I’m moving to Clarksdale, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta about 1-1/2 hours drive south of Memphis. I have been asked with great frequency – mostly by people who haven’t been to Mississippi – “why the hell would you move to Mississippi?”
This is why:
The Mississippi Delta is one of several places in the world where for some reason deep in my gut, I feel like my blood pressure lowers, I can breathe deeper and I simply feel at home. Indonesia is another place like that, even Jakarta (go figure.)
I first went to Mississippi, of course, because of the blues. I’ve loved blues music ever since I started developing my own taste in music around the age of 12. And the Mississippi Delta is where the music I love first began to develop in America. (I also love the music of Mali in West Africa, which could well be called the ancestral home of blues.)
But once the blues got me there, I began to fall in love with almost everything else about the place. I find it to be extraordinarily beautiful. As a photographer, the light angling across the big river and onto the levees and all the inlets and lakes and swamps and smaller rivers and then across the deep rich black soil and the black and white of the cotton fields when the cotton is in bloom, and the eerie brown and orange of the sorghum fields and all the greenery mixing in and fall colors, too, is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere. The weather, with the big storms rolling in from across the Great Plains, adds another dimension to the landscape. Throw in the odd and old agricultural and industrial towns and the surprisingly wide variety of people I encounter in them – who are almost all friendly and welcoming – and the place is a visual and human feast for me.
You can get a visual taste of what I love about the place here: http://ericstone888.smugmug.com/Travel/MississippiDelta
The Mississippi Delta is as rich in history, a very mixed bag of tragic and triumphant history, and culture – besides the music, the visual and literary arts thrive in the area – as anywhere I’ve ever been, more so than a lot of places.
Now that isn’t to say there aren’t problems. Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is, has been called the poorest county in the poorest state in the U.S. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it might be. But among other things that means there are opportunities for people who have skills, are willing to work hard, to invest some cash and are willing to learn from and become an active part of the community they are living in. Frankly, I can be of a lot more use to my community and to myself in a place like Clarksdale than I can be in Los Angeles.
I have ideas for several businesses that will, hopefully, provide needed services to Clarksdale, maybe some jobs, as well as bring some money and further investment into the area. I have some friends in the area who I can work with on some of those ideas. And, because the area is so economically underdeveloped, it is inexpensive enough that the small investments I can afford to make in it can potentially have a greater impact than they would in Los Angeles.
On a personal level, I can live as or even more comfortably, on a whole lot less money in Clarksdale than I’ve been able to do in Los Angeles. And I’ll have some money left over with which to travel. Not to mention that the Memphis airport is a lot nicer to deal with than LAX. (And about as far away in travel time as LAX currently is for me during rush hour, or even some other times of day.)
But when talking with my friends and acquaintances who haven’t spent much, or any, time in the South, there is always an elephant in the room – the region’s legacy of bigotry and racism. Mississippi is one of the last places that fought to preserve slavery, and battled hard to maintain Jim Crow laws and segregation. Much of the horror of that is still within living memory. And of course there still are bigots and racists there. Why, my friends wonder, would I want to move to a place like that?
According to a lot of surveys there are more bigots and racists and hate groups in the South than in other parts of the U.S. But they are hardly alone. There are plenty here, in Los Angeles, too, and in New York and Boston. The South doesn’t have a monopoly on morons and miscreants, not by a longshot.
And, just like in most places, most of the people I meet in the Mississippi Delta aren’t strongly political in their daily interactions. They react to people individually, regardless of their race, background, religion (or lack thereof in my case) or sexuality and treat the people they meet with the same respect, or lack of it, that they get in return.
As for the legacy of segregation, the Mississippi Delta is far less racially segregated than Los Angeles or most other big northern and western cities. All of my white friends in Clarksdale have a lot more African-American friends than anyone I know in Los Angeles does, including myself. They live in neighborhoods that are far more integrated. If you want to have more than just a couple of friends or take your pick from a variety of neighborhoods, it’s pretty tough to be a racist in Clarksdale. In one of the “reddest” states in the country, Clarksdale is in one of the “bluest” counties in the country – largely because it’s nearly 80 percent African-American.
That isn’t to say it’s anywhere even remotely close to perfect. In general the African-American population of the Mississippi Delta is a whole lot poorer than the white population. (Though a lot of the white population isn't exactly flush, either.) But I can’t think of any place in the whole country where that isn’t also true. That’s a disgrace for all of us, no matter where we live.
There is, however, another form of segregation that is growing rapidly in the United States and I don’t want to be a part of it. This whole “red state” vs “blue state” thing. Too many people are hunkering down in enclaves of like-minded neighbors; communities consisting entirely of residents who think the same way, believe the same things, react and act the same way.
That’s bad for all of us. What has allowed this country to thrive over the years has been the diversity of its population and the free range and exchange of ideas and beliefs that all those different people bring to their interactions with each other.
In poll after poll about gay marriage, it is shown that people who have gay friends and family members overwhelmingly support gay rights, even if they are “red staters” or very conservative or very religious. Look at Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, if you don’t believe that. But when gay people, or atheists, or liberals, or conservatives or Christians cling only to each other and don’t socialize and do business with and hang out with people who don’t believe or practice the same things they do, then the sort of long-lasting, deep societal change that starts on a respectful personal, not a political, level can’t happen.
The bottom line is that I’m moving to Mississippi because I love the place and it’s beautiful and I can live better or at least as well there as I can here in Los Angeles for a whole lot less money, and there’s the music and the people that I love, too. And yeah, Mississippi’s got problems, some of them worse than the problems here in L.A., some of them not nearly as bad. But find me a place without problems – hell, they even had riots in Sweden recently – and I wouldn’t want to live there anyhow. It would be boring.
Come and visit. I’ll show you what I mean.