I’ve never really thought to see if any other Mississippians feel this way, but whenever anyone not from here criticizes the South in general or Mississippi in particular, I tend to become not so much defensive as rabid and accusatory.
Case in point, I recently sustained an hour-long argument (one-sided and imaginary, of course) with Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly in my head when he opened his otherwise brilliant review of The Help with the following line, “It’s often been noted that before the civil rights era, the American South, while more racist than the North, was in one way more enlightened: even at the vicious height of Jim Crow, blacks and whites coexisted with a casual and enduring day-to-day intimacy.”
Now, I have no wish to dispute or to lessen the horror of the perfectly obvious and deplorable truth, which is that the South maintained institutionalized racism longer than the North maintained it.
I grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi. My optometrist’s old office had two waiting rooms. I can sometimes still see faded colored and white signs on old buildings above water fountains. I can look outside my house at this very moment at the collapsing houses of the poor on my own street and know that I live in a state suffering the legacy of oppression and hate and lack of opportunity.
No one’s arguing that. What I did object to was Gleiberman’s line “more racist than the North.” I found myself saying aloud, “Really, Gleiberman? More individually, personally racist? Because you spoke with every single resident of both the North and South and verified this? Because Cabrini Green and Harlem were such peachy destinations? Because being a maid in Brooklyn in the 1940s was so much better than being a maid in Natchez? Because institutionalized wage slavery in a factory was so much better and more fair than sharecropping? It was all horrendous. Get over yourself.”
By the way, Cabrini Green is usually my go-to beginning of an argument with my friends from up North when they want to argue with me about how because they are from the North, they are ipso facto so much less racist than anyone from the South.
And almost inevitably, these friends come from towns where the population demographic is 98% white. And then I usually make the comparison that them congratulating themselves for not being racist under those conditions is about as meaningful as my congratulating myself for not being Bernie Madoff.
And so basically that’s what happens when someone not from Mississippi criticizes Mississippi. I become retaliatory and a bit childish. I can’t count the number of times I have had to apologize to my friends for being, well, a completely defensive jerk.
But while any reading of American History above the Mason-Dixon line will allow you to see that while that region was never wholly exempt from the practices or even the legalized institutions of racism, the fact remains that hate and fear flourished in a special way here, where concentrated populations of African-Americans remained behind in the disastrous years after the Civil War and played an inextricable role in the agrarian economics of this region.
And the fact remains that not even two months ago, a group of white teenagers from a middle-class suburb of Jackson killed 49-year old James Craig Anderson less than five minutes from my house.
Eyewitnesses have given varying reports about what the boys’ motivation for the crime was, but they seem to agree that the boys were chanting “White Power” when they beat the man and that before they had come to find him they had claimed, in very explicit language, that they were going to find and attack a black man.
After the brutal attack, the ringleader, Deryl Dedmon, went to McDonald’s and allegedly bragged, in equally offensive language, about what he had done.
When I hear about these kinds of events I experience what I assume many people experience—shock, horror, revulsion—all mingled with a disturbingly self-righteous conviction that I am too terribly evolved ever to be a person who hates or who acts on hatred on the basis of race or class or socioeconomic difference.
But that’s a slippery slope. In fact, a possible danger of period pieces about racism like The Help, the danger even of my going to Rwanda and looking at dried bones on shelves, is that it makes the hate such sights manifest seem as other as the people who were hated in the first place.
I look at pictures of the White Citizens’ Council. I watch old video footage of Ross Barnett, and I think to myself, “What an idiot. What the hell was he thinking?” And I comfort myself with the notion that if it had been me, even born and raised in the same way and time, I never would have been a party to such violence and hatred.
Except that’s all easy to say, and hard to live. I am Mississippi, you see. I am not merely from here, I am of here, and if each of us, born of dust, shall to dust one day return, then this is the red clay, the black river dust from which I was made. And that thought terrifies even as it pleases me.
I am a placed person. And the place I have been born is a beautiful and a dangerous one. I can no more shed this place than I can shed any other essential of my identity.
I have choices that my forefathers opted to make badly. I am trying to rectify that.
As I try, I want to write about Mississippi. I want to write and write and write about her, until her savage beauty overwhelms her savage hatreds.
And I hope that day will be soon.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.