Barcalounge Skipper - The Rebel Black Bears of the University of Mississippi

I'm a bear.  I'm black.  I'm a rebel.  Grrr.  Please help me.
     I'm not sure there was any way for the University of Mississippi to find its way out of this historical mess.  On Friday, in announcing its new athletics mascot, the Rebel Black Bear, the university has made an awkward step forward from an even more awkward past.

     Now, before some of you start getting riled up about a Northerner (I'm from Maine, originally) offering his opinions on what is essentially a Southern matter, allow me to offer some credentials.  I spent a summer at both Southern Miss and the University studying nothing but William Faulkner.  I have eaten barbecue, fried catfish, fried dill pickles, hush puppies, Delta tamales, and I have drunk moonshine purchased out of the trunk of a 1982 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I have gotten up in the morning and hit Highway 49.  My wife and her family are all from places in Mississippi named Duck Hill and Coffeeville and Itta Benna.  We spend a good hunk of time in Mississippi every year. In the tradition of the region, both my sons bear the obscure names of long vanished ancestors, a fact will be proud one day to explain to little Thomas Evan Sutpen Faulkner Sutpen Compson Sutpen Quentin Hayes and his older brother Ingram Compson Compson McCaslin Snopes Sutpen Coltrane Thomas Hayes.  My nephew attends the University.  I know a little about The Magnolia State.  For instance, its nickname is The Magnolia State.

Boys, go win one for the Colonel!
     If it wasn't problematic enough, given that the final stages of the Civil Rights Movement happened over fifty years ago, and given that the University itself was a site of one of the worst incidents of resistance for the Old South, the school held on to its previous mascot, Colonel Reb, until 2003. Let me repeat that: Until 2003.  When I looked through the 2010 football roster, I saw a majority of African American players listed, and I'm sure the phenotypical makeup of the team in 2003 was much the same.  The ironies astound me.  Then again, maybe they don't.  If you've read the Battle Royale scenes in Richard Wright or Raplh Ellison, you'll follow my drift. Sometimes, a gentleman lets others do his dirty work for him.  Dirty work, indeed.

    Then there's the matter of the school's nickname, Ole Miss.  Yankees like myself seemed to think that it's a corn-pone version of "Old Mississippi."  But I've had it explained to me that Ole Miss is actually a bit of an inside joke, running along these lines.  Slaves on the plantation used to refer to the white patriarch of the homestead as "Ole Massa," and his wife as "Ole Miss."  So, rather than use the Latin expression for the college you attended, alma mater ("nourishing mother"), students and graduates referred to the University as Ole Miss.  Because, you know, studying was really hard, as hard as it was for slaves on the plantation.  It's a sort of blackface in word-play.  And we all know word play is funny, especially in reference to 300 years of brutalization, economic exploitation, and dispossession.

     Which brings us back to the Rebel Black Bears.  Apparently, there are such bears in Mississippi.  There are also such bears in Maine (I've seen them).  Interestingly enough, the mascot of the University of Maine -- since 1914 or so, is a black bear.  He goes by the name of Bananas.  For me, the lack of originality from Ole Miss is a strike against them.  And, as a native Mainer, I'm offended.  Get your own damn mascot.  Keep your hands of my Bananas!

     Speaking of bananas, there is also the matter of William Faulkner, of course, whose famous story "The Bear," is read and not enjoyed by thousands of high school and college students every year.  The problem here is that, in part, "The Bear" is the centerpiece of a collection entitled Go Down, Moses, in which the main character, Ike McCaslin, in addition to hunting bear, discovers that somewhere in his past there might just be a dash of incest and miscegenation.  Strike two on the sensitivity count, Ole Miss.  That's why you don't read the Cliffs Notes.

     Now, the Rebel Black Bear is, well, black.  So doesn't that count for something?  Yes, but he's also a rebel bear, so, by some sort of adjective algebra, the rebellion and the blackness kind of cancel each other out.  More clumsiness, and that's strike three.  The Rebel Black Bear can come tailgate in his Grove attire, but nobody's going to talk to him.  He's a walking semiotic Frankenstein monster.  Hang your head, Mr. Rebel Black Bear Guy, and get yourself another branch and bourbon.

"I'll take the over on 'Bama!"
     There had been a movement on campus to name as the new mascot none other star Admiral Akbar of Return of the Jedi (Internet meme: "It's a trap!), but last month Lucasfilm declined to release the rights, no matter how much comeback sauce they were paid.  George Lucas has had his own issues with faintly racist characterizations in some of his films (Jar Jar Binks, among others), so this was probably a wise move on both sides. "Count meesa outta dis one!"

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