Information isn’t just in books. It’s in the land, structures and people that surround us everywhere and especially in the Delta. It is of course, the most southern place on earth. The delta stretches from Memphis to Vicksburg and contains rich alluvial soil that produced cotton, sustained some of the most racist institutions on this planet, tuned the blues, country music AND rock and roll and nurtured the growth and spread of a large part of African American culture. Surely you know that Chicago is the largest city in the Delta?
The immensity of the Till case becomes a little more real when you sit a court room –that court room- with FBI agents, eyewitnesses and those who live it its aftermath. You realize it wasn’t that long ago that this child, in being a child, lost his life to what became a greater cause. I’ve never really been a fan of the blues, but when you hear recordings the daily songs of African Americans in the delta, or you hear Fannie Lou Hamer sing “This Little Light of Mine” you can’t help but appreciate the blues because you feel where it came from.
The poverty in Mississippi continues to be immense. The land is not poor, the people are not poor, but the poverty is immense. Gardens? Fresh fruits and vegetables?Starbucks? Thriving businesses? Honda dealers? ATT reception? Applebees? Parks? Zoos? Doctors? Fire hydrants near schools? NO!! But there are crop dusters, highest rate of obesity and AIDS in the country and there are huge fields of genetically engineered cotton, rice and soy fields. Seeds created, patented and owned by Monsanto and that means you cannot keep the seeds. The highly developed area along the coast is getting hit by recent oil spill, just like it got hit by Katrina. Tunica, to the north is developing thanks to the casinos, but this wealth is limited to Tunica county.
Oh for sure the racist practices that locked former slaves onto white owned land built a legacy the state cannot escape. Chinese were brought in and Italians were brought in to this race mess as well. The state can’t get passed it. Those who got tired of it left for Chicago, Detroit and places north early in the 20th century. It’s a legacy built on racism, not slavery: the Delta didn’t really develop until after the Civil War. It grew on systems of peonage and sharecropping.
Along with the growth of other major cities in the region was the growth of Mound Bayou, the only city in the country founded by freed slaves. In Mound Bayou Blacks could walk the streets freely, own their own businesses and educate their own children. In its day, it was the Mecca of Black America. When most cities in Mississippi had no hospital, Mound Bayou had two, one of which is credited with beginning HMOs in this country. It was the home of Medgar Evers. And now? The buildings, including the Tabourian Hospital are empty and collapsing.
I hated to see the poverty, the lacking of things that don’t reflect the wealth of the land, the pride of the people or their strength. I was humble by how much more I need to know about Charles McLaurin, Fannie Lou Hamer, BB King and so many, many more! I was impressed by the amount of libraries that I saw, one connected to the St. Gabriel Mercy Center in Mound Bayou. I loved going to Crustacian’s to eat the delicious fresh boiled seafood and chatting with the owners! I have my Fighting Okra ID (Delta State’s mascot is the Fighting Okra), my giraffe from Peter’s Pottery made from Mississippi clay and my 6 pack of Southern Pecan beer. You know I have books, just email me if you want titles! I didn’t expect to find the diversity that I did in the delta, things like Labanese restaurants that have been there for ages, tamales that are a regional specialty, Chinese groceries in all the small towns, Italian farmers or ever the fact that the first mayor of Greenville was Jewish. Rather than celebrate diversity, we seem to let diversity be divisive, don’t we?
I wasn’t real comfortable about going to Mississippi because I wondered how much it has really changed. Oh, there are still places not to go to but there are too many others that we must see to understand who we are, where so much of what do came from [btw, did you know ‘fair to middling’ is a term that comes from cotton grades?] and what we still need to do. We need the information that the people and places of the Delta give us!