exposure they haven't had, as a ''step toward a balanced view,'' and partly to attract more black students to the course.

Kevin Stewart, a black student who just graduated in English and political science, said the course ''ends up negating everything you can imagine whites have been taught about blacks,'' and ''offers an opportunity for people from various backgrounds to get together and know things about themselves and each other.''

''In a literature course, you might stay on racism for a day or two,'' Stewart said, but this course gets people to think about it more deeply. In another Southern Studies course, they discussed racial attitudes and how they can be changed, and whether the South is changing - sometimes until two or three in the morning, ''exploring every avenue,'' Stewart says. They didn't resolve their questions, he recalls, but by the time they finished, they were all saying to themselves, '' 'Wow! Hmmm.' That's where I am right now.''

Racism still exists, but at the center, the work and thoughts of blacks and whites can be considered together. This is perhaps what works the biggest changes in each one's thinking about the other. Jimmy Henderson, who is white, says he was struck by how the Afro-American folklore was ''similar to what my grandparents talk about.''

And, when the center has its Oxford Folklife Festivals in the summer, artists and their fans of all races converge. Ethel Wright Mohammed, a white woman from Belzoni who makes embroidered pictures, sewed a picture of the participants from Mississippi in the Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. ''When I was up there, I loved all the people from Mississippi - every one of them,'' she comments in ''Local Color: A Sense of Place in Folk Art,'' Ferris's book of interviews with folk artists. ''My heart went out to the blind broommaker, Sam Chatmon, Ray Lum, the Leake County String Band, the basket weaver, the spinners, the quilters, the dancers, and all the people. Everybody who took part is in my picture. All of that was Mississippi. It was every bit Mississippi. I think that was just wonderful what they did to bring everybody all together like that. And, you know, now there's a feeling among everyone that will always be there.''

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