A new generation of black Mississippi writers has claimed the right to speak for their home state in ways more powerful than at any point since the Civil Rights Movement. The question is, do enough white Mississippians heed their voices?
Story by Neely Tucker
Mississippi’s image has always been dominated by the conservative white evangelical set, the political and social segment of the state that has, over the past 200 years, earned Mississippi a reputation as perhaps the most racist state in America.
Vicious slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, the birthplace of mass incarceration, the lynching capital of America, Emmett Till, voter suppression — the whole “Mississippi Burning” mentality that insists, to this day, that the Confederate battle flag remain part of the state flag.
In this, Mississippi has always stood out, even among the former states of the Confederacy. As the historian V.O. Key Jr. wrote in a classic observation: “Northerners, provincials that they are, regard the South as one large Mississippi. Southerners, with their eye for distinction, place Mississippi in a class by itself.”
But Mississippi’s bipolar nature has always had another reality, the opposite of the former. This is its status as the most predominantly black state in America. This has been so for the past 180 years, and it was majority black for nearly a century. This side of the state is the gutbucket heart of the American narrative arts, of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, of B.B. King and Muddy Waters, of Ida B. Wells and Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, of Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, of Leontyne Price and James Earl Jones. Mississippi’s “black abundance,” in the words of writer Kiese Laymon, has always been what its white power structure has most sought to mute, exile, or diminish.
Now, though, a new generation of black Mississippi has staked a claim to speaking the state’s voice — in ways more powerful than at any point since the Civil Rights Movement, and with more financial success and national acclaim than at any point since the state was founded in 1817.
In the past dozen years, these writers have won the National Book Award (twice), the Pulitzer Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, served as the U.S. Poet Laureate, and written a massive No. 1 New York Times bestseller based on the Black Lives Matter movement. Most notably, many are doing so while living and working in the state, and all of them are eloquently criticizing (if not blasting) the state’s conservative governance. They are doing so on every media platform available, from Twitter and Instagram, from novels to The New Yorker.
Exhibit A is Jackson’s Angie Thomas, whose new YA novel, On the Come Up, debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times list of Young Adult Hardcover bestsellers. When that list came out on February 24, it knocked Thomas’ 2017 debut, The Hate U Give, out of the top spot. The Hate U Give has been on the list for over 100 weeks, sold over 900,000 copies, and already been turned into a successful film.
Thomas, 31, summed up the state’s bipolar nature in a keynote address last year to the Children’s Institute in New Orleans. She was from Mississippi, she explained, a place “known for amazing writers — and racism.”
Angie Thomas, whose new novel, “On the Come Up,” debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times list of Young Adult Hardcover bestsellers, knocking her own debut, “The Hate U Give,” off the top spot, after almost two years there.
Fellow Jackson native Laymon, 44, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, takes no prisoners on his social media feeds, in his essays (“How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” for Gawker being the most well known) or in his interviews.
His blistering 2018 memoir of growing up in Jackson, Heavy, described Mississippi’s oppressive racism and white supremacy, including his suspension from Millsaps College, which led him to leave the state for years. It won the Carnegie Medal, besides a slew of “best books of the year” listings. His narration of the book — recorded in a small studio in Oxford — was named Audible’s No. 1 book of the year.
“Mississippi just has a certain stank to it,” he said in a recent phone interview, describing the state’s primal force on his writing. “It’s the most culturally rich place in the world. I just need to be closer to cultural artistic richness, and to me, that’s Mississippi.”
Here’s his philosophy, summed up in a 2016 essay in The Fader:
“America, like Mississippi, is not clean. Nor is it great. Nor is it innocent. I pledge that white Mississippians and white Americans will never dictate who I choose to be…. I pledge allegiance to the Mississippi freedom fighters who made all my pledges possible. I pledge allegiance to the baby Mississippi liberation fighters coming next. This is a pledge of allegiance to my United States of America, to my Mississippi.”
The most important word in that passage is the determiner, the possessive: my. As in, my Mississippi. It doesn’t imply ownership. It states it.
Jesmyn Ward, who lives in DeLisle, won her second National Book Award for fiction in 2017, for Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel about a family traveling to Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious penitentiary. This was after her previous novel, Salvage the Bones, set in south Mississippi, won the award in 2011. For good measure, she was named a MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” grant) in 2017. Mississippi, she told The Guardian last year, again hitting on the place’s split persona, is “everything that I love and everything that I hate.”
In her memoir, The Men We Reaped, and in magazine essays, she lacerates the state’s conservative lawmakers and their policies. Writing in The Atlantic, she pointed out the lousy public park near her home: Two of the basketball hoops are ruined, the other two are netless. However, county officials did haul in sand for an unwanted volleyball court.
“It is now a large litter box for wild cats,” she wrote. “This is the truth of what Mississippi thinks of me and those like me, of all those whom King fought for: This is your shitty playground. You earned it.”
The piece is titled: “Racism Is ‘Built Into the Very Bones’ of Mississippi.”
Jesmyn Ward, who lives in DeLisle, Mississippi, won her second National Book Award for fiction in 2017, for “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a novel about a family traveling to Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious penitentiary.
Natasha Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007 and served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, released a new collection, Monument: New and Collected Poems, in November. It made the long list for the National Book Award for Poetry.
The second and third words of her 2015 memoir, Beyond Katrina, are “my hometown.” Here’s a quote from a November interview in the Chicago Tribune: “How could I not write about my geography, my Mississippi, my South?”
Again, the possessive: my Mississippi.
The new voices are also making waves with essays and journalism.
Covington County native and author W. Ralph Eubanks is a visiting professor of Southern Studies and English at the University of Mississippi and writes thoughtful essays about his home state in The New Yorker and other magazines. He splits his time between Oxford and Washington, D.C.
Ron Nixon grew up in Lauderdale, near the Alabama line. He worked at The New York Times for years and in 2016 co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism (named for the legendary African American Mississippi journalist), and is now head of International Investigations for the Associated Press. Another co-founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine reporter and another MacArthur Fellow, has Mississippi roots (her father is from Greenwood). She wrote a powerful piece for ProPublica about visiting the state and confronting its racist heritage. (Both made it clear in short interviews the organization chose Wells as its namesake for her editorial brilliance and courage, not because she happened to be from Mississippi.)
“Mississippi’s history, the story of white supremacy and oppression and also black resistance and uplift in the face of that oppression, is such a powerful force that it’s little wonder it’s been such inspiration to so many incredible artists and writers,” says Robert Luckett, director of the Margaret Walker Alexander Center at Jackson State University. “We’re fertile ground for thinking about pretty deep subjects.”
All these voices combine to raise the question: In 2019, whose Mississippi is it?
Well. Let’s not get carried away. Mississippi is still Mississippi. You don’t get to be dead last in almost every meaningful quality-of-life category by passing fancy. Few signs suggest the state’s political and social structure is about to topple.
The state’s governor and lieutenant governor, both evangelical conservative Republicans, adore the Confederate-themed state flag and President Donald Trump. Trump carried the state by 17 points. Phil Bryant, the governor, routinely dubs April “Confederate Heritage Month.” In 2016, he signed into law the most oppressive anti-gay legislation in the nation, HB-1523, which permits any business to deny service to LGBTQ people based on any of three selective interpretations of “Christian beliefs.” Mississippi and Alabama are the only states to hold a “Robert E. Lee Day” on the same day as the federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Though about 37 percent of the state is black (it was as high as 56 percent after the Civil War), the state has not elected a single black person to statewide office in nearly 140 years. If one removes the qualifier of voting held under occupation by federal troops (during Reconstruction), it never has.
The nation’s political observers held their collective breath last November, thinking Mike Espy, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, might end that streak. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the incumbent after Bryant appointed her to fill the vacant seat of Senator Thad Cochran, joked she would “attend a public hanging” (widely viewed to mean a lynching, given Mississippi’s history) if a particular donor invited her. Facebook photos from 2014 surfaced of her wearing Confederate regalia and posing with a rifle, captioned: “Mississippi history at its best!”
She won by nearly eight points, some 68,500 votes.
Still, it’s undeniable that the other side of Mississippi — determined African American voters and activists along with progressive whites, either native-born or those who have moved in from elsewhere — are building a recognizable opposition.
Espy outperformed both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Mississippi, flipped nine counties from Republican to Democrat, and came closer to a Democratic victory in a Mississippi U.S. Senate race than anyone had in more than 35 years. Jim Hood, the Democratic state attorney general, is running for governor in 2019, and he has a huge lead over his primary opponents. A veteran of state politics, and white, he is slightly ahead of his likely Republican opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, in early polling, though about 14 percent of voters say they are undecided.
The Mississippi Economic Council, a consortium of business leaders, has long argued to change the state flag. No Mississippi university prominently displays it, and several towns have banished it from public view. The Washington Post recently profiled Laurin Stennis, granddaughter of the notorious segregationist U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, who has designed a new flag now growing in popularity.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened in 2017 to rave reviews and larger than expected crowds. It’s the jewel of the state’s bid to attract tourists to the international achievements of the state’s activists and creative artists. Indeed, the tragedy of Mississippi is that it struck gold with its 20th century artists in music, literature, film, and theater — and the state’s white conservative society decided they hated the mining business.
But in the past few decades, museums dedicated to the state’s artists have sprung up everywhere. The Grammy Museum, the Delta Blues Museum, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, the Eudora Welty House and Garden, the Walter Anderson Museum, William Faulkner’s home of Rowan Oak — all are drawing tourists to Mississippi’s creative, liberal side.
Two news organizations, Mississippi Today and the Jackson Free Press, are reporting on social justice, civil rights and government accountability. It’s a rarity in Mississippi journalism, except in the decades of work by Jerry Mitchell, the state’s legendary investigative reporter whose work led to convictions in some of the state’s most notorious Civil Rights Movement assassinations, including that of Medgar Evers. In January, he left his longtime home at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger to start up the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, again focusing on social justice and government accountability.
R.L. Nave, a St. Louis native who is now editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today, has witnessed this progressive side of the state grow. Until recently, he said, it had been unnoticed by the national media.
“People find out that Angie’s from Jackson, and they read Kiese on ESPN, or they see Jesmyn is winning a National Book Award, and so, in the national imagination, maybe it’s like ‘Maybe Mississippi doesn’t suck as much as I always heard,’” he says. “We saw a lot of that in the Senate race last year. People (around the country) were invested in it. It’s like people were rooting for Mississippi, in a way.”
The roots of black resistance were laid long ago, and at extreme cost.
Ida B. Wells, born enslaved in 1862 in Holly Springs, gained national prominence for her work that documented hundreds of lynchings in Mississippi. Death threats forced her to move to Memphis and later Chicago.
Richard Wright, born outside Natchez in 1908, blazed into the national consciousness with books like Black Boy and Native Son, in the 1930s and 1940s. A 1935 Wright poem, about a black man coming across the scorched corpse of a lynching victim, was called “Between the World and Me.” Eighty years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates used it as the title for his National Book Award-winning book about current racism in America.
Wright fled the state, at 17, for Memphis, Chicago, New York, and eventually France, where he lived until his death.
Margaret Walker, born in Alabama and raised in Chicago (where she worked and socialized with Wright), moved to Mississippi to take a teaching job in 1949 at what is now Jackson State University. She stayed for the next 40 years. In 1966, she published her landmark novel, Jubilee, about a woman born from the rape of her mother by a slave master.
In Jackson, she lived a few doors down from Medgar Evers (their children played together), was buddies with James Baldwin, and eventually wound up friends with Eudora Welty. In their later years, the two did speaking presentations together, calling it a “Sister Act.”
“This state needs new idols, and Margaret is one of those people,” says Luckett, the JSU professor. “To understand what she was doing and how she did it and where she was doing it, you just stand in awe.”
Walker’s relatively quiet domestic life was an outlier for black writers of the era, however.
Margaret Walker, born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, moved to Mississippi in 1949 to take a teaching job at what is now Jackson State University. In 1966, she published her landmark novel “Jubilee.”
Much more common was the misery inflicted on Anne Moody. She’s in the iconic photo of three protesters staging a 1963 sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at Jackson’s Woolworth’s, a mob of white men surrounding and assaulting them. Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader in Mississippi, led a protest rally for them that night. Two weeks later, he was assassinated.
Moody soon fled to New York. Her 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, became a literary landmark.
Here’s the beginning:
“I’m still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter’s plantation. Lots of Negroes lived on his place. Like Mama and Daddy they were all farmers. We all lived in rotten wood two-room shacks.”
You could be forgiven if you thought that passage described the 1870s. It described the 1950s.
The book set off such a national sensation she dared not return to her tiny hometown of Centreville for more than a decade, fearing Klan violence. As it was, crosses were burned in the family’s yard. Rocks were thrown through their windows. Their mail was opened. Someone killed her uncle, but the case was never solved.
In exile, Moody worked at Cornell University, then at a range of other jobs, married and divorced, lived in New York, France, Germany, and Louisiana, raised her son and withdrew from public life.
In her last years — impoverished, mentally unwell — she returned to Mississippi, living a few miles from where she grew up. She lived with her son in a mobile home behind a sister’s house. She became paranoid, delusional, and eventually succumbed to dementia. She died in 2015 at age 74.
“She had a horrible life,” says Frances Jefferson, a younger sister, in a telephone interview. “There’s just no other way to say it.”
The outspoken black writers of this generation were either born during the Civil Rights Movement era or long after. Their impact more or less began in 2000, when Trethewey published her first book of poetry, Domestic Work. Eubanks published a memoir, Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into America’s Dark Past, in 2003. Ward published her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, in 2008.
But this new group of authors — middle class, with good jobs and professional connections around the country — is not locked in on staying in Mississippi. The state’s political climate, they all say, is a wearing grind.
“It’s easy to see why most of the successful people who were born or raised in this state don’t stay here,” Thomas tweeted on January 19. She was responding to a post from the state Department of Revenue that said it would close on January 21 in observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday … and that of Confederate General Lee.
Later that day, she indicated she might move:
“Shout out to all the progressive work that is happening here and all the people who are staying and fighting to change things. You’re better than me…. I chose for a time to be a positive force. The black kids here need that. But I’ve decided that I’ll just have to visit to do that.”
Natasha Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007 and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate, released a new collection, Monument: New and Collected Poems in November. It made the long list for the National Book Award for Poetry.
Laymon, working in Oxford, doesn’t rule out moving, either, as the town’s charms can wear thin pretty quickly. Driving around the Square on weekend nights — with its statue of a Confederate soldier — he says when he comes to a stop in traffic and intoxicated white students see a middle-aged black man behind the steering wheel, they rap on his window or open the passenger door.
“Uber?” they call out, he says. “UBER?”
Laymon sighs, recounting the story.
“Nah, bruh, I’m not a fucking Uber.”
So, could this decade-long run of excellence by black writers in the state blow away on a Delta breeze? Sholy, as Faulkner would have written. But it doesn’t seem likely, as these writers acknowledge the state’s primacy in their world view and creative roots. That’s not going anywhere.
“What probably keeps me here is realizing that there were people here before me who didn’t give up, and I can’t do that either,” Eubanks says. “I can’t give up on this place.” He laughs. “As much as sometimes I’d like to.”