The annual Jackson Free Press "Best of Jackson" party is always a blast. This year, as I looked around at the hundreds of faces in the crowd, the huge diversity touched me deeply. People were tall, short, white, black, Asian, Latino, old and young—a few folks even brought their kids—gay and straight, rich and poor … well, you get the picture. People were dressed in tiaras and furs, jeans and T-shirts, and everything in between.
Skinny gay black girls danced with not-so-skinny straight white boys (and vice versa), men with men, and women with women—and men with women. Sometimes I couldn't tell who was dancing with whom as the entire crowd bobbed and rocked in rhythm to the lights and music. I saw more cool tattoos and gave more hugs than I can remember in one place on one night. It was truly a celebration of the best that Jackson, and Mississippi, and maybe the world, can be.
I consider myself blessed that I came to Mississippi nearly 11 years ago. Although there are some things that will forever brand me as a "Yankee" (I'll never get football, for example, or grits), I find myself in the midst of an extraordinary community of creative, open-minded, progressive individuals who aren't afraid to talk about, and do something about, the things that matter—people who don't refer to themselves in terms of their belief systems, sex, age brackets, educational achievements, skin color or politics. It was never as clear to me as it was when I surveyed the vibrant, eclectic crowd at this year's JFP "Best of Jackson" celebration.
What I see is the quality of inclusiveness, blurring the lines between them and me, you and we, us and them. They—we—are simply, citizens of the world. That's an awesome blessing and a fearsome responsibility. Because when you give up the labels you use to define yourself—white, black, Republican, Democrat, man, woman—you begin to get a glimmer of just how "we," the collective we, have screwed things up with our insistence on separateness, with our puffed-up chest beating about how much better we are, or our silly fears that we're worse than everyone else.
The JFP is frequently criticized for the editor's insistence on talking about the past—over and over again. But it's necessary, because until "we" get the lessons our history is teaching us, right now, we're simply going to keep getting the same instruction.
Racism in Mississippi, nay, racism in the U.S., nay, racism in the world, wasn't imported anew on the slave ships, or invented in the Nazi concentration camps, or created for any of the various and sundry crusades or wars throughout human history. Racism, bigotry and ignorance are alive and well today, in this moment, as they have been since we forgot that we are but unique manifestations of the larger whole.
As a preacher told me recently, the lesson of the Garden of Eden is all about how we separated ourselves from the divine, and our entire human history has been about getting back to that mythical innocence we once knew. "Love," he said, "can't be love unless it's freely given," which is why we have free will, the option of doing the right thing or the wrong thing every second of every day of our lives. But whether you call it God, or Gaia, Shiva or "Fred," when we remember that we're part of the whole, the lines separating us begin to lose shape, substance and validity.
Eastern spiritual tradition talks about the illusions that bring us misery and suffering. One of those illusions is that we are separate from everyone and everything else. And although I'm not a subscriber to the popular "everything happens for a reason" philosophy, I do believe that we all get to take the same cosmic lessons until we get it.
One of the lessons I find myself constantly repeating is about being here, now, in the present. It's so easy to let this moment be colored by the past. There are distinct memories that bring tears to my eyes—the death of my parents, the birth of my nephew, the jitters at my wedding, the antics of my kittens. Even mere mention of some events brings them back, fully formed in my mind's eye. I can "hear" the sounds, "see" the colors, "smell" the odors. The memories that are still traumatic in the present are the ones I haven't dealt with, yet.
Kind of like Mississippi and her past.
"Conversations in the present, in my opinion, are prerequisite," a JFP blogger wrote recently in response to a column about racism. "The greater the possible implications of such conversations and the more potent the toxins held within such secrets, the more venomous the words of those who seek to silence conversation and the more dedicated they are to protect it."
We must talk about our past, not to keep it alive, but to gain insight on how not to repeat it. Just like a child won't advance to the sixth grade without learning the lessons of fifth, until we learn the difficult lessons of our past—and our present—we won't be able to move beyond them. The lessons, I think, have to do with remembering that we're all God's children, and no one—not the prostitute on the corner or the president in the White House—is any better or worse in God's eyes. And no one is beyond redemption.
Perhaps the real blessing for me is twofold: First, that more and more of us are willing to have those difficult conversations about the past, exposing and disappearing the poisons that have kept us trapped repeating the same old lessons. And second, that I'm here to be a part of it.
Perhaps, when we can let go of our fear of the past, we can stop long enough to see things as they are, right now, instead of justifying and defending ourselves from it, denying responsibility. And maybe, just maybe, we can get beyond our past and move on to the next challenge, and blessing, of living.
Ronni Mott is the JFP operations manager and the managing editor of Boom Jackson.
- Ray Carter