With thanks to Carolina Whitfield-Smith.
I grew up in Dallas, TX. I now live in Athens, GA. In some ways, though, Jackson, Mississippi—where I spent over a decade of my life—is home. Jackson is where I went to college, where I had my first real job, where I joined a church, where I built a community of friends and comrades, where I got married (and divorced), where I settled into consciousness about race and religion and masculinity, and where I grew from a boy into an adult. I’m still growing. I’ll always be growing, and sometimes growing backwards at that. Like all places laden with our growing pains and failures, I have conflicted feelings about the city and the state. I left it, in part, because I got tired to defending it. You get caught in a perpetual defensive crouch whenever you live in Mississippi. It’s perceived, and not entirely unfairly, as the worst of the worst. I remember watching Django Unchained in a cold December theater, and knowing the already-violent and disturbing slave fantasy was taking a turn for the worse when the word “MISSISSIPPI” scrolled sideways across the screen, huge block letters consuming the frame. The audience groaned, in part sighing over yet another representation of the state as backwater and sighing over what we knew was at least a partial truth. Whenever I went to conferences out-of-state, and someone asked me where I was based, there was always a slight hesitation in my voice as I said it and a slight pause as they processed that. “But you seem so cultured,” someone actually said to me. “So, what’s that like?” said lots of other people, with a barely hidden smirk. Once, when I responded to a kind-faced black woman, “I’ve really enjoyed it so far; I must be, because I’ve been there five years,” she said, “Okay, sure, but what’s it really like?” If you’re black or liberal, and I’m both, that defensive posture gets even more painful, because there’s a lot that’s wrong about the state’s laws and attitudes regarding race, women, LGBT, poverty, and foreigners (to the state or the country). There’s a lot that’s indefensible, and I found myself saying variations of “But it’s not all like that!” more times than I can count. But, sometimes, I think Mississippi is America’s problems and promises writ large, where you see the country’s pressure points at their most extreme points. You can’t pretend American politics actually cares about its poor if you’re in the most impoverished state in the country. You can’t pretend it cares about its children or their futures, if you’re in the most educationally neglected state in the nation. You can’t pretend America’s race and religion conflicts are resolved in Mississippi. In fact, I think the reason Mississippi is comfortable to pile on—even for its residents—is because Americans like to pretend the rest of the country isn’t that bad, scarred, and unholy. But, hey, I’m writing a lot about Mississippi’s problems but it’s largely its promises and quiet triumphs that I saw on an everyday basis when I lived there. This video—created by some of Mississippi’s premier filmmakers (and also friends of mine)—opens with a flipside version of Tarantino’s Django scroll. The next four minutes, set to a song I’m still not sick of yet, showcases the joys, the diversity, the beauties (human and otherwise), the hope, and the promise. Loud, brash, hilarious, and chockfull of people and places I recognize and sometimes long for, it’s an ode to Mississippi, and therefore an ode to the best of the South, and the best of America.