Well, I've officially been an AmeriCorps VISTA for one week now and it's been 17 days since I left Staunton.
Though really I’ve only been on the soil for around 10 days. I’ve seen the Delta, though not the River. I’ve driven past so many places that loom so large in Southern history, American Music’s history Civil Rights history, and American history in general. Places like Hattiesburg, Meridian, Vicksburg, Indianola, Tupelo, and more. And have met more people in these two weeks than I have in the last four years living in Staunton.
I haven’t had any time to process any of this really. That's one of the reasons why I haven't dispatched an update. Because I’m working and not really in the mindset of a tourist, I haven’t really given myself much time to look around and experience. My job has been to find my place in this complicated community in Oxford and see how I can leverage connections and networks to fulfill my mission.
Oxford, as far as I can tell, has a strange relationship with its history. Faulkner's grave is a landmark that people tell directions by. I've heard three different explanations of "hotty toddy" (still not totally sure what it means). Most of the people I've met who live in town (or in the county, for that matter) are not native-Mississippians or even Southerners. That's been a little disappointing.
I've been running into two main groups: apologists and those who are completely naive. Most people are quick to tell you that they aren't from
Cleveland MS was nice. I could almost, almost see myself living there. The sunset— oh my stars— is unbelievable.
So there’s a complication to it. How can I fit in when I’m not only transient but also here to thrust an idea on people that they might not be ready for? Yes, even in a place like Oxford. Maybe even especially in a place like Oxford.
There’s a bit of a wild-eyed look to the people of Mississippi— specifically from the Delta. They are a little less friendly than eastern Southerners. Maybe because they are reluctant toward people like me. Maybe because they are aware of their own reputation. Maybe because they are tired and sick. Maybe because they are sick and tired of being called tired and sick.
Well, I guess it’s part of my job to meet the stare in those eyes with my own history, reluctance, hate, struggle, and love.
The best advice is from my friend, Kenya. She’s this near-cliche larger-than-life woman from Indianola who told me I wasn’t Southern, but then gave me a pass when she saw me sopping up my black eyed peas with my cornbread. She’s working for VISTA at a mentoring center in her town.
I asked her to give me some advice about talking to people in Mississippi— especially poor, rural black folks. She laughed and said,
“You know, Shannon. You know already. Just talk. We need you to talk to us. And we need to talk. Be there. Because we can sniff out that inauthentic you-know-what.”
Keep it 100.
So along with my actual job goals and description— along with setting up this pretty intense sustainable organization project in Oxford— along with crushing all the bureaucratic goals and that the DSU office has set before me— I’m going to really, seriously keep it 100 percent this year.
We’ll see how it goes.
(picture of a print in my friends' house in Cleveland, MS. Kate is a director at the Sunflower Freedom Project and her husband, Mike, is a sculptor and art professor at Delta State).