Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Explaining Mississippi

It was singularly arduous to explain Mississippi, not merely to a sojourner but indeed to ourselves, for the simple reason that much of it is so tacit and elusive, and stubborn and mysterious. “We all love Mississippi,” the historian said that evening, “but sometimes she does not love us back.” He was suggesting, rightly I believe, that she is a most difficult and capricious mistress.

Her poet and chronicler William Faulkner said, “to understand the world, you have to understand a place like Mississippi.” At the juncture of the new millennium, contrasts and contradictions still abound in our society as never before. We call it “the Hospitality State,” but it is best known nationally for its racism, poverty, and mistrust of outsiders. It is at or near the extremes on most social and economic scales, from infant mortality and teenage pregnancy to support for education and per capita income. No less a neutral eminence than the Encyclopedia Britannica puts this in stark terms which leap from the page and cannot be easily ignored:

Education, health, welfare, and other measurements of the quality of life in Mississippi necessarily must be considered in the perspective of the state’s long history of segregation and racial discrimination. The high infant mortality and illiteracy rates, low educational achievement scores, and welfare dependency are linked to a century of poverty, injustice, discrimination, and the development of the state’s natural and human resources.

Eudora Welty, who took her memorable photographs while traveling Mississippi as an employee with the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, remembers: “The Depression was not a noticeable phenomenon in the poorest state in the Union.”

A place whose people are often obsessed with the past, Mississippi is considered by many Americans to be regressive, even uncivilized, with an unyielding white majority, smaller than it was but still in control, which apparently does not care for meaningful economic and human improvement that might move it up from the bottom and continues to elect people who keep it that way.

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