Monday, 5 March 2012

Mississippi Blues

While B_ and T_ gave us a unique window into rural, white culture, one of our main interests in Alabama and Mississippi was to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement, and the ways in which racial tensions have continued to have an impact on the region.

After visiting the Tuskegee Institute—the university that Booker T. Washington founded for black people in 1888—we drove to the Alabama state capitol building in Montgomery to visit the site where the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery ended. Launched by local African-Americans who were fighting for voting rights (which had been taken from the black community since the Reconstruction Era ended), the first march to the state capitol was met by the local police who carried clubs and tear gas. After visiting the state capitol, we drove to Selma to walk on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where “Bloody Sunday,” as this initial attempt was later called, took place.

Ricky on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, location of "Bloody Sunday."
The following day, we visited Birmingham, home to many other important events in the Civil Rights Movement, and today, to the Civil Rights Museum. After buffering the detailed knowledge we were slowly gaining about the movement, we went to a local barber on the historical Fourth Avenue, so that Ricky could groom his wild beard and tresses. While Ricky was getting his haircut, I chatted with some of the barbers outside about their experiences of growing up in Birmingham, and answered some questions about the ways in which Birmingham differed from New York. This barber shop had been opened for fifty years, so I knew there must have been some fascinating history that surrounded it.

The next day, we finally arrived in Mississippi, a place that was most alive in my imagination as a home to both violent racial clashes and also a musical movement that stemmed from the trauma of these tensions—the Delta Blues. Our first stop, unrelated to Civil Rights, was Tupelo, the childhood home of Elvis Presley. After reading firsthand accounts from Elvis’s teachers and friends who described the future King as a shy, seemingly untalented boy, we decided that there were more interesting things to be discovered in Mississippi and moved on to Oxford, home of Ole Miss—the oldest university in Mississippi and the site of 1962 riots that resulted from the enrollment of the school’s first black student.

That day, we also reached our destination of Charleston, Mississippi, where Myrna, my parents’ part-time neighbor in New York, lives most of the year. The original plan was to stay with her in the Delta region, so that we could visit Clarksdale, the home of the Delta blues, and potentially Memphis, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  But we soon changed our plans when Myrna announced that, as a chairperson for Mississippi State University’s art department, she was invited to stay at the president’s guest house for those few days. Assuming that that information simply meant that we would stay at her house alone, we were again surprised when she told us that we were invited to stay with her at the guest house. Although we were looking forward to spending time in the Delta, we decided that it would at least be a welcome respite from the past three weeks of relentless travel. Since Myrna had a dentist appointment in Memphis the following morning, we ended up going to the Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination sight and museum before heading off to the university.
The Lorraine Motel, the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
One of the many rooms in the president's guest house. 
One thing became clear in the span of those two days: as much as we felt like foreigners at the Crawford Motor Inn, or in the many all-black neighborhoods in which we had spent the past week, we felt at least as much so in the privileged world of philanthropy and university politics. On the one hand, we welcomed the opportunity to go from camping one night to sleeping in the lavish president’s guest house the next. But on the other, it was difficult, and even uncomfortable, to witness and partake in the vast disparity in lifestyles that exists only within a few miles. In each of these cases, Ricky and I felt like undercover spies observing various cultures, but never having to explain away our own history, our own past.

But that illusion was quickly shattered at some point in Clarksdale, to which we finally made our way after our two-day respite. Outside the Delta Blues Museum (a wholly underwhelming presentation of an otherwise fascinating musical genre), an old, black man asked: “Ya’ll from Israel?”

We looked at each other, and then looked at him: “Um, no. We’re from New York.”

He continued. “Oh, cause ya’ll look like Jews. Ya’ll aren’t Jews are you?”

At this point we weren’t really sure what to respond. It didn’t seem like a particularly menacing question. Just a strangely-phrased one. Did he want credit for correctly identifying us? Or was there something more sinister underlying the question? And more importantly, does he really think Jews only live in Israel? (Has he heard of New York??)

In any case, we mumbled a vague response and quietly walked away.

Ironically, it was the first time in the south that I actually felt a sense of being different. Ricky and I embarked on this trip with the intention of seeing and experiencing new things. But we never accounted for the fact that to those new things, we were new things too. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rick & Brahna,

    I enjoyed reading your blog with your skilled English & Philosophy major backgrounds! We'll have to check out the roadside america website. Guess that is where you are finding the seedy motels for overnights!

    We are now at Sam Houston Jones SP, L. Charles, LA where the mosquitoes are ferocious. Leaving tomorrow for a primitive campground on the LA/TX border on the coast in TX.

    Best wishes,

    Sue and Ian in the Scamp