At Time, award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward describes moving from the Bay Area back to her native Mississippi. Mississippi is humid and hot. It’s notorious for its slavery past and racist present. The state’s very name conjures images of burning crosses and lynching. Mississippi, Ward writes, is the place “where a black family in my neighborhood tries to buy a piece of property on the DeLisle Bayou and the white people who own property in the area do everything they can to block the purchase.” It’s also the place where her family has lived for generations, where they find joy and light, and where supportive allies reveal “what it means to be bound together in this place.” Ward’s essay is a poetic, compact, stirring examination of life across generations, a portrait of a entire nation fit onto a few pages.
I want to run away, at moments like that, to someplace where there is no humidity, where the light is golden over the hills and the specter of all that we have survived and died by is not present in every flag, every street name, every monument, every vote. I fantasize about living in that fabled America. And then I remember that one cannot escape an infinite room. Moving across a few state lines is not going to help me escape this place that tells me I am less. The racist, misogynistic sentiment I encounter every day in Mississippi is the same belief that put in place the economic and social caste systems that allowed America to become America. It is the bedrock beneath the soil. Racial violence and subjugation happen on the streets of St. Louis, on the sidewalks of New York City and in the BART stations of Oakland.
I breathe. I remain. I remember that Mississippi is not only its ugliness, its treachery, its willful ignorance. It is also my nephew, hurling his body down a waterslide, rocketing to the bottom, joy running from shoulder to heel. It is my godmother boiling pots and pots of shrimp and pouring them into a children’s pool so we can eat the delicious spicy mess at our family gathering on the Fourth of July. It is my youngest sister smiling and dancing to Al Green in my godmother’s driveway while the night enfolds like a hand and the insects hiss with summer’s sibilant kiss. It is riding to a convenience store with my childhood friends with the windows down and the night wind caressing me on my cheekbones, UGK booming from the speakers in answer to the blooming Mississippi night. It is sitting on the porch with my 78-year-old grandmother, my children sandwiched between us on the swing, making idle talk and watching hummingbirds zip through the air beyond her screen as she tells us stories. Flush with joy.