There’s a certain look that people give you when you tell them that you’re moving to Mississippi for work. This look is not exactly outright disapproval because, especially in the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the news of any gainful employment still merits congratulation. But I can’t help but notice a flash of emotion in their faces—a mix of sympathy, pity, and unidentifiable discomfort—that sometimes manifests as a wince, sometimes as a widening of the eyes. I think part of this look connects to something that I can’t shake, seemingly no matter what. As a New Zealander who moved to the U.S. in my early twenties, I have an accent that forever marks me as an outsider in the South. “Get ready for a real culture shock,” I’m told. “I bet you’ll be the only Kiwi in Mississippi—Good luck!” And, then, I am invariably warned about Mississippi as if it is a land far beyond the borders of this country, a mythical place with a spooky, bloody history and a marginalized present-day condition: as it turns out, there’s some accuracy there. Friends born and raised in Florida make jokes about Mississippi, and they are from Florida, home to face-munching zombies and miserable gun laws. Friends born and raised in the northeast tell me they could never live in the South, least of all Mississippi. My new American home is consistently framed in terms of the superlative: the most religious, impoverished, and backwards. Mississippi, I’m told time and again, is the worst.
Growing up on an island in the (Deep) South Pacific, I first encountered Mississippi through a film, Mississippi Burning, which I watched with my mum on a damp winter school night—American movies were both a treat and reprieve from stodgy British dramas—when I was eleven years old. Mississippi Burning is the fictionalized story of the murder of three civil rights workers (two white northerners and one black southerner) in Mississippi. Had I seen images of the Ku Klux Klan before then? Surely, but I can’t recall where. Nevertheless, the flaming cross, white robes, shirtless black man surrounded by horses, the noose dangling from a tree were more than scary images: they were the foundation of the visual language that shaped my understanding of the American South. (Many years later, when I interviewed Pastor Thomas Robb, native of Arkansas and self-appointed supreme KKK leader of the new millennium, his racism seemed pointedly mundane—if no less odious—in comparison: for example, the fact that he felt “so sorry” for “those mixed-race” children.) At points throughout Mississippi Burning I felt a familiar chill rippling up and down my spine, akin to when I watched horror movies on the VHS player mum won in a mail-in sweepstake. I was disgusted, sure, but it went deeper than that. Unlike the Stephen King movies that I watched over and over again, there was no relief that the terrifying bad guys (in this case, the Klan) could be sealed off in a box or stabbed through the heart. When the movie came to an end, nothing seemed to be really over.
According to a recent Gallup poll 61% of the population of Mississippi identify as “very religious,” making it the most Christian place in the United States (in the world?), but it’s also nestled deep in the womb of the American South, where the summer turns the air to hot syrup, so if you go and watch college football in late September—which you should do at this very moment because long-maligned Mississippi football is on a high for the first time in what one of my students calls “forever”—you’ll want chilled liquid that blurs the edges and eventually folds the evening in on itself, and when you make it home (the sound of cicadas loud enough to give the sensation of temporary tinnitus, winged cockroaches body slamming the light above your front door) you’ll be able to find sleep somewhere, maybe on the couch, and you’ll sort-of remember the contents of your last cocktail: the one that anywhere apart from the South you should really always pass on, but you’ll gulp it down because you were strongly encouraged to join in a libation-based celebration of the old (such as Archie Manning, the legendry University of Mississippi quarterback) or the rise of Dak Prescott, a quarterback and devout Christian from Louisiana who has become an unlikely hero for the ascendant Mississippi State University football program, and because you convinced yourself one more cocktail will aid sleep and keep at bay the heat and the bugs and the early morning rain pestering the windowpanes. The drink is the Mississippi Punch (two ounces cognac, one ounce bourbon, one ounce dark rum, half ounce lemon juice, two teaspoons super fine sugar), and it was designed by America’s “greatest ever bartender” (some legendary pulp writer’s opinion), the “Professor” Jerry Thomas, almost 150 years ago: before the war that split this country up; before those ineffective stitches couldn’t quite put it all back together; before the scars became set, bright pink, puckered, and gnarled in this place, way down where, in the words of the state’s favorite son, Faulkner, the past is never dead and it’s not even past; right here, right now, in the state of Mississippi, where the organized violence of football and God and booze come together on the weekend.
One other undeniable thing about Mississippi: It’s almost every possible version of the poorest state in the union. Talking about the country of his birth, the Haitian poet Jean-Claude Martineau says that Haiti is the only country in the world with a last name: poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The same can be said of Mississippi; it’s the only state in the union with a last name: poorest. Certainly, Florida is home to the finest brand of American bat-shit crazy (and very often criminal) behavior, but it’s equally known for theme parks, spring break, and electronic dance music. Florida might be reviled—see the widely circulated GIF of Bugs Bunny sawing off the peninsula for evidence—and it might have terrible and internationally newsworthy “events” (the imbecilic Christian minister threatening to burn a Koran, the murder of an unarmed teenager by an impotent vigilante), but it’s not fiftieth out of fifty states on almost any wealth/income index. Mississippi is the outlier of the south, the poorest of the poor. In late 2013, The Wall Street Journal released a report on wealth in the United States. As it has almost every year since the failed reconstruction of this country after the Civil War, Mississippi ranks last. Nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line; nearly 10% of the population is unemployed. The median household income is somewhere around $37,000 (in comparison, the median household income in the country’s wealthiest state, Maryland, is over $71,000). According to a UNICEF report published in 2013, 35% of children in Mississippi live in Poverty. In other words, the percentage of impoverished children in Mississippi is twice that of Lithuania.
Driving north from New Orleans into southern Mississippi, you can see burnt up and collapsed homes and commercial businesses, making it appear that Katrina happened last month and not almost a decade ago. I’d been told this well before I drove that particular section of I-10, and I had seen photographs online, but I guess I underestimated the breadth of Katrina’s wake still visible today. Once you leave greater NOLA and approach Mississippi, you rapidly descend into the Southern Gothic garden. In this part of the south, there’s water everywhere, but you can’t see it because of the density of the trees and brush. The green—and at some times of the year it’s the whole universe of green—pushes out from the water you can’t see, and it’s fuel for one particularly potent nightmare: what if I had to walk into that? What awaits us? Alligators that never seem to move for anything until it’s time to kill and some of the deadliest snakes in the country, looking like straps of leather when they sun themselves. Dodge the gators, jump the snakes: it’s a real-life version of some Dixieland Mario Brothers level, where you’re hopping through the fugue of swamp water and bugs you never see until it’s too late.
Oprah Winfrey, Jim Henson, Elvis Presley, Morgan Freeman, Parker Posey, James Earl Jones, Tennessee Williams, Brett Favre, Tig Notaro, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Richard Ford, Bo Diddley, Shelby Foote, Donna Tartt, Sam Cooke, William Faulkner, Britney Spears, Tavis Smiley, John Grisham, Muddy Waters, Jefferson Davis, Shepard Smith: Mississippians all. (When did you ever think you’d see a list featuring Parker Posey, Brett Favre, and Nathan Bedford Forrest?) Mississippi? Birthplace to a disproportionate amount of people who have indelibly marked American culture and history.
Mississippi is also a rap album by Lavell William Crump, better known by his stage name, David Banner. The eponymous track epitomizes Banner’s signature emphatic delivery and determination to tell the story of contemporary Mississippi. As the beat kicks in Banner begins his ode to the place where he was born in typically stark terms; he references the civil rights leader and Mississippi native Medgar Evers, who helped desegregate the University of Mississippi (commonly and affectionately known as Ole Miss) and was later assassinated in Jackson by a member of the White Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist group founded in Greenwood, Mississippi.
We from a place
Where Medgar Evers live and Medgar Evers died
We from a place
What we chokin’ on sticky green to get high
We from a place
Some talk with a drawl but bitch we ball
runnin’ through with two techs screamin’ FUCK ALL Y’ALL!
We From A Place
where da rebel flag still aint burnin’
new schools but the black kids still aint learnin’ BOUT SHIT!
but hit da streets and learn to pimp on a bitch
FIVE-O aw shit throw yo crack in the ditch
and y’all nigga run yall nigga run
like Forrest Gump
they got pumps
and them crooked cops love to dump
That flag! On my return to my first trip to Mississippi—a reconnaissance mission to find someplace to live—I told a friend about a book I wanted to write about the American South, and I showed him the State of Mississippi flag that I’d hope would adorn the cover. He grew up in the south, but his first question was about how I came up with the design for the flag. He thought that the flag was some slick design I’d come up with to demonstrate the ways that the state was so acutely mired in the past. When I told him that it was the official state flag, he took to his phone for a quick Google search to see if I had been kidding with him. Another true thing about this place: Mississippi is the only southern state to retain the Confederacy’s battle flag as part of its own flag. Georgia removed it from their state flag in 2001; eight years prior to that, the NAACP filed a lawsuit to get the state of Mississippi to change the flag. Interestingly, through an omission in legislation Mississippi hadn’t had an official flag since 1906, when new codes were introduced. Then-Governor Ronnie Musgrove (there’s a southern name!) fought bitterly to retain the flag and its central confederate symbol, and, after understandable uproar, the decision about the flag was turned over to a vote amongst the people of Mississippi. They voted to keep it. However, it no longer flies on the campus where I work, the University of Southern Mississippi, nor is it visible at the state’s flagship institution, the University of Mississippi. Still, I will see it when I drive around Hattiesburg, including its prominent placement above my favorite dive bar: plus ça change.
If you think about it in relation to the rest of the United States, Mississippi is a place that makes us uncomfortable because it makes visible the porous membrane border between the haves and have-nots. Like all the poorest parts of this country, Mississippi reminds us of the third-world, disclosing the sorts of governmental failure, massive divide between rich and poor, and seemingly insurmountable natural disaster that are “characteristic” of countries like Haiti, not one of the wealthiest country in the world. The realities of the third-world seeps into the first through places like Mississippi, an uneasy reminder of the tenuous and finite nature of superpowers. Mississippi is an uncomfortable guest, shuffling toward the door, reminding us that the party might be over.
The word “Mississippi” is also the essential part of a common saying in the states that surround it: “Thank God for Mississippi.” A state—say, Louisiana—can be corrupt, violent, and uneducated, but at least it’s not Mississippi. A friend of mine from Alabama told me that growing up he was told to be thankful for Mississippi and its unique ability to be last in so many things.
What else is Mississippi? The thrilling, humid world of John Grisham novels, where white lawyers stare down the intractable, deformed triplets that wreak havoc across the South: poverty, corruption, and racism. My parents didn’t read books, but we had family friends who regularly invited us to the kind of house I wished I’d grown up in, complete with all the gas station/airport fiction I could wish for. That’s where I first met Grisham, creator of a best-selling, globally famous, and most importantly good white Mississippian. As a kid growing up in New Zealand, Grisham’s world was incredibly exotic, draped in strange southern rites and Spanish moss. Strangely enough, I met John Grisham once on one of those types of humid nights—this time in Charlottesville, Virginia—when the author was ordering pizza at a place downtown. He looked just like the author picture in all his novels, and through that combination of wealth and good genes was still movie star handsome. I spluttered out some words of admiration, and he nodded in a way that was both gracious and clearly conveyed that he’d prefer not to be recognized. He was southern polite.
Mississippi is the forgotten story of Hurricane Katrina. Before hitting New Orleans, Katrina first slapped around Biloxi and Gulfport, and when it was all over, Mississippi bore the brunt of Katrina: there was more property damage in Mississippi than anywhere else. 238 Mississippians died as a direct result of the storm, yet, if you ask most people, New Orleans is where Katrina begins and ends.
And if we are to tag Mississippi, what else might we name? It is the worst place in the country to have HIV/AIDS, bar no other state. But, like some of the other problems we’ve touched upon, there’s a disproportionate problem in the south: simply put, HIV/AIDS epidemic, which affected all 50 states, is now a real and disproportionate southern problem. Of the top ten states for HIV infection, nine of them are southern. Mississippi doesn’t necessarily have every single shocking HIV/AIDS statistic—for example, in Louisiana the rate of HIV infection is twice the national average—and it might not be the southern state with three cities ranked in the top ten of urban HIV infection rates—that would be Florida, with Miami, Jacksonville, and Orlando—but it’s the state where you’d least want to be HIV positive. Why? Mississippi is home to two of the worst statistics of the contemporary North American pandemic: it has the greatest amount of people in the country living with HIV/AIDS, and it has the highest rate of new infection in the United States. Predictably, the poorest parts of the state—such as the Delta region—have been especially smashed by HIV/AIDS. In a Human Rights Watch report, researchers interviewed a woman living in Jackson who was so terrified of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS that she first tore the labels off of her medicine and then threw them away in fear that her family and friends would find out. One of the most damning parts of the report: the finding that current Governor Haley Barbour actively works “to block health care reform that would expand Medicaid benefits for people living with HIV in the state.”
Mississippi is also faith: a wide, seemingly bottomless well of it. Faith in God, yes, but it goes further than that. It takes faith to live in southern Mississippi, where both hurricanes and tornadoes can strike with regularity. A friend of mine who recently left Mississippi told me about the first tornado he experienced a couple of years ago. He was ready for hurricanes, of course, but the tornado that tore through his town plucking oak trees from their roots was a shock. He waited it out in her bathtub, and when he ventured back into the streets, he learnt that the tornado had mainly hit the poorest neighborhood in town. My friend is not in any way religious, but it takes some sort of faith to think that this won’t happen again: the visiting of disaster on the people without house insurance and all the other safety nets afforded by wealth.
There’s also my own private Mississippi, the one that is all about me and, in turn, makes me a little embarrassed. One night, not too long ago, I woke up sweating; in typical north central Florida fashion, the weather was out of whack, giving us dense little shards of summer in the midst of a winter that was especially cold for nearly everyone around the country. At some point long before dawn, I threw up once, which didn’t feel like enough, and I then tried to sleep with my feet propped up on the couch, feeling much too hot to do anything but doze. I knew that I had caught one of the viruses that had taken out a half dozen of my students for a couple of days, but I blamed it on everything but that, including the upcoming move to Mississippi. After reading all the things I’d read about the state, I’d started dreaming about Mississippi as some kind of heavy, weirdly shaped blanket I couldn’t throw off. Mississippi became the first thing on my mind when I woke up at 3:44 AM, 4:17 AM, 5:37 AM, and I became obsessed with things I’d never considered at length before: income adjusted for inflation, state literacy rates, national average income, teenage pregnancy, income inequality by city. I became obsessed with my relationship with a state that I’d only spent a few days in, shuttling around Hattiesburg in the strange rituals of the academic job interview.
Right now: It’s 2:38 AM, and I’m going back over what I’ve just written, and I’m thinking that Mississippi might not be the backward state that it is always portrayed as, but it might be some sort of barometer. I’d recently read Amy Wilentz’s take on the poorest parts of the Caribbean, and how we’re wrong to see the third-world as developing; rather, it might, in fact, be farther ahead of us. To extrapolate: maybe Mississippi is this country’s future, rather than its past. And I don’t mean in the sense of race relations or raging against the federal government—though it might mean both of those things—but the understanding that we’re not separate from the rest of the world. Mississippi is a porthole into other broken parts of the world—the revelatory object that shows us we’re just not so distant after all.