I came to Mississippi to discover a story too complex to comprehend from pictures and too human to gather from the pages of books. I had tried, reading and watching and studying the history of this place, but each of these left me without a real sense of her. I couldn't be convinced that Mississippi was home to a pernicious root dug deep in the soil of America, planted by those who swore allegiance to division and intolerance and acrimony. Nor could I comprehend the violence and the vitriol that had built her reputation as the bastion of all that was most sinister about the South. I had come to find the figure from which these two disparate shadows were cast.
A century ago my voyage into Mississippi would have been by riverboat, Greenville being the next port city south of Memphis, and the last before Vicksburg and then New Orleans. Then I might have been a carpetbagger, searching the ruins of the decimated South for some kind soil where I could harvest an American dream someone else had planted. Fifty years ago I would have come by train, riding that massive artery of the great migration that pumped Mississippians north to Chicago and hurried them home again with stories of urban promise. Then I might have been a freedom rider, searching to wage a peaceful war against a history of hate. But today I enter Mississippi on a twelve-seater prop plane from Memphis to Greenville. I have come to be a teacher, but despite the healing hand of time, despite my insistence that-raised in Colorado-I come from the West and not the North, I am still a Yankee.
The story of the African-American was at the center of everything I knew of Mississippi and everything I hoped to know. Mississippi fascinated me precisely because it was home to so many of the celebrated monuments and tragic memorials of the American struggle for civil rights. Over the centuries blacks have shaped Mississippi like the mighty river that gives the state its name: crafting lakes and floodplains, banks and flatlands, bringing floods and fecundity-they have been the source of its triumph and its tribulation. Land and water, black and white, transformation and perseverance, these were the things that made Mississippi magical.
But my journey was not just my own, not a solitary adventure to an introspective place, but a project weighted disproportionately with outward purpose. I had come to teach, because at age twenty-two education was the one valuable skill I could bring to Mississippi that she could use. It was the well-intended gift I offered for the privilege of room and board and revelation. There the stories run together, of Mississippi and migration and service, of race and class and education, of rivers and land and journeyman, of history and hatred and hope.
Two white women stood side by side inside the Enterprise Rent-A-Car office, a ticket-booth-sized building in a dirt parking lot. They smiled and extended a warm welcome. The three of us were well along in the business of renting a car without any exchange of personal information, when one looked up from the form and asked politely, "Place of employment?"
"Greenville High School."
It was the first time I had given an answer to that question that did not include "student."
The woman working behind the desk suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, "Oh! You poor thing!"
"What are you going to teach?" the other one asked in obvious surprise.
This met with an overwhelming burst of laughter from both of them, not cold derisive laughter, but the gallows laughter that comes at the realization of troubles shared. The lady at the counter chimed in, "You know that's a foreign language down here!"
"Are you from Greenville?" I asked, trying to smile with them.
"I'm looking for a place to live," I said. "Do you have any suggestions?"
The first lady, Nicki, glanced at the rental-car form and responded, "Well, we just moved down to Riverside." I knew nothing about Riverside, but her posture said it all. It was the same attitude of self-disappointment that I would get later from good students who had let mediocre students copy their work-a knowledge that without actually doing wrong herself, she had let something deeply wrong pass by her without protest. Nicki's quiet penitence bespoke a decency that put me at ease for the rest of the conversation. "We used to live up here in Greenville back when I was pregnant with Josh. . . ."
Nicki went on to tell me that some years ago she was pregnant with her second child and living in Greenville. Although she never told me where, based on her description it must have been one of Greenville's working-class neighborhoods that sociologists would term "in transition." Over the next few days I would find that people in Greenville just call them "turning," meaning "turning black." She was on the front porch of her mother's house, talking to her mother and monitoring her toddler as he sat on the porch. Whatever the demographics of her neighborhood, it was evidently no shock to see a little black boy riding a bicycle on her street; therefore, she paid him no mind. When she turned her back to the street, while reaching over to pick something up for her child, she heard a pop and felt a sharp, deep pain in her backside as she fell to the ground.
As Nicki described it, this boy had been ordered to shoot somebody for initiation to his neighborhood gang. All of nine years old, his tiny hands barely big enough to hold the handlebars of his bike and keep a gun under his shirt at the same time, he had pulled up to Nicki's porch and decided he had found his target. Evidently as shocked as Nicki, the boy dropped his bike and did not move until the police came. She was taken to the hospital and was eventually fine, as was the baby she was carrying. "Luckily, I had some padding," she said with a shy smile. Because he was nine years old, the boy had to wait at Nicki's house while the police called his mother to come to accompany him for questioning.
After that, Nicki and her husband decided it was time to move to Riverside, a white community about twenty miles south of Greenville. From Nicki I learned the fundamental pattern of racial migration in Greenville. The blacks lived north of Highway 82, and the whites lived south of it; as the blacks drifted south, the whites drifted still farther south. However, moving to Riverside was not a subtle migration but a drastic action, like a wealthy man at an auction elevating the price with one unreachable bid. Wary of moving a few blocks farther south every few years to avoid the encroaching black presence, the whites who moved to Riverside decided to make one definitive twenty-mile step. Nicki informed me that her neighbors had more direct methods of dealing with threats of integration. People on her street had organized a pact such that whenever a black family looked at a vacant house or lot in the area, the neighbors would pool their money and encourage the realtor to accept their false payment in earnest on the lot, then tell the family that, with regrets, the lot had already been taken. Once the family had safely given up and gone looking someplace else, the money was returned and the "For Sale" sign replanted.
Before I left the car rental office, I asked directions to the school. Nicki's coworker told me that it was right down the street that ran behind the building. She said she knew this all too well because the students gathered behind her office to smoke pot before they went to school. She proceeded to play the cards she had been holding so tightly, anxious to add her perspective on Greenville, and as she did I could tell from Nicki's silence that she was a little ashamed of her coworker. The woman told me how "these kids" went to school only to deal drugs, and how she had thought about teaching, had even been a teacher once, but all they wanted over there now were baby-sitters: None of the kids came to learn.
I gathered my papers and the car keys and thanked them both. I was about to turn and leave when Nicki said something I will never forget: "The blacks keep moving into our neighborhoods, and you gotta take sides."
What surprised me was that she delivered her comment with a profound sadness, the way a sister talks to a brother about their parents' divorce, the way we talk about lost friends whom we never truly conceded losing.
Although it was the only open business on South Hinds Street, it was still difficult to locate the small brown sign that read realty. I walked into a depressing, dimly lit brown room with a hefty man sitting behind a desk. A stout man with a closely trimmed beard and a soft middle-aged wave in his hair, Sherborn had the face and the long substanceless pauses of a small-town politician. After brief introductions, in which he seemed disinterested, I asked him what properties he had for rent. Sherborn scratched his beard and glanced toward the room behind him.
"We got any friends with carriage houses open right now?" he called out.
A female voice with a soft drawl called back, "What about the Smiths? I think the boy who was staying in their carriage house moved back to Biloxi."
"There you go." Sherborn picked up the phone and dialed. Tilting the receiver, he directed his comments toward me as he waited for an answer: "What we need to do is put you in a carriage house with one of these nice families where you won't have to worry about safety or anything. This other Realtor friend of mine's got one, although he might not give it to me. He's still a little pissed because I sent him some blacks a while back. They were good blacks though. I knew 'em. There are some you know well enough, they probably ain't gonna move in and shoot the place up."
Fortunately, the man he was calling answered the phone and liberated me from making a response.
"Bob," he said, "I got a kid here looking for a carriage house. He looks like a decent kid, doesn't have long hair or earrings or any of that mess. You smoke pot, son?"
I shook my head.
"He don't smoke pot or nothing. Aww, come on, you're not still mad at me about those blacks, are ya? How they doing so far? Well, there ya go, I told you they was good ones." There was a pause as Sherborn listened to his friend's response; then he let out a bellowing laugh and hung up the phone. "Well, turns out he's already rented his to somebody. Sorry, that's the only carriage house I know of. I only got one or two other properties and those are both gonna be too big and out of your price range."
I waited for him to acknowledge that the wall behind his desk was covered with photographs of houses with red tags beneath them that read "For Rent." I picked out one of the photographs behind him that looked attractive and affordable.
"What about that one?" I asked.
He stared at me for a long moment, waiting to see if I would withdraw the question. Reluctantly, he swiveled his chair around to study the wall of photographs behind him.
"Oh yeah, that one," he said, "well, yeah, there's that one if you want it. . . ."
It was as if I had just inquired about a tree house.
"How much is it?"
"Probably around . . . four hundred seventy-five dollars," he said. I asked about another house on the wall and it received the same reaction. I asked for the addresses of the two places so that I could investigate. He obliged, listlessly handed me the keys to both houses, and sent me on my way.
When I found the first address on Havana Street, which was the one that I preferred, I knew I did not need to search for the second, as my assumption had been correct: a black neighborhood. Not even in transition.
The house looked wonderful, so I decided it was time to explore the neighborhood. In Greenville, steps and shade may as well be La-Z-Boys and mai tais, because they are the only requirements for a good gathering place. Under a carport across the street, a group of eight or ten people sat in the shade: some perched on a mother's knee, some crawling, some playing with the scattered debris of toys in the yard, some smoking cigarettes, some drinking from paper bags.
There were at least three grown men and two grown women in the group, and conversation continued through a constantly opening screen door, with some unseen party giving occasional direction from the living room. I turned from the steps of my potential new house and began on a direct line for those shaded steps. Several members of the group had been watching me and continued doing so, still disinterested by the fact that there seemed to be no other place I could be going but toward them. I was across the lawn and under the carport before an uncomfortable silence acknowledged that ignoring me would not make me go away. Fearing the silence, I introduced myself and told them that I was a new teacher at Greenville High. I extended my hand to an older, dignified-looking man wearing a work hat. He looked at my hand as if I were offering him a pile of mud, and then looked away.
I stumbled into a question about the safety of the neighborhood-one that I realized was probably insulting as soon as I had asked it-as a yellow Caprice Classic turned the corner and pulled up the driveway. A woman in her mid-forties stepped out. A girl, perhaps seventeen, got out of the backseat holding a child who could have been her brother or her son. Two other young men, who could have been brothers or boyfriends, emerged from the car. The next few minutes were a constant commotion of passing babies, picking up toddlers, carrying things to and from the car, greeting and drinking, and universally disregarding the strange white boy standing frozen in the middle of the carport. At one point, without yet having been spoken to, I ended up holding a baby and a large toy.
Evidently I had done something, either through my dumb perseverance or my successful handling of the baby and the toy, so that the taciturn gentleman who had at first refused my handshake was reconsidering my qualifications as a neighbor. He gestured toward my house and said something so quietly that it was inaudible. Pleased that he was conceding to talk to me, or even to talk while I was in his presence, I stepped closer to him and asked, "Pardon?" My question did not stop or even delay his sentence, but I was now close enough to hear what he was saying. He spoke in a gentle, deliberate voice, his cadence animated by that distinct Southern lilt I grew to love:
"Yeah, that preacher sho' stayed there. Musta been 'bout two years now. I usta cut dat yard, and dem bushes too. Man damn near tore the place up for a preacher. Now he done got his own church up by Shaw somewheres. Left off to live with his kinfolk. Wife never too much came down here, she always stayed up there with her people. He sho' had some folks living up in there, always somebody comin' and goin', couldn't hardly keep track of the cars. Used to have all sorts of lil'uns over there, always got to throwing stuff up on the ruf, I reckon you got a ruf full of crap up there. Put that cellophane around the windows though. Done right by that."
As he was talking, he was drifting out into the yard and toward the street. By the time he had told me about how exactly he had cut the grass and the wall of shrubs that lined the eastern and southern sides of the front yard, we were standing right next to them. I thanked him for his help and asked him his name. He muttered something about his real name that I could not catch, but said that I could call him "Reb." He looked south down Havana Street as if measuring something. A block away, a group of meandering boys filled the street with their slouching bodies and boisterous conversation.
"Seven years ago I was the first black to move up into this neighborhood," he said. "When I moved in white folks wouldn't even shake my hand. I moved into that house right there." He pointed across Havana to the south. "I worked every day, come home every night and had a drink and set right on dat porch and dat was it. Then dat family down the road up and moved in. Come a while, mo' and mo' black folk moves in and mo' and mo' white folk moves out. But they still some white folks that stayed, and I don't blame 'em none neither. Old white couple lives down there. 'Nuther white guy and his ma live down that a way and they don't have no trouble. They wasn't fixing to be run out of their neighborhood and I got no problem with 'em staying. They do fine here."
It was only then that I realized he was trying to assuage what he perceived to be my fear of living in a black neighborhood by pointing out where the rest of my people lived. Anxious to correct his assumption, I told him that I was not in the least bit worried about living in a black neighborhood, and left it at that.
"Have you ever had any problem with safety here?" I asked.
Reb smiled amicably and began to diagram the vulnerabilities of my house as if he were defending against an invasion. "You know ain't nobody coming through that woman's yard."
Immediately behind my house was a very nice brown brick house with a Lexus in the driveway and what looked like a Mercedes parked inside the garage. Whether Reb was right or not about the tenacity of that woman, it seemed clear that she had much more to defend than I did.
"And you see that porch over there, well that's where I stay," Reb continued, pointing to the shotgun house where he had told me he first moved seven years before. "And you see that one right next to it, well that's where my buddy stay. We gets off work every day at four o'clock, and from four o'clock until when we go to bed we gonna be sitting right there. That's all the safety you need."
I couldn't help but smile. Reb saw it, and for the first time cracked his weathered lips just far enough that I could see his decaying teeth.
Nelson had mentioned that "work was still being done" on the house and that the electricity had not yet been turned on, so I thanked Reb and decided to take a look inside the house before it got dark. I opened the front door and stepped into the front room that I had seen through the window. It was as splendid as I imagined: The walls and ceiling were newly painted white; the wooden floors were undamaged, although still covered with drop cloths; and an entire wall of bookshelves stood perfectly cleaned and painted. Unfortunately, I walked far enough into the kitchen to see that all the appliances had been removed and all the tiles and counters stripped out; the same was true of the bathroom.
I was sufficiently enchanted by the front room and my conversation with Reb that I returned to Nelson and told him I would take the house. Ten days remained before school started, time enough for me to return to Colorado, gather all my stuff, and return to Greenville in time to move in and have a couple of days to get settled before classes began. I asked Nelson to ensure that the work on the house be completed by the time I returned from Colorado the following Wednesday. Nothing about the process seemed to interest him. He seemed skeptical that this would happen, although he agreed to put the work stipulation in the contract. He tucked my check into the desk and resumed staring at me blankly, waiting for me to leave. As Nelson's door swung closed behind me, I tried not to think about my suspicion that as I walked toward my rental car Nelson was having a good hard laugh over a joke I didn't get.
My first full day in Greenville had seemed impossibly long, but it had been productive and even successful. To reward myself, I decided to stop in McCormick's Book Inn, a small bookstore that I had noticed during the course of my house hunting. The store was a modest wooden house separated from the road by a deep square gravel driveway and a few rickety wooden steps.
McCormick was a pensive ponytailed man with glasses, knowledgeable and talkative: a perfect find for a curious newcomer. After browsing through the store's Mississippi section for a while, I introduced myself and explained that I was a new teacher looking for a place to live.
"Is it possible to find integrated neighborhoods in Greenville?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, most of 'em are at this point," he responded.
"Where would be a good place to look?"
He spent a couple of minutes describing neighborhoods on the southern half of town, neighborhoods that my bumbling research had determined were predominantly white.
"Where do you live?" I asked as unobtrusively as possible.
"Not too far from here," he said as he gestured around the corner. This put him in a rather wealthy neighborhood. He did not want to be more specific about where he lived and I did not want to be more intrusive, but I could tell he was reluctantly withholding his real opinions.
"Is there still a lot of racial animosity in Greenville?" I asked.
He exhaled at length and let his shoulders drop, taking off his glasses to clean them on his shirt. He gathered his air, straightened his shoulders, adjusted his glasses and looked me in the face. He spoke slowly and carefully, knowing that any careless phrase could be dangerously misconstrued. I have never met a white person from Greenville who spoke of race with more tenderness, precision, or honesty than Mr. McCormick did on that August night.
"You know what some of my neighbors call my street? Congo Lane. Because a lot of the black kids walk down my street every day to get to school and get home from school. A lot of my neighbors think that's very funny. Do I laugh at it? No. Do I tell them that I'm disgusted by their humor? No. I turn and walk away and keep fairly much to myself, and those folks don't much befriend me anymore.
"We live in a pretty nice neighborhood, but we've been there for over twenty years. When we first moved there it wasn't so nice, but there didn't happen to be any blacks in the neighborhood. Now we have a number of black families that live on our street. Sure, there were people who were a little skittish about them moving in when they first arrived, but they've done wonderfully. They like the neighborhood and the neighborhood likes them. Why? Because they share a similar lifestyle. It's not a question of race, it's a question of values.
"I would love to live in a whole city made of people like my two black neighbors, regardless of what color or religion or nationality they were. Would I want to live in the middle of one of these black neighborhoods down here on Clay Street? Absolutely not. Would I want these people from Clay Street to move into my neighborhood and be my neighbors? Absolutely not. Is it because they're black? No! It has nothing to do with them being black; it has to do with what they value and what I value. And I'm not putting a judgment on what their values are. They just happen to be different from my own. But that's not racism. That's just wanting to live your own life. That's the way I look at it. It's not the color of the skin, it's the way people choose to live."
As I heard him say this I wondered if Reb shared McCormick's values. I supposed it depended on the value. Did he work an honest day every day, or did he wear a collared shirt to work? Did he treat people with dignity and respect, or did he make sure that his lawn was mowed? Did he sit on his porch and drink beer from a paper bag, or did he drink it in the privacy of his own home while he watched television? Did he have children out of wedlock, or did he just go to strip clubs when he closed a big deal? Which exactly were the values that mattered? I didn't think to ask McCormick those questions that night, because I believed that-like Nicki-we were living the best answer we could find.
Excerpted from IN THE DEEP HEART'S CORE
© Copyright 2002 by Michael Johnston. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.