Review: The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by Richard Grant
Natchez, Mississippi is a very eccentric and quirky city in the southwest portion of the state. It has been described as being a little version of New Orleans, Louisiana and less like the rest of Mississippi. It has an interesting history, one in which it was Pro-Union during the Civil War even when Mississippi seceded but still promoted the institution of slavery. The citizens of Natchez consist of liberals and conservatives and their current mayor is a Black gay man who received 91% of the vote. This all may seem like progress to the naked eye but Natchez continues to promote a view of the past that they just can’t seem to let go and it mostly revolves around their romanticized view of the old antebellum South. Richard Grant’s forthcoming book The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi covers the complicated history and recent events of this Mississippi town.
Grant’s book alternates between current day Natchez and a story about an African prince named Abdulrahman Ibrahima, who was enslaved in the town. The modern accounts focus on the mostly white traditions that venerate the Old South through its garden clubs, banquets, historical tours, and the Tableaux play. All of these festivities promoted a Lost Cause/Pro-Confederate view of the South which seldom mentioned slavery and when it did it promoted the false narrative that slaves were happy and slavery wasn’t so bad. The story of Ibrahima, on the other hand, is a fascinating biography of a prince and his never ending fight for freedom.
Grant introduces the reader to unforgettable characters such as Ser Boxley (pictured on the left of the book cover), a Black activist who advocates for the true history of slavery to be told in Natchez and Greg Iles, the white bestselling author who consults with Natchez elites to put more slavery stories into the plays and other festivities. Both individuals face resistance from older white Natchez citizens as well as tourists, who don’t want to hear anything about slavery because it makes them upset, they just want to see the nice old houses. These same resistors vent against what they see as political correctness run amok. This part of the book reminded me so much of our current debate on Confederate statutes and how supporters say its erasing history, albeit a false one.
Grant is an amazing storyteller. He writes about Nellie Jackson, a Black woman who owned a brothel for 60 years in Natchez. Everyone in town including law enforcement knew about it and was ok with it. However, it was her more activist role in the civil rights movement that fascinated me. Grant also chronicles the open interracial relationships that occurred in the 19th Century and the current day white and black descendants of those relationships who acknowledge each other as family. The more I read this book the more I came away with how strange this town was and is. I could not get enough of it.
The book ends with Natchez remaining a very complicated city. Small progress has been made on some fronts while other efforts on progress are rolled back, as is life. Overall, The Deepest South of All is an amazing book that has led me on a path to learning more about Natchez especially its Black history. It has introduced me to several films, such as Prince Among Slaves, Mississippi Madam: The Life of Nellie Jackson, and Black Natchez, that I will be checking out in the near future. If you love learning about the South and its history then you will enjoy reading about this unusual city.
Thanks to NetGalley, Simon & Schuster, and Richard Grant for a free ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. The Deepest South of All will be released on September 1, 2020.
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