o how much longer are you going to be staying down there? In the six years my wife and I have lived and worked around the Mississippi Delta the answer to the question — and I hear it a lot — has changed. Desperate to reclaim our urban origins, we even left the area for a year. Ironically, it was the time away that made realize us how much the “down there” had become home.
Now that we’re back and have planted roots, the question of when we’ll leave has grown weightier. Friends and family seem to want us out of a place they know they’ll rarely if ever visit. I also pick up on what they don’t say: that they think we’re crazy to stay. At times I wish I had a forehead tattoo with the words MY HOME IS MISSISSIPPI — to see if people would react more to the statement or the placement.
But any frustration I might experience as a white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual male outsider pales compared what natives are up against. Whatever their personal or cultural identity, Mississippians are ostracized. Choosing the state as a permanent home means doing mental somersaults around the critiques and insults you’ll hear from both locals and outsiders. Self-hatred cuts deep.
According to a recent Gallup survey, only seven percent of Mississippians believe their state is the best one to live in, less than half the number —15 percent — that think it’s the worst. A database tracking human migration over the past 60 years shows Mississippi consistently losing population. Between 2010 and 2014 the U.S. Census Department pegged Mississippi’s population growth at less than one percent, well below the 3.3 percent national average (the state still has less than three million inhabitants, only 400,000 more than it had 25 years ago).
Quality of life surveys are just as unforgiving. CQ Press, an independent publisher that annually compiles American political and social data, ranks Mississippi as the least livable state in the country, a dead-last spot it has occupied for nine of the last 10 years.
Based on this self-image, it’s no surprise most college-educated students leave the state (according to the Jackson Free Press). Only 19 percent of Mississippi residents have earned a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 30 percent or more in other parts of the country. Deep south brains, when they can, bolt the state.
The foul mood isn’t new. The most famous song about the state is probably Nina Simone’s 1964 “Mississippi Goddam!” written in response to the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers by a white supremacist. Over a sarcastic, happy-go-lucky, show-tune shuffle of her piano, she intones, “Everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam!” After which her tone grow darker: “Desegregation, do it slow / Mass participation, do it slow / Reunification, do it slow / Do things gradually, do it slow.” Aggressive, even impatient, she pounds on the keys: “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality / Everybody knows about Mississippi.”
More than 50 years after the peak of civil rights strife, Mississippi continues to “do it slow.” It was and remains a testing place to live, particularly for poor, rural African-Americans. It’s easily pitied, the way deep-south Italy or Sicily once were (and at times still are). When I show my Mississippi driver’s license as ID to out-of-state bartenders some apologize, as if they’d hit a raw nerve. An interviewer once asked plantation-born Mississippi bluesman Muddy Waters, who made his name in Chicago, if he’d ever return to his roots: “Go back? What I want to go back for?” If I’d grown up here, I might even believe the ingrained negative propaganda.
Mississippi’s challenges are immense. It not only needs to transform itself from within by creating a more welcoming and socially progressive image, but also to change the way it’s portrayed in the collective American consciousness. That means not only trying to rein in the ongoing brain drain but also remembering that while “Mississippi Goddam!” remains a relevant part of the state’s past, the exclamation doesn’t need to break the back of the future.