Mississippi Calm

mississippi-riverI am always struck by the shocked response I receive from most folks when I tell them I’ve lived in Mississippi.

Usually those who have never been to Mississippi are the most vocal in detailing graphic truths about the racist, backwardness of the state. People are comfortable assigning all of America’s racial ills to Mississippi and smug in their good fortune at not being there or being from there.

Despite its singularly horrific legacy of racial discord, Mississippi is a hauntingly beautiful and mesmerizing state. The land is rich and fertile; soil tilled and nurtured by sturdy Black backs and hands. The heavy humid air and the lushness of the trees contain all the spirit and will of every Black person borne of the state. You feel an engulfing presence of Black folks in Mississippi. It is, at once, a powerful and comforting feeling. Always lurking, however, is the fascination with this state and its tortured past.

In Mississippi, I discovered the soul of the struggle; the force of a people willing to face the dogs, the fists, the bullets, the insults for freedom.

In Mississippi, I discovered Medgar Wiley Evers and the magnificence of his commitment to the freedom of Black people.

In Mississippi, I encountered the lyrical, fervent voice of Margaret Walker Alexander, whose, For My People is a literary work of praise, loyalty and homage to Black people.

Sometimes as I sat at night staring into woods of velvety black darkness, I imagined fearless ancestors escaping into the unknown Mississippi night, drawn by the powerful urge to be free. Mississippians are proud and cautious people. They know and understand the scorn with which the world views their state. Yet, they are protective of their legacy of resistance.

They know that they faced the vilest form of racism and won. They have transformed their state unbeknownst to the rest of the world. There is a graciousness and civility about Mississippi today that I have found in few places. People genuinely behave with a charm and grace from a more gentile time.

The hellish history of race relations in Mississippi cannot be undone, however, there is an effort to craft a very different future for all Mississippians. Many alive today, including native Mississippians cannot and will not forget the days of the violent mistreatment of Black people; it is a history that bears remembering. That Mississippi is not the Mississippi of today.

To be sure, all is not completely well any place in America for Black people. Although the struggle continues, Mississippians have earned an easy and comfortable calm. In Mississippi they are trying to redress the lingering racial animus that defined their state.  I applaud the effort.