Our experiences and impressions of places are subjective. They are random, and sometimes it seems unfair to twist the things we’ve witnessed into large representations and symbolic understandings. But. Mississippi. How did all of these things cross our path in less than 24 hours? It felt as though you couldn’t help yourself, Mississippi.
We trundle past perfectly mowed lawns sprawling in front of house after house, lawns that look as though they’ve never been used for anything aside from an image. Tree-lined drives highlight the difference between these plots of land, manicured into submission, and the ragged greens of forest and cotton that take over intermittently. I imagine these tree-lined drives aspire to the plantations that sit comfortably next to them. The freeway forms its own sort of tree-lined drive, hugged tightly by huge, imposing green spires. I don’t think I’ve ever seen cotton growing like this, insistent on the side of the road. I know it’s just a plant but it seems like an omen.
Our first stop in Mississippi is a visit to the Civil Rights Museum, where we saw activists and archivists trying to create space for generations of pain while giving hope for the future. But how can you read about forced labor under slavery and in Reconstruction prisons without connecting it directly to the ditches full of inmate work crews that line the litter-free highways, stretching for miles with trees that have witnessed it all? How can we leave the air-conditioned building feeling inspired when the Confederate flag waves at us through those trees along every highway?
In Mississippi, we see more churches than people, more crosses than churches. Crosses come in threes, as if to say redemption is violent and your odds aren’t good. In Mississippi, we see more correctional facilities than grocery stores.
The campsite is supposed to be $7, but there is no fee station, no toilet paper; trash fills the bear-proof bins. Infrastructure has fled, the campsite says to us, and it’s everyone for themself. There is only one other camper, and we keep our distance. In the morning a white man with red eyes and plastic army men on the dash of his truck smoking a cigarette rumbles into the camp, an unexpected new character at our abandoned forest dwelling.
I almost don’t believe what he asks us. There seems to be so much beneath the surface, so many stories and actions that immediately flash before my eyes in just the simple question “You seen a blue Ford Escape come through here?” “My wife was s’posed to come through here”. Here being a near-empty campsite. Here being a Mississippi forest, where we’ve only seen one other person. Here being where she is certainly not, and I hope to god and the three crosses or whatever else is left to be sacred that she is far from here. There is no threat to us. He is perfectly calm. No display of emotion. We continue on our forest run, letting our footsteps serve as prayers for her escape.
In Mississippi, the state flag is everywhere. Flying mighty and proud and big, or small and declarative from a front porch. The state flag contains the Confederate Battle flag within it. We learn this was an unofficial flag and there were movements to have the flag changed but these motions were blocked, so the flag de facto reverted to this old unofficial flag. The flag that contains the Confederate Battle flag within it. Nothing could be agreed upon, so what was old, what was symbolic of a racist, genocidal worldview remains front and center. As if defeat got swallowed and metabolized by this state with that same red-eyed, defiant stare.
In Mississippi, the Delta is flooded, and fields of standing water contain a wealth of absences: hardwood forests logged, cotton culled at inhuman rates, lives enslaved and worked to death, souls poured into the blues, whole histories left by the Great Migration. “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” Everything feels violent under the calm blue sky.
In Mississippi, kids ride scooters on the rural highways, and what looks like a birthday party scatters others in the patchy grass outside a trailer. In Mississippi there are eight people smiling happily beneath anti-abortion signs outside a pastel pink women’s clinic that looks like it’s not even open for the day.
In Mississippi, a county announced by a proud red, white, and blue sign as “NATIVE AMERICAN NAME, CLASSIC AMERICAN COMMUNITY” once banded together in 2010 to ensure a gay kid couldn’t go to prom with her girlfriend — an entire school board, parents, and student body conspiring to throw a secret prom without her. Parents protested against her with signs like “What happened to the Bible Belt?” and “Gomorrah”. This classic American community is 92% white. This classic American community voted 87% Republican in 2016.
In Mississippi, all the speed limits are 70, but we can’t drive fast enough.
Mississippi, you are beautiful. Mississippi, I tried so hard with you to see the good, to see the beauty. Mississippi, you are making it really difficult.