November 3, 2003

A conversation in the Delta

Alison Kliegman, a senior majoring in sociology and women's studies, went on a Journey of Reconciliation to the Mississippi Delta in summer 2003.

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.

Eight 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.

One 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.

I 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 areas.

I've 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.

I 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 there.

I 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.

As 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.

They 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.

This 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.

They 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.

These 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.

As 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 me.

I 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.

As 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 guy.

The 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 recently.

All 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.

The 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.

It's 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 change things.

Many 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 but reconciled.

We 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 truly experience.