“I don’t know how you live in such a shithole state”, they said.
I was sitting at a sidewalk table in a college town in New England a few years ago. I had been invited up because this church thought I knew something about building relationships between their congregation and the unhoused folks who slept on their porch at night, and were willing to pay me to talk to them about it.
Typically when I go and consult somewhere, the host organization furnishes a liaison person, who picks me up at the airport, answers my questions, and can help if something goes wrong. This time, the liaison person wanted to buy me lunch before they took me back to the airport.
It was then that they told me I lived in a shithole state. I’m sure they meant it in the nicest possible way.
I must have looked some kind of way because they quickly began to backtrack. But they were sincere, if rude – in light of the history of civil rights atrocities, the history of slavery, the Christian nationalism, the economic devastation, and so on, why on earth do I, an educated, articulate, white cis-gendered male with every kind of opportunity insist on living somewhere like Mississippi.
I was feeling particularly generous that day, and I explained that I knew those stories about Mississippi better than they did and that the reality of those stories is far more horrible than they could know from such a distance.
“But the thing is,” I said, “I know other stories, too.”
I know stories about Fannie Lou Hammer, who rose from sharecropping and eventually took on the Democratic Party and insisted she be seen. I know stories about Will Campbell, a white Baptist Minister who insisted that God loves everybody, even when we wish God didn’t. I know stories about snuff-dipping old white ladies who baked cakes to sell to buy poor black kids some school clothes. I know that the first lung transplant in the whole world was done in 1963 in Jackson, MS, and then in 1972, they mapped the human cardiovascular system for the first time in that same building.
I know stories of resistance, and hope, and resilience, and perseverance. I know stories of people who risked it all on a dream and rose to great heights and then came back to lift others up, too. I know of our storytellers and writers and poets. I know the sounds the gurgling creek that runs near my house makes, the song of the barred rock owl, the rudeness of the bluejay, and the cry of the mockingbird.
And mostly, I know the stories of our people, because I listen for them as I move around this state. On a recent day, I had lunch with farmhands in the Mississippi Delta and then ate supper in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The week before I was on the Gulf Coast where I saw dolphins at play. I live in the middle of it all on top of an extinct volcano, next to a river where alligators swim.
I know of our diversity – not a corporate buzzword for us but our lived reality. I know of the Chinese folks who live in the Delta and brought us their gifts and taught us new ways to cook the foods we have eaten forever, and the brown-skinned folks who took our foods and made them their own. (A Delta tamale doesn’t taste like any tamale you ever had in any Tex-Mex restaurant – it’s far better than that.) I live among and am known by descendants of the indigenous people who cared for this land in civilized societies when my ancestors were naked and living in caves.
And I know that the people here – Black, white, Brown, Queer, straight, rich, poor – all of us – have been played, and made afraid by powerful people who profit from their fear, and who will do anything to keep us apart, lest we recognize our common cause. And because the people here are afraid, they don’t make wise decisions all the time. None of us are our best selves when we are afraid.
I know all those stories. And those stories are also Mississippi.
My host that day, while rude, wasn’t wrong. They knew a story about Mississippi. But they only knew one story. I know hundreds. Which is why I stay.
It’s also why I tell the stories I do. The job of the storyteller is curation – to decide which stories are told. That is as it should be. But we never want to only tell a story because it just happens to be the only story we know.