Last week I had the good fortune of being a presenter at the second annual Delta Symposium at the University of Memphis. Roughly two hundred people of all stripes, interests, political persuasions, ages and body types attended this daylong event. The common thread that ran through the crowd was that each person had a keen interest in the history and development of the Mississippi Delta. Actually, a keen enough interest to part with the fifty-dollar enrollment fee. Our social and economic heritage in Memphis and the midsouth is inexorably linked to the Delta, to the point that many of us feel no more than a slight allegiance to the state of Tennessee, but rather feel that we are simply living in the capital of the Delta. Greenville, Mississippi writer David Cohn probably had no idea that his words would ring nostalgically true some seventy years after he wrote them. “The Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” The reality of this statement, along with the fact of the Blues and Rock and Roll, is the cornerstone of who we are, what we market, and why people continue to visit our part of the world in ever increasing numbers. People around the world are fascinated with the South in general and the Delta in specific. Walk around downtown Memphis at anytime day or night and you’re likely to see dozens of people who “aren’t from around here” checking us out. Which brings me to my point.
Fifty years ago there were very few situations or places where black and white people could congregate without the risk of being jailed, beaten or worse. A free exchange of ideas and opinions between the races was unheard of, and certainly the idea of a public event touting that would have been insane, and that’s the truth. But our truth changed. Just as the idea of allowing a woman to vote changed in the 1920s, just as the idea of banning 5 and 6 year old children from working in the cotton mills changed in the early 20th century, and any number of other scenarios that seem perfectly ridiculous to us in our current enlightened state. Which issues will our grandchildren and great grandchildren look back on, shake their heads and wonder what we were thinking here in the early days of the 21st century? Which brings me to my second point.
My two youngest children graduated from high school last year, and the only bit of advice I felt compelled to offer was this. “I give you permission to change your mind. Whatever political, social, occupational or religious idea you are clinging to with such fervor today, you can change without so much as a raised eyebrow from your old man.” Too many times we paint ourselves into a philosophical or political corner and feel compelled to defend a position that is either ill-conceived, or developed through some faulty, vague or downright mean logic. (Can you say talk radio?) And while this is most commonly associated with young people who are just testing their ideological wings, we adults are not immune. Therefore, I propose a day of your choosing each year to challenge your list, however short or long, of opinions, prejudices and beliefs. The good news is that most of them will prove to be sound, but for those of us who need to tweak our list, the payoff is enormous. We become better parents, neighbors and citizens. A wise man once said that we can deny everything, except that we have the possibility of being better. This could be a start.
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