Scenes from Mississippi
PLUS: For paid subscribers, an audio excerpt of my new book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy
Dear #WhiteTooLong readers,
Greetings from the road, and welcome to the new subscribers from Mississippi.
I’m thankfully traveling back to DC today, where I’ll have 10 days at home before heading out to the next stop on my book tour, a conversation with my friend Greg Garrett at Baylor University on October 5th. Greg has a fantastic new book out—The Gospel According to James Baldwin—and we’ll be talking about the intersections between our two books. If you’re in the DFW/Waco area, we’d love to see you in person; if not, hope you can join us virtually. Click here to register.
As I’ve spent time in my home state this week, I’ve been reminded that Mississippi remains a place of contradictions. Here are just a few vignettes from my week.
During a 30-minute drive from the Jackson airport, I scanned the lower third of the FM dial. I encountered three different Christian radio stations, each of which had some commentary denouncing “transgenderism” as a threat to our kids and the country.
I was so glad to reconnect with my former Mississippi College classmate Cliff Johnson, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at University of Mississippi Law. Cliff and his team have been fighting the good fight—successfully litigating cases challenging practices such as the widespread use of illegal and excessive bail, the operation of “debtors’ prisons” throughout Mississippi, the denial of appointed counsel for indigent defendants, illegal sentencing of juvenile offenders, long-term incarceration of mentally ill detainees, and the failure to provide inmates with decent prison conditions.
Campaign ads are already rolling. Brandon Presley, the Democratic challenger to sitting Republican Governor Tate Reeves (and cousin of Elvis), is running TV ads featuring support from former Republican Rep. Mike Parker and three other Republicans. The closing line? “Let’s go Brandon!”
On my way to Hattiesburg, between Jackson and Magee, on the west side of Highway 49, I passed one of the most blatant roadside displays of white Christian nationalism I’ve seen (alas I was running late and didn’t get a picture). Atop a tall flagpole, a large Christian flag (white field with red Latin cross inside a blue canton) flew above the “thin blue line” flag, used by the “Blue Lives Matter” movement (the American flag where both the red stripes and the blue canton are recolored black and a blue horizontal stripe is added in the middle). The message: Christianity over democracy; whiteness over pluralism.
I had a great breakfast at the Farmer’s Market Cafe with my friend Brother Rogers, Director of Programs and Communications at the Mississippi Department of Archives and history (MDAH). I’m grateful to him and Chris Goodwin, Director of Public Information at MDAH, for hosting me for a talk to a full house at the “History is Lunch” series at the Two Mississippi Museums last Wednesday.
Finally, I’m trying something new that I plan to do regularly over the next 10 weeks (one for each chapter of the book). Below, I’m sharing a short excerpt from Hidden Roots (which narrates another kind of scene from Mississippi). Free subscribers will get the first part of the excerpt. Paid subscribers will get the entire excerpt, plus a voiceover of me reading it.
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The Mississippi Delta
I have no more land. I am driven away from home, driven up the red waters, let us all go, let us all die together and somewhere upon the banks we will be there.
—A song of Sin-e-cha, member of the Creek nation, who drowned when the Trail of Tears steamboat Monmouth sank in the Mississippi River in 1837
The place we know today as Mississippi remains a land of contradictions. Religion, culture, history—even the land itself—are full of paradox. Nowhere is this truer than in “the Delta,” the broad, diamond-shaped alluvial floodplain between what are known today as the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, running two hundred miles south from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and extending east, at its broadest point, seventy miles. The opening deposits of its famously rich soil were first made more than fifteen thousand years ago as the waters rose from melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Year over year, they have been enriched by annual floodwaters delivering installments of stolen upstream nutrients.
When you travel today along one of the man-made ribbons that slice through the Delta such as Highway 49 or 61, there are stretches where the shimmering heat transforms them into long asphalt streams that plummet over the edge of the horizon. As the locals like to joke, flat-earthers never made much headway among religious fundamentalists here because the land is so level you can see the curvature of the earth.
If it’s between planting and harvest time, and if you keep your driving speed steady and your gaze oblique, the rich brown spaces between the verdant rows flicker by like frames on old film stock. The even topography and the tidy crop lines conjure a false sense of order, security, and permanence. Cruising along in air-conditioned comfort, it’s easy to forget how recently white settler colonists arrived, killing and driving Indigenous people from their homes while importing enslaved Africans whose labor created the contemporary landscape.
Archeological evidence indicates human presence in what is now Mississippi as far back as 10,000 BCE. These early people were largely nomadic hunters of large animals like mastodon and bison. As the area began to warm over the next few millennia, Indigenous people adopted a more sedentary farming lifestyle and established villages throughout the area connected by trade routes. By 1000 CE, Native Americans were living in complex societies, which included extensive settlements and the building of large ceremonial temple mounds.
For centuries prior to the mass arrival of European settler colonists, the Delta and north Mississippi were part of the vast domain of the Choctaw confederation. According to Choctaw legend, the people originated from “Nanih Waiya,” a sacred mound in what is now Winston County in east central Mississippi. Archeological evidence suggests that the platform mound was constructed between 300 CE and 600 CE. Historians trace modern Choctaw lineage to a coalescing of several clans in the late seventeenth century, including tribes descending from the mound builders. Because of the density of the vegetation and regular flooding, the Delta served as a site of hunting forays rather than settlement for the Choctaw.
Even as late as the end of the Civil War, most of the Delta was not yet farmland but a verdant lowland forest of old-growth hardwood trees, cypress-studded swamps, canebrakes, and mats of thorny vines. But with the arrival of white settler colonists in the early 1800s, the Delta began to be transformed, first by the backbreaking labor of en- slaved Africans and then after the Civil War by the freedmen and their sharecropper descendants, along with smaller numbers of Italian and other immigrants, who braved ravenous mosquitoes, venomous snakes, and lurking alligators.
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