18 March 2014

MY MOVE TO MISSISSIPPI - THE VIEW AFTER SIX MONTHS

Warning: This is long.
As you can see by the date of the previous post on this blog, I haven’t exactly been keeping up with it. Mostly, since moving to Mississippi I’ve been posting a lot of photos and the occasional bits and pieces of commentary on my Facebook page.

But about a month ago, Mississippi Legends magazine asked me if I’d write a follow up piece to my blog about why I moved to Mississippi. They had published a slightly reworked version of the blog that appeared here and it generated more letters and online comments than any other article they’ve ever published. Most of those letters and comments were very pleased that someone from the outside has overcome the stereotypes and prejudices that outsiders harbor about the state. Some of them were critical, saying that my blog was na├»ve with regard to the very real problems that still affect everyday life in Mississippi. Click here to see that article and the online comments.

So, I started to write a new article for Legends, an update to my previous one from the perspective of having been here six months and having got to know the state at least a little bit better than I did when I moved here.

I struggled with it. Legends is a magazine about the arts, culture, cuisine and history of Mississippi, it isn’t a forum for controversy or strong opinions. I emailed the editor to tell her that I wasn’t sure my update was the sort of thing they are looking for, that while I’m still very happy that I have moved here, and I am more than ever convinced that there are a great many truly wonderful things about this place, my honest opinion has come to be a great deal more mixed and nuanced than it was in my original blog. Any new article of mine was going to reflect the more complex picture I have developed, rather than the wide-eyed wonder of the first one.

She asked to see it anyhow, so that she could decide for herself. So I sent it to her. After several weeks I asked what was the status. She got back to me saying that she and other people associated with the magazine had been giving it a lot of thought. She had edited it so as to tone it down and had decided that if they were to publish it, it would only be in the online, rather than the print, version of the magazine.

I requested to see the edited version before they published it in any form. Having been an editor myself, I normally loathe and have generally refused requests like that from writers. But in this case the article is an opinion piece, rather than news or a feature story, and it is meant to express my opinion. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted it “toned down,” as I didn’t think it was all that outrageous an opinion to begin with.

The editor wrote me to say: “Maybe you should see the rest of Mississippi. A lot of what you said isn't true. It's a narrow perspective. Some of what you said is true. But only some. I have to be mindful of the entire state, not just your corner. It needs balance.”

She may have a point, at least part of one. Though I have made an effort to see a lot of the state, and have probably seen more of it than many people who have lived here their whole lives, I certainly haven’t seen it all. And I haven’t lived here all that long. And the corner of it in which I live – the Mississippi Delta – is almost certainly the most impoverished part of the state. But I have seen enough indications of the problems I wrote about in all the parts of the state I’ve visited, that I am of the opinion that there is, sadly, more truth in what I’ve written than she believes.

The upshot is that Legends is not going to publish the updated piece on My Move to Mississippi – the View After Six Months. I want to stress that I am not bothered by their decision. As I had originally thought, the magazine isn’t really the right place for what I’ve written.

But for my friends, fans, foes, family and anyone else who is interested, I’ve decided to publish it here. At the end I’ve added some further thoughts, some stronger opinions that will undoubtedly step on some toes and that I knew better than to include in what I’d originally written for Legends.

By way of further introduction, I do want to emphasize that I have absolutely no regrets about having moved here. It was the right move to the right place at the right time in my life. I love it here. I think Mississippi is a wonderful and terribly misunderstood place. It is also, however, a place with a lot of problems that are holding it back from being even better than it is. And those problems can’t even begin to be solved without some honest hard looks at what they are and where they spring from.

Here’s what I wrote for Legends:

First off, let me answer what seems to be the burning question on most Legends readers minds when they meet me or email me: yes, I have found tofu. Packaged but reasonably fresh tofu at the Kroger here in Clarksdale and the fresh stuff in Memphis. (I’ve also found mangosteen in Memphis – my favorite and very hard to find anywhere outside of southeast Asia, tropical fruit.)

I’ve had visitors from Los Angeles. The first were a lesbian couple who’d been afraid I’d have to protect them. It came as no surprise to me that I didn’t have to do anything of the sort. It came as a complete surprise to them that they had such a great, fun, comfortable time here that they are already planning a return visit. I think it was the dance floor at Po Monkey’s that sealed the deal.

So far I’ve hosted seven skeptical visitors from my old hometown. All of them went away talking about when they’d be back and understanding, at last, why I’ve moved here. In the course of their visits they’ve enjoyed the physical beauty of the state and met a fair share of world class intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians, just plain ordinary everyday good folk and a variety of interesting and amusing characters.

Mississippi does a very good job of speaking for itself if an outsider will dial down the loud voices that shout the stereotypes about the place and keep an open mind.

But those voices are loud for a reason. Six months in, getting to know the state better than I ever did as an occasional visitor, it is painfully evident that a lot of those stereotypes exist for good reason. (Please keep in mind that I am well aware of the fact that I am still a newcomer here, that I don’t know Mississippi nearly as well as people who have lived here their whole lives or spent a lot more time than I have. But these are my impressions so far.)

While the majority of people I’ve met here have not been uneducated or racist or misogynist or intolerant, I have met some who are. While you can meet people of that ilk anywhere, I’ve come across more here than in most other places. Too many Mississippians wear the state’s history as a millstone around their necks.

And that history has not served this place well. Too many romanticize a past that isn’t romantic, that is nothing to be proud of or to wish to return to. (Sorry, but I get a little sick to my stomach every time I see the Confederate battle flag on the current flag of my new home state.) And too many also cling to that past to foster and build on resentments as an excuse for a lack of cooperation and motivation that stands in the way of a better life for everyone, including themselves.

These two big things encroach on daily life here in a lot of unexpected ways.

Though I live in Clarksdale, a small city, and there’s no traffic, no long lines at stores and everything is relatively close together, it can take a lot longer than it should to do such simple things as make a purchase at a local shop. It’s a far more congenial experience than it is in Los Angeles. But it can require a lot of patience.

Too many clerks and patrons are regularly unable to process transactions in an efficient way, or to clearly communicate what they want or need. I’ve seen people struggle to write checks and to make change, to answer seemingly simple questions or deal with minor complications. There are people here, a lot more of them than there should be, who cannot do basic arithmetic or lack the vocabulary to make their needs known.

And the poor level of education leads to fewer jobs. Companies don’t want to locate here because they can’t find an adequately educated workforce. And fewer jobs leads to further poverty and desperation. And crime - Clarksdale has a high and growing crime rate - goes hand in hand with that. Too many people here lack education, lack opportunities, lack jobs and are afraid in their own homes. And all of that plays right into people’s bad expectations of and stereotyping and resentments of and anger at each other. And that affects everyone in the whole community.

I have spent a great deal of time in what is called the “third world” and Mississippi is as close to it as I have seen in America outside of some Native-American reservations.

That isn’t to say there aren’t opportunities and there isn’t hope. There is. Like any place that needs a lot of work and has a tremendous amount of potential, Mississippi is a land of great promise for those who are willing to come here and invest their time, effort, expertise, money and patience.

Clarksdale is improving in some ways. One Friday night in January during the Film Festival, four new businesses opened their doors in downtown Clarksdale. (One of them was my gallery – DogLeg.) But, sadly, what this community really needs isn’t another art gallery, or three new restaurants that most of the people who live here can’t afford. (Although it could definitely use some healthier inexpensive food choices.) It needs factories and large employers that can replace the thousands of old-style agricultural jobs that are gone and not coming back.

And it desperately needs better education to prepare people to take advantage of the new types of jobs in agriculture and other industries that are coming into being.

In spite of its beauty, its tremendous creative cultural heritage and community, in spite of its remarkably warm and friendly people, all the many things that make life here exciting and interesting and fulfilling, there is no denying that Mississippi is the poorest, worst educated state in the country. And that becomes increasingly impossible to ignore the longer I live here.

Am I glad I moved here? You bet I am. Do I still believe everything I wrote in my first article about moving to Mississippi? Yes, I do but with wider open eyes. This is a wonderful place with tremendous opportunity and potential. But it is still going to take an awful lot of hard, smart work to make it into the place it ought to be.


Addendum


It is common currency here that Mississippi, and for that matter the South in general, is “post-racial.” ‘That was then, this is now’ and ‘it’s only outsiders who are really concerned with that stuff anymore’ seem to be widely held beliefs.

And while that may be true for some people, the fact for most is that the South isn’t so much color-blind as it is blind to the issues.

An incident in February on the Oxford campus of Ole Miss, and even more significantly the reaction to it, is telling. Some cretinous students hung a noose around the neck and a Confederate flag around the shoulders of the statue of James Meredith on the campus. (Meredith was the student who first integrated the university, with National Guard protection amidst rioting, in 1962.)

The university administration reacted the way one would hope. They condemned the action and launched an investigation that found and punished the morons who had perpetrated the outrage. People throughout the state were horrified and also condemned the action.

But among many of the white commentators in the state, and a few black ones, too, the big ongoing outrage was targeted at the “national media” for its coverage of the incident. The attitude seems to be that ‘everybody’s picking on us for the way that things used to be.’ People here take umbrage to the media spotlight, pointing out that racist incidents are not exclusive to this part of the country.

And that is true. I certainly recall times when fuckwits engaged in racist acts in California as well. But the thing is, I can recall them because they were also reported in the media, and reported with great outrage. And the sad truth of the matter is that while these things do happen in many places, they happen more frequently in those states with the historical legacy of slavery and legislated racism and segregation than they do in other states.

As much as many people here would like to believe that the horrible side of the history of this place is dead and buried, history never dies. It can only be forgotten – something that puts us at risk of repeating it.

An article on February 26th in the National Review by Lee Habeeb http://www.nationalreview.com/article/372001/media-south-lee-habeeb?utm_source=disqus_dashboard (I’m not sure this link works unless you are registered on the website) titled, “The Media, the South - The view that most Americans have of the South is more stereotype than truth,” was widely linked and referred to here in Mississippi. The article condemns the New York Times, among others, for its stereotypical view of the South.

One of the comments on the National Review article, however, points out that in its article on the incident the New York Times wrote: "By many measures, the university, which hosted a presidential debate in 2008, is an entirely different place from the one Mr. Meredith entered, one that combines contemporary ambition with seductive charm. Nearly 41 percent of its undergraduates are from outside Mississippi, up from 33 percent a decade ago. Minorities make up nearly a quarter of the student body, and the university’s average ACT score is at its highest level ever."

However, the Times also goes on to point out that the university hasn't entirely given up its past: “'If you bill yourself as Ole Miss and you call yourself the Rebels and the first thing a visitor to the campus sees is a Confederate monument, whether intentionally or not, it conveys an image,' said Charles W. Eagles, a history professor. 'And that image is an image tied to the past, not a 21st-century image.'”

Click here for a link to the NYT story.

Last fall I went to an Ole Miss football game and to the famous “tailgating” in the Grove before the game. In spite of the university being nearly 20% black, and the football team being more than half black, out of the thousands of tailgaters in the Grove I saw no more than a dozen or so African-Americans. Could that have something to do with the abundance of Confederate battle flags on display?

A lot of white people here shrug off sensitivities to displays of the Confederate flag. They like to say it doesn’t mean anything in the modern world, it’s just their heritage, their history and they have a right to that. But history does mean something, it can still bite us from the past. I don’t know any of those same people who wouldn’t understand Jewish people being put off by the display of swastikas.

And it’s not just the black people here who are ill-served by history. White people, too, are the victims of historical resentments and grievances that simmer and fester and provide excuses for the ongoing economic, social and familial malaise from which the whole region suffers.

And the most important public university in the state should be setting the tone for the state in general. A place of learning is a place where history should matter intensely, where it should be discussed and confronted and where open, honest discourse – something that can’t happen so long as people pretend that the past is over and done with - can start a process of reconciliation. Forgetting just isn’t the same as reconciling.

The pretense that Mississippi, and the South, is “post-racial,” is one of the things that gets in the way of the progress that this part of the country sorely needs.

While there is no denying that there are terrible problems in places all over this country, there is also no denying that most of the poorest, worst-educated, least healthy states in the United States are the states of the old Confederacy. That is more than mere coincidence.

I love my adopted home. It is a wonderful, exciting, interesting and generally very welcoming place. (At least it has been welcoming. I’ll see what happens after this blog is read.) I am delighted that it rarely lives up to the stereotypes that people from outside the area harbor about it. And I revel in explaining and showing that to my friends who visit. I still say to those of you reading this from outside the area, come on down for a visit. You'll like it. But I also don’t want to close my eyes to the problems that really do still exist. Loving a place (or a person or anything else for that matter) does not require a person to blind themselves to its faults or to want to find ways to make it even better.