To claim Mississippi as your home is to accept that you will be constantly mocked by the rest of the country, perhaps even the rest of the world. The state’s reputation as a hateful, ignorant, religious place precedes itself. “Thank God for Mississippi” is not a phrase used to recognize the state’s artists, writers and musicians, or the restaurants, art galleries and museums, or the universities, or the beautiful landscapes. For much of the United States, even neighboring Alabama, Mississippi is the butt of national jokes, a state everyone else can point to and say, “At least we’re not them.”
Mississippi was my home from 2012 to 2014. I moved there to get a Master’s degree in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi—an unlikely choice for a person who grew up outside of London, perhaps, but I was twenty-three and chasing an adventure, hoping to understand a different way of life to the cities I’d always known. William Faulkner is my favorite author and I wanted to experience life in Oxford and to see the place he wrote about. I hoped that getting outside of my comfort zone would change me and my writing for the better.
What awaited me was a wildly complex and conflicted place: Mississippi is riddled with systemic problems and inequality and violence, but it’s also a soft, slow, soulful place full of natural-born storytellers. It is so intensely different to England that I may not have stayed grounded and sane there without the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, who guided me in understanding the nuance of the region. Rather than provide an ivory tower, professors instead encouraged students to get out, meet people and see the South.
Mississippi, and the South in general, are often characterized by stereotypes inside and outside the region. To outsiders, Mississippi is the most backward, racist, bigoted state of America. To Mississippians who love their home, it is the friendliest postage stamp of soil, impressively committed to honoring both its heritage and its football teams. As a TA for intro-level Southern Studies courses, I encountered so many undergraduates who were nettled by the expectation that they should study slavery or Jim Crow or incarceration. Southern Studies at the state’s flagship university, they argued, should be a safe haven for them to be proud of who they are, not another arena of criticism. Granted, they had a different expectation of higher education than I did, but I understood their defensiveness.
My own relationship with Mississippi is complicated. On the one hand, I love Mississippi and so many of the people that live there. When I think of Mississippi, my mind immediately travels back to blues festivals in the Delta, crawfish boils and craft beer in Yalobusha County, sunny days reading Faulkner novels at his historic house, Rowan Oak. I am indebted to the state, and my former department, as a place that taught me to recognize my own privilege, and to understand how important it is to be politically engaged and cognizant of forces of oppression. Just like the natives, I feel defensive of Mississippi and angered by its limited portrayal in the media. There are people who are fighting extremely hard to make changes in the state and to protect the most impoverished, vulnerable citizens, but this is not a narrative which is often shared outside of the state.
On the other hand, I lived through many of the events that hit the headlines, so I can’t deny that Mississippi is a hateful place, too. During my time in Oxford, the university made national headlines for a riot following election night, a performance of “The Laramie Project” which was heckled by football players yelling homophobic slurs, and the recently-prosecuted fraternity prank in which three freshmen hung a noose around the statue of James Meredith, the first black student to attend the university in 1962. Shortly after Governor Bryant signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law in 2014—which protects business owners and students who discriminate against LGBT people on religious grounds—the university invited him to give a commencement address, which was boycotted by many faculty and students. I never saw anything like this at my lefty British university, nor during my fairly diverse, secular, middle-class upbringing outside of London, and it was hard to stomach and make sense of.
I will always be invested in the state’s progress and identity, so I was devastated—though certainly not surprised—by the passing of House Bill 1523. HB 1523, as explained by Sunnivie Brydum for Advocate, is the most anti-LGBT law of the United States, and it will, “allow businesses, individuals, and religiously affiliated organizations to deny service to LGBT people, single mothers, and others who somehow offend an individual’s ‘sincerely held religious belief.’ It also directly targets transgender residents, effectively claiming that one’s sex assigned at birth is immutable, and will be the only gender recognized by the state.” And HB 1523 is far from the only injustice that Mississippians are fighting. This year, Governor Bryant also declared April Confederate Heritage Month with no mention of the history of slavery, and chose not to waive a work mandate that prevents many unemployed Mississippians from qualifying for food stamps.
Mississippi is in trouble, but I think that people like to say, “Thank God for Mississippi” because it means they don’t have to look at problems in their in own backyard. The harder truth is, whatever problems are going on in Mississippi, there is nowhere in the world that is completely free of bigotry and oppression. I now live in North Carolina, considered by many to be the most progressive southern state, where Governor McCrory recently passed the first of these awful anti-LGBT laws (South Carolina, also a place that I’ve lived, looks set to follow). There isn’t a single state that doesn’t have tons of work to do in addressing inequality and discrimination—for starters, look at how many states are voting for Donald Trump. It would be tempting for me to hold up England as more progressive by comparison, but across the pond, the British government has treated disabled people and immigrants with disturbing indifference.
There is no bastion of equality, anywhere in the world, for any of us to retreat to. Even if there was, it does not allow us to point at others and be smug. We all have work to do. We must all vote, we must all raise our voices, we must all listen as well as speak. The people of Mississippi are better than their benighted narrative, and I have faith in them.
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