A carved rendition of the ancient Arkansas State Indians athletic logo hangs in my personal office, out of sight from guests and the Terminix tech. It’s a reminder; not of glory days but of growth.
Running Joe was an archaic relic of an indelicate past. He was created without input from the people it professed to honor, and without much thought into the ideas he was projecting. Earlier versions of Joe, Jumping Joe, had him brandishing a stone hatchet in one hand and a scalp in the other. Later versions maintained the original, lazy tropes too often assigned to Native American caricatures: wild eyes, skimpy attire, an exaggerated rosy skin tone and a comically gargantuan nose.
I doubt it very much that Running Joe was created out of malice. If anything, he is a cousin of Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo, only recently scheduled for decommission. He’s remembered fondly. Still, Running Joe was just as wrong for its time as it is today – we just didn’t really understand it then.
Today, Running Joe is resting in peace, and so should the University of Texas school song, The Eyes of Texas.
I won’t pretend to understand what this song means to UT graduates. I’m sure the nostalgia and emotion are substantial. But anything born for ignorance and hate – no matter how innocent its conception may be – should be retired in an era when it’s obvious to all that its existence is wrong. This isn’t cancel culture. It’s growing up.
Growing up isn’t easy. It wasn’t as if Running Joe was retired with an unanimous awakening of cultural sensitivity. We fought for Running Joe. We made the same arguments that supporters for The Eyes of Texas are likely making today: it’s about pride, it’s about our history, it is not intended to offend, its meaning has evolved. But the more A-State tried to advance these arguments, the more backwards we appeared. By clinging to Running Joe, we were implying that outdated symbols of tradition took precedence over progress. As an institution of education, that isn’t the smartest hill to die on.
At Arkansas State, we turned the loss of Running Joe into the birth of an exciting new identity – one that did not force us to reach uncomfortably deep for a justification of its existence. Also, it proved to be profitable branding. It wasn’t a smooth transition. Once during a football game, I sat next to a hardened, middle-aged woman who refused to say “Red Wolves.” She replaced every mention of the mascot with a stubborn “INDIANS!” She left after the first quarter.
Growing up is difficult, Texas, but you sink into the primordial ooze if you refuse to evolve. Come to think of it, The Eyes of Texas is in many ways an anthem to de-evolution. “The eyes of Texas are upon you / don’t think you can escape them,” the song insists.
But maybe it’s far time you did.