I live in the Upper Mississippi Delta, a cursed place, notable for a magnificent river that dominates its landscape, but also for the untold human hardship that has marred its existence for more than two hundred years.
It’s said that the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. From there, it extends southward, roughly to Yazoo City, Mississippi, 7000 square miles of alluvial floodplain nestled against powerful Mississippi River, the major artery that, in the eyes of most, largely defines the Delta’s existence. The land is flat, and it floods, most notably in 1927, when it experienced the greatest flood in US history, a watershed event that covered 27,000 square miles with more than thirty feet of water and changed the region forever.
The Delta is also a place of considerable biological diversity. It’s home to hundreds of migratory avian, reptilian and mammalian species, many of which are now suffering under the pressure of human civilization. As humans and their capitalistic interests expand, non-human species retreat. The human and non-human experience is interdependent, but it’s the human story that truly dominates the Delta. The amalgam of earth, fauna and human culture combines to create “place,” and place is what defines who we are as a people.
The Delta is a place noted for its truck stops, cotton fields, lynching sites, pawn shops, plantations, juke joints, barbeque shacks and churches. But it’s also noted for its “peculiar institution,” slavery. The unescapable truth about Southerners is that we sold humans into bondage and believed such an act was ordained by god. We beat, raped and tortured other human beings, hung them from trees and burned them alive. But in order to do this, we first crafted a fictional story, a story that portrayed the victims as sub-human, just like the Nazis. This is the necessary first step for authoritarian, murderous regimes to subjugate other humans.
Folks in the Delta tend to romanticize things, particularly their tales of the Old South, an imaginary time of honor, chivalry and a more genteel way of life. The horrific reality of the period gets swept under the table, characterized as a minor part of Southern history. After all, most Southerners did not own plantations. But we did produce seventy-five percent of the world’s cotton at the advent of the war, and slavery was the undeniable cornerstone of the Southern economy. The Southern view of history reminds me of how Tom Sawyer treated Aunt Polly’s fence in Mark Twain’s famous novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We whitewash it.
Delta people love to opine about long dead relatives in “The War of the Northern Aggression.” We like to call it “The Lost Cause” and perpetuate the boldfaced lie that the war was about economic rights and self-determination. We’ll unapologetically reminisce about the astonishing exploits of cavalryman turned Klansman Nathan Bedford Forest or the time when cotton was king. With justification, we’ll hoist up William Faulkner and Shelby Foote, two wonderful writers of note and get misty-eyed when reliving the gridiron feats of Ole Miss hero Archie Manning. We speak fondly of the beauty queens paraded at Cotton Carnival or football homecomings, never once considering these passé events for what they are, institutions that objectify women.
The most dominant aspect of the Delta is not the river. It’s conflict, mostly between whites and blacks, but generally speaking, also between rich and poor. Conflict dominated our history and continues to dominate in our current state. It’s a sordid tale that began with slavery, then progressed to Reconstruction, continued with a slow slog to the Civil Rights Era and then on to the present day. When I was an undergrad, I wrote a research paper on the subject titled, “The Ongoing Failure of Reconstruction.” In the paper, I chronicled several key statistics, including life expectancy, income, education and home ownership. The data clearly illustrated the plight of African-Americans when compared to whites and how they are still behind whites across all key indicators in education, economics and healthcare. But we’re slow learners “down here.” Many whites in the Mississippi Delta are actively working to not only keep African-Americans from attaining prosperity, but are working to reverse gains made since the Civil Rights Era. They want to go back to “the good old days.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the systematic destruction of our public educational system and in our criminal justice system. Southerners work hard to make sure they have the worst public schools in the world and the highest rates of prison incarceration. In fact, thirty-seven percent of Mississippians are African-American, yet more than half of its prison population is African-American. Many predominately African-American schools have appalling rates of competency in reading and math and the failing rates are directly tied to the state legislature denying funding. These issues and others keep us mired in conflict, unable to move forward, an embarrassment to the liberal minority.
I use the first person plural pronoun “we” as I write, because I am part of this place and its history. Why do I stay? I’ve long felt a sense of obligation to turn the lights on and watch the cockroaches scurry to their hiding places. To absolve its sin, to remove the curse, we as a people must truthfully confront our history and acknowledge the sins of our forefathers, much the same as the Germans in confronting their Nazi past. The whitewashers must come clean, and I am a part of that story.
Is there hope? Of course there’s hope, and I’ll tell you something that gives me the most hope. It’s the grace I find in the African-American community every day. The love and kindness shown by these people, despite all they’ve endured. Let me give you an example. I take my car to a carwash in the Memphis area. After the car goes through the wash, a group of young African-American men finish the job. Wiping down the cars, detailing the tires, cleaning the glass. While they’re working, the car owners wait on a porch that sits up higher than the cars. You’re literally looking down at them. I’m struck by the fact that there are all of these white people looking down from a porch while the African-American males perform manual labor on our overpriced vehicles. It’s like some weird plantation, overseer scene. Distasteful, yet I’m there, part of the scene. I feel guilt over my position. My money, nice car, nice house in a nice neighborhood. Yeah, I worked hard for it, but I had clear advantages. I wonder what they think watching us stand over them, and I wonder if I can help get them off the pavement and onto the porch.
Eventually, the guy washing my car waves his towel, indicating my vehicle is ready. I’m struck by his cheerfulness.
“How’s it looking, sir?”
“Looks great. You did a nice job.”
“You sure? Anything else I can do for you? Wait. Let me wipe that one more time…Now we’re good.”
He’s smiling and confidently looks straight into my eyes.
There’s no judgement. Nothing but a young man trying to do a good job and be recognized for his efforts. He could very easily look at me with disdain. He could view me as part of the power structure and decide to hate me. But he doesn’t. He’s graceful and kind, and I reciprocate. I smile at him, thank him and pass him his tip. And in those few seconds, something profound occurs. Two human beings, one black, one white and likely from very different backgrounds, treat one another as equals and let all that ugly history fade away. We’re together in a place where there is no porch and no pavement.