Krista Tippett, Host
On Thursday night before the debate, I wrote something that meant a great deal to me. It was about a trip I made to Ole Miss in August and the incredible symbolism of that the debate on that campus, a cultural triumph it signified far larger than who won or lost.
The drama in financial markets nearly stopped the debate completely, and overshadowed a few hours of reflection we might have allowed ourselves on race. But Scott Simon did a lovely piece on Saturday morning, and Slate produced this: "Negro to Address Ole Miss Class" (The headline you won’t be reading about tonight’s presidential debate.) A white presidential candidate in civil debate against a black presidential candidate is a monumental, quiet victory of a milestone worth pondering, and celebrating, in a world in which bad news gets all the attention.Comments
Krista Tippett, Host
I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications facilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.
And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.
But there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”
I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.
And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.
Krista Tippett, Host
I wanted to share a tremendously informative piece of writing that came into my inbox yesterday — an essay by Omer M. Mozaffar about the passing of Warith Deen (often referred to as W.Deen) Mohammed titled "American Islam Enters its Next Phase." Mohammed was a gentle but towering figure in the history of Islam in the U.S., yet remains little known in the culture at large.
Fully one-third of U.S. Muslims are African-American, with a noble, fascinating history and theological trajectory all their own. We first waded into these waters when we did an early post-9/11 program on "Progressive Islam in America." (If you listen you will find that it sounds quite different from the programming we do now, though it remains kindred in spirit and intent.) One of the voices in that show is the supersmart fast-talking Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, a third-generation African-American Muslim. I will never forget discovering her, and discovering all I learned about African-American Islam as I prepared to speak with her.
I’ll boil my most surprising learning down to this: although Louis Farrakhan is still to this day known best and heeded in U.S. culture as the face and voice of African-American Islam, he has long spoken for only a sliver of this movement (tens of thousands as opposed to millions). The vast majority of the African-American Islamic community went through a profound mini-reformation, which W.Deen Mohammed led and exemplified and which mirrored the conversion Malcolm X underwent near the time of his death — away from the more militant, racially separatist roots of Farrakhan and Elija Muhammad (W.Deen’s father) and towards a universalist, orthodox Sunni Islam. To put a finer point on this: Farrakhan speaks for tens of thousands; but the gentle Mohammed embodied a religiosity of millions who, as Mozaffer says, will now move into their next phase as a community formed by his example.Comments