Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Mighty Missayip

I guess it's predictable, given how much time I've spent in the delta lately, that I'd find myself pondering the state in which I'm still surprised to find myself living. Over the last few weeks I've done quite a bit of driving through rural Mississippi looking for interesting images, and over the course of my travels I've formed some new impressions and ideas about the place.

The one thing that I can't help noticing is that Mississippi is filled -- absolutely chock-a-fucking-block -- with ruins. Not, obviously, the beautiful ancient ruins you find in Europe; these are some very forlorn ruins indeed. I literally can't even count how many collapsed houses, abandoned churches, rusted-out factories, and disused farm buildings I've seen this month. They are endless.

In Jackson last weekend, I spent some time driving around an urban neighborhood not half a mile from our grandiose state capitol building. And I'm tempted to say that there were as many buildings sitting boarded up as there were still inhabited. There was even one house that had collapsed completely -- the roof was on the ground, black and rotten and sagging over the remains to the walls and foundation -- while on either side sat houses (themselves dilapidated and certainly eligible for condemnation) that were still serving as people's homes. That broken house between them hadn't fallen down any time recently; the smell of mold and rotten wood suggested that it had been that way for a long time. But nobody had made any attempt to remove the debris -- it just sat in a pile behind its concrete stoop.

I've seen it over and over and over again. Every town has its alotment of dead buildings -- the homes and businesses and churches of people who died or who left a long time ago. I've heard of a place deep in the delta -- one of the places I know I have to go find before I leave this state -- where the foundation and corinthian columns of an antebellum plantation house still stand in a perfect row in the middle of the woods like mouldering ghosts. It's as if Mississippi has chosen to remain in denial about how time has left it behind -- everything falls apart, and we just look away and pretend that nothing much has changed. The past is still here with us, but only because we refuse to bury it.

The thing you have to understand about this place -- and I'm referring specifically to the delta, which is a very different cultural entity to the rest of the state -- is how far it has fallen. Only a century and a half ago, the states along the Mississippi River were the west coast of the United States, and while it's difficult to imagine it now, they were accordingly cosmopolitan. The traffic of the entire continent flowed past Vicksburg and Greenville and the other centers of delta habitation, and people in the delta came into regular contact with immigrants, northerners, travelers, settlers, explorers, prospectors, and the full length and breadth of humanity. It wasn't the isolated backwater that it is now. Towns like Yazoo City and Belzoni and Grenada had commerce and culture and a thriving local society. As we all well know, it was built on the backs of black slaves and sharecroppers, but still, it possessed a certain amount of dignity, and even glory.

Even up until the 50s and 60s the delta produced and exported culture along with cotton and catfish -- we had William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Willie Morris and Walker Percy and Richard Wright. When you talk about the blues, you're ultimately talking about the Mississippi delta. For god's sake, Honeyboy Edwards, who was with Robert Johnson the night he died, is still living in Chicago. It wasn't that long ago that Mississippi was making a contribution, however tortured, to American culture.

But that's all gone now, even if its physical remains still surround us. If you drive through these places today, all you'll see is desperate poverty, and the wreckage of the old south left to rot on the ground where it fell. And how can you make room for new birth and new growth if you never bury your dead?
6:21 PM ::
Amy :: permalink