Note: This article originally appeared on Vox.com
I almost swerved off the road the first time I saw cotton in full bloom.
I had seen the dull green cotton plants crawling toward the sky through the summer months. Then, practically overnight, the cotton bolls exploded to reveal their fluffy prize. Nothing moves fast in the South — except when it does.
My wife’s grandmother spent some of her childhood days picking cotton. She described to me how the plant grudgingly yielded its prize, how the spiny shell would scrape open her fingers.
Cotton farming is all automated now. Huge machines comb the plants for their fibrous cotton centers. The cotton gets smashed into huge rectangular bales that are loaded onto flatbed trucks and shipped off for processing. But when those fields are blooming, you can’t help but picture slaves dressed in rags, hunched over in the oppressive heat, their hands scarred from years of labor.
The first question I get when I tell people I live in the Mississippi Delta is, “Why?”
This is what strikes me most about the Deep South — the immediacy of the past. Nothing stands between you and the stories you hear about slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. This history is in the ground you walk on and the people you live among.
“It’s real down here”
The delta is a place historian James C. Cobb called “the most Southern place on earth.” For most people it’s a region that brings up pictures of slavery, lynching, and poverty. So why would I, a black man from the Midwest, volunteer to move to the cradle of American racism?
My journey in the South started as a middle school teacher. I joined the Teach for America program and signed up for a two-year stint in a new public charter school on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River.
At first, I hated it. This tiny rural town felt like an island. Even more remote than an island, it seemed detached from both space and time. I couldn’t even describe to friends and family back home — “It’s real down here” is the best I could come up with.
Some of the differences from places I’d lived before were trivial. Store hours were rarely followed. You still can’t buy alcohol on Sundays. Camouflage is always appropriate attire, whether you’re going to the dentist or even church. And be careful driving at night — you don’t want to be stranded on a country road in the delta with no towns or streetlights for miles.
But there was the darker stuff. On my daily commute, I would pass a truck weigh station that flew the state flag. Mississippi is the last state in the country to retain the “Southern cross” on its flag; it defiantly sits in the upper left corner of the banner. At this truck station, the flag hangs just below the American flag, the two symbols inseparable from each other.
Even the cemeteries are segregated. In our town, the Confederate cemetery, which now sits in the corner of a larger cemetery, was meant only for white people. A completely separate plot of land in another part of town, unkempt and underfunded by comparison, was reserved for deceased black people. The cemeteries still operate, and although segregation is no longer enforced, the racist history is literally etched in stone.
Most of the black folks I talk to outside of this region can’t fathom ever living here. I try to tell them that they can’t truly understand the nation or themselves unless they at least make a pilgrimage to the Deep South.
For black people, the South is our homeland away from home. We were divorced from our native soil on the African continent and shipped to agricultural regions of North America; the Deep South is as close as many African Americans will get to their past.
I could have easily left after my two-year commitment — but I didn’t. The people I surrounded myself with and the impact I was making on my students in this small Southern town kept me rooted in place. But it was more than that. In some sense, I chose to live in the Deep South not in spite of its racial past but because of it. The racial wounds are apparent here, and they help me see this nation for what it truly is.
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