A South in Sound: A Photo Essay

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

No sound,
here, only land
and blues.

In the Delta, the sky presses down on the land or the land presses up, so much so that they conspire faith in a quiet God.  I had traveled to the South before.  So when a peer started to express his fears as we drove down dark roads in Oxford, Mississippi to attend a musical performance sponsored by a conference on the blues, I reacted to him disdainfully.  What was there to be afraid of?  This was home, even while sitting beside two frat boys and drinking beer out of mason jars when we arrived to listen to blues singer Willie King sing “Terrorized” in a local juke joint. That night as we drove to the Delta, it was darker than I had known dark, and the houses sat on water.  A nearby gas station sold dry ribs within.  The next day, we drove to a locally famous sandwich shop.  Inside, there was a regal-looking woman with rubies on several of her fingers.  I brought her image back to the car with me along with my sandwich and introduced it to my friend: “She could have been my grandmother.”  More than the facial features (and they were similar), it was the space around her that spoke of calm and hinted that she had to be held from afar and delicately.  Idiosyncrasies abound like stars in a bluesy galaxy.  In Itta Bena, Mississippi, right outside of Greenwood, or Greenwood right outside of it, older black men sit in trucks or on benches in a downtown with a clinic, an auto shop and an on-again-off-again barbecue spot.  Then there is Greenwood, and I think about SNCC and Bob Moses.  The town still carries the quiet and the smothered fury of that past time, of Moses, in its smell.  You drive a bit and come to Money Road—there, Robert Johnson’s reputed gravesite beside a small church, and farther down, the purposefully dilapidated store where Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman.  So many blues sites, so many sites central to a violent racial history, and it’s no wonder that this —the blues and civil rights—is what the state seems to be selling lately.  I had to pass the “Welcome to Mississippi:  Birthplace of America’s Music” sign upon entering.  Yet, the commemoration of the Emmett Till plaque on the Sumner courthouse front yard was not well attended by “whites” in the area.  There are places I’m told not to visit in Greenwood; it is speculated that a black man was recently hanged behind the local Walmart, and a local doctor was accused in a murder-for-hire scheme, allegedly hiring two black youngsters to kill a local attorney.  Beside markers, the architecture of neighborhoods like Glendora that resembles South American shantytowns.  What is happening in Mississippi?  Visiting up North again, I tell a stranger, I’ve moved to Mississippi, and her face changes.  But is this place any different from any other in this country?  I’m an outsider here, but I sense that there is still a dangerous gyration in the South.  I’m an insider here, and I sense that there is still a dangerous gyration in these United States.  While journeying to the local book store, I watch the three older white men daily standing at the courthouse front in Greenwood endorsing the continued flying of the Confederate flag.  I stare and let the car drive itself.  I hear about frat parties at the refurbished shacks sold as a tourist attraction.  There are so many stories in this place, not only about Robert Johnson being poisoned by jealousy.  In the “here” of the Delta, amid the rich soil, from a local poet, I listen to, “It’s true if you hear it.”


Shacks turned into tourism
along the road where blues is buried,
where Emmett whistled. 

“Tenant homes, day laborers,”
language changes:
shacks where God no longer lives at dusk.

But I can’t even find a place to keep my head.  Attempting to find a residence in Greenwood, I first hear about the “Flats” from a local resident who explains that his daughter and her friends throw weekend parties there to experience the “shack life.”  I don’t understand what he is explaining, and I ask, “They throw parties there?”  “Yes,” is what I receive, and a later (clean) explanation from a visitor site:  the shacks provide a glimpse of living history.  Their existence explained as tourism, archaeology, historical preservation, cultural preservation, public history, monument to collective memory, material culture—but how to explain refurbished shacks to great-sons and great-daughters of those sharecroppers? Did they ask them?  Did they even ask the sharecroppers by thinking about the lives they lived?  How did they enter that past in order to re-build and re-furbish and re-move shacks (or tenant homes) for us to visit?  With the simple markers and mere land, do we imagine the workers tilling the fields?  The dotted shacks, not as tourism, but as lived-in places?


Colonialism:  the trees are innocent, the bottles placed on the branches, maybe not so.
Across the highway, cotton.  Blues know not to come.
Architecture not consulted.


Yellow and shadow
thick leaves and cotton
waited to be seated.


Nostalgia: slip black cotton pickers in between
good treatment of the mules:
hem and hawing.

Towards Clarksdale, near the Tallahatchie County Penitentiary, cotton is spread across the flat land like a second sky.  Underneath my thoughts of back-breaking work of people who had to look at the rows daily, comes a sense of beauty.  The shadow of whiteness, the crisp against the brambles—its constancy and consistency.  There’s nothing like it.   Near it now are the high tech-machines that work the land.  Huge machine bodies have replaced the human bodies, and money is still made and not shared among the descendants of those who formerly did the work.  This is cotton country.  There’s almost a soul lingering in the cotton, perfuse and pervading, spreading like breath over the ground.  Seeing it causes conflicting feelings—the toil, the incredible profit now—a simple crop, a smoky flower.  But near the technologically advanced equipment, near the refurbished shacks rented out, the past and present meet.


Quiet colored church
you know of the shout
and the welt in between.

I tell my students to write an argumentative essay related to a place.  Ismael writes about whether or not Robert Johnson sold himself to the Devil at the crossroads.  I respond on his paper, “This is not an appropriate topic.”  He writes it anyway.  At the festival in Baptist Town, an older man sings along with the blues about a woman being the downfall of man.  Among the corners where Robert sneaked from the plantations to play and hearing of him using brown paper bags to write his lyrics—the same brown paper bags the white store owner used to prevent himself from exchanging touches with a black man—the older man tells me that a woman poisoned the blues man.  I tell him, “They say it was a man” as local filming goes on of another man sticking out his tongue at us and licking the air. 

Overgrowth of trees,
overgrowth whistling
of a boy.

The building rotting away, flowers made of markers telling of the store, of the boy in Money, Mississippi.  His body taken to different places, he is killed many ways, many times.  Signs have been destroyed; they want the memory gone.  My companion tells me we have to leave soon; soon it will be dark, and no one else is around. 


There are two signs in Glendora, Mississippi, “State Maintenance Ends,”
You don’ know these blues—a moan deep in the cunt, yes, bridges have cunts,
leaving, “State Maintenance Begins.”

Death eats.
But they tell me we can live a full life.
What about a sweet smiling boy? 

We pass young ones like him; they wave, especially the one in a wheel-chair.  I don’t know their stories.  But I know the story.  Out of the car now, we walk to the bridge that leads from a clean church, down a woody path, to crowded trees on the other side.  The water is batter below—brown and browner.  I look for the brown underneath.  On the drive back, I stop to ask the young boys, “Who attends the church nearby, Where were its members during a killing?”  But they have lighter fluid.  We’re now driving to the barn house near the cotton gin that’s become a museum.  I remember a beauty salon in a shotgun house, a building with no name on it, but fronted by a community of men, women, children.  They wave listlessly. 

In Midnight, a woman sleeps in a lounge chair inside a mini mart.
In some places, houses sit on water, wed listen and tender as a stooped man’s laugh.
All that beauty.

In Louise, boys boast with their naked chests beside an empty snow cone truck.
I imagine the taste mora.
Where will all that beauty go?

What if this was theirs—the boys who nod, who always show some nakedness, making the jewelry they wear more pronounced?  One of them who could be an owner of his own land in Belzonia drives me in his old pick-up truck from church to the piece he hopes to buy one day and do something with.  Corn?  Catfish?  Homes?  I ask him what he does for fun.  He drives me to the sound of water.  He fishes.  He hunts with his father, and his father, and sometimes his aunt.  He fishes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017