You are in Mississippi Now

There are four of us, none older than 18, sitting around a small table sipping what seems to us an exotic tea drink in a Greenwich Village coffee house. We have come here on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1964 in search of the Greenwich Village experience. Mostly what we know about the village we learned on Hootenanny and other television shows. We picked a place out of the newspaper without much thought, but we have gotten very lucky. We have found one of the major places where folk music is flourishing, the Gaslight Café on McDougal Street. It’s about half-way through the evening and we don’t know that yet. We have watched three pleasant folk acts and are enjoying ourselves, thinking perhaps that this is how the rest of the evening will go. That will be all right with us. We have gotten what we came for, but we are about to get far more than we imagined was possible.

In a few minutes Phil Ochs will take the stage. Ochs is a topical singer.  He writes songs based on the stories we read in the newspaper about Cuba, Vietnam and, most importantly for me on this night, about race relations in the South. He mixes in some traditional poems and older songs he has adapted to balance the program, but as his first album declares in its title, it’s mostly All the News that’s Fit to Sing. He devotes two songs to Mississippi, where I had spent a few days the previous summer.  The first, “Too Many Martyrs,” is a song of mourning for fallen heroes Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.  The verses are as prosaic as the news, but Ochs wrenches some poetry out of the chorus:

Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies, too many empty words were said.
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh, let it never be again.

The second song, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” is angry, probably the angriest most outspoken song I have ever heard. It slaps me in the face and I don’t miss a word. I don’t know very much about world affairs yet, but I have a developing understanding of race relations in the South. The song devotes verses to the government, the people, the schools, the police, the courts, the laws and the churches, each connected to the whole by the repetition of a simple chorus.

Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of

I had gone to Mississippi a few months before to visit with two boys from Ole Miss who had been my roommates that summer while we were selling books door to door. Bill and John came from  two small towns in Holmes County, a few miles north of Canton, where much civil rights organizing was occurring. My visit came during the Democratic  National Convention, and much attention was focused on the attempt of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in place of the all-white delegation of the state party.  The atmosphere in Mississippi was very charged. Still, my friends’ families were relaxed and kind to me.

On the second day, I had dinner at John’s house. His mother was a lovely woman who lived in a gracious house that stood on a steep hill outside their little town. Her husband was dead, but her other son farmed their land. Dinner was going well when my friend John, an actor by nature, started a story from his book-selling experiences. It involved a black family, but it was a story about selling, not a story about race. In telling the tale, John improvised the dialogue with the customer whom he referred to as Mrs. Jones. About halfway through the story, his mother stopped him. “John,” she said, “you don’t have to call her Mrs. Jones, you are in Mississippi now.”  It was one of those awful Southern moments that just appear out of nowhere to leave a long scar in its wake.  I had seen this happen many times since I was a child, but none stunned me as much as “You are in Mississippi now.”

I was ready for Phil Ochs. On the morning after we heard him, I bought his first album, and by Christmas, I had a Bob Dylan album. By the end of February, I had all four of Dylan’s albums. After that I bought them one at a time when they were released.  I also listened to many folk singers in a short period of time: Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk,  Eric Anderson, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Odetta, and many others. Many of these singers did songs about the civil rights movement.

Nearly all of the folk singers were white, and I didn’t know enough about black music to hear the cry of freedom in rhythm and blues.  In my senior year, I had my first close black friend, Gil Glover, one of the first of seven blacks to attend my college. Gil enlarged my world in many ways including introducing me to Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and Gil Scott-Heron. Nina Simone sang some great songs about the civil rights struggle, but because she came from the jazz tradition, her work was not as widely known as it should have been. One of her songs was devoted to Mississippi and was written about the same time as Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” It’s a simple song.

She introduces it like this:

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it.

And the song ends like this:

Everybody knows about Mississippi.
Everybody knows about Alabama.
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.

For me, the 1960s began on the night before Thanksgiving in 1964 in the Gaslight Café when I heard Phil Ochs and found some songs with legs strong enough to stand on, songs that finally taught me that the answer to “You’re in Mississippi now” was “Mississippi Goddam.” The decade ended in early 1971, when I was living in Albany, New York. There at a screening of a film, I heard for the first time Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free.”

Well I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky.
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly.
Oh I’d soar to the sun
And look down at the sea.
Then I’d sing ’cause I’d know.
I’d know how it feels,
I’d know how it feels to be free.

I realized that day the song described not only the plight of a black person in the South, but, in a different way, my own plight there in New York. I had run almost a thousand miles away to be free of my home and of the South only to discover that running away just showed me a longing I did not know I had. The South was for me a place like the Tobacco Road  of John D. Loudermilk’s song, a place I hated for all its many sins but loved because it was where I came from. I have spent most of my life bouncing back and forth between the South and points East, North and West trying to make peace with these conflicting impulses:  “Tobacco Road, I hate you ‘cause you’re filthy, but I love you ‘cause you’re home.”

21 thoughts on “You are in Mississippi Now

  1. Excellent. Reminds me of an experience my mother had (we all had) while living in Mississippi. We lived on an airforce base in Greenville, This would have been late 1957. I was hospitalized for almost 2 months with kidney failure (I had my second birthday in the hospital). My physician was black and my mother adored him. He was the first black man my mother had gotten to know well. But she told me of an experience where she was driving with a new friend and suggested they stop and visit a black woman she’d met, and the friend said “We don’t call them ‘women.’ My mom told me this story when I was a young teenager, about how shocked and sickened she was by the comment. It should be noted that she’d been raised in a church (Mormon) that is infamous for its institutionalized bigotry and while she was thrilled when things progressed in her church, we were all still part of that bigotry.

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    • Lynne, my mother married a man from Greenville and he was one of the worst racist I ever met. I was ashamed to be around him. I don’t think any white person in this culture can claim to be totally non-racist. I mean the culture of racism is so insidious that it just taints us in ways we are unaware. The thing about the South is that we have made improvement yes, but we have also become more subtle racists. The agenda is there it just wears different clothes and is one reason we aren’t more concerned about the poverty and backwardness that is still so prominent in the South. As you will recall, I didn’t think SLC was a great place to raise children, actually more because of its lack of diversity than because of the dominance of the church.

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      • Yes you were very vocal about how you felt about children being raised in Salt Lake City. Reading these posts that reveal your own extreme conflict and shame about where you grew up helps me understand your vitriol about Salt Lake. Interestingly my sons first School principal was a black woman, so I was happy that his most profound experience in diversity was both a black person and a woman. That is not common of course. My children have been lucky in their experiences and friendships.My daughter was recently the president of a young women’s group in her church that was almost entirely made up of Somalian refugees.I completely agree that everyone is a racist, and one of the challenges my children and I always put to ourselves is to look at the way in which that inadvertently expresses itself in our lives or our views or our actions. The most powerful influence against racism is family and friendscommitted to doing what we can for all of the disenfranchised in our own neighborhoods and in the world.

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      • One of the things that comes out about me in all these comments from all these different periods was that I rarely kept my mouth shut about what I thought. I have to laugh, because otherwise I would shrivel up in embarrassment.

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  2. “I have spent most of my life bouncing back and forth between the South and points East, North and West trying to make peace with these conflicting impulses: ‘Tobacco Road, I hate you ‘cause you’re filthy, but I love you ‘cause you’re home.’ ” Me too, David.

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    • There are probably a lot of us. You know, Edison, when I was in graduate school, I took more courses in Southern History and Culture and then wrote a dissertation on the new journalism and the “nonfiction novel.” Go figure.

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  3. When does the book come out? Another good one from Professor Eason. To your comment about my living in Alabama: my experiences with racism in Alabama occurred overtly where I worked and, of course, visually around me–giant plantation-type homes with shanties of impoverished families tucked in between. It’s ironic that I now live where I live where we are rated the most racist in America, because at the time the culture shock of segregation in the south was so strong, it was the single most compelling reason I went home. I was invited to the birthday party of a girl I had befriended who worked in the kitchen, where all the black people were tucked away, and I was warned not to go into the neighborhood by my white friends, so I didn’t go. I still regret it. But during that time (77), my focus was on women’s rights more than civil rights, though discussion about the civil rights movement very much took a front seat in my home while growing up. Your opening reminded me of a time I traveled back from Alabama to Wisconsin for just a few days and stayed in Louisville Kentucky at a friend’s home. That night we went out to a little bar in Louisville called, I think, The Back Door, it was a hole in the wall jazz place located down an alleyway. We walked in and Joe Pass was sitting on a stool in the middle of the room playing the guitar like it was open mic night. Didn’t have the political or literary quality to it, still, quite an experience for a sheltered Midwestern 20 year old girl (I turned 21 the next day). Regarding this line: “Tobacco Road, I hate you ‘cause you’re filthy, but I love you ‘cause you’re home,” I just wrote in an essay that’s being published next month about my experience confronting my own racism through Smoody, that his summation of life on the street could be summed up as: ‘I don’t like it but it sure feels like home.’ You told the “You’re in Mississippi Now” story in another blog, and I wondered then and now, what would she have put in place of “Mrs. Jones.” The N-word? My father in law was not in his mind a racist, had a very good black friend who traveled up the Mississippi River every summer to fish near my ex’s home. Yet, when a black child came to my door in Chicago on Halloween night, he yelled to me, in front of the kid, “Pat, there’s a little n***er boy at the door.” When we talked to him about the use of that word, he was dumbfounded that it had a derogatory meaning. I was dumbfounded, too. Nice piece. I hope you develop these stories and have them published. But then, every time I tell a story of any kind, my mother says, you should write an article about that. So I’ll leave you alone about it.

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  4. I was raised in that same West Tennessee world but my mother did not allow prejudice. She was quite serious in explaining to us that we were no better than anyone based on race, religion, etc . So when I was in the 9th grade and the three black children were enrolled in our school (David, Gil was one of them) it wasn’t the 3 children that frightened my parents but all the commotion surrounding the event-lockdown, police , national guard and lots of press. It looked they were expecting trouble and no parent wants their children in that environment. Only one of the three went on the finish with us.
    As I grew older and I met people raised in other areas of the country I learned this was not just a southern thing. How surprised I was to hear that not only did they mistrust and dislike people because of race but religion and nationality. I guess most people need someone on the lower wrung of the ladder. Obviously they have not met my mother.

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  5. Gil is a minister in Florida now. When I was younger and living in Northern New York, my accent was very pronounced. It seemed to me that all the racists in the city sought me out because they thought they would find someone sympathetic to their beliefs. It was a dreadful experience. Was that at Tigrett, Judi? I know Gil was the first black student at Tigrett. His mother, you know, was a teacher. I posted the blog on his facebook but it may be months before he sees it. My mother is the source of many hurtful stories in my life, but I have always been proud of her for what she taught me about race. Thanks for responding.

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  6. One thing I like about your essay is how unexpected, and how inevitable, was your inner experience upon seeing and hearing Phil Ochs. There’s a mystery in that, as if you’d lived your entire life until then for just that moment, and yet it might have (probably would have?) happened in a more gradual way. You probably know this, but Ochs later rewrote that song as “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” at least I have a live version on one of his compilations. Anyway, wasn’t as powerful.

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  7. You named the feeling very well and that is how I felt. It was very important for my friend Rebecca Jordan as well, the other two people less so. I think I was looking for alternatives for how to be and the South didn’t afford a very wide typology. I didn’t get it all straightened out in one night but it was a lightbulb going off. I can’t say it better than you have really.

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  8. What I especially like about your latest essay, to borrow some words from Mark Lucius, is how unexpectedly, yet inevitably, you reach your point about racism in Alabama. I love the lack of polemics in your writing (something I seem unable to avoid), concentrating always on the human experience.

    I was completely oblivious to your “southern” experience while at the Times. I always experienced your “accent” as part of your personality, which seemed to me to have no spiky surfaces or sharp edges, nothing that wanted to hurt or necessarily assert itself. I don’t mean you didn’t have opinions or strong feelings, only that you didn’t have that anger that so propelled me at the time. And still does . . . thus my polemical bent.

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  9. Well, I had southern experiences in Watertown. Cyndie hounded me unmercifully about my accent. And one of those old Times writers had the nerve to come up to me and say. “I like Southern guys. You really know how to handle those (fill in the blank).” Back them it seemed like people either thought my accent was country or identified with me for all the wrong reasons. You always write with a lot of wisdom and I look forward to your comments.

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  10. Your latest entry reminds me of an experience I had in Tallahassee, FL, while attending Florida State U. I’m pretty sure I’ve told you this before, but it seems appropriate to mention here.

    When my wife and I occasionally went out for a night of entertainment or partying, we had to find a babysitter for our 3-yr-old, Bill. At one point, we’d found a reliable sitter from the other side of town, a young black woman who, I think, was attending Florida A&M, then an all-black university. I still remember, with both shame and embarrassment, the first time I opened the front passenger door for her to return her to her apartment after the sitting job. . . and she declined, saying “I’ll sit in back.” It was the longest, most silent, drive I’ve ever taken.

    I don’t remember what we paid her. It couldn’t have been nearly enough.

    I wondered then, as I do now, if she was making a point about our relative positions in society, which is how I interpreted it at the time, or a more chilling point–about the danger of sitting too close to a white guy who’d been drinking and might therefore try to take advantage of her. This was nothing like Driving Miss Daisy, with role reversals.

    If I had had the courage, I might have talked to my only black friend and classmate, Charles, about my experience, but our friendship was exploratory and likely tentative. It may seem odd, or maybe not but, we never talked about race, nor did other classmates we studied with. This friendship thing was new, exploratory, tentative, and–as the ancient mariners used to say–There be dragons!

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  11. Nice piece. Putting your blog posts together, one gets a nice autoethnographic look into your coming of age at such a critical time in our country’s history.

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