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.

Water Buffalo

We are what we eat: our food is very much an indication of who we are, of our place on the planet in every facet of our existence: our age, our geography, our society, our ethnic background and our own sense of self.

You’ll often hear of fish being talked about as trash fish. Trash fish is a slang term for what U.S. state agencies and anglers call rough fish to describe larger fish species not commonly eaten or fished for sport. A fish considered rough fish in one region may be considered a game or food fish in another, often due to culture or tradition. For example, the common carp is considered an undesirable rough fish in the United States and Australia, but is the premier game fish of Europe and the most valuable food fish across most of Asia. Gar is an undesirable nuisance in most places in the U.S., but in Louisiana it’s mashed, made into balls with seasonings and fried.

Buffalo is a genus (Ictiobus) of freshwater fish common in the United States. It is sometimes mistaken for carp because of its flat face and large, silver scales running along the body, though it lacks the whisker-like mouth appendages common to carp. Buffalo live in most types of freshwater bodies where panfish are found, such as ponds, creeks, rivers and lakes. From a fisherman’s point of view, the buffalo is difficult to catch; the preferred method is with gill nets.

According to Dr. Jim Steeby, former research and extension professor at MSU, “There are three species of buffalo: bigmouth, smallmouth and black. The smallmouth, also called the razorback, is most commonly caught in rivers with hoop nests.

“We can spawn and grow them with catfish in ponds,” Jim said. “They are minnow family fishes so they have bones in their flesh, but it’s a Southern favorite; the ribs are the best part. In the Delta at Stoneville, we did mostly catfish research, but we worked on some other species. Back in the early 60s they started growing buffalo in ponds in Arkansas, then switching to catfish as the market for them was better. Buffalo are not grown much anymore. Most of the harvest comes from commercial fishermen. If the market were bigger we could easily supply it, but buffalo seems likely to remain a regional favorite.”

Jackson chef Nick Wallace said that the unpopularity of buffalo might have something to do with the bones, “But you can go to some of these Southern fish markets and find buffalo. It’s not cooked in the restaurants at all; maybe because the chefs don’t like the quality because of the bones, I’m not sure; maybe it doesn’t fit to their clientele. But fish markets that do six hundred, seven hundred thousand dollars a year, they have it. It is seasonal, mainly winter, but it has a long season. To me, it is a delicate fish. If you eat it, you have to eat it delicately.”

“Last July, I called Mark Beason early one morning, and I said, ‘Mark, I have B.B. King coming in, and B.B. wants some buffalo.’ Mark took his nets to the Big Black River and an hour later I had two big buffalo. I checked it for abrasions and dark marks; you want to watch out for things like that. The whole fish is edible, and the tail is great. B.B. wanted it the next day, too. I had gotten a couple more, and he took two whole buffalo with him. They had a kitchen on his bus, and he had a guy with him who was back in the kitchen when I was cooking it, looking over my shoulder.”

“It has a nice pink flesh,” Nick said. “The fish needs to be eaten piping hot because the taste is more pronounced when you eat it hot. If you let it cool down, it’s almost like a muscle, the fish tightens up. You want to handle this fish hot. When my granny made buffalo cakes, she would get her hands in the hot cooked meat to make them. That’s what I like about cooking this type of fish, it actually takes work, it’s not just a simple meat you slice on the bias and throw in the skillet. You have to really touch this food, feel it, know it and work with it. She’d make the cakes like a croquette. She’d put mustard in the cakes and if you’re making a buffalo sandwich you’re going to want good mustard on it: white bread, mustard and tomatoes. Best sandwiches in the world.”

“Buffalo should stand out a lot more than sea bass, halibut and tilapia,” Wallas adds. “We were raised on Mississippi fish, that’s what we were used to, and that needs to be talked about. I just don’t understand how you can go to a restaurant and find sea bass on the menu, when you have anything you could really want to be sustainable here in Mississippi.”

Armand Coullet: Mississippi Impresario

On Saturday, March 17, 1951, the stage of Jackson’s Civic Auditorium supported a cast of players the likes of which never had nor never since has tread the boards in the capital city. As the very Devil himself, Charles Laughton led Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer and Sir Cecil Hardwicke in a surprisingly successful enactment of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell”. The review in Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger (“‘Don Juan in Hell’ a Big Hit Here”) states that the Jackson audience was thrilled with “Agnes Moorehead’s amazing transformation from a woman of 77 at death to a lady of 27 in Hell”, adding that “Laughton stated categorically that he is not ‘the beefy bird of comic strip fame.’”  One year later, a Time magazine article stated that the production’s tour had amassed gross profits of over $1M.

The Jackson performance was engaged by a man who recognized not so much a shy hunger in the city as an earnest yearning not only for literature, but for music, for lights, for the engaged delight of people in a body; the laughter, the suspense, the applause: the man, Armand Coullet, provided Mississippi’s capitol with over three decades of dazzling entertainment.

According to Jackson historian Harry Brown, “About a decade after H. L. Mencken declared the South ‘The Sahara of the Bozart’, Armand Coullet arrived on the Jackson scene to do something about it. He quickly established himself as the city’s resident Frenchman, a position he proudly made the most of and which of course carried a certain primacy in cultural affairs. Mr. Coullet was actually from Algiers. but that was certainly close enough to the Riviera for Jackson society of the day. Eventually he became the town’s foremost impresario, bringing notable entertainers and productions not only to Jackson but to other cities in the region. The Coullets—his wife Magnolia was an accomplished vocalist as well as being Chair of Foreign Languages at Millsaps, and his son ‘Tink’ went on to the Broadway stage and beyond—were welcome in the very highest social circles, and Armand was a highly valued addition to any gathering. He naturally had an approving and charming eye for the ladies, but of course all with courtly decorum.”

Camille Saint-Saëns

Armand Coullet was born in 1899 to a well-to-do French family that had relocated to Algeria shortly after France conquered the North African country in the early 19th century. His father was a French civil servant. He attended public schools in Algiers, graduating from the French Government School of Topography. He also graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts with the Premier Prix in violin, conducting and orchestration. Advanced study in conducting and orchestration was completed with composer and conductor Camille Saint-Saëns, and and was later assistant to Saint-Saëns as concert master of the North African Symphony Orchestra.

He continued his violin studies in France at the Conservatoire de Paris; when Armand completed his musical training, his father and mother, Eugene and Marguerite, presented him with a fine violin made in 1667 by Francesco Ruggieri, who served as an apprentice in the workshops of Stradivarius. Coullet played first violin in the Opera House in Algiers for two years and directed his orchestra in the city’s leading hotels. He also served three years in a field artillery unit of the French Army during World War I.

Coullet came to the United States in 1924. In an interview fifty years later, he recalled, “The only thing I had was my violin and $27, but I had the world by the tail. When I got off the boat, there was an agent standing there who sked me in French if I played the violin. He gave me a job right there on the spot with the Boston Little Symphony.”

As concert master of the Boston Little Symphony Orchestra, Coullet traveled with the Chautauqua Tours, and for the next several years, he conducted his own orchestra in various New England resorts and spent a year as first violinist in the Roxy Theatre Orchestra in New York City. He first came south with various road shows and located at Palm, Beach, Florida with his own orchestra. He opened and directed the Academy of Music in West Palm Beach, with a faculty of 12 and an enrollment of 140 students. While in Palm Beach, Coullet regularly heard residents’ complaints about the town’s lack of theatrical offerings. Together with a local theater owner and three partners, Coullet contacted New York producer Lee Shubert and convinced him to send a touring company of “George White’s Scandals” to Palm Beach. The show was a hit and Coullet was bitten by the promoting bug. The itch would last the rest of his life

The devastating 1928 Okeechobee hurricane that practically destroyed West Palm Beach ended Coullet’s career there, and he went back to New York. While there, Hazel Chisholm, who was then working for Jackson radio station WJDX, called him to come to the city. When he arrived in the Jackson, he gave his two weeks’ notice his first day at the station. “I saw the town and thought, ‘Oh, my God,” Coullet recalled fifty years later. “It was so primitive. They had streetcars being pulled down Capitol Street by mules. I knew the town had potential, but potential was for the future. I wanted to leave immediately.”

But he was persuaded to stay, crediting his decision to the kindness of his employers. It was 1928, and in those days radio stations provided their own music. Coullet conducted a 14-piece orchestra for WJDX. He originated special instrumental and vocal programs in classical, semi-classical and popular music. He also met a young lady, Magnolia Simpson, from Madison, Mississippi, who was later to become Mrs. Coullet. Magnolia, Mrs. Sarah. B McLean, and Coullet broadcast every Sunday afternoon from the old Century Theatre the highly successful “Rice Dream House” program, sponsored by Rice Furniture.

Fellow musician and ofttimes traveling companion Muller Adkisson remembers, “During the Depression Armand played violin in the WPA orchestra and he said that’s what kept them going, what put food on their table. He had married Magnolia at some point in there. She taught both voice and Latin at Millsaps College. Later she taught German. WJDX’s original studio was in the Lamar Life building in one of the upper stories under the clock tower. Later when the Heidelberg Hotel added the upper six stories to their 12-story building, they added two stories that weren’t accessible by the elevator. WJDX moved there.”

In 1935, Coullet was instrumental in organizing the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and in 1937 he originated the All-Star Series (now a part of the Jackson Music Association). Coullet also found a theatrical vacuum in Jackson similar to the one in West Palm Beach so he again contacted Schubert, who persuaded New York agencies to place Jackson on their lists; it was a natural stop between Memphis and New Orleans, he reasoned with them.

“Because of union rules traveling shows could only travel so many miles a day,” Adkisson said, “so Armand was often able to bargain them down, get shows here, even though Jackson audiences weren’t that big and couldn’t afford the big shows. But often because of the rules somebody would call him up and say, ‘We have to have a show in Jackson, what can you pay us?’ And he got a lot of good shows here that way.”

His first Broadway production in Jackson was “Blossom Time” in 1935. Coullet later said, “(Being an impresario) might sound romantic and fascinating to some people, but it is hard work and full of worry.” After swinging the deal to bring “Blossom Time” he said he got the stage hand bill and it scared him so much he almost backed out.

Many names headlined his shows through the years: Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald, Bette Davis, Grace Moore, the Don Cossack Chorus, Bob Hope, Marion Anderson, Eva Le Gallienne, Joseph Szgeti, Fritz Kreisler, Richard Crooks, Albert Spalding, San Carlo Opra Company, NBC Opera Company, James Melton, Gladys Swarthout, Signumd Romberg, Nadine Conner and Guy Lombardo. His encounters with famous performers were brief, and he said, “you’d have to see them more than I do to feel that you know them.”

For over three decades, Armand Collet Associates sponsored shows in 15 cities and 12 states and across the South from El Paso to Birmingham, but beginning in the mid-1980s, Coullet limited himself to the presentation of Broadway theatre in Jackson and only a few other Southern cities. Included have been: “Hello, Dolly!”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Man of La Mancha”, “Zorba”, “My Fair Lady” (which ran for seven weeks), “Mame”, “Cabaret”, “1776”,  “Your Own Thing”, “I Do, I Do”, “George M” and a sneak appearance by Mantovani and his Orchestra. Coullet said he considered bringing the Beatles to Memphis in 1966 the crowning glory of his career, but his role in the Fab Four’s appearance at the Mid-South Coliseum can’t be substantiated.

“The big ones carry me,” Coullet once said, referring to smash hits such as “My Fair Lady” and “Hello, Dolly,” but he had his share of bombs. His biggest bust as a promoter was “Cabaret,” here. Coullet considered Grace Moore and Liberace his most glamorous stars. Liberace sold out twice.

“Armand always said how surprising it was to think of the large number of elderly women who came to Liberace’s performances,” Adkisson said. “It was a matter of sex appeal, or what they thought was sex appeal, since of course he was gay. Anyway, Liberace would invite the women in the audience to come backstage after the performances, and he’d wink and mug, and say, ‘Oh, what is your name, darling?’ and the woman would say like ‘Mary’ or something and Liberace would go, ‘Oh, my dear Mary!’ or something. Armand said the first time Liberace appeared in a city he might make a little money for his appearance, might even lose a little, but Liberace would come back two years later and the promoter would make a big profit. That was Liberace’s modus operandi, that he could tour successfully all over the country because he felt a responsibility to the local promoter. Armand had Liberace here three times with sold-out houses. The little old ladies would like up and Liberace would take an hour or more to schmooze with them.”

Even after decades living in Mississippi, Coullet retained his French accent. “It’s the one thing I’m stuck with and can’t lose,” he once said. “I’m not trying to lose it. It’s my natural way of speaking. You must realize that when I first came to this country, the only words of English I knew were ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I had to learn English by myself. I would read the newspapers and, when I found a word I didn’t know, I would write it on a little piece of paper and tack it on the wall. I’d see the word every day until I learned it, then I’d take it down. By that time, there would be 10 or more new ones.” Muller Adkisson recalls that when Coullet promoted shows in New Orleans and south Louisiana, he would give the promotional commercial in English, and then he would give it in French. “Of course people flocked to the shows because they loved hearing the promotions in their everyday speech. ”

In his last published interview, in May, 1977, the 79-year old Coullet, preparing for an upcoming season which was to include the touring company of the Broadway production of Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” as well as “My Fair Lady” and “Same Time Next Year”, said, “In this business you can’t slow down. If you slow down, you’re dead. It took me 40 years to build up the following I have. There’s no retirement for an impresario. I’ll be retired when they put me in a pine box. Sure, I’ve slowed down a little with age, but not so you can tell. You can’t kill a good Frenchman.”

Coullet died New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Coullet (r) with Nelson Eddy