Awakening Racial Pride, Racial Understanding

For each of us there is an awakening. Something that has been tolerated is simply no longer acceptable. Sometimes it is a moment when a reality is suddenly crystal clear. Sometimes it is more of a process, over time. For me, and for many of my high school classmates, it was a process of racial understanding and emerging racial pride that began one fall day.

“I wish I was in the land of cotton,

Old times there are not forgotten,

Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.”

Played by the school band, that’s what we heard freshman year when we walked into the gym for our first pep rally. Students were singing loudly and enthusiastically as they stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers. The energy in the room was palpable.

Dixie “Dixie” was the fight song for my high school, John Marshall in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, that “Dixie.” The song born in the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s, the song that was the standard for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the song that had come to represent the collective of the Southern states, and the Southern sensibility, in the United States. That “Dixie”.

This was the mid-1960s. Brown v. Board of Education had called for the integration of all public schools about a decade or so earlier, but schools in Virginia were slow to recognize the mandate. In fact, they actively worked against it. When I arrived, John Marshall was still a predominately white school with a small number of black students. Many in the all-white, school administration and many of the white students’ parents had fought against integration. Black people were actively trying to prove that they could fit in. Like most at the time, the black students at John Marshall were Negroes, integrationists, assimilationists. No one wanted to do anything to cause trouble. Black people were trying to gain acceptance in a white world. And on that fall day, the students—white and black—were just kids cheering their football team as the players came into the gym.

We were all children of the cultural South. We all knew the words. By rote, almost everyone sang with little regard for the meaning or essence of the song,

“In Dixie Land, I’ll take my stand,

To live and die in Dixie.”

 A traditional fight song for the South, a song of pride, it had probably been the rallying song for John Marshall High from the beginning when the school opened in 1909, just a little over 50 years after the Civil War. No consideration had been given then to any culture other than white and little was offered a little over fifty years later for black students. It is unlikely that anyone—not for a moment—thought this, a school-rallying cry, might be offensive. Did it really matter?

Something about singing the song probably felt wrong from the start, but we went along to get along. Then, one day the words suddenly came into focus. Our consciousness had been raised. The school rallying song did matter. It was symbolic of so much. How could “We Shall Overcome” be the song of the times—more importantly, the anthem of our people—while we continued to sing “Dixie?”

Students asked the administration to stop playing “Dixie.” They were disregarded. Then one day, in our junior year, the black band members—in one catalytic moment—decided to take action. They didn’t refuse to play the song, it could have been played without them. Their action was far more effective, demonstrating the effect that the song was having on us— it was hurtful. When the band director called for “Dixie,” the black band members played other songs, not just one song, many. Cacophony resulted, then silence. That moment of dissonance accomplished what polite requests had failed to do. In that silence was there any racial understanding or compassion? I don’t know, but “Dixie” was no longer the fight song for John Marshall High School.

To learn more about “Dixie,” listen to this episode of the podcast, “Uncivil.” I guarantee you’ll learn something new.


12 Replies to “Awakening Racial Pride, Racial Understanding”

  1. I remember being surprised that they played this at W&M football game freshman year. It felt wrong. I didn’t stand up while it was played. That was one of the early realizations that I was attending a “southern “ school.
    Even more prominent at UVA football games.

  2. Tamara, I so appreciate your writing and the clarity of your expression as you share pieces of your history–how you felt and what you thought about those experiences and your thoughts and feelings about them some 50 years later. I’m a couple of years younger than you and grew up in the Shenandoah Valley. I won’t say I’m surprised, but I am often literally dumbfounded at how so little has changed in terms of understanding and shifting the consciousness that supports racism–on any level–here in the Old Dominion. And everywhere else in The Land of the Free.

    1. Thanks, Becky, for sharing your thoughts. Why do you think so little has changed? My belief is that we’ve never had the conversation — a true societal conversation — like South Africa did. Until, we actually talk about it and learn about it, I fear that we will continue to have this horrible reality. Thanks again for following. Please share as you deem appropriate.

      1. I agree with you, Tamara–on both counts. I do share your posts because I believe yours is a strong voice carrying the conversation. I believe humans have the sometimes unfortunate capacity to dismiss “others” whenever it serves their agenda–especially the agenda of subjugation for the purpose of gaining and/or maintaining positions of power. My desire is that people will awaken to the reality that anything built on that will eventually crumble and fall, though it may take generations and decades, or even centuries. Perhaps we can create conversation cells that will grow together and infect our society with the desire for making a world where all are healed and uplifted. Now. We can do that now. Thanks again for doing your part!

  3. While I don’t remember this from my Jayem years and perhaps, it occurred prior to my arrival. Nonetheless, I appreciate what the band members did to change the tune — figuratively and literally. Great post as per usual.

    1. Memories are strange things, aren’t they? You never know when you are making one, what events you will remember, or how those memories are molded by the present. What are your memories about evolving racial understanding at Jayem?

  4. Wonderful post, Tamara! I’ve always believed in equality and fairness–always judged people by the type of human they are and not by any other measurement. And my wife and I have raised our girls to have that same mindset of principles. But I’ve realized as I get older, especially as I’ve worked closely with people of all races and creeds, that just me (my family, too) being that way–quietly–is not enough. Even adults need to be prodded from time to time to ‘up’ their awareness.Your writing helps to give me a deeper understanding.

  5. Tamara, I love this post and how you capture the growing awareness and resolve. The actions of the band members were so perfect: everyday racism should sound like a cacophony. When others can’t hear that clash, we can make it visible to them.
    Would it be okay to share this with my students at GWU?

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