One great thing about being a writer is that you can allow a character to make up for your own personal failings. My case in point…
I attended Tulane University in New Orleans, and loved it. But there was a fraternity, Kappa Alpha, which celebrated an event called “Old South.” The guys in the chapter rented Confederate soldier uniforms, and their dates rented southern belle ball gowns. The day began with frat members corralling their gals from around the campus.
The group then sashayed down St. Charles Avenue until they reached the statue of Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle, where they toasted the Confederate general with champagne. The festivities ended with an evening formal.
I didn’t go to school in the 19th century, dated as this event sounds. In fact, you’d be shocked at how recently this occurred. But I didn’t question “Old South” at the time. It seemed like Halloween or Mardi Gras – just another opportunity to play dress-up. Frankly, I was jealous.
No one ever invited me, so I never got the chance to put on one of those big, poofy hoop skirts. In retrospect, thank God there are no pictures of me parading down St. Charles with a frat boy dressed in a Confederate uniform. Much like the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol, it implies racism. The fact that I took these pictures shows how clueless I was about the ugly underbelly of “Old South.”
Spoiler alert: when writing my debut novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, I decided to create a subplot based on “Old South.” I’d let my protagonist say things that I’m ashamed I never did. Before I wrote the book, I did a little research to see when the event was discontinued. Because surely it’s been discontinued by now, right? Well, not completely. While KA’s national organization has banned wearing Confederate uniforms in “Old South” parades and some chapters have stopped hosting the event, others have simply moved the celebration off-campus.
When I searched the internet, I did find Kappa Alpha alumni who decry “Old South.” In an essay entitled “Party like it’s 1865” on the national organization’s own website, Joel Buck writes, “Think about it from an outsider’s perspective. If non-members see a large group of young men (and women) walking the streets in 1860s period costumes with alcoholic beverages in hand, what kind of message does that send?”
Our personal history is a confluence of decisions that make us proud and others we may regret. I regret that nineteen-year-old me missed the racial insensitivity of wanting to flounce around campus in a southern belle costume. But I take comfort in the fact that I’ll-never-reveal-my-age me found a way for my protagonist, Maggie Crozat, to articulate outrage over a “tradition” that is deeply offensive. The New South – and Kappa Alpha – can do better than “Old South.”