Southern Cultures 8.2 (2002) 38-55
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Mississippi's Giant House Party Being White at the Neshoba County Fair
"In Neshoba County, Mississippi, the basement of the past is not very deep."
—Florence Mars, Witness in Philadelphia
For more than one hundred years, Mississippians have braved their long hot summer to head to the eastern part of the state for the Neshoba County Fair. For one week in late July, thousands of men and women from Philadelphia (the county seat), the rest of the state, and even farther afield descend upon the fairgrounds to create a Mississippi town of respectable size. Joined by well over fifty thousand additional visitors, including the occasional reporter from a Washington or Boston newspaper, they gather to enjoy food, drink, horse racing, gospel singing, and political oratory—in short, as National Geographic accurately characterized it, to "join in tribal rites of fellowship" where "a whole way of life finds affirmation." This annual ritual is an assertion that one can go home again. "It's a place," as one admirer explained, "where there is comfort in knowing that tomorrow will be little changed from today." 1
The fair's most striking feature is the cabins that fan out from centrally located Founder's Square. Over six hundred in all, these magnificent specimens of vernacular architecture are decorated and named—"The Fox Den," "Green Acres," and "Ye Old King's Kastle" among them; purists argue whether such conveniences as screened windows and air conditioning compromise the cabins' aesthetic integrity. In contrast to the suvs and minivans parked outside, these two- and three-story structures are self-consciously spartan, in keeping with the fair's early history as a camp meeting: "iron bedsteads and homemade wood bunks stand in rows dormitory-style, their covers wilting in 99-degree heat." Coveted, but in limited supply, the cabins are practically a medium of exchange. As one owner noted, "It's a common thing in Neshoba County to have a divorce where they would decide the child custody, alimony, cash settlement and who gets the house, but the only thing they can't resolve is who is going to get the fair cabin." 2 Jealously passed on from generation to generation, the cabins and the relaxed living they encourage—strangers may find themselves invited inside for supper, or at least a drink—are seen by long-time fairgoers as a key to the fair's meaning. They are correct, for each summer the cabins, all owned by white families, become [End Page 38] the heart of a Disneyesque "Southland," a racially segregated imagining of a Mississippi town. In a county almost one-third black, the fair remains, in the eyes of many Neshoba County residents, largely for whites only. "It's for them, not for us," a black Philadelphian told me matter-of-factly.
The fair exemplifies the most critical development in race and public culture in Mississippi over the last generation: a move from explicit public commemoration of whiteness to an implicit rhetoric of racial definition signaled obliquely in cultural practices and artifacts. This rhetoric of white identity is now, in some ways, even more tenacious in the state's public culture than it was in the 1950s and 1960s because it wields a largely unspoken power. At the fair, whiteness and racially exclusive definitions of community are represented by the cabins themselves and encoded in the seemingly benign cultural practices of singing, visiting, and celebrating family life.
In recent years, white Mississippians have been confronted with potent reminders of their state's defiant years: the release of the movie Mississippi Burning, the grudging opening of the State Sovereignty Commission's files, and the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers. But fairgoers, for all their obeisance to tradition and the past, display a curious, even conscious, will to ignorance of the county's and the state's history of violent resistance to racial change. The fair represents a paradox most white Mississippians have yet to grasp: their cherished...