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Celebrating special places, people

As I See It

My wife, Debra, and I enjoyed a few vacation days in the Texas Hill County, near Fredericksburg, a couple of weeks ago. We have developed an affinity for that part of the world, and make the 12-hour drive out there several times a year.

On this trip we toured the LBJ Ranch, and then went to the Old Tunnel Cave near Comfort to watch three million Mexican Free Tail bats emerge from their home in an abandoned railroad tunnel. The resident biologist there told us that this group of bats eats more than 15 tons of insects each night.

That’s a lot of mosquitoes.

Oompah your heart out

Fredericksburg has hosted Oktoberfest for 23 years. The event celebrates the region’s German heritage, where even today, influences of those early settlers are still strong.

The annual Oktoberfest (online at www.oktoberfestinfbg.com) is a three-day long celebration and parking spaces are hard to come by as locals and visitors alike converge on the historic downtown. In the park polka bands play throughout the afternoon and into the night. Vendors dispense German food and beer. Regional artists exhibit arts and crafts. Everybody dances. And dances and dances and dances. Young and old alike join in the celebration.

With so much beer being imbibed one would expect rowdiness. However, we saw nothing but people enjoying themselves without a hint of overindulgence.

Many of the revelers dress in traditional German clothes, which adds to the festive atmosphere. The men wear pointed hats, shorts with suspenders and knee socks. The hats are adorned with pins evidencing participation in other German festivals over the years.

People literally come from all over the world to attend the Fredericksburg Oktoberfest. One group had traveled from Frankfurt, Germany. Another family had driven down from Oregon. Though we go to the Hill Country several times a year, we timed our visit this year intentionally to coincide with the festival.

On the way home, we drove through the Cajun country of South Louisiana. Now, there’s another culture altogether! Lots of folks think of New Orleans when they think of Cajuns. Actually, that’s not accurate. New Orleans natives are mostly of Creole descent. You have to go west of New Orleans to Lafayette, New Iberia and Opelousas to really be in Cajun country.

Similar to the Germans in the Texas Hills, the Cajuns have retained many of their traditions — undiluted by malls and Wendy’s. Cajun food is a joy to experience. Their festivals are different from the Texans’, but just as colorful. And they dance, and dance and dance to their unique styles of music.

Common heritage, building community

America has numerous pockets of unique culture. For example, the Amish still cling to their heritage in the area around Lancaster, Pa. Here in Mississippi, the Choctaws continue their native traditions and festivals while simultaneously operating a hotbed of economic activity near Philadelphia. Some Mississippi cities, such as Natchez, Vicksburg and Columbus, offer annual tours of antebellum homes. There are many other examples of groups around the country that hold tightly to their heritage while participating in the modern world.

Preserving our heritage is important to building a sense of community. Unfortunately, efforts to promote our past here in the Deep South are often frustrated by the legacy of slavery.

As much as we dance around it, the grandeur of the Old South depended on the enslavement of one race to provide lavish living for another race. With the end of slavery and civil rights legislation making equality among the races the law of the land, the notion of “the South” was changed forever. That history — our heritage, both black and white — here in Mississippi remains a delicate subject, and one which often erupts in controversy.

Can we really overcome the legacy of racism and celebrate our common heritage as Mississippians, as Southerners, like some cultures around the country have done? Not anytime soon I’m afraid. Not completely. The creek now is just too wide to cross. But I’m hopeful that future generations will find a way to celebrate our past without the blemish of slavery and racial divisiveness crashing the party. I really hope so.

How could we do it? What common threads bind Mississippians together? Our contribution to the arts — music, writing and painting — is a good starting point. Mississippi has produced world-class artists across racial lines and mediums. Celebrating those successes can build strength in our common heritage. A more intangible, yet clearly present, characteristic of our people is a sense of place and home. We are seeing more and more of our people move back here after having lived in other places. There is just something here that pulls us back home.

Perhaps one day we’ll find the magic to build on our heritage and make our state one that is known more for its culture and achievements rather than a dark stereotype of ignorance, intolerance and poverty.

Time will tell.

Get off the beach

But, on a lighter note, remember that traditional vacations can get pretty boring. The Destin beach is beautiful, but all those condos are just that — massive mounds of concrete designed to look attractive. Pretty bland really. No past, no heritage. Just mounds of concrete and glass.

Think about taking a trip to somewhere that showcases the range of people and cultures that have helped shape who we are. The Choctaw reservation is a great place to visit and learn about their culture. Mountain View, Ark., is a small town nestled in the lower Ozarks where musicians play mountain music on the square every weekend during the warm months. Several years ago Mountain View got its first traffic light.

The annual crawfish festival in Breau Bridge, La., is a real treat. For the more adventurous, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a giant party with some real history behind it.

I would recommend that everyone join us in Fredericksburg next Oktoberfest — but parking is already too hard to find.

Thought for the Moment — To live happily with other people one should ask of them only what they can give. — Writer and lawyer Tristan Bernard (1866-1947)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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