January in Jackson—well, it wasn’t April in Paris, but it had its pleasures, among them the chance to compare the Magnolia State to the more northerly South I know better. I was lecturing at Millsaps College, staying in a nearby motel with a view from my window of the quaint little observatory that figures in the delightful, made-in-Jackson movie Miss Firecracker. Millsaps is a small college with a good faculty, so its students may get worked a little harder than average, but campus life seems to be pretty much standard issue Southern collegiate: “Inez-burgers” and beer at the student hangout, “meanbadboogie” by a group called the Mississippi Hippies, and so forth. The only thing that struck me as odd about Millsaps was its emphasis on security: the college is a heavily patrolled, fenced compound with only two entrances, both guarded after 6:00 P.M. Turns out there’s a reason for that.
As the state capital, Jackson has picked up some of the accoutrements of yuppiedom—fern bars, fitness centers, even a bookstore good enough to stock my books. But these amenities coexist with concentrated poverty of a sort that you’ve got to get pretty far off the Interstates to find in North Carolina these days. Jackson’s the first place outside the Third World, for instance, where I’ve seen cigarettes routinely sold one at a time. Within sight of its downtown office buildings are blocks of squalid shotgun houses adjoining old Farrish Street. Now that the black middle class has moved to the outskirts of town and patronizes the same malls as everyone else, the once-vibrant commercial district of Negro Jackson has become a shuttered, graffiti-scarred wasteland. Take this residual poverty, add the crack scourge amply documented on local television news shows, stir in some pockets of relative affluence like Millsaps, and you’ve got the ingredients for a serious crime problem. Razor wire sales are obviously booming, and burglar alarm systems and private security patrols seem to be increasingly ordinary expenses of middleclass life. Of course, Jackson’s not unique in this respect (we had a drive-by shooting a half-block from my house in Chapel Hill last April), it’s just that the contrasts are starker than I’m used to.
Most of the city’s problems, including this one, are tied in one way or another with race, so it should be said on the city’s behalf that relations between black and white folk strike a visitor as relatively amicable. My racial animosity sensors are in pretty good working order and I’ve detected more—both ways—in some single days in New York City than in a whole month in Jackson, 1993. Black and white Jacksonians alike were uniformly civil and usually more than that to me and, as far as I could see, to each other. A very important contributing factor has to be that the spokesmen for the black community (at least the ones I encountered) are serious, sober, and constructive.
One Jackson image that will stick with me is that of a disconcerting “ghost mall” not far from the college, abandoned when the surrounding residential districts changed their demographic complexion. Next to it was a billboard offering the Virgin Mary’s 800 number in Bayside, Queens. (For some reason, the poorer sections of Jackson were blanketed with these signs. The local Catholic bishop took to the pages of the Clarion-Ledger to deny any connection between his diocese and this enterprise.) Across the street, in a security-gated hole-in-the-wall, you can find Tony’s Tamales, which I recommend. Tamales have long been traditional fare for black Mississippians, although no one has ever been able to tell me why.
Tamales aside, I figured culinary Jackson would be typically Southern: a meat and three vegetable plate-lunch town with an overlay of all-American fast food and a few pretentious expense-account joints where waiters tote big pepper mills. I don’t have to go to Mississippi for any of that, so I figured I’d eat Special K for a month, save some money, and lose the weight I gained over Christmas. But I underestimated both the hospitality of Jacksonians and the quality of the restaurants they’d take me to.
Jackson does have good country cooking (try the restaurant at the Farmers’ Market). Midway between Memphis and New Orleans, it also has good ribs and passable muffeletas. But my favorite restaurant—and not just because I went there with Eudora Welty—has a sign out front that says “Bill’s Burgers, God Bless America.” In typical Mississippi fashion, its owner isn’t named Bill and its specialty is seafood. Jackson’s proximity to the Gulf means it has at least a halfdozen fine fish places, most of them run by Greeks like “Bill.” The Mayflower is another, downtown near the capitol; a Jackson fixture for decades, it is run by a couple from Patmos.
One weekend I took a leisurely drive up through the Delta to Memphis. This rich bottomland between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers is the subject of my friend Jim Cobb’s fine new book, The Most Southern Place on Earth, and by some criteria it may be that. Certainly it offers the largest concentration of rural black poverty in the United States, as it has for over a hundred years, and the recent introduction of large-scale commercial catfish farming hasn’t done much to change that. I once made fun of V.S. Naipaul’s book on the South for overusing the “one could have been in” gimmick, but with the semitropical landscape flat to the misty horizon, the ramshackle recycling of building materials, the gormless decoration with primary colors—well, one could have been in Nigeria.
The Delta has been fertile in so many ways. Even its place names are rich in associations, few of them happy, and it has exported its children by the scores of thousands. My route took me first to Yazoo City, home of Willie Morris and Jerry Glower and lately both Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture and the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. On to Indianola, home of B.B. King and the White Citizens Council. Past Parchman, the notorious state prison immortalized in a Mose Allison lyric (“Sittin’ over here on Parchman Farm / I never did no man no harm / Gonna be here the rest of my life / And all I did was shoot my wife”). To Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum, and beyond, past Graceland, into Memphis.
For the last part of the trip I was on old Highway 61, the way out to the north for countless black Mississippians and a good many white ones, too. Bill Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, has named his Saturday night public-radio blues program for this road. The Blues Doctor gets a lot of requests from Parchman.
Back in Jackson, one Sunday morning I went over to the state Agricultural and Forestry Museum, where stands a reconstructed Mississippi village of circa 1920, differing from a good many hamlets still dotting the Southern countryside mostly by being tidier. In the old, unheated, white frame country church a small Anglican congregation gathers, to worship by the Old Prayer Book. About 20 of us were there that morning, and I listened with pleasure to a sermon on the ideal of the gentleman, as suggested by St. Paul in Romans 12:7. After Communion, we adjourned to the old Masonic hall for coffee.
Another Sabbath found me at a very different service, at Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church, where I went with my friends Douglas and Caroline, he a seminary professor, a proud Scot from North Carolina, she a high-school Latin teacher, the daughter of a Cambridge don, both of them Chronicles readers. Jackson is Baptist and Methodist country, but “First Pres” has several thousand members, a good proportion of them present that Sunday. The church has missionaries at work in the Delta, in Prague and Bratislava and the Ukraine, in London (among Muslims), and even in New York City, the very belly of the beast. The service we attended was videotaped for satellite broadcast to Canada. (Douglas and Caroline’s son was one of the cameramen.)
That evening I watched another televised ritual, a broadcast taped at the local “cowboy” club. Rodeo’s, which draws even better than the Presbyterian church. Fifteen hundred dancing white people would be a scary sight under the best of circumstances, but when they’re engaged in semi-aerobic boot-scootin’ line dances with names like the Electric Slide and the Tush Push—well, I don’t know. I confess that I’ve been to the Longbranch in Raleigh. I’ve even done the two-step there. But I’ve never seen the likes of this. All I have to say is: I don’t think Hank done it this-a-way.
So many other impressions:
—An informative sociological tour of Jackson with a retired businessman who studied with Howard Odum and Rupert Vance at North Carolina in the 1930’s and wrote his master’s thesis on sharecropping. I was reminded of Chapel Hill’s great and beneficent influence in those days, when the South’s problems seemed to be simpler.
—The good little museum in the Old Capitol building, with its evenhanded treatment of the state’s often troubled past. On one of the building’s splendid curving staircases, a stunning blonde in a bridal dress was being photographed.
—A Kappa Alpha “convivium,” where my friend Douglas, in a dinner jacket and the tartan of his clan, spoke on Robert E. Lee as a Christian gentleman. The Knights and their ladies concluded the evening with the traditional toast to the General, the “spiritual founder” of their Order, in pure water.
—A visit to Tougaloo College, a small black institution with a distinguished history through the civil rights movement, now sadly down at the heels, scrambling for federal funds, and seeking some coherent mission in the wake of that movement’s success.
—A conference at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where our tweedy group joined several hundred drunken undergraduates to hear a Memphis retro band called the Bouffants. Halfway through “Chain of Fools,” C. Vann Woodward of Arkansas and Yale, the dean of Southern historians, leaned over and shouted, “They’re not bad.”
All in all, I returned to North Carolina better informed, if not wiser. Yes, Mississippi is different from the upper South, but mostly just in the same ways that the upper South differs from, say, Massachusetts. The people are even friendlier, the Protestant churches are even more conspicuous, the homicide rate is even higher, the food has even more cholesterol, and so forth. Some of the differences are big, but not many are qualitative. Except perhaps in the Delta, I felt—in some primal sense—at home in Mississippi. W. J. Cash wrote 50 years ago that, “If it can be said that there are many Souths, the fact remains that there is also one South.” He was right about that.