I am passing by the cotton fields in northwest Mississippi that mark the home of my ancestors. The little white puffs hidden in the thick branches look like a light snow when viewed from afar. I’m told it’s late in the season for picking. Soon all you’ll see is the red clay soil of the South.
My great grandfather moved down here from Vermont when he was just 17 years old. Legend has it that he walked the whole way. I’m not sure about that, but he made a name for himself, and soon he owned the biggest farm in the county. All of the important people in town, like the sheriff and the mayor, knew that the Haley clan were pillars of the community.
Those days are long gone, and the farm is just a distant memory. Today the family homestead is just about a thing of the past, and that’s as true down here as in the rest of the country.
My uncle Harold, who I’m visiting today, made his money in insurance and real estate. He and his wife Dottie manage about 40 properties in the county, and two of their children live close by. One of them, Greg, will meet us for dinner.
We left New Orleans this morning and headed north on I-55 across Lake Pontchartrain, crossing the great Mississippi River Delta as the sun rose orange to our right over the high water that stretched out all around us. We passed through Jackson before turning west on highway 82 through Carrollton, then north again on 49 through the flat flood plains skirting the Arkansas border before reaching Clarksdale.
Uncle Harold has a custom built house on 4 acres that he contracted himself, set on the edge of a swamp filled with fox, beaver, wild turkey, and deer. He built a swimming pool for his grandkids to enjoy, but they’re long gone now, or grown up, so it just makes for a nice water feature these days. The contemporary ranch house was made from hand-hewn beams salvaged from an old church, and the flagstone façade was imported from Arkansas. It’s as handsome and impressive inside as out, with a soaring vault in a great room equipped with rich mahogany floors. Dottie has good taste, and she picked out some of the antiques from her shopping trips to France, though the kitchen table was made by Harold from oak planks he planed himself.. The home is solid and livable, elegant and enduring, and that eclectic mix fits in well with the people.
Harold is in his seventies and greets me with a warm smile and handshake, and Dottie looks wonderfully healthy in spite of her numerous medical issues. They welcome Jonathan and I with all of the grace and charm that the South is so justifiably famous for, and we sit and chat for a spell about family and old times. We stay on the porch until the bugs come out and then retreat into big leather armchairs in the great room.
We are meeting Greg for dinner at a local watering hole/pizza parlor (Stone Pony) built by a wealthy local family specifically so the white kids would have someplace to go. You can’t talk about the Deep South without mentioning the reality of race relations here, which are often mischaracterized by those who think they’re better. There are black people in the restaurant, too, so of course there is no overt segregation, but the public school system is 98% black because the whites send their kids to private Christian schools. This is not only to provide for a better education, but also to better preserve the ties of family and kin, and to avoid the kinds of problems associated with inner city schools elsewhere in the country.
When you grow up down here, you aren’t living in a protective bubble. There isn’t a doorman in front of your house to keep out the riff raff. You can’t retreat behind a high wall made of concrete and money. You don’t have the option of avoiding anyone. There are no big corporations cutting checks for public works. Families do that…or not, and they see how the money is spent in the immediate here and now. Race is right out there in the open, and the sins of the past and present have left some raw wounds that have healed into thick scars, and a kind of accommodation has been reached. It’s not a perfect peace, and it isn’t ever going to be, and I guess that’s hard for some people to understand. Yes there is prejudice in the South. Here’s a news flash: there’s prejudice in the North also. Here’s another news flash: there are many different kinds of prejudice, and all of the good intentions in the world aren’t going to change that, and in fact they have a very good chance of making things far worse. Take some advice from Voltaire, and tend to your own garden. Or, if you prefer the Bible, fix the log in your own eye before you worry about the mote in your neighbor’s.
When you live here you understand that preferring your own people, whether that identification is by music, or education, or dance, or tradition, or history, or blood, or color of skin, doesn’t mean you have to hate someone else who’s different in the process. In fact, you can and should celebrate those differences. Isn’t that what our multi-culti society constantly advocates? Where is the tolerance for Southern culture? Whites are a minority in rural Mississippi. They understand that simply assimilating into the black culture that surrounds them means to extinguish their own unique character. It seems like to me that those who promote such ideas are the ones fostering the hate. It’s easy to be a social liberal when you have no skin in the game and are insulated from the worst effects of your own stupidity by wealth and power. Live in the ghetto for a generation or two, and then tell me that you prefer that for your children and family.
Blacks and Whites in the South have grown to understand and respect each other in a way that is impossible to achieve except through mutual hardship and a strong sense of community pride. That exists here as well, and it’s a far more enduring and stronger force for good than that which is forced on a people from afar.
Last, ask yourself a question: if Southern Whites are simply mindless devils who hate blacks, why wouldn’t they move to where there are no blacks? My cousin Greg chooses to raise his family here. He’s a low level manager at a sports jersey manufacturer. Half of the jobs have already gone to a new factory in the Dominican Republic. He sees the handwriting on the wall. There’s no future here. But he stays because this is his land, his family, and his culture. Hate has nothing to do with it.
If you’re in Clarksdale, you’ll get a decent pizza at the Pony. It has a little too much cheese and not enough tomato sauce, but otherwise it’s a good, enjoyable pie. Go there.
My aunt and uncle seem to be doing well, though I know they aren’t really. Dottie is a cancer survivor and Harold takes a battery of pills everyday. I hope that I’ll be able to see them again. We talk about a reunion, but nothing concrete.
They’re worried about the economy and view Obama as the problem, but don’t know who they’ll ultimately support in the elections. I’m just amazed that people still think there are any viable political solutions left anymore.
Tomorrow, I head to see my Uncle Rex (Harold’s brother) in Hernando. I hope to see you then!