OXFORD, Miss. This past weekend I traveled home to spend the weekend with my two siblings for their birthdays. Some other members of our campus community did some traveling as well, namely the gentleman of Kappa Alpha Order.
The fraternity members and their respective dates traveled to St. Joseph Plantation to celebrate their annual “Old South” event. According to Kappa Alpha Law R16-113, Section B, “The Old South Ball and/ or Dixie Ball has evolved since 1920 as a traditional social function of the Active Chapters of the Order with the purpose to celebrate and to perpetuate the social attributes of courtesy, graciousness, and open hospitality, which are values of the Old South and were prominent in Virginia when (the) Order was founded in 1865.”
The aforementioned Kappa Law goes on to state, “These chapter functions have never been prescribed or recommended by the Order.” Coincidentally, the law states, “The chapter functions have been admonished by the Order since 1951 that if they sponsor an Old South Ball and/or Dixie Ball, the event must be conducted with restraint and dignity and without displays of trappings and symbols which might be interpreted and objectionable to the general public.” To be fair, I never saw any Confederate uniforms or flags in any of the pictures I saw on social media. But the antebellum suits and dresses remind me of a period of time in which African Americans, particularly on southern plantations, were treated in grotesquely inhumane ways.
During my formative thought process in writing this column, I questioned myself. I dwelled on the angle I would take.
Would I lambast KA for participating in an annual event that romanticizes the “Old South”? Would I point out the problematic elements of the event? Or would I simply try to seek understanding of why members of KA participate in this event?
I always find great value in understanding the unknown. It is unknown to me why some of my classmates wish to travel to a plantation (where scenes from “12 Years a Slave” were filmed) and dress in formal antebellum attire.
I considered several points of objection as well. Yes, the function takes place far from campus, and it is not imposed on individuals who do not willingly attend. Yes, it is just a costume, and it is dangerous to place a moral thermostat in a person, let alone an entire group based off of one weekend. Before you say it’s just a tradition or heritage thing, I’d like to address that point. According to a PBS article, “the standard image of Southern slavery is that of a large plantation with hundreds of slaves. In fact, such situations were rare. Fully three-fourths of Southern whites did not even own slaves.” The article would later state that the non-slave holding white southerners “resented the wealth and power of the large slaveholders.”
So, statistically speaking, owning a plantation and dressing in the formal antebellum attire is probably not your “heritage or tradition.” And until now, few individuals outside of the Greek community probably even knew that this is an annual event. I’m assuming the old “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” logic was implied about the event. If Ole Miss students do not know that this happens, they cannot be possibly harmed.
My honest inclination is that these gentlemen do not attend the annual event with the primary motivation to become a physical embodiment of the Old South to harm black students. Conversely, I challenge each member of Kappa Alpha Order to consider if their annual event can be “objectionable to the general public.”
One of Kappa Alpha’s members, Joel Buck (Epsilon Nu – Georgia College ’08), wrote a short essay on the Kappa Alpha Order website titled “Party like it’s 1865.” (I wonder how a party for someone like me would go in 1865, but that is neither here nor there.) He asks the following question to his fellow fraternity brothers, “If non-members see a large group of young men (and women) walking the streets in 1860s period costumes with alcoholic beverages in hand, what kind of message does that send?” Despite any intention of the members of Kappa Alpha Order, the image of young men in those antebellum period suits sends a message of insensitivity to me.
Buck goes on to say, “Take a second and think about how people perceive your charter on campus, and off. Is this perception something to be proud of and what your chapter wants to be known for?” I admittedly do not have a nuanced understanding of what goes on at Old South, so I’m sure that there are elements of which members of Kappa Alpha Order can be proud. I especially like the group’s devotion to women. But, the imagery of antebellum suits ON a plantation, is something I simply cannot look past.
Toward the end of Buck’s essay he says, “Image is everything these days and that is something to definitely think about during your formal week or weekend events.”
Image is everything, and I truly hope members of Kappa Alpha Order consider the image they project when posting images of men and women dawning attire from a troublesome part of our country’s history. For me, I do not immediately see gentlemen who are uplifting hospitality and chivalry, and this is perhaps a flaw on my end.
However, if I were to wear a hoodie or basketball shorts and a do-rag, people would not automatically see a person who will be a Honors College graduate and is a member of the Ole Miss Hall of Fame. They would probably see a miscreant. In my day to day dealings, I unfairly have to take into consideration the perception of others when deciding my attire. Recent events have shown that certain attire can be deadly for black men.
Moving forward, I am not asking KA to cease their annual event; it seems like a good weekend to get away and have fun with your fraternity brothers. I just ask, like your fellow brother Joel Buck, is the perception you put forward one you can be proud of? If so, continue having the Old South event. If not, consider repurposing the event for a “New South” which is all-encompassing.
The president of Kappa Alpha Order signed the letter to The DM which stated, “We feel compelled to ask ourselves how can we open our doors, become more inclusive, and take immediate actions in becoming part of the solution.” I ask if a black man wanted to join Kappa Alpha Order, how is he supposed to react to the Old South event held on a plantation? So, if you want to become more inclusive, you gentlemen may want to start by looking at the annual event which romanticizes a period in time that may not be all about chivalry and hospitality, but rather oppression.
This column originally appeared in The Daily Mississippian. Tim Abram is the opinion editor of The Daily Mississippian from Horn Lake. Email him at [email protected].