Photo: Kelsey Bennett.
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One Mississippi, Two Mississippi 

The Strangest State in America

 

Mississippi is consistently the fattest, dumbest, poorest state in the country and I’m convinced it’s full of geniuses. Set aside William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, Eudora Welty and Muddy Waters — right now on the main street of any small Mississippi town there are up to five people strolling through the afternoon, unaware of their own greatness. This is because an oral tradition, perhaps grecian in origin, still exists there. Most hot nights you can find someone, usually quite drunk, recounting the long history of the world and man’s plight in it disguised as an anecdote about changing a flat tire or hunting deer. It’s all in the telling, of course. Facts are irrelevant. What matters in Mississippi is the music of the words. The mood. The perfect blend of brilliance and bullshit. An art closer to the cave than the drawing room. For me, Mississippi conjures the lovely contradictions of our world.

My view of Mississippi as a wonderland for weirdos began before I was born. My great-grandmother was the admitting nurse at the state insane asylum during the Great Depression. My grandmother told me she remembered when they built a new hospital across a river the patients carried their mattresses on their backs over the bridge to their new home. That image of mental patients in gowns carrying beds was Mississippi to me. A Surrealist painting come to life. I longed to live there.

In my 20’s, I moved to a small rural Mississippi hamlet called Taylor (population 200) and spent almost a decade there. The first summer, my roommates and I rented a double wide trailer set back in the woods. There was a ruined above-ground pool behind it that acted as a breeding ground for frogs and mosquitoes. The hundreds of frogs fucking in the night would keep you awake till dawn. On the side porch was a 1970’s coffin-sized record player and radio combo that blasted soul songs out into the cotton fields. By a stroke of wild luck, one of my roommates got a record deal and he used the money to turn the double-wide’s living room into a makeshift recording studio. Me, my other roommate and another friend made up the backing band. Perhaps a bit weary of the lack of a studio and professional musicians, the label sent a producer from New York City. He was appalled at our eating habits (mostly greasy plate lunches from the local catfish joint) and put us on a strict Japanese diet. He was almost killed trying smoke salmon over a fire pit during a lightning storm.

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Across the street from us was a woman named Jane Rule, the former mayor of Taylor, who lived on a large cotton farm. A photographer and raconteur, for decades she held salons at her house for the famous writers who came to nearby Oxford to pay their respects to William Faulkner’s ghost. There were other lesser known geniuses that drank with us too. Nick was one of the men that hung out in front of the catfish place and told lies. He had lived in Taylor nearly all his life with the exception of some time in the Army during Vietnam. He mostly did odd jobs for money, an ace mechanic, but in recent years diabetes had slowed him. His main pastime was smoking bad weed, drinking cheap beer, and telling amazing lies. He drank with all the writers when they came to Jane Rule’s and was seen as an equal. He was a quiet storyteller, marble-mouthed when he spoke. You had to catch him in the right mood but when he was hot, there was nothing like it. He was a Mississippi Lenny Bruce. He talked for hours and you were captivated beyond belief at the man before you. He used his talent most Saturday nights, driving his old Jeep from house to house. In return for weed and a few beers, he regaled you with a monologue about drag racers, moonshiners, or runaway criminal sorority sisters. Nick was the best at this hustle, but he wasn’t alone.

A guy named Dusty King rented a cabin on Jane Rule’s property that same summer. He said he was from Brooklyn by way of California but had a thick Louisiana accent. He wore his long grey hair in a ponytail and kept a deep tan and a tallboy Bud Light omnipresent in his hand. Constantly shirtless, a kind of redneck Iggy Pop, he was always bumming cigarettes and trying to give you some lie about the time he dated Brooke Shields. Never a good enough lie that you wanted him to sit longer. Years later we learned he was an escaped convict from the infamous Parchman prison. He’d rolled off a moving work truck and drifted up to Taylor to hide from the law. Telling stories was a means of survival for him.

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Photo: Odie Lindsey.

When people ask me why I would want to live in a place like Mississippi, it’s hard to explain. To the outside world Mississippi is a ignorant, racist, place but to me there’s much more to the story. It’s true the history of the state is beyond shameful, and the racists and homophobes persist there. The politicians that run the state stoke the generational racial hatred for votes and it has caused a brain drain in recent years. Many of the best young minds in Mississippi leave for less hostile places as soon as they can. After a while I couldn’t stand it either and left for more liberal climates.

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A few years ago I went back to Mississippi to do a story about an incident on the campus of Ole Miss, the state university. James Meredith was the first African-American to enroll at Ole Miss and a statue of him now stands near the steps of the building where he registered for classes in 1962 — an act that sparked a two day riot that killed three and eventually had to be stopped by federal troops. In 2014, a noose was tied around the Meredith statue by three frat boys. Two of them made plea bargains but the ring leader was eventually charged with a hate crime and spent a few months in jail. What struck me about the case was the judge also sentenced him to read a chapter from Light in August, Faulkner’s novel about a lynching in early 20th century. The chapter in question focuses on Percy Grimm, the young nationalist leader of the lynch mob who is seen by many literary critics as a proto-Nazi. With Grimm, Faulkner could also be seen as foreshadowing the young men at the schoolhouse steps blocking James Meredith, even the frat boy noose-hangers themselves. Faulkner describes him this way:

“The wasted years in which he had shown no ability in school, in which he had been known as lazy, recalcitrant, without ambition, were behind him, forgotten. He could now see his life opening before him… and a belief that the white race is superior to any and all other races and that the American is superior to all other white races and that the American uniform is superior to all men, and that all that would ever be required of him in payment for this belief, this privilege, would be his own life.”

Grimm is unmistakable from many young alt-right Trump supporters that now fill the state. As reprehensible as the new Percy Grimms are, they are not the full picture. The street geniuses will continue to tell the more complicated story of Mississippi. Like the Harvard educated African-American man who waved a Confederate flag on the town square for years. He was killed in a car accident a few years ago after claiming he was being followed by angry liberals. Or the woman who came to Jane Rule’s one afternoon after visiting her mother’s grave in the Taylor cemetery. A lesbian rejected by her family she lived in Memphis and raised a son there. She told us over tequila shots that she supported him by selling artificial hearts.

As that first summer ended, we moved out of the double-wide to a bigger house full of large glass windows, a dream home built by an architect for his depressive wife who’d killed herself the year before leaving the place vacant, cheap, and cursed. I woke up there in the middle of night to a huge bull staring at me through my bedroom window. I walked outside not believing what I was seeing. I walked up to him and he moved his head to look at me. It was only then I realized the power of the animal and the danger I was in. As I started to move back slowly toward the front door the massive bull stood up, this time angry. I was frozen there looking into his eyes, trying not to move. It felt like hours but finally I saw blue lights coming down the road and heard a great stampede. It was the Sheriff following a herd of cattle in his car. He drove into our yard with the sirens blasting. There was blood all over his hood. The bull scattered into the road and joined the march of other bulls like Pamplona. The Sheriff backed out and drove after them into the night and I was left there breathless and confused and completely alive.