At first glance, this blog post may appear rather different from my usual ones. Unlike the others, which are usually focused on far-flung regions of the world, this post is about an area of the U.S., the Mississippi Delta that is not very far from my hometown of Chicago. Yet, for me, this was an exciting journey as it was my first time there, and to my surprise, I felt like I was discovering a new land. Landscapes of cotton fields, bald cypress trees in the mystical bayou, small white churches lost in the fields, delicious deep-fried food (not my usual fare!), luscious sweets, pecan beer and more importantly, a lot of warm and welcoming people make the Delta a place of its own.
The Mississippi Delta is an area in the northwest part of the state formed by the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Yazoo River. My (too short) journey started in Memphis, Tennessee (yes, I went to Graceland) and took me to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a small town of about 20,000 people (80% African-American) that had a significant role in the history of the blues. Using Clarksdale as a base allowed me to visit a number of neighboring small towns including some in the nearby state of Arkansas.
For most people in the Delta, life is not easy. The area shows real signs of economic stagnation. Jobs are few as humongous machines, some of them looking like giant insects, have largely replaced human labor on farms. Local industries have all but disappeared. Entire areas of towns are boarded-up, abandoned homes are plentiful and the signs of poverty are everywhere. Furthermore, the deep wounds left from the Civil War do not appear to be fully healed, and a look at the civil records of Tallahatchie County, as seen on the image below, reminds us of just how recently the Civil Rights struggle took place. Moreover, guns are proudly displayed as if they were the latest fashion accessories.
But despite the grueling economic and social challenges, what captured my attention in the Delta were the people and their resilience. Again and again, I met the warmest and friendliest people always happy to chat, to talk about their stories, most of them heart-breaking beyond belief, as well as their daily struggles and their hopes. (Well, there was one significant exception. A gentleman took offense that a small group of us had walked on to his land to photograph a church, and threatened to sue us or shoot us if we were to do it again.)
Then, of course, there is the “music”. The blues legacy of the area is ever-present. Blues bars and juke joints are plentiful and attract an enthusiastic crowd of locals. When it is time for blues, everybody seems to forget their hardships. After a few visits to these venues, I was starting to understand why this area is often referred to as “The Soul of the South”.
See my Delta. I plan to return for more soul searching,
P.S. Grateful thanks to the inspiring Magdalena Sole for introducing me to this area and for sharing her deep knowledge of the region. Her real love of the Delta is captured beautifully in her book “New Delta Rising”.