Eastbound on U.S. 84 from Vidalia, Louisiana, just over the bridge, it's a quick left onto Business 84, two lanes that wind up a steep incline and through two weathered imitation Greek columns. The columns I take as an unofficial welcome to and boundary of the city of Natchez. From where I stand, on a splash of gravel alongside the road, the river reflects like quicksilver. The bridge presents an unremarkable Friday afternoon scene, an early summer coming and going of commuters, commercial vehicles and people arriving or leaving for the weekend -- a day like most others in a small town in North America. For me, though, the just-completed crossing is of tremendous consequence: I have gone over a river from familiar places, and into the state of Mississippi.
If you look on a globe, or a good world map, between North and South America and between the Atlantic and the Pacific, you will see the Gulf of Mexico. Then, locating the city of New Orleans at the northern edge of this body of water, you can trace the ninetieth meridian north toward Memphis. The line you trace, between the thirtieth and thirty-fifth parallels, will roughly bisect the twentieth state in the Union, the poorest by most measures, a jurisdiction of eighty-two counties and 47,716 square miles, home to something over two million citizens.
As your finger slides you'll pass place-names like McComb, Poplarville and Natchez, Philadelphia, Clarksdale and Vicksburg, each name searing a scream in the minds and memories of people like me, black Americans. Mississippi can be thought of as one of the most prominent scars on the map of this country. When you trace the ninetieth meridian from New Orleans to Memphis you're fingering a scar, and that's why I arrive in Natchez with some trepidation. I intend to explore that scar.
There is something different about Mississippi, something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest. Of the forty martyrs whose names are inscribed in the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, nineteen were killed in Mississippi. How was it that half who died did so in one state?
I am a black person, a black male, a colored man, a Negro and, sometimes, certainly sometimes in Mississippi, a nigger. For the longest time, when I was young, the fact that I had been assigned those labels didn't much affect me. I grew up in working- and middle-class neighborhoods in midwestern suburbs, where people were, most of the time, polite and, most of the time, kept what prejudices they had to themselves. I was born in 1960, in Aurora, Illinois, and as I came to social awareness it seemed to me that large parts of America's tragic history were finally being overcome. Mississippi was, to me, something we blacks had gotten free of, washed into the past.
I grew up on Rosewood, a street in Aurora that parallels the Fox River, which runs to the Illinois, which runs to the Mississippi. As a kid I often looked at maps of Illinois, of the Midwest, of the Mississippi Basin, or sat on the banks of the Fox watching the river run south. I'd think about Mississippi, the recent family trip down or the one soon to come, and wonder if I could canoe all the way there. I remember the first time I felt palpable fear, the night Martin Luther King was killed. I was seven years old and refused to take out the garbage or go to my room alone. I was terrified of the dark. I knew that Mississippi, and bad things I'd only vaguely heard about it, had something to do with what I was afraid of.
Rosewood, if not exactly a melting pot, was something of a pestle bowl of the lower-middle and working classes. In the late sixties virtually every ethnic subgroup in America lived on that street, one extremely long single block at the bottom of a hill hard by the river: African, Asian, Hispanic, European. They'd all come to Aurora, an industrial town on the edge of a prairie stretching virtually uninterrupted to Denver, to work in the factories or on the railroad that carried the bulldozers and tractors, the office and school equipment, produced there to the wider world. They all hoped for a better life, and many of their hopes came true, as factory workers in that time and place could often make more money than junior executives.
Even amid this prosperity, Rosewood's children regularly had occasion to discuss and imagine somewhere else. The Mexicans talked about Texas; the whites, Kentucky. Puerto Ricans bragged about their island in the sea, while we blacks talked of a place that seemed far more sinister and distant: Mississippi, six hundred miles away, out of sight, yet somehow always in mind. We had a nonsense song we blithely double-Dutched to: "Capital M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-P-P-I!" And we had a silly trick riddle we didn't really know the meaning of: "What got four eyes and can't see?" "Mississippi!"
Sometimes it seemed as if every other time we piled into our old blue Chevy station wagon we were roaring off to Mississippi, sailing down Interstate 55 or 57, headed down south, as we called it, waving and smiling at the other cars with Illinois plates, cars laden with six or seven black folks and as much else as they could carry, all bouncing on the same seventy-mile-an-hour pilgrimage.
Going to Mississippi...where heavy-set aunts waited to smother you with kisses and candy, where cryptic uncles would ignore you all day, muttering darkly about this and that, then suddenly surprise you with attention and a gift, a pocketknife or an invitation to go fishing. Where Big Mama, Mom's grandmother, lived several miles out in the country down an unmarked gravel road that wound past abandoned cemeteries and tin-roofed cabins deep in old-growth pines.
As I became a teenager, I was allowed to choose not to go along on those trips, and Mississippi came to matter less and less. And in college, my only real thought of Mississippi came when my school, Notre Dame, lost a bitterly fought football game to Ole Miss. I had thought, at my mother's urging, of attending the University of Mississippi; but seeing the Confederate hoopla surrounding the Rebels, I was glad I hadn't.
Then in graduate school at Brown University, I met a young woman from Mississippi who contradicted some of my calcifying notions about the state and its relevance to me. Joan was kind, generous, imaginative and, most strangely of all, white. My friendship with her was a more natural fit than my relationships with most of my other classmates, black or white. The ease of her manner and her solicitous warmth reminded me of my mother and aunts, a connection that ran true right down to her verbal constructions and cadences. She'd smile slowly and wisecrack "Boy, you slow as Christmas" or "You right, I got here at night, but not last night." We'd argue about Chekhov and Sartre late into the night, and she gave me the first of what became an annual gift subscription to The New York Review of Books, a publication I had not been familiar with but that became one of my favorites. Mississippi didn't seem so far away, or so strange. And it had a human face I loved.
One night during this time my mother started asking me questions, out of the blue, about William Faulkner. She was taking a night-school course and wanted to write about the Nobel laureate from her hometown, New Albany. Why Faulkner, I asked, of all the writers in the world to care about? Why not Richard Wright, James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston? "We're kin to some Faulkners," she said. I laughed out loud and informed her that this Faulkner was white. My mother smiled and said, "So?"
This growing awareness of the fine gradations of racial complexity in American life, that things weren't as simple as I had made them, nor the surface realities of situations what they seemed to be, all this was underscored by my living in New York City and learning some of the implications that racial history had for me, personally. In New York I experienced directly for the first time the petty, daily indignities that take such a toll of the psyches of American blacks. Ignored by cabbies, locked out of jewelry and electronics stores, rousted by security guards and doormen and, worst of all, routinely loathed y strangers fearful of young black men in public places, I found myself becoming, at times, physically ill.
My parents had moved in my teenage years from Aurora to Batavia, ten miles upriver. There we lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, increasingly oriented our lives toward the solidly respectable western Chicago suburbs and were, at least in my case, mindlessly assimilated. I went wherever I pleased whenever I pleased, dated white girls, had warm friendships with cops. I was dodging, I now realize, what younger African-Americans call the black tax, the tribute to white society that must be paid in self-effacement and swallowed pride. In New York I found myself wondering how I'd missed all this. Had I been dreaming, or too busy crossing over to notice?
My racial basic training wasn't quite complete. For a New York magazine, in the wake of the Yusuf Hawkins murder in 1989, I covered a protest march into the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. For the last two miles of that march, the sidewalks were lined with thousands of jeering whites throwing watermelons, rocks and dirt, spitting and shouting "Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!" while holding guns to their heads. Tens of thousands of Brooklynites were waving red-white-and-blue flags, screaming veterans were dressed in military uniforms, signs and banners, GO BACK TO AFRICA and LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT and AMERICA FOR AMERICANS were hung from buildings. I couldn't help feeling that I'd time-warped back to Montgomery or Selma, but there I was in contemporary New York.
I was beginning to know things about this country that I did not want to know. I was enmeshed, it seemed, because of who I was -- or, more accurately, because of my skin color -- in histories set into motion long before I was born. And I began doubting whether I was, or even wanted to be, an American. But what else, where else, could I possibly be? I certainly wasn't looking toward Africa; I was too contentedly bourgeois for that, and besides, which was my tribe? I didn't belong to anyone there either. Nor could I think of Mississippi as my home -- the word itself calling up so many clashing memories that simultaneously combined and delineated public history and private experience, newsreels and home movies, sometimes with 35-millimeter black-and-white precision, sometimes Super 8 color fuzziness, all of it mixing with what I'd heard from my people and seen for myself. But the more I thought through the issues, the less I could deny it: I was from somewhere. Mississippi was my heritage and background, and if I wanted to decipher the tangle of contradictions and illusions around me, I was first to have to learn to decipher myself.
AS I PREPARED to search for the past and present of Mississippi, something else was on my mind: guilt. I don't know how to describe or define it with precision, a kind of survivor's guilt, guilt at having won some sort of lottery, the simple guilt of one who has looked on from behind the lines and heard secondhand about a war while others struggled and died at the front. But nonetheless it nagged me, and I thought about it more and more.
There is a poem, Sterling A. Brown's "After Winter" that relates the hopes of a sharecropper:
"Butter beans fo' Clara
Sugar corn fo' Grace
An fo' de little feller
The poem also speaks of "Ten acres unplanted / To raise dreams on." As I've grown older, I have realized that I, along with the other privileged young blacks of my generation, was the "little feller," and that we were supposed to be the fulfillment of those dreams. Much had happened, good and bad, since those words were written; some blacks had moved gloriously into the mainstream, while others had led or were leading almost absurdly tragic lives. But coming to grips with this inheritance, shouldering the hopeful burden of so many years, was proving to be a complex and, at times, crippling task for blacks of my generation, and for me.
My father's life, when I looked at it closely, seemed unreal. A better man than I, he'd come from degrading poverty in feudal Mississippi to property and accomplishment in the North. Having been granted few choices by life, he had worked to provide them for his children, to the point where some days it seemed as if my most pressing choice was whether to have espresso or cappuccino after dinner. In the larger, historical sense of Mississippi, this story had been writ large, hundreds of thousands of times. Those blacks who'd come before me had wanted me to be free, and had paid the price. My luxuries of choice and freedom were a gift, freely given, and my current task was not to repay my forebears but to do something meaningful with those options. Perhaps the future could redeem the past. But part of what I had to do was educate myself about what, exactly, had gone before. Then I might know what I could accomplish. So much of American history is about greed and murder; it is also about ambition, hope and sacrifice, in the best sense, words that had created my "runnin' space" Could I find a place in this given space to live? Could I live with it, or up to it? Live simultaneously with and inside of history?
SO I FOUND myself on a loess bluff -- of loose, thin clay -- high above the river in Natchez, watching the water flow south and the cars cross the bridge. Maybe Mississippi could tell me something about all the things running through my mind, about my family, Faulkner, race. Certainly it would tell me something about myself. Since I had indeed lost my way, turned thirty years old and lost my old way of thinking about myself, Mississippi was suddenly my only road map. In Afro-American folklore there is a figure called the tar baby, the thing you grasp in need or greed and then can't get loose of. Mississippi had always been stuck to me; I just hadn't faced up to it. Now I was clasping it willingly, gladly, desperately, in the hope that the place I'd ignored and been ashamed of might tell me something about myself, my country and the life I was going to have to live therein. If I was going to have to live out the fate of being black and American, I felt I needed to know what that meant. And that meant Mississippi.