I am a native of Mississippi. I was born and raised on the Gulf Coast in a relatively small town named after the moss that dangles -- at least before disease struck -- from magnolia trees. And this quaint and complicated place, no matter how far I go or run, remains the cornerstone of who I am. I left home early: running from my father and from the burden of a state that carries on its shoulders the burdens of a nation. Of course, both continually haunt.
As you can imagine, I was particularly struck by Haley Barbour's comments about the controversy over Confederate History Month and slavery. Not so much because he failed to exhibit the requisite moral sensitivity towards African Americans. It is not enough to say that slavery was obviously wrong. Too much blood and death resides there; Barbour's words, intended or not, were offensive.
For me, the fact that he is the Governor of Mississippi, a place where the revenant of our racist past lives alongside the failures of our present, matters deeply. How could he blaspheme? Of all Americans, Mississippians should know better -- even if they don't act better.
But Barbour's remarks reveal how a kind of easy forgetfulness (or, worse, a deliberate erasure) can free one from the burdens and responsibilities of the past and sanction callousness towards the dead and living that walk in your backyard. Mississippi has always been a metaphor for America. And it remains so today (even with a black man in the White House). Statistically how do African Americans in my state fare in terms of poverty, health care, education, and incarceration? What does it mean that in 2010 the court ordered the Walthall School district to desegregate? And why isn't Barbour, who dares to describe himself as "a fat redneck with an accent," asked to give an account as he rails repeatedly against the health care bill? Every time I hear him these days I find myself mumbling Nina's words: "Mississippi Goddamn."
April 21st marks the seventh anniversary of Nina Simone's death. Hers was a voice that challenged us in so many ways. I have always loved her ironic use of the show tune to call attention to the murders of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the four little children in Birmingham, Alabama.
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn
Mississippi and its violence function in the song as common sense; its horrors are known and its failures are deeply felt. And as Nina calls attention to the contradictions and the hypocrisy, as she demands equality for herself and black people, Mississippi stands in for America as such. Her words rest alongside the actions of those young people who dared fifty years ago this month to organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later in April of 1964 found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the brutality of American racism.
Barbour's words occasion an opportunity to lift up their sacrifice and courage -- to remember their resolve to suffer the evils of men and women in pursuit of justice.
I have long since reconciled myself to my birthplace. My Southern accent has somewhat diminished (except when I talk with my mother), but Mississippi remains in my blood stream. It is, after all, my inheritance. The memory of its blood soaked soil allows me to embrace, with some depth of feeling, this most complicated of American places -- to possess, even if he could not imagine them in my hands, William Faulkner's words: "That man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."
Barbour's words, however, ring shallow. No repentance resides therein. Luke 13:5 comes to mind: "unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Much more is required of Americans if we are to step into the future that awaits. We must not turn our backs on the past or fall silent before its torment. We must look it squarely in the face in order to be released, if just for a moment, from its tyranny. Those who live in the South, especially in Mississippi, should lead the way. But, for now, too many Southern voices spout a kind of forgetfulness that can only harden the soul and seal our fate. Mississippi Goddamn!