|1955, Gainesville, FL; Baby Gator with Grandpa|
My relationship with the University of Florida runs long and deep. My parents met at the university in the post-WWII era when my Dad returned from the Pacific theater to attend college on the G.I. Bill. My Mother, one of the first gutsy women to attend UF, was in the first entering class of co-eds at the formerly all-male university. She endured the daily catcalls from hungover frat boys on her way to class:
“The maids are getting’ whiter every day…”
Sadly, racism and sexism have been a part of this university’s self-expression for a very long time.
I began my life as a baby Gator, living on the campus in Fla-Vet Village, former military barracks moved to the Gainesville campus from Camp Blanding near Jacksonville to house the waves of veterans now enrolling at UF. Though I don’t remember it, I am told I was present with my parents at the dedication of the beautiful Century Tower in the center of the tree-lined campus in 1954. The tower, complete with carillon which tolls the quarter hours daily, was erected to celebrate the first 100 years of the state’s oldest university.
My roots run deep at this university from which I would eventually get an undergraduate and a law degree.
My Dad began taking my younger brother and I to football games in Gainesville when I was 11. In the midst of a late November cold driving rainstorm, we saw the Gators come from behind to defeat their hated rivals, the Miami Hurricanes, 12-10. I was hooked and for a good chunk of my life, I was a die-hard Gator fan, prone to assert that when cut I bled orange and blue.
I grew up chanting "Gator Bait!" at opposing teams without a second thought. It made perfect sense to me given the reputation for ferocity that alligators hold. That’s particularly true in a state where these reptiles live in every body of water from our freshwater lakes to the local retention pond at the top of the infernal cul-de-sacs in the countless tract housing projects that have swallowed up Florida.
I had absolutely no idea of the dark history behind this idea. Until now.
Earlier this week I had read that the university had decided to end its use of the Gator Bait cheer due to a racist history. That was certainly news to me. I also read that there were a lot of people upset about it. That’s hardly surprising.
For many, it is a chant that almost instantly evokes memories of a time in most UF graduates’ lives that they tend to remember with some fondness. Taking that away is a bit like throwing out your favorite tee shirt and along with it the people, places and events whose memories you connect with it.
There is also a reluctance to acknowledge that one’s conduct could have been seen as racist and thus hurtful to others, particularly when one was unaware of it.
In a time of heightened racial sensitivity, Robin DiAngelo’s work, White Fragilty, is helpful in understanding the reluctance we white people have to recognizing our unrecognized and unintentional racism. DiAngelo observes that we all want to see ourselves as having gotten past those misanthropic understandings of the past both individually and as a society.
Our understandings of racism are largely reduced to caricatures of Klansmen with hoods and Rebel flags flying off pickup trucks at drag races. What self-respecting white person would see him/herself in that manner? (Here I would remind UF alumni that until the late 1960s, the UF Band still played “Dixie” at football games but ended that practice due to the recognition of its racist roots.)
Finally, there is a broad philistinism that has marked the rise of Trumpland in which misanthropic attitudes and behaviors have come to be celebrated and any acknowledgment of their harmfulness has come to be seen as a knee-jerk “political correctness” largely practiced by “snowflakes.” Amusingly, this fails to recognize the irony that this charge is leveled by people so brittle about being called on their own prejudices that they feel the need to project their own brittleness onto others.
I must admit there was a part of me that felt offended when I first heard this news, wondering if PC hadn’t gone too far this time. After all, it was one of my oxen being gored here. It wasn’t until I saw the Snopes article on the subject that I understood why the university had made such a decision.
This well-researched and documented article lays out an exhaustive history of the usage of this archetype. Whether or not the actual practice of using black babies as bait to trap alligators ever occurred (and it appears very doubtful that it actually did), the pattern of thinking that it reflects is deeply troubling.
The original construct of Gator Bait, whose appearance on racist post-cards predates the inception of football at the University of Florida by a good decade, was clearly designed to devalue, dehumanize and intimidate people of color while simultaneously reasserting white dominance. Given the bloody history of our state with its brutal lynchings and at least two major massacres of African-American communities (Rosewood, Ocoee), it doesn’t take much imagination to see that connection. The mere fact that white people felt they had the privilege of creating and circulating such caricatures with impunity speaks volumes in itself about white privilege.
In all fairness, I’m not convinced nor am I suggesting that the “Gator Bait” cheer arose as a means to express racist venom. What I suspect is that the white male (because they were the only students who were there until the 1940s) fomenters of school spirit at UF simply picked up a racist meme they could use for their immediate needs and ran with it. But bear in mind that this in itself evinces privilege – the ability, willingness and presumption of entitlement to use images of others in ways that are deleterious to their interests without regard for them as fellow human beings or the harm it might cause them.
The Luxury of Not Knowing
To say I was shocked when I read this news is an understatement. My reaction was much the same as when I recently discovered my mother's family history of slave ownership. I uncovered that little gem of family history that I’d never been told about while going through the genealogical materials I found in our family home after my Dad's death.
|From Florida State Archives|
I’d always loved my home state and so was proud to discover that I was actually a sixth generation Floridian. Then I noticed from the Census data that the first generation of Webbs who came here from North Carolina arrived with two slaves. Undoubtedly they also came with at least one gun. Those were the requirements of Florida law for land grants in the time frame after the runaway Creeks (who had come to call themselves Seminoles or Miccosukee) had been deported to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears leaving Florida open for a wave of white slave holders to “settle” here.
I felt a shudder of revulsion as I read those records. My ancestors were slavers. I had never known that.
What becomes clear to me as I recall my shock in making that discovery – much like the knot rising unbidden in my stomach upon reading the history of Gator Bait - is the unavoidable recognition of the white privilege I have experienced all my life in not knowing the whole story. It is a luxury not to know the dark side of one’s existence. And it is a mark of privilege to insist one not be informed of it.
To know one’s history with all of its warts requires the knower to come to grips with it. For me it has meant recognizing that my family history is tainted by the horrendous practice of slavery. And now it means that at the beloved alma mater in which I have celebrated family ties for three generations, I and my classmates engaged in a practice which evidenced institutionalized racism.
I need to note here that I do not feel guilty about either of these practices this since I had nothing to do with their existence. Still, it breaks my heart to know this. And it is precisely at this point that moral culpability becomes a part of the equation.
With Knowledge Comes Responsibility
I am a retired university lecturer in religious studies and Episcopal priest and so it’s not terribly surprising that I often process things through the lens of religious symbols. I am struck by the similarity in these awakenings I document above to the so-called "forbidden fruit" myth pattern set in the Garden of Eden that we see in Genesis. As quickly as both Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, " the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked..." (Genesis 3:7).
With knowledge comes moral responsibility. Like our prototype human ancestors, we find ourselves naked before the complete truth of our existence. And it is rarely comfortable.
Contrary to Augustine’s construction of the Genesis story, this awakening did not mean that the “very good” human creations suddenly became depraved in their entirety, passing their sinful state to offspring born with original sin in perpetuity. And it certainly didn’t mean the entire Creation that the Creator G-d had just assessed as “very good” somehow became “fallen” – a vale of sorrow cut off from its Creator - simply because its human children had awakened to adulthood with all of its responsibilities.
Augustine, Calvin and Luther were simply wrong here.
What it did mean is that the human children of Eden had grown up. On our best days, we will always be the mixed bags of good and evil inclinations we have been since our beginnings. How we choose to act on those inclinations speaks volumes about who we are as individuals, the cultural values we have come to cherish and the health of the societal institutions we build.
The Courage to Own All of Who We Are
Like Adam and Eve prior to meeting the serpent, the thousands of UF alumni and students who unwittingly chanted a caricature rooted in racism did so without knowledge or will to harm others, the requirements of criminal intent. Neither guilt nor shame can be imputed to behaviors engaged unless the actors knew or should have known the wrongfulness in those behaviors. Indeed, one of the abject failures of Augustine’s “Fall” theology is that it imputed to all newborns an innate sinfulness that was simply impossible to be justified given their status.
But all of that changes with a mouthful of fruit and the opening of eyes. With the university’s statement and the availability of documentation on sites like Snopes, none of us can say we could not have known. And with that knowledge, I and all my classmates at UF, past and present, now have choices to make.
We can continue using a chant with the knowledge of its racist roots because it warms our hearts and connects us to our roots. We can continue to opt for our own comfort even as we know it comes as the expense of others’ suffering. We can seek to rationalize that choice by attempting to shift its blameworthiness to those who have inconveniently brought it to our attention, charging them with political correctness. And we can fly into self-righteous rages when those who observe our behaviors rightly accuse us of racism.
Or we can choose to discontinue our participation in that chant - as much as it might pain us - because we know it harms others. We can choose to be responsible moral agents. We can opt for healing rather than digging a long festering wound any deeper.
It would be an understatement to say that this news about “Gator Bait” troubles me. I no longer have the luxury of innocence, the privilege of not knowing this dark history which has always been a part of my life, albeit unknown to me. I’ve taken another bite from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and awakened to a little more of the whole than I previously knew. I now must live with the knowledge that comes from that encounter.
That said, I am willing to wrestle with my soul, to hold this new knowledge in tension with the positive images I cherish of my alma mater. And to any of my fellow UF grads who are courageous enough to avoid the seductive default inclinations to denial, dismissal and scapegoating - the defense mechanisms that immediately spring into action on occasions of cognitive dissonance – I invite you to pull up a chair.
May we find the courage to own all of who we are. May we come to see our venerable alma mater with all of her warts. And perhaps for the first time, may we actually love our alma mater, our soul mother – ALL of her - embracing her just as she is.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020