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COLUMN ONE

Dancing to a new mix in Macon

Amid a segregated music scene, Club Envy caters to both black and white for a Southern generation in which the racial divide is fading.

September 24, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

MACON, GA. — The three deejays spun R&B and hip-hop, with a focus on oldies, party anthems and black artists gone mainstream -- Michael Jackson, OutKast, Gnarls Barkley.

These were carefully chosen common denominators, songs that black and white club-goers might agree upon in 2008. And, in fact, the two races were here in equal measure on a Friday night, dancing shoulder to shoulder at this upscale club in the heart of the old Confederacy.

The dancers, about 50 of them, were too young to remember April 1968, when angry blacks rioted here after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. They were too young to recall Feb. 18, 1970, when 4,000 whites rallied against desegregation just across the Ocmulgee River. They were too young to remember "Machine Gun" Ronnie Thompson, the white mayor from 1967 to 1975 who threatened that his police would "shoot to kill" rioters on his watch.

To club-goers like Nathan Hicks, the mixed-race dance floor at Club Envy represents a departure from all that.

"You're seeing a very unique time, locally and nationally," said Hicks, 30, a lawyer who is white. "Nationally, you have the introduction of the first serious black candidate for president. Locally, things have been divided for a long time."

But now, he said, Macon has something new: "a generation that doesn't know that racial divide."

Political observers are wondering whether younger voters, unburdened by ancient racial biases and baggage, might make an impact in November's presidential election. In a handful of Southern states, such voters could help Democrat Barack Obama mount a serious challenge to Republican John McCain, potentially canceling out lingering prejudices harmful to a black candidate.

The trio of deejays at Club Envy have been throwing multiracial dance parties like this for a few years around Macon, and they are aware that they have tapped into the forces that have been reshaping racial attitudes -- even in the South.

"It was bound to happen," said Rory Tibbals, 30, who is white. Tibbals, a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, calls himself DJ Tagg. "You go to school these days, you're in a mixed class. You go to work, it's integrated."

"I swear," added Dallas Jackson, a black 33-year-old who spins records as DJ Roger Riddle. "Every year, kids get better about race."

But the crew, rounded out by a black rap station personality named Ronald "Dirt Dog" Jackson, also know that Macon has by no means transcended the boundaries of race. The crowds they draw, by local night-life standards, are relatively small. Their black-and-white audiences are exceptions to the rule in Middle Georgia, where clubs tend to be as segregated on Saturday night as churches are the following morning.

Here, the borderlines of race may shift and blur; they can be crossed by a deejay or a dancer. But they still exist, for better or worse, shaping the flow of any given weekend.

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Macon, with a population of 97,000, is an old cotton hub about 90 minutes from Atlanta. It's just far enough to feel outside the big city's orbit and part of a deeper South. Decades ago, white flight and suburban malls hollowed Macon's historic core, leaving blocks of empty and underused buildings. Some are still tagged with the ghost logos of long-gone stores.

There are a handful of bars and restaurants, the sprouts of a much-hoped-for urban renewal. Among them, Club Envy was advertising itself Friday night with a beat that echoed into an otherwise quiet expanse of MLK Jr. Boulevard.

Shirod "Slim" Cooley was manning the door. He said he has grown used to the revelers who drive by in their cars, confused by the mix of people they see milling around outside.

"They'll pull up and say, 'What kind of club is this?' " he said. "I'll say, 'Go in there and see.' "

Inside, in the main room, DJ Tagg had the run of the sound system. He bobbed behind a table crowded with LPs, turntables and laptops, his head cocked sideways to brace a set of headphones. The shuffling bass line of "Billie Jean" shook the room.

A small group of women in their 20s -- all black except for one -- danced closely, sipping cocktails and shouting happily in each others' ears.

"One of the reasons these parties are desegregated is because they mix up the music," shouted Cameron Beasley, 23, who was collecting the cover charge. "I mean, who doesn't like 'Billie Jean'?"

Justin Cutway, 32, wandered in. Cutway is white and teaches at an elementary school that is 98% black. Members of the local indie rock band Nomenclature -- an all-white group -- stopped by, slovenly and thrift-store cool. A young black woman named Tarcia Tripp arrived in an elegant dress with a few black friends. Her parents had sent her to a private high school that was nearly all white. This, she said, was the world she was used to, a world she was trying to sustain for her 7-year-old. "I teach him no color," she said.

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