What I remember most about the Mississippi Delta
is not the wide expanses of flat land, the abundance of catfish
and pork at meals, or the constant reminders of how cotton shaped
this region. What I remember are two boys I met while taking a
personal detour from the official "Journeys of Reconciliation" itinerary.
of us from Emory devoted 10 days of our summer vacation to venture
into the Delta, a place none of us had been, and we went in knowing
only what we'd read in books, which is almost never the truth.
Sunday our group took a break from a Habitat For Humanity build
to attend services at a middle-class black church, a place completely
foreign to me. Somewhere between the warm hospitality and uplifting
lyrics of the small choir, I started to feel like an outsider.
have been raised Jewish, and while I enjoy experiencing other religions,
something inside me started to feel uncomfortable, and I needed
to get some fresh air. Stepping only 50 feet from this church I
was immersed in a neighborhood of broken-down houses, rusty cars,
litter-strewn sidewalks--all the things we associate with impoverished
never been afraid of walking in "ghettos" or being in the "wrong
place," and while that may seem naïve or ignorant or stubborn,
I believe the more I fear a place and avoid it, the more I contribute
to its reputation and demise.
explored this neighborhood, quietly taking in the sights and sounds;
meanwhile I did not realize the neighborhood was simultaneously
taking me in from its porches and windows. I smiled at men sitting
in chairs on their lawns and nodded to teenagers driving by in
cars that slowed down while passing, trying to discern why I was
never felt afraid; after all, hadn't I come to the Delta to confront
the racism that still pervades our country? After 10 minutes or
so, I got used to the stares; they weren't looks of hate or contempt,
rather of curiosity, perhaps confusion.
I rounded the final corner back to the church, two teenage boys
began following me and then started yelling, not in the usual cat-call
way, but in a "hold up, we just want to talk" kind of way. I let
them catch up, and I could tell they were shocked I didn't bolt
for the church.
were intrigued. They saw me as an outsider and wanted to know what
I was doing walking around by myself, and wasn't I scared? That
question shocked me, mainly because it showed how aware they were
of how they are perceived by the white people in their community.
question--aren't you scared?--began a sort of informal interview,
which is ironic since, with every speaker or group with whom we
met on our journey, we did all the asking and probing. But the
questions those boys asked me revealed more about their lives than
any questions I could have posed to them.
asked me if I had a gun on me, or any sort of weapon; when I looked
shocked, they said it was completely normal to have a gun--especially
since I was a white woman by myself. They asked about my group
and why I wasn't with them at church. This led into a discussion
about religion. I told them I was Jewish, which immediately elicited
more questions. They said they'd never met a Jewish person before,
and their only notion of Jews is that we are in Hollywood.
boys had never left Mississippi in all their 15 years of life;
one had been to Jackson--once. They wore clothes that were trendy
but not in a brand-new way, more like recycled trends from a few
years ago that finally made it to the Delta. They had no future
plans; college was not even in their minds. They lived day to day.
we chatted, their eyes wandered while mine stayed fixed on them.
Perhaps they were wondering what other neighbors were thinking;
in fact, some older boys yelled at them to leave me alone, assuming
I felt harassed, and the two boys just told their friends to shush.
They asked if my group would be mad or worried when they saw me
talking to them. This was all so bizarre to me, as if we were different
creatures, engaging in some taboo ritual everyone knew about except
asked if there were any white families in the neighborhood, and
they looked at me as if I'd asked if they could fly. No white family
would want to live there, they said.
time passed I sensed they started to feel more comfortable, and
the more assertive one looked like he was itching to ask me something.
The other boy sensed what his friend was going to ask and told
him to just forget it, but I encouraged him to ask me anything.
The bold one ignored his friend and asked if I'd ever dated a black
question surprised me a bit, but then I realized these kids are
teenagers--dating and sex are common topics. He went on to ask if
I'd ever "been" with a black guy. At first I tried to avoid the
topic. "Aren't you a bit young to be talking about this?" I asked,
to which they again looked at me as if I were crazy. They pointed
at a young boy about 11 years old walking by (everyone seemed to
know everyone else in this neighborhood) and told me he'd had sex
their questions were so poignant; they hit exactly the things we
came to the Delta to discover. Most of the people of all races
we met in formal meetings glossed over race, as if it were some
blemish that could be concealed. These boys have never served on
a city board, never held a leadership position, never received
a "higher education," but they knew better than anyone how to show
me the day-to-day realities that exist in their lives.
civil rights movement fostered many important changes, but the
fact that I had this conversation in 2003 shows how much still
needs to happen. I don't know if they were or will be affected
as much by our talk as I was. I guess I can only hope. When the
church service ended, I reluctantly joined my seven companions
to continue our busy agenda. I wanted to stay.
frustrating that we don't discuss race and racism honestly and
frankly, not in my family, not among my friends, not at Emory,
not in the media. We are so afraid to have an open dialogue, and
we mask the truth with "Diversity Weeks" and ensuring a nice racial
makeup of incoming freshman classes. I wonder what it is going
to take for everyone to shed their fear and discuss how to really
times before, during and after the trip I've been asked to describe
exactly what we were reconciling with our journey, but it's not
easy to understand reconciliation in such a short trip. I had my
own understanding going in, but upon leaving the Delta I felt anything
were there for 10 days. We got a tiny sampling of life and were
exposed to these horrible things--but we could just leave when the
trip was up. The people we met can't leave; they stay there forever,
continually dealing with the issues we learned about but will never