Our Antipodes

Hoeing up a bed for onion sets wears me out, but if I were capable of digging a hole through the earth to the other side of the globe and found a patch of soil, it would be on Ile Amsterdam, situated in one of the most desolate stretches of ocean in the world.

The island was named by one of those intrepid Dutch explorers of the 17th century, van Diemen, who in 1633 named it after his ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam, which was (incredibile dictu) named after a Dutch settlement on the east coast of North America at the mouth of the Hudson River.

Now under French administration, Ile Amsterdam is 21 square miles of rugged terrain in a Mediterranean climate: warm, dry and sunny. La Roche Godon, the only settlement on the island, is home to about 30 non-permanent inhabitants involved in biological, meteorological and geomagnetic studies. Doubtless out of sheer coincidence, both Jackson and Ile Amsterdam have a volcanic presence, but while the mountain on the island is potentially active, I have every assurance that despite a considerable amount of shifting, the cone beneath Jackson is very much extinct.

The island was once home to one of the few species of flightless ducks in the world, the Amsterdam wigeon, which was of course quickly exterminated once discovered, but still has the Amsterdam albatross as well as Amsterdam fur seals, which bask in thousands on the rocky coastline.

Allison’s Wells

A primary function of Mississippi Sideboard is to provide access to documents of specific interest in danger of being lost. Hosford Fontaine’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa (Muscadine Press: 1981), certainly qualifies. This wonderful work was printed only once, and, according to Fred Smith of Choctaw Books, the press plates were melted.

When Allison’s Wells was destroyed by fire in January, 1963, the event was considered a major calamity for the city of Jackson, since the resort functioned as a significant event venue for the city as well as a popular weekend getaway and the site of a thriving artists’ colony, but the spa had a long history of appeal throughout the Mid-South. Periodicals from the 1890s through the 1920s are filled with reports of people traveling to Allison’s, and advertisements were run in papers across mid-America both by the hotel itself and by the Illinois Central Railroad whose small depot at Way, Mississippi (nine miles north of Canton) was only about a mile away. An Illinois Central notice promoting five resorts, including Allison’s, located along its line ran in many newspapers in 1902.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1921 advertised I C RR rates from New Orleans to Allison’s Wells as $8.65. It was $26 to St. Louis and $33 to Chicago. The healthful benefits of the mineral water at Allison’s were an important attraction. An Allison’s Wells ad in the 1921 Times-Picayune stated that: “Time for a vacation? Here’s the place. Rest and Recreation, Hot Sulphur Baths for Skin Disorders and Unsurpassed Mineral Water for Malaria.” The November, 1953 issue of Lincoln-Mercury Times described it as: “A hotel, a resort, an inn, a spa, home, grandma’s house, a weekend at a wealthy friend’s — it combines the best of all of these.” A 1921 description of Allison’s Wells from the Grenada Sentinel could just as easily describe the Gray Center which now occupies the site of the old resort. It is “…an ideal place to commune with nature and to forget for a short while the turmoil and rush of a busy world.”

Foreword
By Charlotte Capers

It is hard for me to realize that Allison’s Wells has to be explained, for it was such a special part of Mississippi life in the forties and fifties. The prospect of a weekend at Allison’s was enough to sustain me through the week; a thirty-mile drive from Jackson on twenty-five cent gasoline led to another world. There at the end of a winding gravel road off old Highway 51 the rambling resort hotel sparkled in summer with its seasonal coat of white paint, and in the kitchen an ancient black cook produced culinary marvels on a fragrant wood stove. The old well house was a reminder of the magical properties attributed to its healing waters; waters temporarily healing and more palatable were available in the Fishes’ Club. The Pavilion was the focal point of constant activity, from snapping beans to painting portraits, and the heart of Allison’s was the dining room, dim and cool, where dignified family servants served memorable meals to diners from Jackson, Canton, the Delta, the hills, and metropolitan areas as far away as Memphis. Presiding over the whole production with grace and charm were John and Hosford Fontaine, the hereditary proprietors, who dressed for dinner because dinner was worth dressing for, and expected you to do the same.

Perhaps it should be noted that Allison’s Wells was not for everybody. There were and are those who might prefer a Holiday Inn. It is true that at Allison’s there was a good deal of uncertainty. Allison’s regulars learned to expect the unexpected, and that was part of the fun. For example, it happened upon one occasion that the dreamy youngster at the registration desk assigned two honeymoon couples to the same bedroom. When the Art Colony was in session experimental art might appear mysteriously in the guest rooms, the plumbing was always independent, and for several seasons chicken wire was much in favor for decorating effects. Mattresses and springs varied in quality from room to room, and old friends might be quickly switched from A-grade accommodations to an A-minus room if an A-plus dignitary of church or state hove into view. No matter, this is the stuff conversation is made of, and no planned activities were necessary so long as the guests had the other guests to talk about.

In a laudable effort to cool the dining room one hot Mississippi summer, an ingenious window fan was rigged up, which was supposed to blow through wet straw, thus cooling the air in the dining area and producing an early version of air conditioning. The straw was to be kept wet by a hose, which ran from a tub of water on the porch to the straw packed in the window. On the occasion of a July birthday party, soap bubbles suddenly burst upon the startled diners. At first, the dinner guests were simply amazed. They later compared notes, and reported that they all saw spots before their eyes at the same time. After much slapping at the air, the spots were identified as soap bubbles, which burst impartially into the soup, the salad, and the entree. It seems that the hose had inadvertently been immersed in the laundry tub, thus producing the unexpected visual effects. Was Hosford daunted by this phantasmagoria? Not at all. When a sudsy guest complained she smiled sweetly and said, “Darling, isn’t it wonderful? Where but at Allison’s could this have happened?”

As has been shown, Hosford was an early exponent of positive thinking. She could be seen any cold morning in early spring or late fall strolling gracefully toward the ice-cold swimming pool, fed by waters which must have originated in a glacier. Without changing pace, she would step lightly into the pool, do a few brisk laps, and float out, with never a sign to indicate that the temperature of the water was below freezing. This attitude enabled her to convince newcomers to the spa that shelling peas was fun, darning old table linen an art, and dredging leaves out of the swimming pool a game. Regulars knew better, but all had to serve their apprenticeship.

The ultimate reward for being a good guest was an invitation to “the Retreat.” This meant a drink before dinner with John and Hosford in their bosky hideaway beneath their own apartment. A basement space had been screened and floored with bricks; outside a cornfield pressed close, and vines of various denominations clung to the screens. Inside there was candlelight and conversation. If there should be a lull in the conversation, which was unlikely, you might hear an owl hoot or a dove mourn. The Retreat’s furnishings were eclectic, and so were the guests. John and Hosford might gather together a collection of artists and writers, clergymen and cotton planters, bridge players and ordinary people, provided they all seemed to be guests of good will. If their will was not good when they entered the retreat, it was usually good when they left. A white-coated waiter brought ice and real napkins, two drinks, no more, no less, were served, tall tales were told, and the stories got funnier with the second drink.

Allison’s Wells burned to the ground in 1963, shortly after John’s death. John’s water colors, Hosford’s oils, as well as papers, books, silver, antique furniture, and souvenirs of almost fifty years were lost in the fire. Many of us who belonged to the Allison’s enclave lost more than that. We lost a special place that had preserved for us a special time and enhanced our lives.

These random memories, perhaps inaccurate, may serve to suggest the spirit of the place. I hope so. Allison’s was worth a book, written by John with Hosford as the heroine. As it has fallen Hosford’s lot to write the book as well as play the lead, I’m sure she is equal to the task.

History of Allison’s Wells before the Sam Wherry and Latimer Families

In 1899 my Grandfather, Sam Wherry, a horticulturist, who shipped from Durant the first carload of strawberries from the state of Mississippi, bought the property of Allison’s Wells from Mrs. Mary B. Allison, a widow originally from New Orleans.

Mrs. Allison first lived on the Original Natchez Trace where the gullies are. When the road was opened off of Highway 51 a main road to Way to the Illinois Central Railroad, she moved to Allison’s with her family. In 1879 Parson Hargon dug a well for the Allison’s and discovered this strange tasting water – medicinal. This health-giving water brought people to come and drink the water and buy it. It was of particular value in the treatment of malaria, a purgative as well as a tonic water, with all the minerals. So it was necessary to build the cottages on the hill for health seekers who came for weeks and months, as well as to enlarge the original home for guests.

When Sam Wherry, my grandfather bought their place the Allison’s moved about a mile away toward Way, which became known as the Allison’s House. Mrs. Allison’s son, Matt, spent his entire life time searching for the supposedly buried gold in the gullies off the Natchez Trace during the Civil War. A life time of digging, but he never found it. The Allison’s Water was from a shallow well pumped by hand — a red pump and it was sparkling, bubbling, ice cold and quite palatable at the well, but harder to drink when allowed to settle, because the heavy minerals had a slightly oily film which developed. Such a shock to attempt to mix an alcoholic drink with this ice-cold water for it turned the drink black from the content of the sulphur.

ANALYSIS OF THE 1879 WATER
by W.T. Hand, State Chemist

Silicia: 5.722
Potassium Sulphate: 1.540
Sodium Chloride: 10.640
dium Sulphate: 3.135
Calcium Sulphate: 81.537
Magnesium Sulphate: 35.656
Iron Sulphate: 12.439
Iron Oxide: .2.028
Total: 214,203

The flow, the quantity, the mineral content never changed through the years.

.A History of ALLISON’S WELLS from 1890 to 1938

In 1900 under Sam Wherry, Allison’s was a convivial health and pleasure resort, first famous for the heavy mineral water — Allison’s Water, so called – which was a tonic as well as a purgative. The resort developed with my father first a partner – Latimer and Wherry. Then Wherry sold his interest to P.H. Murphy, his son-in-law, W.H. Jeffers, a contractor, who was in charge of all the extensive building — the men’s row changed to the annex with a real bath house for the men who took the sulphur baths and massages.

It was all in the Wherry connections until Latimer became sole owner in 1909: Latimer & Jeffers until 1909 and from then until 1963, D.C. Latimer & Co. In the continued search for pure drinking water the sulphur well in the lawn was discovered and the curative power of it heated helped to relieve tension and was found to be a real aid in curing any skin trouble. A bath house for men and women was built on the lawn and massages given first just for the men. The emphasis continued under the various partners to be health first with the value of the sulphur baths combined with the real cure of the Allison’s water. Of course, the massages by a trained masseuse was a part of the treatment. Dr. Taylor, a woman osteopath, trained the masseuses. She gave osteopathic treatments and the entire family really enjoyed having a treatment — Mother particularly after a busy day in the kitchen – so relaxing.

Allison’s was a busy, happy place buzzing with action from May through September. The horse drawn bus met the trains for guests at Way four times a day, and the wagon took the water to the station to ship and bring back the trunks of the guests. They came to stay for a month with their families particularly from the Delta, New Orleans and Memphis. It was fun to see the new guests arrive at Allison’s and hear Charlie Plez, the Porter, describe them. The days were filled with the pleasures of the time – horseback riding, buggy riding, hay rides, walks to the gullies, taking pictures in the gullies, tennis, croquet, euchre and auction bridge with expensive, elaborate prizes, music by Bud Scott’s orchestra from 10 to 11 in the pavilion every morning. Bud played for luncheon and dinner every day and the dance every week night with a ball on Thursday night.

An early memory is hearing my grandfather and his two sons rattling the small glasses filled with ice, sugar and bourbon about 10 a.m. – a cold toddy. My first taste later of the remains of the cold toddy – ice, sugar and bourbon.

Allison’s was noted for its fine food. It was such a personal operation by the family that it was really impossible to get anyone who could run the kitchen. My mother, Norma Wherry, managed the kitchen with first chefs from New Orleans and Memphis, but later tenants from the place were trained. My grandmother, Candace Barger Wherry, preceded Mother in running the kitchen. Allison’s menu was developed from cooking from scratch – home grown vegetables, fresh fruit from the orchard, wild muscadines brought from the swamp; even quail and wild ducks occasionally; hams, stuffed sausage, bacon cured in our smoke house. A Jersey herd furnished yellow heavy cream, fresh churned butter and buttermilk; cream of cheese dripped from a sack. Squabs were also served from our own pigeons. All cooking was done from two big black stoves with wood only for fuel until 1955 when an electric stove was added for baking cakes.

Tea time in the Pavilion, 1950s.

Health, gaiety, joy of living was uppermost – silver epergnes filled with fresh fruit and flowers, finger bowls, butter served in high silver compotes with small individual silver plates. The head waiter and white coated men waiters added the right touch of formality and welcome.

Wherry and Latimer operated with vision far ahead of their time. They were the first to have gas lights, then generated their own electricity: Electric lights, running water, toilets indoors and bathroom at the end of the halls and later in each room.

Allison’s was a farm for seven months out of the year and five months a health and pleasure resort. The Opening Ball was the 20th of May usually when Ole Miss ended the semester, and the closing ball around Labor Day. Farming was a real activity, cotton, corn, cattle, pigs, pastures and ponds. The Allison’s water was shipped by the 5-gallon jugs, which was a year-around operation. Regularly a car load of jugs of water would be shipped to and sold by a drugstore in Athens, Georgia. These jugs, if you can find one now, sell for $75.00, if perfect.

My father Douglass Colquhoun Latimer and my mother, Norma Wherry, had a certain formality. Guests dressed for dinner and the dance that followed. Father often called the Virginia Reel and Square Dance at night. Men had to wear coats in the dining room; but if you did not have a coat, he had hooks outside of the dining room with coats on them, which you could borrow. All of the family dressed before they left their bedroom. Mother always looked lovely. She was beautiful – brunette with brown hair and brown eyes and a skin you loved to touch. Daddy called her “Young Lady”. She was ever a Young Lady. She died at age 53.

Flowers were her hobby, along with sewing and embroidery. One year the front was filled with enormous chrysanthemums and the Maréchal Niel roses all across the front – a mass of yellow roses — so fragrant. When everyone dressed for dinner in the evening, my one desire was to look as lovely as the young ladies. So, one day, at the age of 7, I wore several dresses and a pair of red slippers. It did not work.

After being dressed one afternoon in white, which was normal, we children all went plum hunting. Of course, it was muddy. We came in bedraggled and Mother immediately put us to bed without dinner. Daddy was very stern, but very soft hearted. He fixed our dinner himself – a thin broiled steak like veal, fresh tomatoes and buttered hot rolls — and brought it to us. Mother had punished us, so she really did not mind. On went the music outside of our room – Bud Scott at his best – probably feeling sorry for us in bed.

School days — a public school of one room, where we had to have five pupils. The two Allison girls along with the three of us, Thelma, Sam and me. We walked to the end of the Men’s row, so called, to the Fishes Club for our schoolroom. This had been the room where the men gambled. A professional gambler usually spent the summer at the Wells.

Later we caught the train at Way to go to school in Canton usually driven to the station by our Uncle Harvey Latimer, who lived with my grandmother, Angelena Lancashire Latimer, born in London, England. The property was bought in 1905 and my father built the home, now Gray’s Center an Episcopal Center, for my grandmother and Uncle Harvey. I lived with them for a year when I was seven years old.

We had three modes of transportation every school day. At first either horse and buggy or carriage and then a car to catch the train at Way – No. 33 to Canton. We then walked from the Canton station a mile to school and perchance if we forgot our lunch and left it on the train, we walked to town to Mosby’s Drug Store to charge 50 cents and buy an oyster loaf for lunch. The money was charged to Allison’s and probably no bill was sent until after the Fourth of July, which was the financial cure for Allison’s.

Douglass, the youngest, who never wore shoes or a hat to school, frequently had the train passengers taking up a collection to buy him shoes. No, he did not take the money, but instead got real mad. When Douglass was in the first grade in the Canton School, he missed his train one winter afternoon, and when he did not arrive at Way, a frantic search for him began. Winter dark rapidly coming — cold — and where was the little boy? The stark terror when Daddy realized that Douglass must be walking home on the railroad track. Visions of seeing him crushed by the on-coming trains. The blessed relief to rush to meet this tiny sobbing child that had walked ten miles to get home.

Strawberries were grown commercially and we children picked some and were paid extra for it. I sold The Commercial Appeal—a source of income—as a child. Douglass Latimer was a great gardener and we had a large vegetable garden as well as flowers—worked in and managed by Daddy. He rose early, worked in the garden and oversaw the milking of the Jersey herd. We sold butter in Canton.

When he appeared for the day Daddy had on a Manhattan shirt starched by the laundry. One of his joys as he ran the office was the usual afternoon set back or poker game on the porch outside of the office with close friends. He had many – from all walks of life. We all adored him and though over 50 years have passed, he is an ever-present personality. He was ever filled with sternness and deep warmth and love for humanity and especially for his wife, “Young Lady”, and his children.

ALLISON’S from 1938 to 1963

As 1938 opened with John and Hosford coming home to Allison’s it brought back memories of life in Boston and how Allison’s was remembered there with such nostalgic memories that when the radio would play “Take Me Home Again Kathleen” I would burst into tears, though quite happy in Boston. And John and my son Doug would laugh. I talked about Allison’s as I went through life – a period filled with happiness, dancing, playing dolls, playing bridge, euchre and early and late dates, with the great love of my mother and father and family. When I think of it today it is like another world. As children and young ladies, we were never presented with the problems, but of course there must have been problems.

John was first advertising manager of The United Drug Co. and next the vice-president of The United Drug Co. His most inventive bit of advertising was The Rexall Train, which traveled all over the United States displaying Rexall products. Mr. Liggett, the President, was aboard and they had a big party at each big city where they stopped for tours.

Home again with the unloading of the big van from Boston with part of our possessions at Allison’s and the rest on Lookout Mountain, Tenn., Chattanooga, where John was connected with Nelson Chesman Advertising and later a partner. In the winter we lived on Lookout Mountain, and in the summer, I ran Allison’s with John and all the employees’ help. John drove down twice a month – an eight-hour trip and spent his vacation at Allison’s.

When John and Hosford bought the Latimer heirs out — Sam, Douglass and Norma — the emphasis continued on high living and health, joining the National Spa Association, going to the meetings – one at Hot Springs – and having the national group at Allison’s. The Saratoga Springs Group gave a cocktail party in the rose garden at the gazebo with Ellis and Preston serving them in white coats – a not to be forgotten moment in time — moonlight, roses and jasmine.

Allison’s Wells, c. 1944

Emphasis on unusual and good meals, beauty, landscaping; flowers everywhere in and out, large arrangements done by Parthenia in the living room as well as fresh flowers on every table in the dining room. These were often done by my Aunt, Mrs. S.D. Wilson of Tupelo. Ed O’Leary, the gardener and an ardent Catholic, hated to see Evy have so many of the flowers picked. Evy was a real designer with flowers, but she liked a mass of blooms the best. She won many prizes. Bowls of fresh sweet peas on each table in the dining room an Allison’s tradition.

A continued feature of Allison’s was the delicious food along with the art activities, as well as the many, many retreats and workshops and meetings. Everything was cooked on two big black stoves with wood brought up steep steps to the kitchen. Allison’s was written up in a number of magazines as “Off the Beaten Path,” which after sixteen years an inquiry comes: “How to reach Allison’s? I wish I knew How.” Duncan Hines included Allison’s and a feature article by Wendreoth Saunders, the artist, was published in The Lincoln-Mercury Times in November and December 1953.

Allison’s, which had been leased to Dr. Brown after the death of my mother and sister Thelma, needed a real face-lift and a return of the sparkle of living with emphasis on beauty, comfort and today’s feeling of life. This meant landscaping, rebuilding. As you entered, the bare clay hill was planted in peas to enrich the soil – so eventually out came the beautiful rose garden with the gazebo.

This presented a real challenge to my husband John, who was an engineer, an architect, a writer, a fine watercolorist and an advertising executive. He brought the joy and beauty and fun of living back to Allison’s. The redecorating continued when John retired and was an account executive with Godwin Advertisers in Jackson. Son John III is chairman of the board there now. Bathrooms were added to most of the rooms, the men’s sulphur bathrooms had a face-lift. The tops of the old toilet tanks became metal planters with flowers at the entrance. The artists painted them – “Realism” in today’s language; in yesterday’s language, “An old reality of time gone by object.” The ladies’ sulphur bathrooms were moved upstairs where Parthenia reigned supreme with the great massages.

The entrance was moved from the lower gate to the upper gate, a pleasing brick entrance planted with flowers, clumps of wisteria trees – shrubs marking the entrance and to the right the beautiful rose garden with Latvian touch to the gazebo. Beds of roses divided by brick walks — running roses in the background — perennials in beds around the center rose beds. Douglass Latimer, my brother, was bringing a bride home, Leigh Barret from Texas, so the first major rebuilding was a bridal suite for them in the annex upstairs last rooms where it overlooked the rose garden as well as the pool and grounds – beautiful view.

With the arrival of our displaced Latvians, Janis and Leontine Lazdin, John had a real engineer Janis to help with the continued improvements, the gazebo and featured seat in the rose garden, the boat house and seats down by the pond down the hill from the garden, which was also a feature in the nature trail, which was developed by “The Canton Garden Club” with the aid of the County Forester, who also marked the trees in the woods. Yes, I was and am a member.

The most important building was in true Latvian style the studio – at first and then the Chapel – Episcopal, because the artists outgrew it the first year. Another building, the enclosure of the pavilion with a small kitchen added for the priests — Catholic retreats. Always decisions should we have a lake or a pool — the pool won and what a big pool – reinforced concrete – there to stay forever — it’s still there. Scrubbed down every Saturday and refilled. Another renovation was the sulphur bathrooms for the women over the dining room—Parthenia’s domain.

1945 and 1946 War years brought our baby sister Norma Latimer Watkins back to Allison’s while Tom was in the service in the Philippines with her two girls Norma and Mary Elizabeth.

John renovated for them a bedroom and sitting room upstairs. Norma was in charge of Allison’s and her third daughter Sydney was born on the 2nd of January 1946 – in Jackson and then back to the Wells for the winter. Allen, our man of all work looked after getting Norma to school by bus to Pickens and of course Mary Elizabeth tagged along about a block to the big road to catch the school bus. Allen built the fires, cooked the children’s breakfast and served it in the sitting room in the early morning light — practically black, and took Norma to the big road.

Allison’s had many firsts: First American Bridge League Tournament in Mississippi … First Art Colony in Mississippi… First Continuous Exhibition of Paintings with a Tea … This is a few of them. From Allison’s to La Font at Pascagoula where the Art tradition continues a fall Workshop every first Tuesday in November for five days. There is a continuous Exhibition of paintings.

Doug and his wife Bertha continue with the same fine cuisine with emphasis on fine seafood. Landscaping and flowers are important. Fresh flowers on the table—as at Allison’s. Art continues to be important. Nothing dies—realities live.

Jackson’s Culinary Canon

The culinary literature of any given city (or region) reflects the character of its peoples, and taken altogether, this selection, which I submit as the “best of the best”, shows Jackson as richly cultured, with an enduring commitment to the commonweal. Among its citizens have been talented cooks who were writers of surpassing ability. These books encompass an extraordinary amount of cultural history, contain the highest order of culinary exposition, and taken altogether could work as a syllabus for any tutorial on Southern cooking.

Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa
(Muscadine Press: 1981)

In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urging of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa. The book is a treasure-trove of history, with profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations, which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. Best of all, The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens. The book includes a warm and heartfelt Forward by Charlotte Capers and a brief introduction by Eudora Welty.

The Jackson Cookbook
(Hederman Brothers: 1971)

This cookbook could well be held up as an archetype of a Southern ladies’ cookbook; it’s stiff with tradition and understated elegance. Indeed, in a note “About the Cover,” the editors explain that Artist Carl Davis translated Welty’s comments about “the era of the Madeira tea napkin,” into a work of art using an heirloom tea napkin “hand embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson,” with Jackson’s monogram “J”. This note follows a short essay by the Women’s Editor of The Clarion-Ledger, Mary Alice Bookheart, “The Aesthetics of Eating,” which states in part, “This is not necessarily a cookbook of old Jackson recipes. … What (the cookbook committee) has attempted to do in compiling this book is to achieve a happy blend of old and new …” This book also includes some restaurant favorites, such as the “Edwards House (King Edward Hotel) Chicken”. The recipes are simple and use familiar ingredients as well as commercial items, and provide recipes for any occasion, ranging across the menu. The Jackson Cookbook is a wonderful addition to any kitchen library, but what sets it apart, raising it to a level no other cookbook in Mississippi can hope to achieve, is the Forward, “The Flavor of Jackson,” a jewel of exposition by Welty.

 The Southern Hospitality Cookbook
Oxmoor House: 1976

Simply put, Winifred’s The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a groaning board of splendid recipes, but as a whole nothing less than an illuminating documentation of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied, the ingredients often expensive and times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, the most frequent critiques of the book involve how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her class and generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients. Many of the recipes are true heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard. She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors. The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”) and a preface by Eudora herself (“A Note on the Cook”).

Standing Room Only
Hederman Brothers: 1983

“With Narratives by Eudora Welty and Beth Henley,” announces the marquee on New Stage’s truly superb “Cookbook for Entertaining”. Henley’s short essay on theatre parties is quite fun, and Welty’s “A Note about New Stage” is the definitive article on this beloved Jackson institution. The posters and playbills, along with the accompanying texts, that separate the divisions are also marvelous diversions, but the true stars here are the recipes. This is hands-down my favorite Jackson cookbook because the recipes are sumptuous, clearly presented, and a lot of them are just damned fun. Most of them are written for more than four servings and are captioned with “can double”. Also included are the invaluable sections, “Buying Guide for 50 Guests” and “Setting a Bar for 50 for One Hour”. SRO throws in an herb and wine guide as curtain calls.

Southern Sideboards
Wimmer/JLJ: 1978

The most distinguished cookbook in this selection, and winner of the prestigious Southern Living Hall of Fame Award, Southern Sideboards is THE right cookbook for traditional Southern recipes before the “foodie revolution” of the 1980s. These recipes aren’t designed for health or with an eye to fussy ingredients, so if you’re the type of person who wouldn’t be caught dead in a checkout with a can of Cream of Celery soup, then it’s certainly not for you. But if you’re one of those hide-bound traditionalists who want to know EXACTLY how Granny made that Southern Cornbread DRESSING, then this is your book. Sure, the recipes are often complex and some do take a little time, but you know what? Time and preparation are keys to good cooking and good eating. The game recipes are truly superb, as are the desserts, particularly the cakes. Southern Sideboards is distinguished by a splendid, heartfelt essay by Mississippi native Wyatt Cooper, an author, screenwriter, and actor who is better known as the fourth husband of Vanderbilt heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and the father of journalist Anderson Cooper.

The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner
Three Rivers Press: 2003

Despite what you may think, I am not including Jill Conner Browne’s cookbook in this list because I’m afraid that if I didn’t, I’d in the very near future have a magenta sequined bootie up my patootie. No, I honestly think the Big-Ass Cookbook is absolutely fabulous. Not only does it have lots and lots of great—albeit indulgent—recipes, it also has reams of practical advice: “Hormones are serious juju, and if you don’t get them sorted out, you might find that you need money for things like lawyers and bail.” I think it’s Jill’s best book, though I must profess a weakness for cookbooks. Here you’ll find satire without (much) malice or rancor, some of the best writing—flat-out writing—to come out of Mississippi, and humor that’s deliberately  earthy without being crass or (too) coarse. Of course, I’ll never be deemed worthy to sew a single sequin on an SPQ outfit, but I adore them from afar.

The Culinary Welty

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction includes the green-tomato pickle in Why I Live at the P.O., the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, and–most notably–the groaning boards in Delta Wedding

But Welty  wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was likely written in the mid-1930s.

Welty’s introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, is arguably the best offering of Southern culinary exposition, a finely-seasoned piece with a flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking; restaurants were novel until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. 

The Flavor of Jackson

Most Jacksonians would agree, I think, that Jackson has always characteristically dined at home and entertained at home, and does so still by first preference. It’s been out natural form of hospitality as of course its been the most logical and economical way to live.

There was indeed and for many years, the elegant dining room of the Edwards House ready for the important or large occasion. But we were too small a place and too far inland from the Gulf or New Orleans to have been heir to restaurants of another kind: one Mexican at his hot tamale stand, on the corner of North West and Hamilton during the cold months, couldn’t make us cosmopolitan. Rather than anything else, I think—and I like to think—the word for the Jackson flavor is “home”.

It was mostly the young who went forth with any regularity for outside refreshment. After the movies, the ice cream parlor. After “The Thief of Bagdad” at the Majestic, the other dime went for the strawberry ice cream soda at McIntyre’s. And wasn’t it Mr. Key’s Drug Store that seemed a functionable part of the Century Theatre? It had purple paper grapes on a cardboard trellis overhead—almost like a part of the stage scenery to come. Just before curtain time, my father took me in there and presented me with the box of Jordan’s Almonds—“bird eggs”—that was part of the theatre rite. Some tired road company would go through its Victor Herbert for us, but it was magic, all the same, and holding a “bird egg” in the mouth (impossible to swallow, in the excitement) was part of the magic.

When the whole family sallied forth for refreshment, it was very likely after supper on hot nights just before bedtime. They’d get in the car and drive to Seal Lily’s and have ice cream cones all around; it was best to hold them outside the car and eat them through the windows, and finish fast before the last bit melted.

But parties were given at home, and they started—I believe it was true for old and young—plenty early in the afternoon. You began eating around 3:30 and kept it up until you had entirely spoiled your supper. Party food drew its praises for how pretty it was (example, Bridemaids’ Salad, all white down to the white grapes) or for how much trouble the hostess went to make it (Pressed Chicken), but it’s a safe bet that all the refreshments were the successes they were because they were rich—thunderously rich.

Sometimes we branched out from home as far as Shadow Lawn. When parties were given there it wasn’t in order to save the trouble at home but to offer the guests a change—an al fresco in the quiet country air of the Terry Road. Some of our high school graduation “teas” took place at Shadow Lawn. The receiving line stood there on Miss Anita Perkins’s lawn, in the very early shadows, and the punch bowl waited on her porch, and there were her own delicious things to eat—frozen fruit salad was her specialty—and all was elegant. It was the era of the Madeira tea napkin. I believe I could say that more tea napkins were handed round at that high-minded time than I ever saw in my life, before or since. (And at least half of them must have been embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson. She too was very much a part of the flavor of Jackson.)

As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph.

Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch. There was a barrel of flour standing in the kitchen! Perhaps a sugar barrel too. The household may have provided (ours did) its own good butter (which implies a churn, and, of course, a cow), and its own eggs, and most likely it grew its own tomatoes, beans, strawberries, even asparagus. There’d be the seasonal rounds of the blackberry lady, appearing with her buckets at your door, and the watermelon man with his load, who’d plug you one to your taste, and the regulars sending their cries through the summer streets—“Butterbeans, snapbeans and okra!”—followed by the ice cream man, of course. Meat? Why your mother called up the butcher, talked to him, asked what was especially nice today, and let him send it. There was communication with butchers. And my father sometimes saw them, for he’d stop by on his way from the office and come bringing home by hand the little squared-off, roofed over, white cardboard bucket with the wire handles, fragrant and leaking a little—and produced oysters for supper, just ladled out of the oyster barrel that the butcher got in from New Orleans.

And of course they grated from whole nutmegs, they ground coffee from the beans, went to work on whole coconuts with the hatchet. Some people knew how to inveigle for the real vanilla bean. (Vanilla must have had a central importance in those days—think of all the cakes. Wasn’t there a local lady who made her living, and her entertainment, just selling vanilla extract over the telephone?)

Our mothers were sans mixes, sans foil, sans freezer, sans blender, sans monosodium glutamate, but their ingredients were as fresh as the day; and they knew how to make bread.

Jackson believed in and knew how to achieve the home flavor. And if ever there was a solid symbol of that spirit, one that radiates its pride and joy, it is the hand-cranked ice cream freezer. I see it established in a shady spot on a back porch, in the stage of having been turned till it won’t go around another time; its cylinder is full of its frozen custard that’s bright with peaches, or figs, or strawberries, its dasher lifted out and the plug in tight, the whole packed with ice and salt and covered with a sack to wait for dinner—and right now, who bids to lick the dasher?

I daresay any fine recipe used in Jackson could be attributed to a local lady, or her mother—Mrs. Cabell’s Pecans, Mrs. Wright’s Cocoons, Mrs. Lyell’s Lemon Dessert. Recipes, in the first place, had to be imparted—there was something oracular in the transaction—and however often they were made after that by others, they kept their right names. I Make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more, and in that cheeriest, most aromatic of places to celebrate in the home kitchen.

Jackson had its full plenty of recipes, but I hardly remember a cookbook. My mother had the only one I ever saw as a child, “The White House Cookbook”. I don’t recall which president’s wife was in headquarters at the time of our edition, but the book opened to a full-length drawing of a deer, complete with antlers, marked off with dotted lines to show how to cut it up for venison, which suggests poor Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt. The most useful thing about “The White House Cookbook” was its roomy size, for in between its pages could be stored the recipes jotted down on scraps of paper and old envelopes, that my mother really used. They accumulated themselves over the years from friends and relations and from her own invention and a time or two from the Mystery Chef who came in over the radio. She had a cookbook within a cookbook. She had some of the making, in fact, of the very sort of cookbook that this one (i.e. The Jackson Cookbook) is certain to be. Today there’s a cookbook available for every conceivable purpose and occasion, but in this one we come a full circle: we’re back again to the local using these cherished recipes we can make and delight in the fruits of Jackson itself.

I’d like to express the pious hope that we’re to find these recipes given in full. My mother’s don’t do me as much good as they might because she never included directions. Her reasoning, often expressed, was that any cook worth her salt would know, given a list of ingredients, what to do with them, and if she did come to a momentary loss while stirring up a dish—taste it! Cooking was a matter of born sense, ordinary good judgment, enough experience, materials worth the bothering about, and tasting. I had to sit on a stool while she made spoonbread and take down what I saw like a reporter, to get her recipe.

I can’t resist adding this, for I think it applies. John Woodburn was a New York editor who’d com through Jackson on a scouting trip for young unknown writers and spent a night at our house. He carried my first collection of stories back with him and worked very hard trying to persuade his editor to take them. Several years later, when he succeeded, he sent me a telegram to say, “I knew as soon as I tasted your mother’s waffles it would turn out all right.”

Image via Janine’s World

Letter from Jackson

Darling Julia,

The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good, back to the mountains, to the house you love, to the deep old woods I love, and to holding you, forever.

When I get home, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it, but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.

It’s been three months since I got here–I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel! This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of engagement, not just of being but of living, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it, developing a feel for it. Surveying the streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights. Yet most of the work has been downtown, the strangest part of the city, yet its most characteristic.

Jackson doesn’t feel old, it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Modernist towers, none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings. The face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with empty or shattered windows like broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with roundabouts and narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.

Poverty is one of two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, closely intertwined, is racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here; though a great show of progress is made in the local media, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office. These people funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed not to improve the city, but to affect their political ends. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself, a shattered glass best melt and recast.

I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well, darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the mountainside under a starry sky.

All my love,

Timothy

A Preacher’s Kid from Alligator

Jack’s Skillet: Plain Talk and Some Recipes from a Guy in the Kitchen (Algonquin, 1997), is by Jack Butler, who isn’t just some guy, but a poet and novelist. He was born in Alligator, Mississippi, to a son of Delta gentry who sought the cloth. He attended high school in Clinton, Mississippi, was ordained in Missouri, and earned an MFA from UA (Fayetteville)  in 1979.

Butler’s first novel, Jujitsu for Christ (August House, 1986), told the story of a young man who opens a martial arts school in Jackson, Mississippi. His third book, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock (Knopf, 1993), employs collage, newspaper excerpts, cartoon reprints, and an omniscient narrator who claims to be either the Holy Ghost or a deceased dog. The novel received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote a food column for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (His 1993 short story collection, Hawk Gumbo, is not a cookbook, but it’s good stuff!).

In Jack’s Skillet, Butler writes about food as pleasure, as ritual, as communication, “satisfaction, the giving and receiving of sustenance and delight.”

“I’m a cook, and I can’t help thinking about food. I’m a novelist, and I can’t help telling stories, I’m a poet, and I can’t help singing out from time to time, As a result, you should think of this book as a story, a story with occasional bursts of paean and dithyramb. The story is the story of our lives with food. I say our.”

“Stories have characters, and this one is no exception. I can’t write about food without writing about people. Stories also have settings and backgrounds. I spent roughly the first twenty years of my life in Mississippi, mostly in the cotton-growing Delta. Then I spent twenty-five or so in Arkansas. You are what you eat, and all my life I’ve eaten Southern. But sort of nouvelle Southern, with pluralistic influences. Semi-enlightened good old boy, you might say.”

“I can’t imagine writing about food and not at some point talking about the absolute best breakfast on earth, which is not, I’m sorry to say, garlic-and-cheese grits, or even pork chops, scrambled eggs, and hot biscuits with strawberry preserves, but novy mit a schmeer-a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese and layered with capers, thin slices of smoked Nova Scotia salmon, tomato, and onion.”

Jack’s Skillet includes such pearls as “Tomato Gravy and Biscuits,” “Mosey Froghead’s Barbecue Sauce,” “A Southerner’s First Meal in Heaven,” “A Grace for the Old Man,” and this nugget:

How to Get Rid of Beer

I’m not a heavy-duty beer drinker. I like stout, and I like Alaskan amber. Which, incidentally, as I found out on my last trip to Alaska, is what they now call the beer formerly known as Chinook. I spent half a week in Fairbanks asking after Chinook and not finding it before anybody bothered to straighten me out. Seems somebody decided that reminding the thirsty customer of the smell of dead fish just at the point of purchase wasn’t all that grand a marketing strategy. Maybe not. The beer’s just as good, either way.

I do like a snappingly cold brewski or two after a long hike or a hot game in the summertime, but I will never park in front of the tube and start in on a sixpack.

Nevertheless, we always seem to have extra beer around the house, lots of extra beer. Usually several different brands. Lately it’s been Pearl Light and Miller Ice Draft. I can, by the way, recommend Pearl Light as an excellent swimming-pool beer for those 100° Arkansas or Carolina or even Connecticut July days. Only seventy calories a can, and it tastes pretty good. I mean really, I’m not kidding, it tastes pretty good. For American beer.

Anyway, what happens is that we have a party or have some people over, so we go out and buy some beer, and then the people bring their own beer, and then everybody winds up drinking white wine or gets into my Wild Turkey while I’m not looking.

So then we have a refrigerator full of beer. It stays full for months and months while I try to figure out ways to get rid of it. And that’s our situation right now.

I can manage a can or two a month myself, if I decide to have boilermakers for a change, but that’s about all, especially during the winter. Clearly, then, I am in need of alternatives. Lately I’ve been experimenting with beer batter. I like batter-fried things. The greasier the better. Grease is good for you, after all. _ And it’s fun to play around with different sorts of batter. I grew up on cornmeal batter and egg batter, though mostly when I do steak fingers or catfish or fried chicken nowadays, as I’ve told you, I just salt, pepper, flour, and fry.

Beer batter is completely different.

The recipe I use is simplicity itself. (I want to caution you that there’s nothing official about this recipe. This is not, repeat not, authentic beer batter.) I put white flour in a bowl, the amount depending on how much batter I think I’m going to need. I sprinkle in some salt according to how salty I think I’m going to want the batter to taste. I cut in some butter or margarine in the ratio of roughly a tablespoon to a cup of flour. I add cold beer, stirring until I have a nice thick batter-liquid, but dense and clinging. I drink the rest of the beer.

Beer batter comes out a lot like tempura, which means it isn’t suitable for just anything. I’ve tried it out on all sorts of things recently, even catfish and chicken livers. On the whole, I don’t think I’d recommend it for most meats, though the chicken livers were just fine hot from the skillet. Jayme liked the catfish, but I had some reservations. My thought is that it would work better for extremely firm-fleshed seafoods, like shrimp and, hm, ah, shrimp.

And vegetables. Beer batter is really great for those deep-fried happy-hour veggie-type gnoshes. It works great for mushrooms, which are almost impossible to get any other sort of batter to stick to. It would, I am sure, if you can bear the concept, work great for nuggets of cauliflower or broccoli, or for dill pickles. It is supreme for onion rings, which I dearly love, and of which good ones are mighty hard to get.

What I do is flour my fryees- the rings, the mushrooms, whatever. Just shake them in a bag with flour, dip them in the batter, drop them in hot oil in a deep fryer, get them golden brown all over, and drain them (beer batter holds a lot of oil).

Then you can sit down with your crunchy munchies and tune in to see what the score of the game is, and whether Mike Piazza has hit any more home runs.

And what the hey, maybe even have a cold beer with your meal. It would be appropriate, and you’d be getting rid of two of the cotton-picking things in one evening.

Beer-Batter Onion Rings

1 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, cut into 14″-thick rings
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
6 to 8 ounces beer
Cooking oil for deep-frying

Mix flour and salt. Put flour mixture into a paper bag. Throw in onion rings and shake, then set aside. They should be only lightly coated. Transfer flour to a mixing bowl and cut in butter. Add beer gradually, stirring until batter thickens. Heat cooking oil in a deep fryer (a high-walled skillet will do). The oil is hot enough for frying when water dripped onto the oil pops and sizzles. Coat onion rings thoroughly with batter and drop into oil. Fry until golden brown all over, then remove to paper and drain. This batter will also serve as a fine tempura-style batter for a wide range of vegetables.

Milton Babbitt: Mississippi Composer

Many Mississippians have become famous in the world of music as well as in the world at large: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Rogers, not to mention Elvis Presley, but one Mississippian who is a titan in the sphere of 20th century music will likely never become known outside of a select group of musicians and musicologists for whom his works constitute a mind-boggling landmark in musical composition and theory.

In all honesty, as a somewhat tone-deaf wordsmith I can’t even begin to encompass the achievement of Milton Babbitt, which to the best of my understanding (another admittedly modest attribute) lies in that arcane area of human intellect where music and mathematics merge, a slope of Parnassus I’ll never attempt, much less scale. Perhaps my fellow laymen might be sufficiently impressed to know that among his many, many awards, Babbitt received a citation from the Pulitzer judges in 1982 “for his life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composer”.

For all that his work was of the most esoteric nature and his accolades are of the highest order, Milton remained a down-to-earth sort of man, fond of baseball and beer, and like any good Southern boy (he claimed Mississippi as his home), ate grits every morning of his life when he could get them.

In a 2000 interview with Jason Otis of The Northside Sun, Babbitt said that his father moved to Jackson from Omaha where he was a mathematician at the University of Nebraska because C.W. Welty, Eudora’s father, made him an offer that according to Milton, “he couldn’t refuse. My being born in Philadelphia was the result of the fact that my mother was a Philadelphian and she would always go back to be with her parents when her children were born. So I and my two brothers were born in Philadelphia, but we all grew up in Jackson. My parents and a brother are buried there. Jackson was my home”

Two years later in an interview with American Public Media Babbitt said, “My early musical influences began in Jackson, Mississippi. Here I grew up, of course, and my first musical influence came from a violin teacher with whom I went to study at the age of 4. She gave me a violin, and as I practiced, I thought, this is exactly what I’d like to be doing in music—don’t ask me how or where—although I wasn’t really all that excited about the practicing. If you want an anecdote, I’ll tell you one. My teacher was a lovely and sophisticated woman who had studied with Leopold Auer.”

“I know you Yankees think that if you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, you went around in bare feet, but we lived in a very cultivated crowd. Our public school was very sophisticated, and we were taught how to speak English in a very special way, because we were told that we were the last bastions of high culture. It was a little bit of that that brushed into everything. Anyway, my teacher, Ms. Hutchison, said one day to me, ‘Well, if you’re really interested in playing the violin, why don’t you see if this is the kind of music you might play?’ And she gave me the violin part of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, which I took home. Now this was a violin concerto that I had never heard performed; we didn’t have an orchestra, and remember records were very far and few between, so we didn’t have a record of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto either. And I thought that if this was all that a violin concerto was, why couldn’t I write one of my own? So I started writing something I called ‘Violin Concerto for a Single Violin.’ I could’ve been very chic; I could’ve called it ‘Violin Concerto for Solo Violin,’ but I wasn’t that mature yet.”

“The truth of the matter is, after my experience with the violin concerto, I suddenly realized that the violin didn’t get you very far socially. Nobody really wanted you to play this damn solo violin. So I went to the local band director, the man who ran every band in town, the lovely, lovely Italian who didn’t speak very much English, but who had a very good musical background. Let me tell you, this is America, so I might as well tell you how he got there. He got to Jackson, Mississippi, from one of the smaller towns in Italy by virtue of a beautiful Mississippi girl who went to Italy to study voice—what else? That’s very American. She brought him back to Jackson where she thought he could be a big important person. Well, he was, relatively speaking. So I went to him, and I said I wanted to study the trumpet. And he said, ‘Why do you want to study the trumpet?’ I named all these jazz people of whom he had never heard who played trumpet or cornet. He said, ‘Look, you’re obviously interested in music. Play the clarinet because when you play band arrangements they have the violin parts, and you’ll learn a great deal about music, and you’ll learn a great deal more music that way.’”

“So I agreed and I took up the clarinet. That became my primary instrument. I played the clarinet and eventually saxophone. All throughout high school I played in every kind of band, everything from an imitation Guy Lombardo to an imitation Ben Pollock, which means, you know, the range from what would then be called popular music to jazz. My early influences, however, I must tell you, were largely in popular music—all kinds of popular music. And you’ll be amused to know that while I was in Jackson, Mississippi I never heard a note of country music. The country people are out there, but we’re not country people. We didn’t hear any country music. We never heard any blues either, though the blues virtually originated in Jackson, but that was not us. It didn’t have anything to do with race—by the way, that’s a great mistake—it had to do with education. We went to Davis School, which, well, you want me to tell you an anecdote about that? I’ll tell you because it involved somebody else who came from Jackson, Eudora Welty, with whom I grew up. Her father was the president of the insurance company of which my father was the actuary and vice president, so we literally grew up together. Eudora Welty went to the same public grammar school that I did, the Davis School, and you can guess which Davis that was: Jefferson Davis, of course. So anyhow, the story was that [Eudora] would go down to the ladies room where the students were in their little stalls, and our English teacher, Ms. Granbury, would come down there, and if she heard a single grammatical mistake in the conversation among these stalls, she would immediately tell them, ‘Go to my office when you have done what you have to do here.’ They would be reprimanded and disciplined.”

“So much of what we are is what we were,” Babbitt told Otis. “I spent my time in Jackson hearing and playing music that I would not have heard if I had grown up anywhere else. Jazz musicians from New Orleans would come up from the river and I often used to play with them on Saturday nights. Our music teacher didn’t play records for us because there weren’t any records to play. We learned to read music and to play music and to listen to music. It was extraordinary. It’s not the kind of musical education I would have gotten in New York, but then I was exposed to a great deal of jazz and popular music that I might not have been exposed to elsewhere.”

Visiting Jackson

In this short excerpt from his Journals, artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who knew the older cities of the state on the Mississippi well, describes his only visit to Mississippi’s new capital city on the Pearl.

May 1, 1823 – “I left the bayou on a visit to Jackson, which I found to be a mean place. The hotel atop the bluff was the lowest sort of dive, a rendezvous for gamblers and vagabonds. Disgusted with the place and the people, I left and returned to my wife in Natchez.”

Contemporary visitors echo Audubon’s impressions; Anthony Bourdain called it a “ghost town.”  Jackson is still a mean place, in every sense of the word, crippled by petty avarice and racial tension.

Confessions of an Urban Planter

In my hometown of Bruce, Mississippi, Mr. Buddy Massey grew cotton every year in his circular drive at the Shell station on the corner of Hwys. 9 and 32.  So when I hacked out a small garden on what was once a barren, sun-scorched verge in Jackson, Mississippi, I figured if Buddy could grow cotton on the street, I could, too.

This project encountered obstacles right off the bat. First and perhaps foremost I discovered you need permission to grow cotton in Mississippi; the shadow of the boll weevil still looms over the Cotton Kingdom, and the Mississippi Code states specifically that “Every person growing cotton in this state shall furnish to the commissioner and the corporation on forms supplied by the commissioner such information as the commissioner may require concerning the size and location of all commercial cotton fields and of noncommercial plantings of cotton grown as an ornamental plant or for any other purposes.” Having found that out, I knew having the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in a building a mile and a half away magnified my chances of getting busted for cotton, and though the novelty of being hauled to court for growing cotton in Mississippi did have some appeal, I called the Commission out of a hard-learned habit of caution when it came to flirting with the law. The MDA folks directed me to a scholar at Mississippi State University who assured me that such a small “field” as mine wasn’t an agricultural time bomb. Naturally, I considered his opinion testament; if he’d been from Ole Miss, I’d called him a lying son-of-a-bitch.

Second, getting the seed; cotton seed, because of the restrictions, is not something you find in a yard and garden emporium. They seem to be sold not by the bushel, nor even the pound, but by the seed; the individual seed, mind you. At a loss, I issued an appeal on the local social networks for help, which came forthwith, netting me not only enough seeds for my modest enterprise, but enough to plant a city block. For some time, I considered the novelty of becoming a Jesse Cottonseed, spreading the wealth of white gold across Jackson’s cityscape, but in the end, I decided that I would never live down the shame of being the man who reintroduced the boll weevil to Mississippi. I’d probably be pilloried, then burned at the stake, at the very least tarred and feathered and exiled to Arizona.

Third, waiting for it to get warm; we had a typical winter, but a cool spring. The first batch, planted in outside seed flats on April Fool’s Day of course failed, so I decided to sit on my haunches and seed while my part of the earth tilted more towards Sol. The first week of May, I heard that cotton planting had begun in the Delta. With two beds ready, I sowed my cotton by hand, which was a less-than-mystical experience than I had anticipated, but shouldn’t have, since cotton itself is a plant, and what aura it has is what we have given it; besides, it was the seeds themselves which no doubt found an exhilaration in being thrust into warm, moist soil after such a wait.

Of the four beds planned, the ones on the east and west were planted on May 5. Since my appeal for seeds had netted no less than three copious batches (in different colors, I might add, blue, brown and purple due to the fungicides which coated them), they were mixed together in a batch and sown, some in short rows, others in small hills. Predictably, once the seed was planted, the rains ceased, and watering began, not just for the cotton, but for the other seeds and seedlings already in place; their roots, once established, would sustain them in months to come, but the roots themselves had to be encouraged.

For whatever reason, the cotton seeds proved fickle. To make a series of mini-rows, a total of perhaps fifty were planted each round, each planting a mixture of the three seed types, those with a purple coating proving the most viable. Rainy weather in mid-May helped the second set, and before long the rows (as such) began to take shape, not only in lines but in triangles and circles. Only the closest of seedlings needed thinning. In Delta fields, such fussy tending is not necessary, but being fractional this acreage needed more attention to crowding; in this instance, optimal outcome involving big, pretty plants that would bloom and boll. A rainy May helped; the cotyledons and stems grew big and fat.

By the end of the month, some seedlings had preliminary leaves, and I decided to wait on thinning. On the one hand, I wanted the best plants possible, but then I’ve seen cotton growing close together, and in the best situation of open field and plentiful rain, all the plants were tall, leafy and in flower. Somehow back in the back of my mind I kept trying to imagine what kind of machine planted cotton, and I couldn’t envision it being less haphazard than me. I tried to imagine how cotton must have looked in its primeval state in Tehuacán, predictably failed but persisted. While many scoffed at my crop, growing cotton had become more than an endeavor; it had become a responsibility, and my care paid off. By the first week in June, the cotton was about six inches tall and the cotyledons were being replaced by true leaves. Though my beds received only five hours of direct sun a day, the stems were strong and red, so I decided thinning needn’t be that drastic, since cotton in row crops grows much closer together.

In the Deep South, we have nothing resembling the graduated springs and falls of more northerly latitudes, and while our winters are predictably brief and comparatively mild, summer has such a duration that it can be divided into three parts: new summer, high summer, and far summer. The summer solstice marks the beginning of the high summer, when daytime temperatures are in the nineties and seventies at night. By that time, the cotton was a foot high; it was lay-by time. The cotton grew taller, I took no notice of what was happening beneath the canopy of leaves and found myself surprised in early July by the first blossom, a pale crimped envelope of crepe protruding from a frilly green box.

Again, I’d been anticipating a transcendental moment for the occasion, but my reaction was more composed of surprise and curiosity, which for all I know may well be the essential elements of a transcendent experience. I lack a frame of reference. Pale at first, the petals of the blossoms turned a rich purple before dropping. My neighbor John Lewis said that in Leflore County they have a saying: “First day white, second day red, third day from my birth I’m dead!” When the blooms had fallen, they left a tight, blocky wad of green still enclosed in a feathery case. On this bud empires had grown and tumbled, but other work distracted me.

The first boll opened the last week of August. I saw it under the light of a nearly-full moon, a low, white symmetrical glow against shadowed green. Again, no thunder and lightning came, but though a friend in Arcola had sent me photos of a local field crop waist-high and plush with open bolls along with disparaging comments about my “scrappy-ass Jackson ‘plantation wanna-be’ cotton”, I was proud of my little fraction of an acre. Sure, I was a half-assed farmer in the middle of Mississippi’s capital city, but I was making an effort, and I was, after all, making a crop, one that fit well with my modest and unpretentious character as an urban planter. It’d never make anything like a bale, but I’d have cotton to harvest.

To my astonishment, the opening cotton proved unrecognizable to many if not most of my neighbors. On many occasions I found myself faced with the question, “What is that?” as someone pointed to the whitening bolls. “Cotton,” I’d say, and they would either slap their foreheads or form a silent “o” with their lips. These reactions became a general rule of thumb for determining who of my neighbors were from where, and I’d always ask, but then I found that people from North Carolina and Tennessee didn’t recognize the plant, either. Most of them didn’t know an oak from an elm, either, but I’d cherished the notion that most Southerners would recognize the most iconic crop of their homeland out of repetition if nothing else. Perhaps the image of a cotton boll itself has become so divergent from reality that its actuality has become inconceivable to anyone save those who plant the seed.

As the weeks drew on, every surface of the cotton, leaves, stems, even the ripening bolls, became scorched, ruddy and freckled beneath the unrelenting sun. While the cotton was reddening, the trees were yellowing, becoming sallow, assuming that peculiar jaundice I found familiar from past Septembers. The air itself became hazy because what brief winds we had were picking up the dusty earth and passing it around as they do with pine pollen in June. Everything had a sense of resignation about it, even the light, which seemed suspended in ether, hung between a pale blue sky and a dark dun earth. The world was a sepia silhouette, creaking with crickets, and the leaves were falling. Blistered by the sun and exhausted from their efforts to make seed, the cotton plants drooped under the weight of the swelling bolls, which were opening ever-so-slowly.

October became a coda; the heat and the light had waned, and the year itself was coming to a close. I picked my cotton, ending up with no more than a grocery sack, but a better harvest came from the very reality of growing cotton on the side of a street in Jackson, Mississippi.

South to America: Race, Black Nationalism, and Jackson, Mississippi

These selections from Imani Perry’s South to America (Ecco; January 25, 2022) join earlier excerpts from V.S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South and Joan Didion’s South and West to exhibit how others from outside the American South perceive both the region in general and Mississippi in specifics. Perry’s work echoes Naipaul’s in scope and form (in fact, she read A Turn in the South to prepare herself for the project), but Perry’s work is more perceptive, more learned, sure, and determined.

 Many will find South to America as provocative as it is ambitious. Perry maintains that race is “at the heart of the South, and at the heart of the nation,” and that “the country has leeched off the racialized exploitation of the South while also denying it.” These selections provide the reader with a radical perspective on the South, and most specifically on Jackson, Mississippi, which she says is “publicly, unapologetically Black.” While many will be surprised to hear Jackson’s Mayor Lumumba referred to as a “scion of Black nationalism,” it’s certainly nothing new.

Race is at the heart of the South, and at the heart of the nation. Like the conquest of Indigenous people, the creation of racial slavery in the colonies was a gateway to habits and dispositions that ultimately became the commonplace ways of doing things in this country. They came to a head at the dawn of the Civil War, only to settle back into the old routines for a hundred years before reaching a fever pitch again before receding.

. . . . . .

We are a nation that stratifies, often putting the people who build and sustain it at the bottom. Among us, there are citizens, second-class citizens, noncitizens, and those who are cast so far beneath every other category that it is as though they are seen as nonpersons. Although these habits are not all directly about race, race remains the most dramatic light switch of the country and its sorting. And yet “racism,” despite all evidence of its ubiquity, is still commonly described as “belonging to the South. I don’t just mean that other regions ignore their racism and poverty and project them onto the South, although that is certainly true. I also mean that the cruelest labor of sustaining the racial-class order was historically placed upon the South. Its legacy of racism then is of course bloodier than most. But other regions are also bloody in deed. Discrimination is everywhere, but collectively the country has leeched off the racialized exploitation of the South while also denying it.

The consequence of the projection of national sins, and specifically racism, onto one region is a mis-narration of history and American identity. The consequence of truncating the South and relegating it to a backwards corner is a misapprehension of its power in American history. Paying attention to the South-its past, its dance, its present, its threatening future, and most of all how it moves the rest of the country about-allows us to understand much more about our nation, and about how our people, land, and commerce work in relation to one another, often cruelly, and about how our tastes and ways flow from our habits.

. . . . . .

Harpers Ferry is a historical chiasmus. In school, we learn how slavery was heroically defeated. Harpers Ferry was a precipitant. In Harpers Ferry, we learn of a hero’s defeat by the forces of a slave society. It is the main event. The flip is all the more pointed because of the political history and public memory of the South. Many in the region haven’t ever really accepted the loss of the Civil War, or perhaps more accurately, The South is on a recurring loop of cold Civil War battles that repeatedly bend towards the logic of the slavocracy. Even now, with some Confederate monuments toppled, many—literal and symbolic-remain. They are evident in the crowing about states’ rights and gun rights, efforts to disenfranchise  Black voters, and desperate attempts to keep the world’s puppet strings in the hands of elite White Americans. Ironically, then, like places throughout the South, Harpers Ferry is a monument to the defeated. Only here the defeated are wild-eyed radical abolitionist John Brown and his companions, and not the Confederate dead.

Harpers Ferry is shaped like a seal head, with the Potomac River above, the Shenandoah below. The tip of the nose is where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. At this crossroads, in 1866, fresh from the disaster of the war, Black people came together in homage to Brown and built a one-room schoolhouse for freedpeople, called Storer. It grew into a degree-granting four-year historically Black college. There is a small exhibition about the establishment of Storer College and subsequent events.

In 1906, after the promises of Reconstruction had been denied, and Jim Crow had settled across the South, members of the Niagara movement gathered at Storer College. This was the second meeting of the racial justice organization. Its leaders, W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, were influential Black intellectuals.

. . . . .

The Niagara movement, though not taking up arms, was radical in its time. As measured and intellectual as their pursuits were, such work was driven by a passion that was more often than not punished.

As with many HBCUs, Storer was once a high school in addition to a college. The first president of postcolonial Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, completed his high school education at Storer before going on to Howard University. I tried to imagine-with some difficulty the brilliant and fiery African revolutionary leader up here in the West Virginia mountains. Mostly, I wondered how he experienced this brand of Whiteness that in its speech patterns and sartorial details was not like that of British colonists, yet just as insistent upon superiority. Did he contemplate the trees, just as green as in Nigeria, but full of leaves that spiked out rather than arched? Did he ache with loneliness? Though Azikiwe is mentioned in the Storer College exhibit, there isn’t much discussion of his time or reflections about what it meant for a man who became so great out there to have been a Black boy here.

Maybe I am projecting too much onto the place, keeping myself from seeing it fully. Maybe there is nothing unusual about a leader of African independence studying math, running a pawnshop, and being a coal miner in Appalachia. After all, Martin Delany, one of the fathers of Black nationalism, was himself from West Virginia. He said, “It is only in the mountains that I can fully appreciate my existence as a man in America, and my own native land.” “Native Land” had by then, even for those who eventually returned to Liberia like Delany, a remote and aspirational quality. But he knew the mountains.

Storer-which, according to the exhibition signage, was one of three historically Black colleges in West Virginia-was closed after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Its Blackness violated the prohibition of segregation.

. . . . .

I HEARD HIS VOICE OVER the PA in the airport and I wet my eyes. “I am Chokwe Antar Lumumba,” the mayor of Jackson welcomes you when you arrive. He is one of a growing number of young Black Southern mayors, Mayor Lumumba, like my uncle Cornelius, went to Tuskegee for college and Texas Southern for law school. He was nurtured in the tradition of HBCUs. And he is a scion. Sons have a certain importance, culturally. Patriarchy, that fundamental structure of the West, was denied to Black people during slavery and has remained fragile ever since. Money, protection, domestic authority–these are elusive, though cherished things in the face of poverty and prison. As much as I have written about escaping from patriarchy’s hold, I can’t pretend to not understand the deep yearning for a son to take on the leadership role of the father when it comes to Black people. To “carry on” in a picture of respected manhood. I do not mean this as a criticism of scions themselves, who may very well be feminists or iconoclasts, but rather as an ob. servation as to why they’re so important even to an avowed feminist.

In Jackson the mayor’s father, the elder Chokwe Lumumba, had spent decades in the service of the freedom movement. The attorney for revolutionary Black activists of the Black Power movement like Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, he was also a leader of NAPO, the New Afrikan People’s Organization and notably carried a chosen surname that was the same as that of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese anticolonialist movement leader who had been murdered in 1961 by Belgian and US forces.

NAPO was a coming together of different communities in the New Afrikan Independence Movement. The Republic of New Afrika was imagined in 1968 as an independent Black-majority nation in the Southeastern United States. The first vision was articulated at a meeting of the Malcolm X Society in Detroit. The states they imagined as being part of this new nation: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. They shared goals of selfdetermination, landownership, and an independent nation-state for New Afrikans, who were colonized by US imperialism, in line with the older Black Belt theory. They believed in Democratic centralism, socialism, and reparations, as well as humility and selfdefense. One of its founders, Queen Mother Moore, was a native of New Iberia, Louisiana, and is considered the mother of the reparations movement. She moved to New York, became a Garveyite and an internationalist, and involved herself in a host of educational and political organizations. Political power, even among those who questioned the political economy of the United States, was a meaningful tool for shaping how people could live. The elder Lumumba was elected to the Jackson city council in 2009, and then to the office of mayor in 2013. He died under mysterious circumstances soon thereafter. The latter two events were national news, but I’d heard about the elder Lumumba repeatedly from my parents and their friends of his brilliance, courage, and commitment to the struggle” to “free the land.” And now here was the voice of his son, bearing a shared name, welcoming us to Jackson.

If there is one egregious miscasting of the Black Power movement, it is the neglect of the South in that history. The action was not all on the coasts or major cities. Once upon a time, emancipation and its consequent constitutional amendments promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, only to be dashed when Reconstruction ended. Black people turned to building internally-schools, churches, civic organizations so that they were ready when it was time to take up direct action again. Once upon a time, Black Southern organizers, leaders, and laypeople faced death and confronted evil. They changed American law. In fact, I would argue that 1954 to 1965 was the most significant decade in the history of US constitutional law and legislation. Black people’s protests offered the prospect of an equitably heterogeneous society. Nominally embraced, it was socially and economically refused. Enter Black power. Or perhaps reenter. Black nationalism and Black secession and Black armed self-defense had always been a part of the political imagination of the Black South, from Martin Delany through Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey and the Stono Rebellion and Garvey ism and the Deacons for Defense. For some reason, folks want to act as though Black power started in New York and Oakland, even though the Black Panther logo came from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, and even though Huey Newton was born in Louisiana, and Sundiata Acoli in Texas, and Eldridge Cleaver in Arkansas, and Kathleen Cleaver in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Gil Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee, and Assata Shakur in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt in Louisiana. Sterling Brown commented in the earlier civil rights era: “It is a mistake to believe that this protest in the South is instigated by Negroes from the North … I found a large degree of militancy in Negroes who were Southern born and bred, some of whom have never been out of the South… I found this protest natural since the Southern Negro is where the grip is tightest and the bite goes deepest and most often.” Stated another way, Southern Black people learned steeliness the hard way, under the thumb of Jim Crow. And perhaps from seeing how the North wasn’t much better, if at all. They learned there was nowhere to turn and no option but to fight back.

The vision of the Republic of New Afrika was to build a place where Black people could implement a cooperative vision of social organization not unlike what folks on the Sea Islands did during the Reconstruction era. There they built workers’ collectives out of the land they’d once worked as slaves, until the property they’d earned was returned to the master class. Such visions always lived in the shadow of the Confederate fantasies that continue to animate White Southern politics. The movement of Black radical politics into electoral politics and policy made sense in the Black Belt.

Before the 2020 election I came across a news report that warned about Russian trolls planting the idea of an African republic in the Southern states. They claimed we would be flooded with messages about being taken for military training on the continent. I wondered if whoever was reporting had looked back in history to our wildest dreams and decided to see if they might be seductive yet again, and therefore disturb the vote. Or had the idea of Black self-determination and self-governance become so preposterous that it was the wildest trick imagined? Better yet, perhaps they took freedom dreams as foolhardy fantasy and thought they could sprinkle them anywhere, tapping into anxieties about Black discontent. Whatever this moment of moral panic meant, in the present and in retrospect, the Republic of New Afrika has never been established. But Jackson has stayed on the move. It is part Chicago and mostly Mississippi, a place where, like the first Chokwe Lumumba, people reverse-migrate, either to start a revolution or because life in the North was too cold.

Jackson is urban, but it is also country. Naipaul referred to it as “the frontier” It was where he was introduced to the classic architecture of the Deep South “There were streets of ‘shotgun’ houses. It was the first time I had ever heard the expressive word: narrow wooden houses (like mobile homes or old-fashioned railway carriages) with the front room opening into the back room and with the front door and back door aligned. On Sunday afternoon the people were out on the streets, so that the effect of crowd and slum and blackness was immediate: as though outdoor life, life outside the houses, was an aspect of poverty.” I wouldn’t call Jackson the frontier, but it might be something else: a sort of reverse metropole, a substation of the people.

I have had bantering exchanges with Mississippians for years. Eddie Glaude reminds me, “Your blues ain’t like ours.” (True enough, but Motown is the baby of Jefferson County, Alabama, gospel.) Kiese Laymon told me, “Mississippi is Alabama’s mama.” Which is in a sense also true. Alabama was carved out of Mississippi. I feel competitive sometimes, but the fact is that Mississippi is the only place that has ever felt so akin to Alabama to me that, if dropped in the middle, I might confuse it.

The first time I ever met Jackson native Kiese was on Vassar’s campus. He had invited me to talk to his students. We talked about virtuosity, the striving for excellence that sits at the core of Black Southern aesthetics. It was a conversation about art, but also about identity. The fact is that we come from a tradition that treated beauty as a form of refusal. And in refusing White supremacy with our beauty, we are a people who are exacting critics. We are withering and hyperbolic. A perfect example is how often we’ll describe a vocalist who is competent, if not outstanding, as someone who “can’t sing worth a damn.” On the other side of that judgment is the requirement of humility. And the requirement of humility poses some challenges to self-esteem. If you get a big head, you’ll be admonished about getting too big for your britches, either directly or slyly: “You might can sing alright, but you ain’t got nothing on X” or “Who told you to wear that?” Implicitly “that” undermined whatever success you may have had. And the consequence is that striving for excellence and even achieving it leaves one still on un steady ground.

The second long conversation I had with Kiese, about eighteen years ago, was about my flailing efforts to write a novel. I’m embarrassed about the failures of that artifact. I knew less than zero about composition and form back then. But the most interesting part of the conversation we had was about what was the most interesting part of the novel, the way it pivoted around a character who was a New Afrikan. Kiese told me his daddy had been in NAPO. Almost immediately there was another layer of familiarity between us. It should have been anticipated, though. Southerners choosing African names for their children—like “Imani,” meaning “faith,” or “Kiese,” meaning “joy”-were signals, for a time, of twin commitments to roots and rootedness, as it were, the people and the land, here and there.

Then one day back in 2018, Kiese posted a photo on Facebook of a drawing someone from Mississippi had sent him as part of a request for money. The sender was a visual artist who wrote on lined notebook paper. Within an hour or two, I sent Kiese a drawing that the same artist had sent me. It was nearly identical but not. Each had been hand-inked in pen rather than photocopied. On the drawing he sent me, the artist had run the pen back and forth to correct a mistaken line: the artist’s hustle had to be respected. I’m guessing he thought that these two Black writers, obviously stuck on home (the idea, the topic), might be willing to redistribute a little bit. And it was a good gamble because I sent him money, more than made sense. Kiese did, too.

The formula of the drawing was rudimentary, a pen drawing of a cabin in the rural South. It’s an architectural form that remains, though just barely, and doesn’t withstand history that well. In contrast, plantations are preserved with urgency. But now they’re farms. The only real difference between a farm and a plantation is how it’s used and who it uses, nothing else. Still, real estate brokers sell working farms as “plantations.” I suppose it gives some buyers a rush, a delightful turn in the past. It turns my stomach. The brokers will describe the vastness of both the home and the empty space around it. They promise things like: “This one has it all, luxury, beauty, recreation, fishing, hunting, guest quarters, timber. You name it and it’s here. The only way you are going to understand this property is to take a look for yourself. Paradise…” All that is missing is us.

I had heard about children being charged with building plantation dioramas as part of science projects in Southern schools. So I googled, following the mothers’ anxious questions asking how to do this. You cannot buy a plantation kit from anywhere, I’ve found. You perhaps could turn a farm kit into a plantation, by placing Black figurines about. But you would also need cabins and ragged clothing to be authentic. For the resourceful parent, however, there are plenty of guides online about how to make one from scratch. It seems less offensive than buying a slaveholding landscape already prefabricated. Dollhouse fantasies are generally expected to be idyllic, except when used by child therapists as a vehicle to open up about trauma. I’d pass on that exercise.

One of the big three craft stores, Hobby Lobby, has all the supplies you need. Crafting is big in the South. Its kitsch is not, however, self-mocking. There is honest joy in the ritual of making things. Hobby Lobby sees itself as wholesome. Its Oklahoman founder, David Green, and his executive offspring and siblings live the gospel as they see it. The stores are piously closed on Sundays, and donations go to megachurches and institutions like Oral Roberts University and Liberty University. Green even funded the building of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, where you can take a virtual tour of the Holy Land. The museum opened in 2017. But thousands of Hobby Lobby-owned artifacts, presumably intended to be housed at the museum, were confiscated by the FBI because they had been stolen from Iraq Hobby Lobby paid a fine and returned the relics. The museum claimed no intent to ever hold them. It did, however, feature fifteen Dead Sea Scrolls. As it turns out, those were all fakes.

But it’s still filled with other stuff. A story is crafted in this museum, as with a plantation replica or a site of historic preservation, of a particular tradition. We all have to accept narrative histories can never be comprehensive. But choices are made that reveal values and priorities. And I suppose what I find so compelling about Jackson is that there is no avoiding the truth that there is a battle still being waged over the story. Jackson is named for Andrew Jackson, though, like many parts of the South, it might just as easily have been named for Stonewall Jackson. Though one was formally a president and the other a secessionist general, they shared plantation values of domination. For me, that heroism is shameful. For others, it is to be lauded. Thus, the battle is over truth. But it is also over decency. If you make sin look pretty, that must mean you love the devil.

The generations of freedom fighters in the Black Belt continue their work. And in Mississippi, they have made it the state with the most extensive Black political representation in America. It is the closest we have to a realization of full Black political citizenship. And it is the only state with a scion of Black nationalism as the executive of its capital. Jackson is publicly, unapologetically Black, even for Mississippi. It evidences itself in culture as much as polities. For example, the marching band at Jackson State University is called the Sonic Boom of the South. When the male dancers jump, in navy and white so crisp it could not have possibly touched dirt or concrete for how pristine it is, they are suspended in air, time stands still, and yet the music goes hard and unceasingly. When the women dancers dash a hip, to left, to right, it is sharp, taking back the lasciviousness teased in an instant, a taste before magisterial precision; as the horns gleam, the musicians are consistent as seasons of crops. They march, left right left right. The band does not make the flesh crawl; it revels in it. Love this flesh, it says. It makes sense that this is where the great chronicler of Black history in poem and fiction and prose Margaret Walker made her home as a professor at Jackson State University. She was one who saw the glory of the eternal coming of Black people. The exultation.

They march through the streets, not just in stadiums, and you can always see the dirt high-stepping underfoot. There is no easy resolution between beauty and terror, between poverty and abundance. And just outside of the city, you find yourself looking around and saying the South would be worth holding close even if only for the trees. You can see it. How before all the building, the Piney Woods once stretched across five states. And as chopped down as they are now, their sharp warm scent and sight wraps around you even when you’re standing from a distance. They emanate fragrance that you feel in your eye sockets and above your socks. They are a fortification against climate change. The scientists say these trees are in a desperate battle against human green, slowing the pace of destruction by literally killing greenhouse gases with their scent, If only we were willing to reblanket the Southeast in conifers, we might save ourselves.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t really make it better. Because while we have won, we lose. We still are being killed by what the land won’t bear for us. We bear the wounds offered up as data or statistics. The life expectancy for Black men in Mississippi is 66.71. In Alabama it is 66.66. I stare at the statehouse, with its golden orb at the top. It is imposing, and yet it also looks like it could be peeled like a fast-food wrapper, to find some chicken inside. The interior rotunda in the seat of Mississippi government has a statue of the blind goddess Justice lit by over seven hundred lights. Around her are two Indigenous people, a European explorer, and a Confederate soldier. There is no African. Look up at the top of the gold leaf copper dome and see our national symbols a white-headed bald eagle.

We haven’t outrun or outlived the plantation, although it looks a little bit different. Now the fugitives are from Central America and the unfree laborers are in prison. Some kids are still hungry, even so many years after the breakfast programs and Head Start and all of the gains fought for by Black elected officials, because the gag is in the money and the land, and it still isn’t free. There’s an honesty to Mississippi about all of this. The triumph is not in ends; it is in the fact that we are still here.