Between 1935 and 1942, photographers working for Roy Stryker’s Farm Security Administration took more than 60,000 images of rural American life, documenting those in need of assistance from New Deal programs. “Yet when we consider one of the best known photo collections of the FSA,” writes Nicholas Natanson in his 1992 book The Black Image in the New Deal, “we find precious few black faces; it is [Dorothea] Lange’s white migrant mother … [Arthur] Rothstein’s white Oklahomans plodding through the dust storm, [Russell] Lee’s white tenant children standing to eat a humble Christmas repast.”
Stryker was always keenly aware of how he could distribute the images his photographers took: he placed them in newspapers and magazines, and turned them into books and traveling exhibitions. In 1937, he instructed Lange that, when photographing tenant farmers, “I would suggest that you take both black and white, but place the emphasis on the white tenants, since we know they will receive wider use.”
The American bias toward whiteness pervaded even President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite the fact that African Americans were disproportionately affected by the Great Depression and many were in desperate need of aid. Programs such as the Resettlement Administration—which was created to alleviate poverty for all Americans who needed it, and succeeded by the Farm Security Administration—were segregated to some degree countrywide, but they were even more so in the South. And especially in Mississippi.
After the Civil War, during the period called the Reconstruction, white supremacists “fashioned a new, if informal, code of exclusion and discrimination to replace the old code of slavery,” writes historian Neil R. McMillen in his 1989 book Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. In 1888, the state passed its first Jim Crow law, which legally segregated railroad cars, railroad waiting rooms, and trolleys. By 1930, Mississippi schools, hospitals, jails, and other public institutions were all legally segregated, while other spaces—such as beauty parlors, theaters, and restaurants—were segregated by custom. Blacks Mississippians may have been the majority in the state, but their disenfranchisement would continue to be compounded by the onset of the Great Depression.
Across the country, African Americans were forced out of their jobs by whites, sometimes violently. “In Mississippi, unemployed white men sought the railroad positions blacks traditionally held and ambushed and killed the black workers,” writes Richelle Putnam in her 2017 book Mississippi and the Great Depression. Black farmers on the Mississippi Delta were also hard-hit. “Two-thirds of approximately 2 million black farmers earned nothing or went into debt, prodding hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers to abandon Southern fields and homes and head for the cities,” writes Putnam.
The Farm Security Administration programs set up in Mississippi to help disenfranchised farmers overwhelmingly supported whites, directly contributing to the creation of segregated communities that shaped housing patterns on the Delta into the 21st century. New Deal funds funneled to Mississippi to improve infrastructure “were used almost exclusively to upgrade white facilities: $8 million for whites to $400,000 for blacks,” writes McMillen. The state’s Civilian Conservation Corps program—which provided manual labor jobs to the out-of-work—allotted less than 2 percent of jobs to African Americans.
“If you was lucky ‘nough to get a job, you still didn't make as much as the white folks,” said William Bennet, who was 77 when he spoke to Lawrence Gordon, a history professor at Jackson State University, who published his interviews with six black men and women who had lived through the Great Depression in Mississippi in the fall 1979 issue of the Journal of Negro History. When the Depression hit, Bennet lost his job delivering furniture and scraped through the economic downturn on aid and occasional odd jobs. “If you and a white man was working side-by-side on the same job, and you got $12 a week, the white man got $16 or $18.”
“Sometimes colored folks had to wait [for food rations] 'cause white folks always had first choice,” said Fred Williams, who was 90 when he spoke to Gordon. Williams was able to support his family on rations and $53 a month from a job at a produce company. “We was poor and hungry sometimes, but we didn’t let that stop us from enjoying life,” he said. “We didn’t have no hot night spots, but we did play cards and go to the dance hall.”
That dance hall may have resembled the juke joint that Farm Security Administration photographer Marion Post Wolcott photographed near Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1939. Wolcott traveled throughout the Mississippi Delta for the FSA, documenting the lives of both black and white tenant cotton farmers, at work and at leisure—as well as the stark social gap between them. For this photograph, Wolcott asked the son of the plantation owner to accompany her to the dance hall so she could capture the action. Historian John Edwin Mason points out that there was also a white police officer present. It was likely unusual and uncomfortable for a white woman—along with whoever chaperoned her—to intrude this space, but it allowed Wolcott to make images that captured the resilience of black Mississippians, still jitterbugging despite all that was stacked against them.
Perhaps the soil of Mississippi is so rich because the land is nourished with the blood of innocents. Considered backwards and brutal, its people are looked down upon by the civilized of our society. Northerners wag their fingers: “We are better than them.”
Under the Northern gaze, even Mississippi’s righteous victims do not fare much better; they are seen as hapless and unlearned. Like Billie Holiday’s incantation, Mississippi conjures up pastoral scenes of “Southern trees bearing strange fruit.” For nearly a century, the state was the lynching capital of our beleaguered democracy. Between 1882 and 1968, it saw some 581 “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Among the brutalized was a child visiting his ancestral home in Money, Mississippi. Falsely accused of sexual harassment by a white woman, Emmett Till was beaten and mutilated by the woman’s relatives, then shot and dropped in a river. Till’s mother, Mamie, held an open-casket funeral—demanding that the world see what Mississippi had done to her baby. (It was with Till’s disfigured flesh on her mind that Rosa Parks chose her seat on that bus, helping to launch the modern civil rights movement.)
Treading through avarice as thick as mud, the people of Mississippi continue to make a way out of no way. Though it was haunted by the murders of James Earl Chaney, Michael Henry Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—three young activists from the Congress of Racial Equality who disappeared near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, on June 12, 1964—the voter registration drive called the Freedom Summer aimed to register as many black voters as possible, and inspired entire generations of Mississippians to risk their lives for a story bigger and older than themselves. The bullet shot through activist Medgar Evers’s heart in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963 was one of the reasons why Judge Jaribu Hill established the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights 32 years later. Chokwe Anwar Lumumba, the 35-year-old mayor of Jackson, is today one of the country’s most progressive politicians. Kiese Laymon, one of the greatest writers of his generation, was born in Jackson in 1974, and is now a tenured professor at the University of Mississippi—the site of an anti-civil rights race riot in 1962 that is called, the Battle of Oxford.
And yet, there is still a strident hatred etched on the hearts of those who yearn for good ol’ days that are neither good nor old. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the United States. Recently, Mississippi state senator Cindy Hyde-Smith expressed her desire to attend a public hanging—and sit in the front row—to a crowd in Tupelo, who laughed and clapped at her words. It could be said that Nina Simone’s unforgiving 1964 ode, “Mississippi Goddamn,” should be the official state song. But that’s not all that Mississippi is. Grand and grandiose, terrifying and tender, Mississippi is tragicomic and thoroughly human. And there is nothing more human than having the blues.
In the years of the epic battle between the plantation and the peasants, Mississippi gave birth to blues. Between 1890 and 1920, of the 80 bluesmen who were recorded for the first time by Alan Lomax, approximately 60 were from the Mississippi Delta region. The toil of the fields, the lash of the whip, swinging bodies, juke joints, shotgun churches, displacement, and death came together into a gut-wrenching yet joy-filled sound. During the Great Migration, often fleeing an unbearable reality, peasants bundled up their hope and despair—the blues—and made their way up Old Man River. They had learned the hard way that Mississippi was more than just a state; it was state of mind. The North was not the promised land. It was exile, at best.
As James Baldwin might have said, the blues are a region of the mind that tell us what and how people think, and who they believe themselves to be. A philosophy—akin to that of Jean Paul Sartre, or of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith—on a quest for meaning in the face of meaninglessness, to render intelligible the indecipherable suffering of a hunted people. This specificity is what makes the blues so universal; it shows up in just about every genre of music. Across time and space, wherever people grieve, there are the blues. Heartbreak is common in the human experience. And as any artist will tell you, nothing can break a heart like your own country.
To be black in the United States is to have the blues. It is an uneasy way to live, in the in-between, with Emmett Till on one side and Barack Obama on the other. As fascism once again rears its ugly head, the world is caught between two warring spirits, zeitgeist der angst and zeitgeist der freiheit—the spirit of fear and the spirit of freedom.
This historical moment, with that tension, is essentially the blues. The collapse of the global economy, the Arab Spring and London Riots of 2011, the violence in Ferguson in 2014, forced migrations and terrorism, combined with rising xenophobia and technological advancements, have made the West anxious. The world, in one sense, is more connected than ever; in another, it has never been further apart. The West has the blues.
I was raised in a little place called Zent, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi Delta. I am a classically trained vocalist, grew up in choirs, took piano lessons, and studied music in college with a generation of the best African American professors who could not get jobs at white institutions. My paternal grandfather Richard Braselman played piano for B.B. King, Albert King, and Louis Jordan. My step-grandfather James Thomas—who raised me—was a Pentecostal preacher in the Church of God in Christ (as am I). He preached in churches where Sister Rosetta Tharpe played, the godmother of rock and roll.
While I spent seven days a week in church, I spent eight days a week in the gambling house, run by my Uncle McKinnley. His favorite song was “Tobacco Road,” as performed Lou Rawls in 1964. The song begins with a lament: I grew up in a rusty shack / All I owned was hangin’ on my back / The Lord knows, how I loathe / This place called Tobacco Road. The songwriter, loathing Tobacco Road, plans to burn it down. And yet, the song does not end there. He will build all over again. This is a hallmark of the musical tradition into which I was born: acknowledging despair, but never letting it have the last word.
Between the gambling house and the Pentecostal church, I learned to blend the profane and the prophetic. My music exists in that liminal space between late Saturday night at the juke joint and Sunday morning at the church. My song “Mississippi” is built on the foundation of hope and despair. Inspired by WPA images from the Mississippi Delta, the song was cowritten with Mississippi-born organist Rev. Charles Hodges, who has played on 26 consecutive gold and platinum records, including Al Green’s Love and Happiness. Recorded at Music+Arts Studio and Ardent Studio in Memphis, Tennessee—the “capital” of the Delta—“Mississippi” is a combination of Southern gospel, Delta blues, and Memphis soul, featuring the Tennessee Mass Choir. It was shot in the historic Clayborn Temple, where the iconic “I AM A MAN” posters were assembled for the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike—which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was attending when he was shot and killed—and Big Sam’s Grill, a well-worn juke joint in South Memphis.
In “Mississippi,” I want to capture the way I understand the state as a psychography, and blues as an embodied existential philosophy. The story goes like this: a blues man has gone north, found disappointment, and become homesick. In his yearning, he remembers the love and terror. His Mississippi only exists in a region of his mind.
Rev. Sekou is an activist, theologian, author, documentary filmmaker, and musician. He is the author of two collections of essays, Urbansouls: Meditations on Religion, Hip Hop, and Youth Culture, and Gods, Gays, and Guns: Essays on Religion and the Future of Democracy, as well as the forthcoming The Task of the Artist in the Time of Monsters. His albums include The Revolution Has Come (2016) and In Times Like These (2017). His forthcoming album When We Fight We Win: Rev. Sekou Live in Memphis will be released in March 2019.
This project was developed with the support of For Freedoms.
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