If the Mississippi Delta Could Write Stories of Peace…

With the showcase of creative final projects for my Honors class behind me, I guess this was technically my first day of summer vacation. I slept a lot. I enjoyed that. But, as a class, we decided that we wanted to create a kind of website or blog documenting our trip to the Mississippi Delta this Spring Break, so last night I copied and pasted from our shared Google Drive to a Medium page the events of our seventh day, spent in Yazoo City and Jackson, which I, Kell, Brandon, and Michelle wrote about. Our content features photos we took, and poems and short pieces written by the four of us. I’d like to share it here as well.

❤︎

Bricks of Cotton Candy
Kell Bernardo

Willy Wonka walls of a dilapidated town
Tell me stories with murals of
Drawings scrawled inside an abandoned theatre
Or factory, or stadium, now garden.
Of wild grass and moss leading up the trails of a fire escape
Plotting to match the colors of candy pastels with nature green,
Each fighting for visual prominence in a town that feels like a film set.
Glittering was the old city bank, but there were gaps in the lack of ATMs.
Surrounded by small nooks and crannies shaped around narrow alleyways,
Pigeonholed between boutiques and cafes—
We go instead to a donut shop. I get no donuts.
But I do receive kolaches.
Happiness.
And then the van receives us.
We’re late, but we keep our cool.

H-Town 7.1.3.

fullsizeoutput_1657.jpeg

Rainbow Row. Photo by Corinna Richardson.

Yazoo City Colors:
Michelle Toth

The sun was bright and shining, though the heat not high enough to melt this city of candy.

A beautiful blue and white china tea set caught my eye. Main Street Market on a bright neon pink colored sign: “the unusual shopping place.”

fullsizeoutput_1730.jpeg

Main Street Market. Photo by Corinna Richardson.

Walking in was like the scene from a novel, the trove was scattered with tons of small treasures varying from furniture pieces to small knickknacks. In front of the cash register there was a sort of parlor set up, a few armchairs with side tables, also full of merchandise, and a full china cabinet acting as a wall divider. Seated in the “parlor” were two true Mississippian elderly characters. I presumed that they were the store owner and perhaps a co-owner of the store or simply an old friend. The two were chit-chatting away and seemed quite pleased when Jasmin, Jacob, and I walked in.

“Hello! Where are y’all from?” greets the elderly white woman with a crown of curly gray-white hair. She looked to be in her seventies.

“We’re students from the University of Houston.”

“Houston? What brings y’all to Mississippi? You should come teach here! We need new young folk.” None of us are education majors, I couldn’t help but think to myself. Perhaps if I got my teaching certification, I could come be an art teacher here. Although I’m sure art classes aren’t what they’d be looking to improve upon here.

“We’re in a class that’s called Artists and Their Regions and we’re focusing on the Mississippi Delta, so we’re on a class trip. We’ve been reading literature from Mississippian writers like Faulkner and learning about the Blues.”

“Oh we’ve got a lot of Blues here! This here is Blues Country,” the black gentleman boasts proudly.

“Yes sir, that’s partly why we came.”

I slowly crept away, leaving Jacob talking with them so that I could look around. Jasmin and I met up toward the back and talked gleefully about how much we liked all the antiques. Jasmin settled on a ceramic cat since she couldn’t have her own cats in the dorms. I settled on a tiny silver-plated tea set.

Going up to pay I decided to ask them a few questions, do a sort of off-handed interview, two regular native Mississippians that we were not scheduled to see and talk to. All I asked was “What do you like the most about Mississippi?”

“The hospitality,” said the woman.

I noticed a framed printed award for “friendliest shopkeeper,” placed against the cash register. She certainly was the spitting image of friendly Southern hospitality.

She then began a long tale as she distractedly wrapped and rang up our purchases. She told us that she grew up in Eden, MS, a nearby, very small town northeast of Yazoo City. At some point she moved out to Atlanta, GA, but decided to move back to Yazoo City, in what seemed to be recent years.

I told her how much I liked her city, all the beautifully colored buildings. I think she rather liked that because she told us that it’s one of the only cities in Mississippi with colorful buildings like theirs. They might have gotten the idea from Charleston’s Rainbow Row. “All the painted buildings are owned by the same family. They put in their own money to renovate and paint them.”

“Oh wow, well it certainly looks very nice,” I say.

fullsizeoutput_183a.jpeg

Main Street. Photo by Corinna Richardson.

“We need our young folk to come home, and for new people to come in. You should come here and teach, we need new teachers! My granddaughter is a second grade teacher and she loves it, she loves her kids! Before school starts in the fall we go and buy the school supplies. And last year they had a Christmas party; they bought all the kids new coats! She really loves the kids, she wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

I’m not completely sure how she made the switch into politics but she began ranting about how the State Legislature is passing a bunch of unnecessary laws that only benefit the rich. “They should just leave things the way they are. And we need new people to come in, otherwise it’s just going to be the same thing, and nothing will change or improve. We need new minds. And we need the young people to come home, they’re taking all their ideas elsewhere when we need them here.” Such a difference from what Mr. Hoover said back in Baptist Town. “You won’t be treated the same, you’ll always be an outsider… I tell the smart kids to leave. To get out of the Delta, even though we need them here.”

The gentleman had been standing nearby, close to our conversational group, but had been quiet mostly until we got him to talk about the Blues.

“There used to be Blues clubs all along that back road. And when my buddies and I were younger we’d go up and sneak to listen to the music. The owner would always chase us away, but we’d come right back. One day he said he’d give us 50¢ to go in and get some pop but that after that we were never to come back.”

“We don’t have a Blues museum here though. Lots of Blues history, but no museum,” said the woman. I was relatively shocked.

He told us that he had seen Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters perform. I was amazed. Sonny Boy – born in Glendora – day six. B.B. King – Museum in Indianola – day six. Muddy Waters – abandoned cabin in Clarksdale – day five. We had been to the locations of these iconic figures and this man of 65+ years had seen these figures. It was almost as if looking into his eyes, you could see them for yourself.

It was time to go. But I asked the man for his name, Leonard Murphy. I shook his hand. And turned to the woman, I asked for her name too, Wilma Curry. I shook her hand.

❤︎

Silver from the Baby Blue House
Kell Bernardo

We turn into the street
Mere feet from where Evers saw his family for the last time.
Entering the house we were guided by someone who had
Ties to Medgar Evers himself.
Moved furniture, a film adaptation, and family.
The rooms filled with items like a newly minted estate sale
Polished but rusted with time.
His children raised with lowered beds, obstructed windows, and worry for their father.
The Field Secretary for NAACP.
Against Silver from the Baby Blue House.
Not hours earlier was the assassination of JFK televised for all of
America.
Ambling from his driveway to his front door
Crawling is a more apt description
Puddling blood with droplets
Like bullets through the living room hallway-
Ricocheting off the fridge—
Into the words of our tour guide.

Ricocheted Bullet:
Brandon Montenegro

Arriving in Jackson, Mississippi was like the sensation of fresh, dark green blades of grass between one’s toes. We were in the state capital, and more noteworthy, a place with a large population. When we walked around Natchez on the second day, the streets were bare; when we were in Greenwood the sidewalks were also empty, and all the way through Clarksdale it felt like there was no life in the Delta. These places felt like used-to-be towns and places to live that were left in a capricious manner after some atrocity ended. Cue the tumbleweed. I’m used to being around and seeing copious amounts of people while walking or driving in public spaces. So being in Jackson was like being back home. There were more than five cars on the road at once as well as people walking on the sidewalks.

Upon arriving in Jackson, Mississippi, we went directly to Medgar Evers House. We had a tour at 1:30 p.m.

Medgar Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi on July 2, 1925. At the age of 17, Evers was drafted into the U.S Army, where he fought in both France and Germany, and was later honorably discharged in 1946. Two years after his discharge, he enrolled at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College majoring in business administration and graduated in 1952.

Later, Evers worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by urging blacks around Mississippi to join the NAACP. In 1954, Evers became the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, and was in charge of recruiting new members, organizing voter registration efforts, leading boycotts on companies that practiced discrimination, investigating incidents of racial violence, and was a spokesperson for the NAACP. For example, Evers, along with NAACP Southeast Regional Director Ruby Hurley and Amzie Moore, president of the Bolivar County Branch in Mississippi, looked into Emmett Till’s homicide and secured witnesses. Hurley later sent the reports to both the FBI and The Crisis, the NAACP’s official magazine.

On May 20, 1963, Evers appeared on WLBT, a local news broadcast station in Jackson in line with segregationists, for 17 minutes. Evers was reacting to Jackson Mayor Allen Thompson’s rejection, on WLBT, of an effort to integrate public spaces and job opportunities. In his speech, Evers said:

What then does the Negro want? He wants to get rid of racial segregation in Mississippi life because he knows it has not been good for him nor for the state. He knows that segregation is unconstitutional and illegal. While states may make laws and enforce certain local regulations none of these should be used to deprive any citizens of his rights under the Constitution.

On June 12, 1963, no more than a month later after his WLBT appearance, Evers was assassinated in his driveway by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. Which comes as no surprise because Evers highly publicized himself with the WLBT broadcast. His murder was finally brought to justice 31 years later in 1994 with the imprisonment of De La Beckwith.

fullsizeoutput_18a7.jpeg

House of Medgar Evers. Photo by Ramsha Momin.

It was uncanny pulling up to Medgar Evers’ house. We’d parked our vans across the street from it. Close by the bush where De La Beckwith hid and shot Evers from. Earlier on in the school semester I had presented a biographical report on Evers. I knew that Evers was shot in his own driveway by a white supremacist; I knew that he crawled up his driveway hoping to get help from his wife and children who were inside their home; I knew that he later died in a hospital that initially did not want to treat him because he was a person of color. But it wasn’t real. Reading about what happened to Evers didn’t impact me. I know about racism; my dad has told me about several times when he was treated poorly for being Hispanic. I know of the slave trade, sharecropping, convict leasing, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and others who have been victims of racism.  However, there was a power about being there. At his home. A power equivalent to that of the .30-06 Enfield rifle that De La Beckwith used to assassinate Medgar Evers, one that dismantles illusory fronts about the way the world is and isn’t. It was the same power I felt during my walk through the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora, Mississippi. Does this power stem from the fact that one knows what has happened at a specific location? Would someone feel the same power if they arrived at Evers’ home without prior knowledge? Maybe the site consolidates the event? Rendering it that much more real (I moved my hands about four feet apart just now). Allowing one to tell themselves, “I am standing right here, the exact place where Evers was shot, or where Emmett Till was brutally beaten and killed.” It’s possible that’s it. But I can’t be too sure. However, I’m not unsure about the impact that it had on me. It woke me from my slumber; it dried a wet match and lit it.

fullsizeoutput_1631

Bullet hole in white tile. Photo by Corinna Richardson.

“The bullet pierced the wall that separates the living room from the kitchen…and to the right of the light switch. It crashed through the ceramic tile above the toaster and hit the refrigerator door directly across from the stove. Then it ricocheted off the refrigerator and came to rest on the countertop to the right of the sink.”

When I walked in to Evers’ home, my first thought was “Wow the Evers’ had nice furniture.” To the right they had a nice three-piece beige sofa set, a brown coffee table, and an upright piano. To the left they had a china armoire and a light brown dining table. It felt like it would have been a warm home to live in. Later, I learned that the furniture was not the Evers’ original furniture. It was prop furniture left over from the film Ghosts of Mississippi. What is undoubtedly left over from 1963, however, is the bullet hole that pierced the wall that separates the kitchen from the living room, the hole through the ceramic tile, and the refrigerator that the bullet ricocheted off from. As I was looking at the wall and the kitchen, Minnie Watson, Curator/Assistant in Archives at Tougaloo College as well as the curator of the Medgar Evers House Museum, said that earlier in the day a kid mentioned that one could see the window through the kitchen. So I bent down in the kitchen, aligning my sight with the bullet hole, and through the hole on the other side of the wall, I saw the window. A sight that galvanized my hate for Byron De La Beckwith, White supremacists, and other racists. What actions should I take to make sure this never happens again?

❤︎

If Yazoo Colors Can Write Stories of Peace
Kell Bernardo

Our tour at Eudora Welty’s house is less eventful
Until it isn’t.
We start in a room of a short documentary,
Then led into the various books that clutter the rooms of her house.
Our tour guide is the spitting image of Eudora Welty’s Ghost.
Paper to Pen. Fingers to Keys.
Letter after letter exchanged after they’re separated.
His letters saved, and her letters burned.
Heart to heart. White out to Paper.
Pictures aren’t allowed but some three have phones
With silent cameras.
Glass shatters like a winning slam dunk by a rival team.
Trees from the wrath of Welty’s Ghost wedge themselves into the trunk of the van.
Impromptu picnic in the park.
Phone calls are made.
Glass is shaken off various luggage.
In Jackson, we’re miles away from those bright walls
And I don’t think Yazoo colors can truly write stories of peace.

fullsizeoutput_1630.jpeg

Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson, MS. Photo by Corinna Richardson.


fullsizeoutput_166d

Our minivan is a fish. Photo by Corinna Richardson.

The Wrath of Eudora Welty:
Corinna Richardson

Whenever I tell people I’m a writer, the inevitable next question is, “What do you like to write?” so I tell them the truth: that there isn’t any genre I like to stay within, but that I do enjoy playing with elements that are dark. Judging by her short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” about the assassination of Medgar Evers, Eudora Welty did, too.

It’s a dark part of Mississippian history, and it’s a dark story, written from the point of view of the man who killed one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most prolific figures. So dark and so close to the truth that inspired it, in fact, that details like names had to be altered before publication so that it wouldn’t have a prejudicial effect on the murder trial. In her book One Writer’s Beginnings, she says that “Of all my strong emotions, anger is the one least responsible for any of my work” but also that “There was one story that anger certainly lit the fuse of,” and that was this one. I can speak to the fact that most writers write to understand their own emotions, and because Eudora Welty never wrote out of anger, I think it’s safe to assume that she wrote this story to explore and understand the anger that sparked it. When we visited the Medgar Evers House, I think we, too, tried to understand the event and the story. And when we visited the Eudora Welty House later that day, I remember trying to understand her, the person behind the pages.

Eudora Welty loved stories, and she loved Mississippi. Born in Jackson, she was raised by her mother to believe that any chair in their house was there for her to read in or to be read to in, any day, any time.

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.”
—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

Upstairs and downstairs in Miss Welty’s home, the house of her adolescence, books are haphazardly stacked in every room. The rest of the house is warmly lit and modestly furnished, giving an impression of simplicity and welcome characteristic to Eudora, who is said to have loved people and to have cherished her relationships with friends and family. On the dining table is a revision left in progress; a couple of pages from one of her pieces, yellowing, curling at the edges, and cut into strips—and pins on the left side, so that the pieces could be pinned into place, moved, and pinned again—and so she could make sure that every word, every placement, every written work, was exactly right. Upstairs, the most notable room is Eudora’s bedroom, where she wrote. Given to her because she was the oldest child and the only girl, the large, open space has several windows, a four-post bed, and her desk—filled with books and covered with materials that must have been meaningful or useful to her while she worked. On a small table placed adjacent to the desk rests the electric typewriter that she only switched to because arthritis made it too difficult for her to continue on manual typewriters, and against the wall with the doors open is a cabinet filled with dozens and dozens of letters.

The typewriter and those letters inspired me to take two discreet, forbidden photographs, and even though my classmates and I later joked after a [fairly] minor car accident that “the wrath of Eudora Welty came down upon us” for those pictures, I’d take them again, because she was a writer, and I am a writer, and it meant so much to me to see the place where she felt inspired, and where she put in the time and the effort to realize her dreams—dreams hardly different from my own.

fullsizeoutput_1835.jpeg

Eudora Welty’s desk in her bedroom; one of the photos that nearly killed us. (Not really.) Photo by Corinna Richardson.

I wonder what Eudora Welty would have to say if she were alive today. As a writer, I wonder what she would say if she read this over my shoulder. I don’t think she would want to be memorialized much more than she already is, because, as we learned, she won many awards and she tossed nearly all of them into a box inside a closet. It was never about the awards for her, and I think she might appreciate this now, not for the recognition but for the idea that she meant something to me and to my classmates. As for the pictures, I think she would laugh at the theory about her angry spirit. I think maybe it was really just her sense of humor.

fullsizeoutput_1655.jpeg

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, typewriter, and photograph of Eudora Welty at home, preserved behind glass at the Education and Visitors Center next door to her house. Photo by Corinna Richardson.

Friday, 3.17.2017, and the Wrath of Eudora Welty

Goodbye, Mississippi. It’s been a great ride, but it’s time to go now.

Currently in the backseat of one minivan, driven by Chris, and here’s hoping he doesn’t hit another tree and blow out the back window of this one, too (😂), and there are approximately five hours left until we hit Houston. So, in the meantime…

Yesterday already felt like we were going home, because we packed up our stuff and checked out of Tallahatchie Flats in the morning (thank goodness, my last shower in that TINY bathroom!) to head to Jackson, MS, to tour the Medgar Evers and Eudora Welty Houses. I used to have family near Jackson, but I can’t say I’d ever visited the places we went yesterday.

But first, a quick hour in Yazoo City! A place as colorful as its name. I ran around with Sam(uel) and Sam(antha), Kell, Brandon, and Santiago(go) for an hour, and we took pictures and jaywalked to Yazoo Donuts in search of coffee—on which I burned my tongue, and it wasn’t even good enough coffee to be worth that! I guess the donuts and kolaches we picked up were more of an afterthought, plus a Kool-Aid Jammers for Samantha, who had a sentimental moment about how everybody has taken care of her—though, of course, we’ve all taken care of each other this week! Let me tangent to count the ways…

  • I gave Sam ibuprofen yesterday morning
  • She gave me BB cream to cover a zit
  • Ramsha braided my hair
  • Kell offered to steal the vintage typewriter I loved that was in my cabin (don’t worry, I said no)
  • Samuel and Jacob did our dishes after we cooked communal dinner, and they let us use their oven twice
  • Santiago helped us make rice
  • Kell gave me DayQuil this morning for my sore throat
  • Samantha went with Chanelle to pick up coffee and breakfast
  • Brandon gave me a dollar to pay for my donuts, so I gave him the glazed donut I never wanted (I ordered buttermilk, not glazed)
  • I gave Kell a water bottle and bought Samantha chips
  • Cristina took a picture of me with a postcard and sent it to me

…and probably more than that, even! It’s been great to all be in this together, and I think the friendships and bonding are what have made it a great week, and that classes will be different now because of it. I hope so. It will be weird though if Chris and Chanelle want to go back to being Professors Brunt and Benz, but, you know.

I said when I posted on Instagram yesterday that my favorite place to visit was Yazoo City, but that was before we visited the Eudora Welty House in Jackson. That has been my favorite now, hands down. Because she was a writer, and I’m a writer, and while the truth is I’m not particularly familiar with her work, I loved being able to go through her home and see the hundreds and hundreds of books, stacked haphazardly all throughout the house, and see pages of her work left in her own revision process, and see her bedroom upstairs with her desk and her typewriter, and her letters. It was inspiring, and I want to write in my room now, make it more of a sanctuary…though honestly Angleton and Lake Jackson are not as inspiring as Mississippi must have been to her. One day I’ve got to get out of there. Even living in Houston would probably provide more inspiration. I took two photos inside, though I wasn’t supposed to, and then… Well, we had all just gotten back in our vans to head to our next stop, and Chris was backing up our van next to the curb to turn around, and he backed right into the tree that had previously trapped Kell in the front seat, unable to squeeze out—and Chris was only going a few miles per hour so we’re still not sure exactly how it happened, but suddenly the back window of the van just busted, glass flying all over the luggage there, and Samantha, Santiago, and I—the three of us right in the back there—turning around to see oh shit what the hell just happened!

So, what we ended up deciding as we sat on the grass nearby while our professors figured out what to do, is that the wrath of Eudora Welty came down upon us for my two pictures, taken on purpose, and Samantha’s and Santiago’s pictures, taken on accident, when we were not supposed to take any photos inside at all. Still—no regrets.

The accident forced us to cross “former Greyhound bus station” off our itinerary, but we still made it to Fondren, a hip neighborhood in Jackson, where we had dinner and walked around, eventually ending up in a froyo shop. Free samples! 😋 It was a very chill (no pun intended) way to wind down a busy day, and a busy week.

Today, we’re homeward bound, and will return to classes and work Monday, and to work on our creative projects, which this trip provided information and a wealth of material for. I think I have enough pictures for postcards, and a lot of information and quotes, though I need to talk to most of my classmates still. But I’ll be honest now—I hadn’t really wanted to take this trip to begin with. I didn’t know it was a part of the curriculum, when Chris said in class that “if you didn’t know then this probably isn’t the course for you” and I very briefly thought about dropping but of course didn’t because I need this course credit to graduate—but now, and this entire week, I’ve enjoyed myself so much. I would have missed out, and I’m glad I’m still here, because I can appreciate everything we’ve seen, everything we’ve learned, and everything I’ve experienced with my friends. If I could go back, no, I wouldn’t do any of it differently.

Not even to avoid the wrath of Eudora Welty. 😜