I couldn’t write this without coloring the topic with my perspective no matter how hard I tried. But, after a dozen attempts to do so, I remembered that this blog is the view from my seat. It doesn’t have to be apolitical. As much as I am always going to try to be neutral on political issues, I won’t always achieve that goal, but I will do my absolute best to share my perspective without pointed attacks on anyone else or their ideology. You don’t have to agree with me, and I expect there are lots of folks that won’t, but remember that I am sincere and my views are shaped by my experiences just like yours.
I’m from Mississippi, in case you didn’t already know that. In fact, both sides of my family, going back at least three generations on both sides, are Mississippians. I love where I’m from, and I love where I am. I also hate where I’m from, and I hate where I am.
Over the last few months, I’ve thought a lot about what keeps me here, because not only am I fairly politically progressive in a sea of ultra conservatives, there is this inescapable burden of our history smothering Mississippi’s people and places like a thick, blinding fog filtering into every embrasure of life here.
Mississippi’s history soils its present, yet it’s ignored by so many of its citizens today. Some ignore it because it’s inconvenient to their perceived reality while others aren’t aware of much of it due to the systemic omission of the lessons in our children’s classrooms.
This state scratches and claws, digging its heels into the soil, striving to prevent change. It fights anything that might threaten the current power structure. Unfortunately, the scratching, clawing, digging and fighting against change has been supremely effective at staving off a healthy, educated, employed, financially sound populace as well.
Mississippi’s inconvenient history is the lasting effects of slavery. It’s abject poverty. It’s segregation. It’s Jim Crow. It’s James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. It’s corruption. It’s the Ku Klux Klan. It’s burning crosses. It’s the Sovereignty Commission. It’s lynching. It’s a centuries-old cycle of a political culture predicated on retaining power by placing barriers to advancement in the path of those of lower socioeconomic classes. It’s placating poor white people by getting them to believe that even though they’re poor, they’re still better than black people. It’s Byron de la Beckwith and Preacher Ernest Killen. It’s overt racism. It’s the lunch counter at Woolworth on Capitol Street.
The negatives aren’t all historical, unfortunately. It’s legislative attempts to impose the religious morals of one group onto society as a whole, blurring if not outright ignoring the constitutional separation of church and state. It’s a lack of healthcare and a refusal of resources from outside sources that could provide those needed services. It’s the existence of a second class citizenry. It’s that in Mississippi, all men are not created equally. It’s poor education. It’s a new breed of veiled racism. It’s code words like “those people.”
Although there are myriad problems that make my state more frustrating than a 24-hour channel showing a looping Ole Miss infomercial when my wheelchair and remote control batteries are both dead, there are 100 things that I love, that are unique to Mississippi, that I’ll never be able to or want to find anywhere else.
Mississippi is a constant, lazy breeze blowing inland from the dingy waters of the Mississippi Sound. It’s a log truck headed to the mill with its load of skinny pine sticks. It’s a tug pushing barges of grain down the big river to market. It’s monstrous tractors scratching lines into the rich, dark soil of the endless, perfectly flat delta fields. It’s a fall Saturday afternoon in The Grove at a tailgate party unrivaled in its over-the-top decoration and dress. It’s a Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday morning with its choir belting out beautiful gospel music to Heaven and the rhythmic meter of the pastor’s sermon. It’s a deer blind concealing a father and his 6-year-old daughter napping with her head on her daddy’s shoulder while deer feed outside with no threat from the fellow who has morphed from a hunter into a pillow. It’s the Jackson State Sonic Boom high-stepping along a parade route as it floods the streets with music. It’s pot roast for Sunday lunch at Grandma’s house. It’s a late spring day in Left Field Lounge watching college baseball through the smoke of the grills lining the outfield wall. It’s the blues emanating from a run-down building on a dirt road surrounded by soybean fields. It’s the literature of Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, William Faulkner, Margaret Walker Alexander, Nevada Barr, and John Grisham. It’s the rows of ramshackle cabins south of Philadelphia on Highway 21 that sit empty all year long except for the week of the Neshoba County Fair. It’s your neighbor bringing you a mess of greens from his garden and you sending two jars of fig preserves that you just finished canning back home with him. It’s the art of Wyatt Waters, Walter Anderson, and Gail Pittman. It’s sitting on your front porch and greeting passersby on the sidewalk whether you know them or not. It’s a grease-stained paper sack bursting with hot tamales.It’s the creamy white blossoms of a sprawling magnolia tree. It’s summertime humidity thick, dripping, smothering, exhausting as it absconds with the last drop of your energy. I love Mississippi for all of these reasons and many more.
As I look back at the positive and negative attributes, there are quite a few more positive attributes than negative ones. However, if I were to place all of the positives on one side of a set of balance scales and all of the negatives on the other side, I feel like the positives would be akin to cotton and the negatives more like iron. Some days, I feel like there’s just not enough cotton to balance out the iron. Other days, maybe things balance out. But, the only way to tip the scales in favor of the positives is to keep adding to that list. We can hopefully remove some of the iron, like poor education and legislated religion from the negative side, but some of the iron cannot be removed no matter how hard we try. Our history will be there forever. The sins of our fathers may be forgiven one day, but their stains cannot be bleached from the fabric of our past.
Despite the struggle between the positives and negatives of my home state, there is one factor that overshadows everything else. What keeps me here is that Mississippi is my home. My roots are inseparably entangled with the pines piercing the rolling, red clay hills of east central Mississippi. I draw strength and inspiration from family, friends, and experiences all tied to this beautiful, violent, charitable, hateful, culturally rich, financially impoverished, God-fearing, Hell-raising place. I grapple with the complex paradox that is Mississippi, but Mississippi is simply home, and that’s where my heart is.