OEDEL: Mercer’s joy, Macon’s hope

March 30, 2014 

After Mercer’s upset of Duke in the NCAA’s 2014 basketball tournament, pure joy was on national display as Mercer reserve player Kevin Canevari danced his effervescent version of the “Nae-Nae.”

Canevari wasn’t the only player-dancer. Senior starter Anthony White Jr. video-bombed Mercer Coach Bob Hoffman during Hoffman’s debriefing with Rachel Nichols of CBS, in which Hoffman howled “Woooo,” called his players “these dudes,” and capped it with “Praise the Lord!” In the background, White danced a witty version of comedian Dave Chappelle’s “Robot,” another man-friendly number.

Those smile-invoking moments weren’t just expressions of glee. The post-game celebrations revealed something about race relations, and not only among Mercer’s Bears. They hinted at subtle shifts in Macon’s, and the country’s, approach to ethnic differences.

Macon, with its demographically even racial balance, has long been working out the ways of black-white racial coexistence. Not long ago, those patterns were beyond ugly. Now, race relations in Macon are sufficiently respectful, cooperative and productive that a spirit of team-like partnership occasionally breaks out.

Canevari, who is white, dashed across the race line. The Nae-Nae is a Martin Lawrence-inspired dance from Atlanta rappers We Are Toonz, whose music video had a quirky basketball sub-theme. It’s completely African-American in its intentional references, as you can see in the Toonz’ Nae-Nae music video sporting an all-black cast. Given that pprovenance, Canevari’s performance was cheeky. Even the arch-cool Smoking Section blog chuckled, terming Canevari’s version the “Caucasianae.”

White’s “Robot” video-bomb also was racially interesting. Here’s a black player invading his white coach’s national media space, doing a dance that implicitly pokes good-natured fun at the nearly-robotic discipline Hoffman demands. The Robot is something no Duke player is likely to do behind Coach K’s back. Yet it’s clearly cool with Hoffman, as you could tell from his interview. Hoffman revealed himself as his players’ biggest booster, not just an exacting taskmaster.

In Mercer and Macon’s too-brief moment in the national spotlight, I heard several snarky Macon jokes. Outsiders with overactive imaginations apparently view us locked away in some moldy, Southern dungeon of unreconciled angst, internally riven by antebellum, or bellum, battles over race, religion, culture and politics.

In that light, how refreshing for Canevari, White, the other Bears, Hoffman and the tournament’s most enthusiastic fans to step up as our representatives for the “outside” world to see. With their articulateness and poise, their earnestness, humor and humanity, all buoyed by a racial lightness, Mercerians showed that you might be missing something by falling back on old caricatures of Mercer and Macon.

That’s not to say that Mercer and Macon aren’t grappling with many of the nation’s biggest questions, too, including how to bridge divides between the haves and have-nots, minorities and majorities, urban and rural. But our problems aren’t dissimilar from those nagging elsewhere, and our responses to them might fairly warrant a tad more respect.

While governments in many locales are growing more fragmented and polarized, Macon-Bibb is coming together. Already in 2014, Macon-Bibb has formally unified its local governments.

Then last week, Verda Colvin, a thoughtful federal prosecutor recommended by our local bar association, was chosen by Gov. Nathan Deal for our circuit’s Superior Court bench. Able and respected, Colvin will be Macon’s first black woman judge on that bench.

Colvin joins a roster of other black officials having rather recently broken racial barriers in leadership positions -- Louis Sands, the first black male Superior Court judge; Robert Brown, the first black Georgia Senate floor leader; C. Jack Ellis, the first black Macon mayor; Tom Madison, the first black Bibb school superintendent; and Sam Hart, the first black Bibb County Commission chairman.

Not all of them served with equal distinction, of course. Then again, the Bears themselves got manhandled by Tennessee. Can’t win ‘em all. Yet, overall, our local race-barrier breakers have been impressive.

Let’s thank Mercer’s Bears, their coach and fans in part for showing that racial harmonies are possible here. However troubled our race history may be, it’s also true that our familiarity with racial difference suggests a promising collective future, especially if we, like the Bears, cultivate our senses of humor.

David Oedel teaches law at Mercer University’s law school.

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