During my first three years at Union University, I toyed with the idea of joining a fraternity. I never set out to join one; in fact, I was philosophically against the concept altogether.
But every fall semester, the peer pressure would increase, the open parties would start, and the pref party invitations would follow.
Growing up in Jackson and immersed in Southern Baptist culture, I felt like a Union student before I was actually a Union student. In high school, I’d visit my youth ministers on campus; I even stayed in their dorms a few times. I was a Jackson kid, so I knew students who were already enrolled, and nearly everyone I knew before I moved on campus was in a specific fraternity: Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
I attended all three open parties my first year – SAE, Lamda Chi, and Alpha Tau Omega – without one iota of intent to join any of them. I ate their food, drank their drinks, and enjoyed being recruited. I was upfront about my lack of desire to join one of these boys’ clubs, but I received a pref party invitation from SAE despite my reluctance to commit.
After a hasty trip to JC Penney to get my very first navy blue blazer, I donned some creased khaki pants, swooped my frosted-tipped bangs out of my eyes (it was the late 90s), and strutted myself to the SAE house to have my ass kissed.
The certainty I had about remaining independent started to dissipate. The highlight video of the Greek Olympics, the promise of Intramural dominance, and the tearful stories of lifelong brotherhood began to melt my hardened, maverick heart. Maybe I did want to wear that purple and gold; maybe I wanted to interlock pinkies during a secret handshake; maybe, JUST MAYBE, I wanted to say “Phi Alpha” to make sure my truth was etched in stone.
In the end, though, my stubbornness won out, and my rebellious tendency to stay separate was confirmed, but because I loved the drama and because I could be indecisive as hell, I put myself through this same process the next two years – wanting to be wanted but never committing.
During my time at Union, however, I was assumed to be an SAE. Most of my friends were SAE’s and I knew that if I ever chose to accept the “snap bid” that was waiting for me, I would’ve fit right in with that group of guys. I never did it, though, because the idea of being part of a group or a tribe never appealed to me. I needed to be able to fully exercise my personal autonomy. Blame it on my upbringing as an only child; blame it on my egotistical tendencies. Whatever the reason, I didn’t want groupthink to dictate my thoughts and preferences.
I’m in my mid-40s now, and people still think I’m part of something that I’m not. I’ve been called a liberal, a progressive, a communist, a socialist, and the most slanderous of all terms in rural West Tennessee – a DEMOCRAT.
Thankfully, in Tennessee, we don’t have to pledge allegiance to a party. We’re free to vote for whoever we choose – even during Primary Election season when some politicians lie and say we can’t, even if they threaten legal action. Empty and desperate rhetoric.
Two weeks ago, I stopped into Baker Brothers BBQ to hear Senate hopeful Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) speak. I found myself nodding in agreement with almost everything she said because most of it aligned with my personal beliefs, but something about it made me feel uneasy.
When Rep. Johnson spoke about her platform, her rhetoric sounded familiar – the words were different, but the structure was the same. I had heard it before, seen it before, read it before, but couldn’t place where. I was having a structural deja’ vu.
Rep. Johnson’s points were clearly communicated but lacked the depth I selfishly wanted to hear. Her talking points mirrored a lot of the hot-button issues I had seen on social media and had even discussed in some of my columns, but something still didn’t feel right. That’s when I realized what was wrong – Rep. Johnson was positioning her platform in the same manner the other side positions theirs, entrenched and unwilling to move an inch to the middle, hyper-focusing on platitudes and generalized thoughts that had already lost their power through oversharing.
None of this is Gloria Johnson’s fault, though. This is the system we’ve all created with access to social media and cable news, a cancerous system that has spread from the national level to the state level and now is starting to eat away at our local races. The weaker party (Democratic in this case) is starting to fight back, but the weapons they have to use are the ones the supermajority brought to this fight in Tennessee for the last several years – overarching narratives without nuance, gross generalizations, and loyalty to a letter that outweighs a personal belief. While I agree with the vast majority of the Democratic platform, my starting point isn’t the political pary itself; my starting point is humanity.
To be transparent, I’ve voted for a Democrat in every presidential election since 2000. For the most part, I’ve voted for a Democrat or an Independent in any general election – local or state – in which I’ve exercised my right to vote because my beliefs don’t line up with whatever the Republican party considers itself to be today. That being said, I’m not opposed to voting for a Republican in a local election and will most definitely wade into the primary waters once again if it means I can vote for the individual who I believe is best for my community.
There’s a fight happening in Tennessee now – a fight that is critical to democracy. I truly believe that. This fight is coming to the local level and is being funded by groups outside of our city and our state. It’s easy to want to pick a side, to pick a party, to join up with like-minded individuals and sequester ourselves in our respective corners and start lobbing grenades. Maybe there’s a time for that, but at some point, there has to be a conversation, and the starting point can’t be anecdotal platitudes.
The starting point has to be authentic conversation that is honest and empathetic. Those conversations can be public if necessary, but possibly more effective in private. We have to communicate, in a heartfelt way, that people in our community are being marginalzied because of being simply who they are. Outside money is attempting to resegregate our city and further widen the resource gap. The Democratic party does fight for those people, and for that, I’m very appreciative, but a party platform can’t be our starting point.
I never pledged SAE while I was at Union and have never had the slightest regret. I prided myself then on being an independent, and I pride myself now on the same thing. Regardless of what anyone believes I am or not, I know what I believe, and most everyone else knows what I believe; I don’t need a party to define that for me.
I believe that minorities have been marginalized for the better part of history and that there are vast inequities that still exist because of that.
I believe LGBTQ+ people have been marginalized and attacked for a long time, and it is still continuing to happen in our community. I believe everyone has a right to pursue their own happiness regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
I believe every child should have access to a quality education and that a quality education is dependent on whole community buy-in and support. I also believe parents have the right to choose where their children go to school, but public tax dollars shouldn’t pay for it.
I believe everyone has the right to worship (or not) as they see fit as long as their belief system doesn’t unnecessarily demonize or ostracize a less influential group of people.
I believe in humanity, and I believe in freedom, but I also realize the latter has an infinite number of layers to it.
Most of all, I believe in connection and think it’s attainable if we can cut through the bullshit – call out the things that are unjust, name the power players who are impeding justice, converse with people who don’t think like us and try to take one step out of our corners.
It ain’t easy, but nothing of value is.