Pride is a word that has always meant a lot to me.
My mother has often told me that while I might be a Haskell, in all the ways that matter I am also a “Pride Woman”. For my birthday 2 years ago she had a collage made using portraits of the most incredibly beautiful, smart, and strong-willed Southern women I have ever known, both in life and in lore. They are The Pride Women, and my picture is at the center of all of them. It’s funny… one of the many definitions we are given of “pride” is “a group of lions forming a social unit”. I can’t help but think of these women as a group of lionesses, fearfully made and fiercely committed to living and loving with their full potential.
Pride is a family name. As they say down south, “my mother’s people”, The Prides, come from northwestern Alabama where they owned one of the many antebellum plantations in Colbert County. I don’t have all the exact history of what happened to the plantation during the war, but what I do know for certain is that the land stayed in the family. My great-grandmother, known affectionately to me as Mama Mabel, grew up there in a Victorian style home that was built post war, but things were changing. A railroad was being built that needed to cross through the property, and my great-great grandfather Lawrence Thompson Pride only allowed them to use his land if they would build a station there so his children, Mama Mabel included, could take the train into Tuscumbia to go to school. Henceforth the “home place” was referred to as Pride Station. Still is to this day.
This little bit of familial history caused some, well, friction for me growing up in Los Angeles. I remember in 8th grade US history when we were studying The Civil War one of my classmates shouted out “Well Mary Lane knows all about this, her family owned slaves.” He even made reference to the incredible Belizean woman who had worked for my family since I was born, a picture of whom I had hanging in my locker holding me as a baby: “They still do”, he said. I shrugged it off in class, but I went home and cried. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that. I also have a vivid memory of a class “battle reenactment” when one half of the room represented The Union and the other The Confederacy. I alone was sent to the side of The Confederacy, until my teacher intervened having determined that I had been made an example of quite enough. There are many people in this world that would assume this familial connection to The Antebellum South would make me the ULTIMATE Southern Belle. It provides the type of deeply rooted lineage a proper debutante should have and therefore they assume that I must, or at least should, be proud of it. Now I’ll admit, I love “Gone With the Wind” just as much if not more than the next debutante, but here’s the truth: If that kind of pride is what makes me a “Belle”, then I don’t want to be one.
I’d much rather be a Pride Woman.
Pride Women raised me. My mother and grandmother both have very strong ties to their heritage, and a great appreciation for it, but they don’t look back on it through rose-colored glasses or with any kind of nostalgia. Like them, I was brought up with a deep appreciation for my family’s history, and I would never break from it for the world, but I do look at is as just that: history. You see while it was very important to my parents that my brother Sam and I know where we came from, they also raised us with an incredibly strong awareness of the fact that, to quote former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat,
“Who we were is not who we are”.
My Godfathers are a mixed race gay couple. Growing up my parents always considered them among the people who, if anything were to happen to them, would not only come to my brother's and my aid but would be there to answer the door when others arrived to do the same. To this day they are as much family to me as my real family and I am PROUD to consider them as such.
As a Southern church-going Christian living in New York, people who don’t know me often assume I must be “one of THOSE” Christians, the “crazy” ones who spout Old Testament scripture to condemn the LGBTQ community for living how they live and for loving whom they love. What they don’t take the time to appreciate is that I was brought up in a Christian home that preached LOVE above all things. They don’t know about my godfathers or about my countless number of gay friends, for all of whom I would easily give my own life. For every verse in the Bible condemning homosexuality there are 10 about how love is the most important lesson God teaches us. Among my favorites:
“Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.” – Romans 13:10
“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence of the day of judgment, because in this world we are like Him.” - 1 John 4:16
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” - 1 Corinthians 13:13
A “Belle” in the overly traditional and stereotypical sense might take issue with letting people love who they love. A Pride Woman doesn’t. I am PROUD of my LGBTQ friends and family… they are among the most incredible people I know. They live openly, they give passionately, and they love deeply. What could possibly be wrong with that? Nothing. And I’m PROUD to have lived in two states that recognize that and have accordingly given them the right to marry.
As for Mississippi, unfortunately things are dragging a little. Back in April, Governor Phil Bryant signed into law a legislation that is being referred to as The Gay Jim Crowe. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which will go into effect July 1, will “protect individuals’ religious freedoms from government interference”, according to a statement released by Bryant when he signed the bill. However, local and national critics say it opens the door for random acts of discrimination by business owners against gay customers, and I have to agree with them. Having the ability to cite “religious rights” as grounds for treating others as less than is a slippery slope towards full on discrimination, and unfortunately, there are still people in this world who harbor prejudice for people they deem “different”. But hope isn’t lost.
I am PROUD that my familial home is in a town that is fighting back. When news first surfaced regarding The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Oxford immediately reacted by passing equality ordinances that would forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation should the legislation go through. They were among the first of now eight Mississippi cities to do so, including Jackson, the state’s capitol. The Governor was also scheduled to speak at The University of Mississippi’s commencement, and in response to his having signed the bill the university, which is in Oxford, planned a peaceful protest. During his speech, the sea of students and faculty who support equality wore rainbow-colored stickers to protest the potential discrimination made possible under The Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Restaurants and chefs are even taking action. Some are putting placards and stickers in their windows to emphasize acceptance of all customers, and some, like famous Mississippi chef and personal friend John Currence, are taking it even further. John had already committed to cooking a special meal for Governor Bryant at a New York restaurant while he was in town for the annual Mississippi Picnic in the Park, a great annual event where displaced debutantes and Mississippians alike can gather and sip some of the McAllister’s famous sweet tea that gets flown up for the event. This year, however, in light of this new legislation I have to admit I wasn’t too excited to go toot Mississipi’s horn. Neither was John. While he was not able to get out of cooking for the Governor, he got together with other Southern chefs to make a plan for a protest dinner the following night on the eve of the picnic, and together they made enough noise to get the attention of The New York Times. The article read:
"On the eve of the state’s [Mississippi’s] showcase picnic in Central Park, Mr. Currence and a group of chefs including Art Smith will put on a protest dinner called the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table in partnership with City Grit in Manhattan. 'It’s polite Southern activism with food, which is a magic way to bring people together,' said Mr. Smith."
What a perfectly delicious (both literally and figuratively) idea. Proceeds from the event went to LGBTQ groups on college campuses all over Mississippi. According to the article, Governor Bryant was even invited to attend but declined. I couldn’t make it there myself, but in solidarity to their cause I did not attend the Mississippi in the Park festivities either. I am PROUD of Oxford and of people like John Currence who are fighting to make sure that the history of intolerance that plagues our state doesn’t become our present.
“Pride”, more properly defined in this context, is “the consciousness of one’s own dignity”. Dignity… what an old world term, don’t you think? It could be said that my presence and my deep curtsey at my debutante ball back in 2008 were dignified, or “showing a composed manner or style.” And that was a proud moment for me, albeit a very old-fashioned one. As for what dignity means in the now, I think it’s much more about being worthy of respect, which makes “pride” then the consciousness of that worthiness.
No matter who you are, where you come from, or what your beliefs are, if you live a full and generous life filled by the desire to love and be loved, to spread joy, and to make this world a better place to live in, you are not only worthy of this Pride Woman’s respect, you already have it in spades
Happy Pride, y’all xx
With Grace and Good Humor,