mississippi on my mind, six attempts to remember
With respect to the Bayougoula, Houma, Natchez, Chakchiuma, lbitoupa, Koroa, Ofogoula, Taposa, Tiou, Tunica and Yazvoo tribes in Mississippi; the Osage, Caddo, Chickasaw, Tunica, and Quapaw tribes in Arkansas; the Muscogee, Yuchi, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Shawnee, and Seneca tribes in Tennessee; and the Akokisa tribe in Alabama.
Delivered on August 27th, 2020.
Compliment to birthright.
Every time I’ve started to draft this presentation, attempting to articulate what it was like to tour the American South, tour trauma, tour poverty, tour afterlife of injustice, I couldn’t help but be swallowed with sorrow.
It’s the type of sorrow I felt six years ago sitting on the carpet of my childhood bedroom, unable to concentrate on packing t-shirts away for my first semester of college because I could only stare in futility at the picture of Trayvon with face against asphalt, a deep red pooling from his head to city gutter. It’s the sorrow that shadowed over me all throughout my first semester of college. The sorrow that led me into the streets of Berkeley and Oakland, night after night and after night, screaming from the cavity of my chest that my life mattered.
After a hot blooded first year, I decided I was done with sorrow. I was tired of making my pain palatable for white and non Black POC.
I made sure to amplify every name, every hashtag, in the years following, but I never allowed myself to get emotional, take it personal, already aware of what misery it would bring me.
I’ll be clear now: This trip was not a miserable experience. What I learned from the lips of those on the frontline, the freedom fighters, the wounded healers, is invaluable. Every day, every city, I was inspired. The grief the trip triggered was and is an unavoidable pretense of hyphenated tourists, our price for trying to find answers in ancestral homeland.
Thinking back on Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, I still am uncertain. Uncertain about the dilapidated structures. The persisting erasure of women, trans, and non-binary leaders. The commodification of a movement and yet the necessity of spectacle. I still feel sorrow.
I am only certain that my departure was premature. That I need to go back and caress the Southern soil, its dampened, aged hardwood, letting the humidity soak through my clothes once more, waiting for an answer, a deeper understanding of what has endured.
Jane Hirshfield wrote that poems, “carry love and terror, or they carry nothing.” I’ll offer both in a series of recollections about my travels through sites of heritage and memory:
This trip was not about policy or protest but origin for me. I asked to join the trip because of my grandmother: Willie Beverly Jones Morris. She was raised in Greenwood, Mississippi in the 1920s. Her parents, sharecroppers. In adulthood she migrated to California. Compton, where my father was raised.
Throughout this trip Ashley and I kept journals. We were asked to write how we were feeling so not to forget. I could only ever capture fragments:
Atlantic as origin. Bra strap slick with sweat, socks also defeated in the Southern heat. Grave-digging in daylight. Domestic terrorism. Terror proper. More crypt than city; the music still plays here anyway. Someone confessed that they always felt like a little Black girl. I wish I did. Felt more stain than child most of the time. There are stars here at night.
These are from the first two days.
On that first day, I woke with Mississippi’s morning light, immediately reaching for my camera, I hurriedly brushed my teeth, washed my face, slipped on my boots, a dress, earrings, rushing out of the hotel determined to discover Jackson, to document and witness the city.
I started down the street. City Hall. Andrew Jackson, immortalized in bronze stood tall on a moat, one arm akimbo, the other pressing a staff firmly into the statue’s base, still declaring that this was his providence. Brilliant pillars stretched to the hazy sky behind him. Aside from his shadow, Jackson was deserted. There were no cars rushing past. No tour groups crowding to take pictures, whispering about the general’s legacy (a bustling plantation of 300 slaves, genocide of the Indigenous). Just me and Jackson.
I climbed up State street, stopping to get a closer look at a tomb. Placard absent I could only identify it by reading what had been chiseled in stone decades ago: CSA, Confederate States of America. The monument honored its sons, their sacrifice.
A railroad track stretching behind the tomb caught my eye. I began towards it when a white man suited in a button down, slacks, waved for my attention. I was not sure what type of White man he was, but I pulled the headphones adorning my ears down as he approached.
He wanted a picture. His great grandfather, a confederate soldier, serving Jackson. He was here chasing that history, driving from one battle site to the next. He continued on about his southern heritage. I could only think of the negro soldiers, in their starched uniforms, heads high, chests out, freely marching into a scorching April heat, past plantations, past rail road tracks, freedom finally clear in the scope of their rifles, thinking at last, at last we are country men.
“What a rich history”, I offered the man. He started crying, dabbing his eyes with a red, white, and blue tie, freckled with the word “vote!”. I took his picture, landscape then portrait to capture the entire monument.
He left for a Biden rally.
I walked 12 more miles.
Drenched in afternoon sun, I escaped to the cool shade of the capitol lawn’s magnolias, watching the broad polyester body of the state flag, its southern cross, confederate stars, proudly rustle in the wind, its ripple echoing for me and Jackson.
In 1997, reflecting on his Mississippi hometown, Natchez, Anthony Walton wrote: Humid beautiful city, theme park of slavery and the old ways.
On the fourth day of trip, we drove as dawn emerged across Arkansas’s horizon to arrive at Little Rock Central High School. We began with a tour of the high school, pausing for a moment at its mouth, taking in the 150,000 square foot structure that favored a church rather than a school. Looking up from the brick esplanade, we were greeted by four female statues, each dedicated to an educational theme. The only one I remember is opportunity. She stood there, in a flowing gown, two plait braids, almost sneering at us below. Hands preoccupied with her dress, unaffected, uninterested in what goes on below.
After making our way through hallways on the first two floors, we crossed the street to the Visitor Center, to listen to Elizabeth Eckford and Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton’s testimony about what it meant to be the first.
Due to a breakdown in communication, Ms. Eckford accidentally arrived early on September 4th, 1957 to then be denied entrance to Little Rocks campus at every entrance she approached. She recounted that only two people affirmed her humanity that day, wiping spit from her curls, the dress her mother, a seamstress, prepared for her. An education journalist with the New York Times, and a teacher, Benjamin Fine and Grace Lorch, they served as the only barrier between mob and child. Wiping her tears, talking over the litany of curses and threats they told her, “Don’t let them see you cry.” Though Elizabeth had already thought ahead, arming herself with sunglasses.
I vibrated with anger hearing about the complicity of soldiers, a city, a country while children were attacked before cameras. Pressing nails into the palms of my hands to hold tears back hearing about the violence in classrooms that stalked in hallways, bathroom stalls, the tirade, their sacrifice.
I could only make out “thank you” before sobbing on my knees before Ms. Eckford and Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton. While taking slow, deep breaths into my elbow, Dr. Hampton grabbed my trembling hand, caressing my hair, and whispered, “I know, I know.”
On the morning of September 15th, 1963, the day 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, the pastor’s Sunday school message was a love that forgives, grounded in Matthew 5:43–44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’”
Walking through the restored church, up the carpeted stairs where the Klan detonated seven sticks of dynamite, suspending the Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair in the air with torn bibles passages and pews, I could not imagine such a permissible God.
Over lunch, Rev. Carolyn McKinstry, survivor of the bombing, assured Ashley and I of the necessity of forgiveness, warning us of the consequences of being consumed by vengeance and bitterness, of clutching to hate. Eyes locked, as she cautioned us over salads and soft drinks, I believed her in that moment.
On our final day, I learned that Coretta was a classically trained pianist. Often she would open the windows of her parlor, lovingly pressing each manicured nail into ivory, leaning head back, curls shifting, singing o glory, o god, o glory, letting her sonatas spill to the suburbs of Montgomery. Crowds would gather outside, leaning forward, marveling at her talent. They still bombed her house.
Later that day, under the harsh Alabama sun, we entered The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, pantheon of the lambs, the lynched. A constellation of death perched atop all of Montgomery.
We wandered through its copper columns, each engraved with every date, every name of the victims, until the pillars began to suspend above our shoulders, requiring curving and twisting to comprehend. Many reading: UNKNOWN, UNKNOWN, UNKNOWN.
I was one the first to leave the memorial, escaping to an air conditioned shuttle bus en route from the summit back to the city. I didn’t look out the window as we descended the hill.
Downtown, I walked through Montgomery, turning into alleys, squeezing through poorly locked gates, sweating, searching. I eventually sat in front of an abandoned building. I closed my eyes trying to concentrate on the rush of a fountain across the street. I opened my eyes to a historical marker, it read Montgomery Slave Market. I shut my eyes once more.