By Kelly Foster
Maybe my lack of a thick Southern accent has made me mostly impervious to this in the past, but last week in Connecticut, I was subject to some of the most oddly small-minded anti-Southern prejudice I’ve ever experienced. And it made me mad, so now I’m writing about it.
I was attending a summer AP workshop at the prestigious Taft School in Watertown. It’s a beautiful campus, postcard perfect, equal to any fantasy I ever had about New England. The first day of class, the teacher sitting next to me politely inquired about where I lived. When I told her, she responded, “Oh, so you guys probably don’t have too many AP workshops available down there.”
And that was just the beginning.
All week long, people kept over-explaining things to me as if I couldn’t possibly be familiar with the concepts myself, from rhetoric to roadway roundabouts. When I told one of the guys sitting next to me that I was headed back to Boston for the weekend, he said, “Well, I’d tell you all about the trains, but it’d probably just confuse you.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that when it comes to Boston, I know from trains.
Now, God knows, I’ve had my share of internal conflict with the state of Mississippi. I live ten miles from Medger Evers Boulevard. I know why there’s a street named after him. It’s not good. I know these things.
But I want to say some other things about Mississippi now, because I feel it’s important to do so.
I come from a green place, where light is always filtered through leaves and the grass grows soft and thick underfoot. I come from a place where there’s space for trees to grow half as wide as they are tall, and we are not in the habit of chopping them down.
I come from a place where elegance is valued, where beauty is enough of an argument for the existence of anything—where walls are draped in silks and gorgeous textiles, where women know how best to drape themselves, how best to make up a face, how best to make up a room so lovely it radiates its own light, how to host a proper cocktail party, where men know what a good single malt Scotch tastes like and when it rains, they get their feet wet walking you to your car under umbrellas.
I come from a place where ritual is respected, where children are taught to say Ma’am and Sir because it’s respectful. Because the act of saying so acknowledges the truth that these people have come before you and know better than you do just how bloody costly life is.
I come from a place with an original and a vital music culture, where the Blues and Jazz and Rock n’ Roll were all born. Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil just a few miles from my hometown. Elvis was born here. Highway 61 stretches across our Delta, full still of Juke Joints where you can get tamales and Koolickles and Orange Sodas and hear some of the best music in the world.
I come from a place where when you graduate, you get a set of pewter mint julep cups monogrammed with your initials, and a set of towels to match. I come from a place where they know it’s best to drink your beer outside, and you are allowed to do so. I come from a place where they tailgate before football games in suits and ties. I come from a place where you can still smoke in a bar if you want to. I come from a place that had the balls to secede from the Union, bad as the reasons might have been. I come from a place where true originality, true self-reliance, true rebellion are nurtured and celebrated.
I come from a place where stories and words are valued, where language as languid and rich as any Russian novelist’s gets thrown around like it’s any old thing and if you only listen, you can catch it.
I come from a place where a single woman can afford to purchase a house in the hippest neighborhood in town on a teacher’s salary. If I take a ten minute walk from my house, I can have the best Pimm’s Cup in town, catch a showing at any art gallery, get a coffee, take a yoga class, eat food from a chef that Anthony Bourdain chose to cook at one of his own parties recently. I can drink wine with sommeliers and any of the several James Beard award-winning chefs in Jackson.
Even so, I can step into my backyard, into the tree-laden half-acre of land that for now belongs to me, and see the stars unadorned, all naked and tarted up just for me.
I have seen just enough of the United States to know that every sacred inch and atom of the land is worthy of love. Mississippi is no less worthy than any other place.
Several decades ago, a group of Southern writers up at Vanderbilt, who called themselves the Agrarians or Fugitive Poets (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, et al.), wrote an anthology of essays entitled I’ll Take My Stand, which argued for the preservation of agriculture, for the preservation of leisure time, for porch sitting, for story telling, for the reading of books, for the preservation of culture in every sense in the Deep South. They sensed, as I can occasionally sense within myself, that people down here felt apologetic for not being something else—more industrialized, slicker, more mechanized, busier.
Jackson, Mississippi, will never be New York City. Or Chicago. Or Los Angeles.
I used to fault it for that.
But I don’t anymore.