This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 03, which highlights the unexpected artists moving culture forward today.
For our third installment of Coded, in which we seek to “decode” the off-the-beaten-path ZIP codes changing culture today, we went to a place that’s not often in the headlines these days: the Mississippi Delta. Set between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers—with highway crossroads of mythical proportions, if you believe the legend that the blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for masterful guitar licks—this region is at the nexus of old and new America. As we found on our recent trip, going to an area with palpable contradictions helped us reflect on the enigma of modern society.
Issue 03 • 2017 Get Issue 03
The Delta Blues…and Reds
It’s a weird time to be doing research. Nothing is ever going to trump the Trump story. As every news organization chases the same stories, attempting to make sense of “alternative facts,” we admittedly went slightly off the rails—or at least off the beaten path. That’s how we ended up, well past midnight, dancing with abandon in a red–lit shack with a ramshackle roof that looked as if it might cave in at any moment and that, frankly, smelled putrid. It was cash only, there was no potable water, and don’t get us started on the bathroom. This was Red’s Blues Club, a juke joint just outside the mostly abandoned downtown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town of some 20,000 that skirts the banks of the Mississippi River. Clarksdale is 80 percent black but, in Red’s, mixed company boogied together to a live blues band as the owner, Red Paden, poured Bud Light into plastic cups, as he has for more than 40 years.
Remarkably, Red’s was a hot tip from a Brooklyn-based serial entrepreneur and high-end food blogger. He’d been filling us in on his world travels, and when we asked him about his most memorable recent trip, the answer surprised us: “Mississippi!” We knew we had to go—and we knew that this wouldn’t be the same as decoding Silicon Valley, our last Coded feature.
It’s impossible to talk about the Mississippi Delta without confronting the racial turmoil of its past. Following emancipation, in 1863, black sharecroppers and tenant farmers continued to work plantation land while living in desperate poverty. These hardships were the genesis of one of America’s most celebrated musical legacies: Delta blues. The area played a central role in the civil rights movement, as citizens fought—and continue to fight—for equal rights. Today, the Mississippi Delta is still one of the most impoverished regions in the United States.
Yet for all of its dark past, this is the part of the road trip where we were able to slow down, reflect, and start to unpack American culture. Driving in from Memphis, the sunset turned cotton fields to deep lavender. Farmland ran as far as the eye could see; it seemed likely that this region has more catfish than people. It had a spooky vibe, like a place forgotten by the momentum of industrialization. But once we stopped for a while, the most obvious clichés fell away.
The Mississippi Delta region is infused with a juxtaposition of old and new. On the one hand, communities exist as they did decades ago: Stories, relationships—and even barbecue rivalries—run generations deep. In Clarksdale, Red’s hosts local musicians and local gossip every night of the week—except Sunday; Sunday is for church. In Water Valley, a town of just over 3,000, the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery is the social anchor of a humble downtown. And life in Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi, still centers around the football calendar.
On the other hand, modern culture is undeniably encroaching on this region. Red’s now competes with a “commercial” juke joint, Ground Zero Blues Club, funded by the actor and Mississippi resident Morgan Freeman, which delivers the grit and graffiti of an old-school joint but with high ceilings, a full-service kitchen, and clean bathrooms (it even accepts American Express!). B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery serves kombucha and a vegan wrap called the Hippie Trucker, prepared by gay and trans chefs. And the University of Mississippi has been on the front lines of reconsidering the heritage of the Old South, doing away in recent years with the Confederate flag, its Colonel Reb plantation owner mascot, and the “Dixie” anthem at football games. Even its nickname, Ole Miss, a reference to a slavery-era colloquialism for plantation owners’ wives, is now on the chopping block. There’s an undeniable rawness as a place that seems so stuck in the 1950s—aesthetically, culturally, and politically—is confronting cultural change. We set out to discover what we could learn from the region—old and new, black and white, liberals and conservatives.
At the University of Mississippi, segregation is still very much a reality, at least in the school’s celebrated Greek system. While not enforced by any university rule, historically white sororities and fraternities literally sit atop a hill that overlooks the black Greek houses below. It shocked us that 63 years after Brown v. Board of Education, segregation was still alive and well in a university environment, and yet many students we spoke with felt otherwise.
Jason, a junior who belongs to a historically black fraternity, told us: “It comes down to preference. You want to be around what you know, what you’re familiar with, what you’re comfortable with.” But that’s starting to change. Jason says that one white student joined his organization. There’s a white girl in Zeta. Asians have pledged Phi Beta Sigma. And in 2014, the first black female was inducted into Kappa Delta, one of the top traditionally white sororities on campus.
While the media depicts Americans as increasingly running to their corners—reading news via filter bubbles and having conversations in echo chambers—the sentiment in the small-town South is that there’s more intermingling than ever. People in urban centers have the luxury of sticking with their like-minded “tribes,” but in small towns people from various aspects of society and culture are thrown together. There’s an intersection of young people, old people, and various races and socioeconomic classes, all seeing one another’s differences and having no choice but to mix. What was once a traditionally segregated area actually has a high level of intimacy in dealing with racial differences.
In Water Valley, The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery is an example of a small-town point of intersection. The store is owned by two women, Dixie Grimes and Alexe van Beuren. Chef Grimes is an out-and-proud lesbian who recently married her partner, despite a discrimination bill passed by the state government. She also runs an all-female kitchen—not on purpose, it’s just the way it went. Despite the town’s conservatism, she wears her personal and political values on her sleeve. “It’s very Southern to talk around the actual issue and not acknowledge the elephant in the room. I’ve got a gay pride flag on my line back there. I don’t give customers options,” she tells us. “They know if they want to engage me in that conversation then I’m absolutely happy to have a civil conversation, but they do not want to hear what I have to say.”
Not to say that bipartisan conversations don’t happen in Water Valley. A regular whom Grimes describes as a “Fox News–watching person” congratulated her on getting married. “If I can do anything to change any part of that old-school thinking, then it’s worth it. Baby steps,” Grimes says. And then there was the time that an older white man used the wrong gender pronoun with the trans cook and felt horrible, telling van Beuren: “I didn’t mean to. I’m adjusting to all of this. It’s a different world we’re living in.” Times are certainly a-changin’ in small-town America when the good ol’ boys concern themselves with gender pronouns. Van Beuren says that it’s this kind of cross-cultural interaction that drew her to Water Valley from the Northeast, where, in her words, everyone’s the same. “There’s a freedom in small towns that gets overlooked,” she says. “Dixie can’t only have gay friends, and I can’t only have Subaru-driving liberals as my friends. My kids can’t only have white friends…We’re actively engaged here.”
There’s no denying that the Mississippi Delta is a place of con-tradictions. It’s racially segregated yet oddly integrated. It’s a place where people don’t always vote in their neighbors’ best interest, yet they always say good morning to one another. Good ol’ boys mix with trans people. It’s a tough place to make a living, yet the land is as fertile as it comes. According to poll maps, red voters are separated from blue voters by a crooked meandering line that runs right down the center of the state, like a crack. A region that initially felt like a ’50s throwback soon revealed itself to be a facsimile of the rest of the country. And the intersection of U.S. Routes 61 and 49—the very crossroads that inspired Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”—has taken on the weight of being a cultural crossroads of far greater magnitude.
After all, the entire country has reached peak divisiveness: 84% of millennials and Gen Zs agree racial tensions are at an all-time high in America, and 66% report they have been personally discriminated against for their race, sexual orientation, gender, or religion. Income inequality is at its highest since 1928, according to the Pew Research Center. Our first viable female presidential candidate ran against the first candidate to boast about sexual assault in the primaries. The successor to our first black president appointed Steve Bannon, an alleged white supremacist, as his chief strategist. The Black Lives Matter movement is going global, while the alt-right publication, Breitbart News gains legitimacy, at least in some circles. Let’s just say that the Mississippi Delta felt eerily relevant at a time when the country is stretched thin between two opposing sides and racial tensions are fraught.
At the same time, the Delta is a place where reflection and conversation about our differences are actually happening. Coastal cities—with their Ivy Leagues and intellectual rigor—are the blandest places to have deep political debate, since it so often entails preaching to the choir. That’s just one of the things that the recent U.S. presidential election proved: We’re not talking to one another. At a time when citizens occupy opposing ends of the ideological spectrum, the Mississippi Delta is an extraordinary example of a place where a wide variety of people intersect and interact.
“Truth seeking” tops millennials’ and Gen Zs’ lists of words that describe them best.
The Long Cut
One of the profound things about this stretch of country is just how secluded it is. After driving for hours and watching highways turn into country roads and then into gravel paths, it felt like the end of the line. A GPS doesn’t do much for you here; as locals have been known to say, “This place has to find you.” In the last issue of Humanly, we wrote about how Generation Z is on the verge of digital burnout and seeking ways to rediscover what our embrace of digital made us lose along the way—all things finite, tangible, unplanned, and in the moment (see Real World, Humanly Issue 2). This sentiment has only increased since our last issue, with 68% of millennials and Gen Zs reporting that they’d erase their entire digital footprint if they could—up from 52% last year. The Delta embodies an undoing of the digital webs we weave. Even if you can get a cell-phone signal, there’s little that feels more pressing than sweet tea on the stoop or watching another day’s transformative sunset.
As a local told us, there are no shortcuts on the Mississippi. It’s a place where time stretches in all directions, and there’s a lot of land between destinations. There’s no other way to conduct research in these parts then to make the trip—one that seems to take you back in time. It’s not an easy place to get to know, and you won’t likely get it unless you slow down, spend time, dig in, and listen—and, we mean, really receive—the stories. We couldn’t help but see a greater parallel: As our culture has sped up, it’s become harder for us to hear one another. These days, everyone’s in such a hurry to get to the answer, fix things, and move on. If the Delta taught us anything, it’s the value of sitting back and reflecting on the nuances without jumping right to a solution. This slow approach delivered us to our best meal of the trip: a barbecue spot we found, not after weeks of trip planning, but from good old-fashioned word of mouth (you won’t even find it on Yelp!).
In fact, leisurely, deliberate reflection couldn’t be better suited to the state of the world today. We live in wildly disorienting times. No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, the state of the country is unsettling—and no one can predict what will happen next. Businesses are stalling on signing off on projects as they wait for clarity. Doomsday prepping has evolved from a radical niche to a mainstream hobby, embraced by even the liberal elite, in case a backup plan becomes necessary; 71% of 13- to- 39-year-olds say they’ve done it. Whether by choice or circumstance, we as a nation are being forced to slow down and take the “long cut.”
82% of millennials and Gen Zs agree: “More than anything, I just need to slow down right now and reflect upon myself, my views, and the world.”
DEVIL ON OUR SHOULDER
Back in Clarksdale, we spent the night in the most highly reviewed hotel in the area: The Shack Up Inn, former sharecropper shacks transformed into kitschy guesthouses. The New York Times noted that while the first impression of the hotel feels “like a form of exploitation,” the silence and breeze wafting from the fields through the rickety shacks are actually quite a profound way to experience the Delta.
And while we thought we were somehow above the ethical controversies with which the country is grappling, we found ourselves confronted with our own moment of reflection. After pulling over to the side of the road and taking selfies in a cotton field to pump up our social-media profiles, we were forced to admit to our own contradictions—and embrace a bit of well-deserved white guilt. We consider ourselves woke, yet we barely scratch the surface of activism. We say we’re liberal yet struggle to be open-minded. We study socioeconomic culture for a living yet paid to sleep in sharecroppers’ shacks, for goodness sake!
In a place where the land holds the weight of iconic atrocities—from Native American genocide to slavery to the entrenched inequities of today—it’s hard not to eventually face your darkest self. In our effort to decode this place, we’ve been asking ourselves: Is the Mississippi Delta therapy? Is it a mirror of society? Is it an odyssey into the darkest core of our country? What we know, for sure, is that the Delta is a place of reckoning. It’s a place to come to terms with a difficult past, confront a tough present, and—if you take it from Red, Dixie, or Jason—engage in building a more inclusive future. By the time we pulled back onto the highway, aiming our rental van toward Memphis, we felt we’d finally come to understand just why Robert Johnson would sell his soul to the devil in exchange for music that is beautiful, true, and right. After all, wouldn’t you?
Decoding the Cultural Crossroads
Culture is increasingly placing us all in our separate bubbles: 86% of millennials and Zs agree, “America’s not talking to one another.” Here’s what we learned from the Delta about crossing cultural divides.
Red vs. Blue: Political differences aren’t a state-to-state thing; they are neighbor to neighbor. There’s a power to crossing the political line and breaking down stereotypes, and it starts with popping your head over your own fence. After all, if Southern good ol’ boys can be sensitive to gender pronouns, coastal liberals, too, can listen to what the other side has to say.
Black vs. White: While big cities have the most diversity, small towns are permeated by intimacy. The integration of the Delta feels, in many ways, more progressive than urban areas, where people won’t even make eye contact.
Slow vs. Fast: As reported in The Real World (see Humanly, Issue 2), people are looking for ways to untangle from the web of digital—and the Delta forces you to do just that. While it’s unlikely we’ll ditch e-mail, social media, and all-things-d, finding places where there’s no option but to slow down, take the long cut, and reflect is this generation’s therapy.
Practical vs. Mystical: The Delta mixes very real social and economic practicalities with mythic tales, like that of someone selling his soul to the devil. The two can coexist and even create a multidimensional, magical understanding of the world.
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