Governor’s Arts Awards
Big Day for Charley, Natasha at Governor’s Arts Awards
By Earnest McBride
Jackson Advocate Contributing Editor
February 14, 2008
Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey and Country music legend Charley Pride, both native Mississippians, join Gov. Haley Barbour at reception following awards ceremony Friday at Galloway Methodist Church in Jackson)
Legendary country singer Charley Pride and 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Tretheway enjoyed two days of sometimes massive waves of praise and enthusiasm from their fellow Mississippians in and around the State Capitol leading up to their recognition at the 2008 Governors Excellence in the Arts Awards last Friday.
Pride was the runaway favorite at the Capitol among the normally conservative and emotionally retentive senators and representatives from across the state. During Pride and Trethewey’s visit Thursday to both chambers, the raucous, mostly adult male, legislators had to be gaveled quiet several times in order for the honors to proceed.
Tretheway, a native of Gulfport and daughter of Poet Eric Tretheway, is the first Mississippi poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for achievement in literature and journalism.
In all, five awards were presented by Gov. Haley Barbour and First Lady Marsha Barbour in the ceremonies held last Friday morning at historic Galloway Methodist Church in downtown Jackson. A special musical selection by native Mississippi composer William Grant Still was included as part of the program entertainment. Still’s famous medley "Three Rhythmic Spirituals" was performed by the William Carey College choir.
Country music legend and Sledge native Charley Pride earned a Lifetime Achievement Award. Trethewey won for Literary Excellence. Lallah Miles Perry of Jackson won the Artistic Excellence Award; Emma McCain of Meridian, the Arts Patron Award; and the Mississippi Museum won the Leadership in Arts Award.
Black Civil War Tribute
Trethewey won the 1907 Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems Native Guard, a partial account of the history and a tribute to the first black units deployed by the United States in the Civil War. The deployment to Ship Island off the coast of Pascagoula in April 1863 was the beginning of a long history of black military glory that culminated with the formation of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers at the end of the Civil War.
"I used to go out on Ship Island every Fourth of July," Trethewey said at the reception following the awards ceremony at Galloway Methodist Church in Jackson Friday. "I was stunned when I finally found out about the history of the black soldiers there that I hadn’t known about it as a child. I did’t find this out until my first year of teaching at Auburn University when I came back to take my grandmother out to the beach. Someone there heard me talking to her about it and told me this amazing story of the first black soldiers used in the war effort."
Since then, Trethewey says she has been doing a great deal of research on the 208,000 United States Colored Troops who mostly volunteered in the fight to overthrow slavery. She plans to work with Biloxi’s black activist radio station owner Rip Daniels to erect a monument for the black troops of Ship Island.
"It just struck me: why hadn’t I known about that as a child," she said. "I decided to do as much research as I could to try to create a monument in words to these lesser-known soldiers."
Charley’s Delta Pride
Pride repeatedly told the crowds he stood before on the two days of honors that he was essentially a shy and modest person. He sang before the senate Thursday and at the arts ceremony. On both occasions, he recounted his boyhood days and his experience of racism. He said he learned how to maneuver around the pitfalls of segregation during his early in the small town of Sledge, population 500. While still an unknown entity as a country and western singer, Pride was invited to tour with some of the name stars in the field. He quickly overcame the resistance of the nearly all-white audiences he sang before for many years and went on to become America’s favorite country singer for most of his active career in the 1970s and 1980s.
"I feel that I’m the epitome of the three basic types of music in America–gospel, country and the blues," Pride said in an exclusive interview with the Jackson Advocate. "I sing all three. But mostly what I settled on was country music. I can sing all the three basics. I can sing pop. I even recorded a B. B. King album."
From Civil Rights to Country Music
Pride retains his concern for the chances for a decent life for black youths growing up in the Delta today. Recalling his own youth in the area, he urged the youths there today to give themselves a sense of purpose and direction for their lives.
"It’s not where you’re from that makes who you are," he said. "But you have to have some kind of background and teaching. I appreciate my mother and father for giving me that training and helping me along the way.
"My career was right smack in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement," Pride said. "I moved to Montana back then, but I told my wife and the people there that when everything is said and done the best place for me to live if I want to will be right where I was born and raised. And that’s in Mississippi. I still make that statement.
"When I was growing up in Sledge–and Sledge is right where the Delta starts--I tried my best to maneuver around the things that would hold you back, particularly with the color situation and the practice of segregation there. I avoided certain situations, not because I was a coward or anything, but I had faith in my mother’s wisdom when she advised me not to go around with a chip on my shoulder because there are good people everywhere. So I adopted her philosophy and I realized that it all begins at home." Pride currently lives in Dallas.
Much ado about arts
Senator John Horhn was one of the judges deciding on the five recipients of the 2008 awards. "It was a very difficult decision for us all," he says. "There were so many outstanding artists and people associated with the arts recommended that we found it a great honor to have such a wide array of great artists to choose from."
Arts Commission Director Malcolm White, in his third year a commissioner, also pointed to the many Mississippians known to be high achievers in the arts. The 2008 awards were special in their own right, nevertheless, he said.
"Over the years there’ve been some famous people," White said. "But in my experience, this was really great in terms of having a Pulitzer Prize winner and Charlie Pride on the same stage. It was really significant."
Previous winners include B.B. King, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Malcolm White, David Blackburn, the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education, USA International Ballet Competition, William Eggleston, Bo Diddley and filmmaker Charles Burnett, a native of Vicksburg.
"This is all about celebrating the heart and soul of the state of Mississippi, whether we’re out marching around on the streets during Jubilee Jam, or doing the arts awards or working at the Elvis Presley Fest in Tupelo or the Delta Blues Festival. It’s all about telling our story, promoting our culture and bringing home the story about the real Mississippi."
The arts awards are presented annually to outstanding writers, artists, performers, craftsmen and educators of Mississippi origins or identity who have made significant and lasting contributions through their work. Similar awards are also presented to corporations or organizations on the basis of their dedication to arts advancement, arts commission director Malcolm White announced at the ceremonies.