Exploring the American Experience Exploring the American Experience

The Soul of the South

Fifty years after the civil rights summer of 1964, renowned travel writer Paul Theroux chronicles the living memory of an overlooked America

Natchez, a historic cotton and sugar port on the Mississippi River, has seen its population fall by a third since 1960. (Steve McCurry)
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Though the Jackson Daily News editorialized that it was “best for all concerned that the Bryant-Milam case be forgotten as quickly as possible,” the paper also had published a robust piece by William Faulkner. It was one of the most damning and gloomiest accusations Faulkner ever wrote (and he normally resisted the simplifications of newspaper essays), and his anguish shows. He must have recognized the event as something he might have imagined in fiction. He wrote his rebuttal hurriedly in Rome while he was on an official junket, and it was released through the U.S. Information Service.

He first spoke about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the hypocrisy of boasting of our values to our enemies “after we have taught them (as we are doing) that when we talk of freedom and liberty, we not only mean neither, we don’t even mean security and justice and even the preservation of life for people whose pigmentation is not the same as ours.”

He went on to say that if Americans are to survive we will have to show the world that we are not racists, “to present to the world one homogeneous and unbroken front.” Yet this might be a test we will fail: “Perhaps we will find out now whether we are to survive or not. Perhaps the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive.”

And his conclusion: “Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”
Nowhere in the piece did Faulkner use Emmett Till’s name, yet anyone who read it knew whom he was speaking about.

Forget him, the Jackson paper had said, but on the contrary the case became a remembered infamy and a celebrated injustice; and Emmett Till was eulogized as a hero and a martyr. Suppression of the truth is not merely futile but almost a guarantee of something wonderful and revelatory emerging from it: creating an opposing and more powerful and ultimately overwhelming force, sunlight breaking in, as the Till case proved.

Near the ghostly ruin of Bryant’s store, I walked around in the chill air—no one outside on this winter day. I drove east down Whaley Road, past Money Bayou and some narrow ponds, hoping to find Dark Ferry Road and the farm of Grover C. Frederick, where the little house of Emmett’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, had stood, where he’d worked as a sharecropper and where the boy stayed during his visit. But my map didn’t help, and there was no one to ask, and some parts of the past had been erased, but negligible parts. Night was falling when I drove back to Money, the same sort of darkness into which Emmett Till had been dragged. The next day I visited the Emmett Till museum in nearby Glendora, in a forbidding former cotton gin.

Rowan Oak
Oxford, where Faulkner had lived and died, was the university town of Ole Miss. Off well-traveled Route 278, the town vibrated with the rush of distant traffic. There is hardly a corner of this otherwise pleasant place where the whine of cars is absent, and it is a low hum at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s house, which lies at the end of a suburban street, at the periphery of the campus and its academic splendors.

The road noise struck an odd and intrusive note because, though Oxford resembles “Jefferson” in Faulkner’s work, the town and its surroundings are in all respects as remote from Faulkner’s folksy, bosky, strife-ridden, plot-saturated and fictional Yoknapatawpha County as it is possible to be. The town is lovely. The university is classically beautiful in the Greek Revival Southern style, of columns and bricks and domes, suggesting a mood both genteel and scholarly, and backward-looking.

And for a century this esteemed and vividly pompous place of learning clung to the old ways—segregation and bigotry among them, overwhelming any liberal tendencies. So, here is an irony, one of the many in the Faulkner biography, odder than this self-described farmer living on a side street in a fraternity-mad, football-crazed college town.

Faulkner—a shy man but a bold, opinionated literary genius with an encyclopedic grasp of Southern history, one of our greatest writers and subtlest thinkers—lived most of his life at the center of this racially divided community without once suggesting aloud, in his wise voice, in a town he was proud to call his own, that a black student had a right to study at the university. The Nobel Prize winner stood by as blacks were shooed off the campus, admitted as menials only through the back door and when their work was done told to go away. Faulkner died in July 1962. Three months later, after a protracted legal fuss (and deadly riots afterward), and no thanks to Faulkner, James Meredith, from the small central Mississippi town of Kosciusko, was admitted, as its first black student.

Fair-minded, Faulkner had written in Harper’s magazine: “To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow.” But he asked for a gradual approach to integration, and, as he wrote in Life magazine, he was against the interference of the federal government—“forces outside the south that would use legal or police compulsion to eradicate that evil overnight.” We’ll do it ourselves, in our own time, was his approach; but, in fact, nothing happened until the federal government—the South’s historical villain—intervened.

Restless when he was not writing, always in need of money, Faulkner traveled throughout his life; but Oxford remained his home, and Rowan Oak his house, even when (it seems) a neighborhood grew up around the big, ill-proportioned farmhouse previously known as “the Bailey Place.” He renamed it Rowan Oak for the mythical powers of the wood of the rowan tree, as the docents at the house helpfully explained to me.

This street—orderly, bourgeois, well-tended, tidy, conventional—is everything Faulkner’s fiction is not and is at odds with Faulkner’s posturing as a country squire. On this road of smug homes, Rowan Oak rises lopsidedly like a relic, if not a white elephant, with porches and white columns, windows framed by dark shutters, and stands of old, lovely juniper trees. The remnants of a formal garden are visible under the trees at the front—but just the symmetrical brickwork of flowerbed borders and walkways showing in the surface of the ground like the remains of a neglected Neolithic site.

He was anchored by Oxford but lived a chaotic life; and the surprising thing is that from this messy, lurching existence that combined the asceticism of concentrated writing with the eruptions of binge drinking and passionate infidelities, he produced an enormous body of work, a number of literary masterpieces, some near misses and a great deal of garble. He is the writer all aspiring American writers are encouraged to read, yet with his complex and speechifying prose he is the worst possible model for a young writer. He is someone you have to learn how to read, not someone anyone should dare imitate, though unfortunately many do.

Some of Faulkner’s South still exists, not on the land but as a racial memory. Early in his writing life he set himself a mammoth task, to create the fictional world of an archetypical Mississippi county where everything happened—to explain to Southerners who they were and where they’d come from. Where they were going didn’t matter much to Faulkner. Go slowly, urged Faulkner, the gradualist.

Ralph Ellison once said, “If you want to know something about the dynamics of the South, of interpersonal relationships in the South from, roughly, 1874 until today, you don’t go to historians; not even to Negro historians. You go to William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren.”

I walked through the rooms at Rowan Oak, which were austerely furnished, with a number of ordinary paintings and simple knickknacks, a dusty piano, the typewriter and the weird novelty of notes puzzling out the plot of A Fable written by him on the wall of an upstairs room. Notes clarifying the multilayered, if not muddled, plot were, for Faulkner, a good idea, and would serve a reader, too. Nothing to me would be more useful than such handwriting on a wall. Baffled by seven pages of eloquent gabble, you glance at the wall and see: “Charles is the son of Eulalia Bon and Thomas Sutpen, born in the West Indies, but Sutpen hadn’t realized Eulalia was of mixed race, until too late...”

“We’ll be closing soon,” the docent warned me.

I went outside, looked at the brick outbuildings and sheds, a stable and meandered past the plainness of the yard, among the long shadows of the junipers in the slant of the winter sun. From where I stood, the house was obscured by the trees at the front, but still it had the look of a mausoleum; and I was moved to think of Faulkner in it, exhausting himself with work, poisoning himself with drink, driven mad in the contradictions of the South, obstinate in his refusal to simplify or romanticize its history, resolute in mirroring its complexity with such depth and so many human faces—all this before his early death, at the age of 64. No other region in America had a writer who was blessed with such a vision. Sinclair Lewis defined the Upper Midwest, and showed us who we were in Main Street and Elmer Gantry; but he moved on to other places and other subjects. Faulkner stayed put, he achieved greatness; but as a writer, as a man, as a husband, as a delineator of the South’s arcane formalities and its lawlessness, his was a life of suffering.

Pearl handle pistols
Natchez is dramatically sited on the bluffs above the wide brown Mississippi facing the cotton fields in flatter Louisiana and the town of Vidalia. A small, well-kept city, rich in history and river lore, architectural marvels—old ornate mansions, historic houses, churches and quaint arcades; its downtown lined with restaurants. But none of its metropolitan attributes held much interest for me.

The cultural event that got my attention was the Natchez Gun Show at the Natchez Convention Center. It was the main event in town that weekend, and the size of the arena seemed half as big as a football field, with a long line of people waiting to go in.

Entering was a process of paying an admission of $7 (“Children 6 to 11, $1”), and, if you had a firearm, showing it, unloading it and securing it with a plastic zip tab.

After that lobby business, the arena, filled with tables and booths and stalls, most selling guns, some selling knives, others stacked with piles of ammo. I had never seen so many guns, big and small, heaped in one place—and I suppose the notion that they were all for sale, just lying there waiting to be picked up and handled, sniffed and aimed, provided a thrill.

“Pardon me, sir.”

“No problem, scoot on bah.”

“Thank you much.”

No one on earth—none I had ever seen—is more polite, more eager to smile, more accommodating and less likely to step on your toe, than a person at a gun show.

“Mississippi is the best state for gun laws,” one man said to me. We were at the coffee and doughnut stall. “You can leave your house with a loaded gun. You can keep a loaded gun in your car in this state—isn’t that great?”
Most of the gun-show goers were just looking, hands in pockets, sauntering, nudging each other, admiring, and this greatly resembled a flea market, but one smelling of gun oil and scorched metal. Yet there was something else in the atmosphere, a mood I could not define.

Civil War paraphernalia, powder flasks, Harpers Ferry rifles, spurs, canes, swords, peaked caps, insignia, printed money and pistols—a number of tables were piled with these battered pieces of history. And nearly all of them were from the Confederate side. Bumper stickers, too, one reading, “The Civil War—America’s Holocaust,” and many denouncing President Obama.

“My uncle has one of them powder flasks.”

“If it’s got the apportioning spigot spout in working order your uncle’s a lucky guy.”

Some were re-enactors, a man in a Confederate uniform, another dressed in period cowboy costume, looking like a vindictive sheriff, black hat and tall boots and pearl handle pistols.

It was not the first gun show I’d been to, and I would go to others, in Southhaven, Laurel and Jackson, Mississippi. In Charleston, South Carolina, I’d seen a table set up like a museum display of World War I weapons and uniforms, as well as maps, books, postcards and framed black-and-white photos of muddy battlefields. This was a commemorative exhibit put on by Dane Coffman, as a memorial to his soldier-grandfather, Ralph Coffman, who had served in the Great War. Dane, who was about 60, wore an old infantryman’s uniform, a wide-brimmed hat and leather puttees, the get-up of a doughboy. Nothing was for sale; Dane was a collector, a military historian and a re-enactor; his aim was to show his collection of belts and holsters, mess kits, canteens, wire cutters, trenching tools and what he called his pride and joy, a machine gun propped on a tripod.

“I’m here for my grandfather,” he said, “I’m here to give a history lesson.”

Back in Natchez, a stall-holder leaning on a fat black assault rifle was expostulating. “If that damn vote goes through we’re finished.” He raised the gun. “But would like to see someone try and take this away from me. I surely would.”

Some men were wandering the floor, conspicuously carrying a gun, looking like hunters, and in a way they were, hunting for a buyer, hoping to sell it. One private seller had a 30-year-old weapon—wood and stainless steel—a Ruger .223-caliber Mini-14 assault rifle with a folding stock, the sort you see being carried by sharpshooters and conspirators in plots to overthrow wicked dictatorships. He handed it to me.

“By the way, I’m from Massachusetts.”

His face fell, he sighed and took the gun from me with big hands, and folded the stock flat, saying. “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”

As I walked away, I heard him mutter, “Goddamn,” not at me but at regulation generally—authority, the background checkers and inspectors and paper chewers, the government, Yankees.

And that was when I began to understand the mood of the gun show. It was not about guns. Not about ammo, not about knives. It was not about shooting lead into perceived enemies. The mood was apparent in the way these men walked and spoke: They felt beleaguered—weakened, their backs to the wall. How old was this feeling? It was as old as the South perhaps.

The Civil War battles might have happened yesterday for these particular Southerners, who were so sensitized to intruders and gloaters and carpetbaggers, and even more so to outsiders who did not remember the humiliations of the Civil War. The passing of the family plantation was another failure, the rise of opportunistic politicians, the outsourcing of local industries, the disappearance of catfish farms, the plunge in manufacturing, and now this miserable economy in which there was no work and so little spare money that people went to gun shows just to look and yearn for a decent weapon that they’d never be able to buy.

Over this history of defeat was the scowling, punitive shadow of the federal government. The gun show was the one place where they could regroup and be themselves, like a clubhouse with strict admission and no windows. The gun show wasn’t about guns and gun totin’. It was about the self-respect of men—white men, mainly, making a symbolic last stand.

“Where I could save my kids”
You hear talk of people fleeing the South, and some do. But I found many instances of the South as a refuge. I met a number of people who had fled the North to the South for safety, for peace, for the old ways, returning to family, or in retirement.

At a laundromat in Natchez, the friendly woman in charge changed some bills into quarters for the machines, and sold me some soap powder, and with a little encouragement from me, told me her story.

Her name was Robin Scott, in her mid 40s. She said, “I came here from Chicago to save my children from being killed by gangs. So many street gangs there—the Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords. At first where I lived was OK, the Garfield section. Then around late ’80s and early ’90s the Four Corners Hustlers gang and the BGs—Black Gangsters—discovered crack cocaine and heroin. Using it, selling it, fighting about it. There was always shooting. I didn’t want to stay there and bury my children.

“I said, ‘Gotta get out of here’—so I quit my job and rented a U-Haul and eventually came down here where I had some family. I always had family in the South. Growing up in Chicago and in North Carolina, we used to visit my family in North Carolina, a place called Enfield, in Halifax County near Rocky Mount.”

I knew Rocky Mount from my drives as a pleasant place, east of Raleigh, off I-95 where I sometimes stopped for a meal.

“I had good memories of Enfield. It was country—so different from the Chicago streets. And my mother had a lot of family here in Natchez. So I knew the South was where I could save my kids. I worked at the casino dealing blackjack, but after a time I got rheumatoid arthritis. It affected my hands, my joints and my walking. It affected my marriage. My husband left me.

“I kept working, though, and I recovered from the rheumatoid arthritis and I raised my kids. I got two girls, Melody and Courtney—Melody’s a nurse and Courtney’s a bank manager. My boys are Anthony—the oldest, he’s an electrician—and the twins, Robert and Joseph. They’re 21, at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Natchez is a friendly place. I’m real glad I came. It wasn’t easy. It’s not easy now—the work situation is hard, but I manage. The man who owns this laundromat is a good man.

“I got so much family here. My grandmother was a Christmas—Mary Christmas. Her brother was Joseph. We called my grandmother Big Momma and my grandfather Big Daddy. I laughed when I saw that movie Big Momma’s House.

“Mary Christmas was born on a plantation near Sibley. They were from families of sharecroppers. My grandfather was Jesse James Christmas.”

I mentioned Faulkner’s Light in August and Joe Christmas, and how I’d always found the name faintly preposterous, heavy with symbolism. I told her the plot of the novel, and how the mysterious Joe Christmas, orphan and bootlegger, passes for white but has a black ancestry. Before I could continue with the tale of Lena Grove and her child and the Christian theme, Robin broke in.

“Joe Christmas was my uncle,” she said, later explaining that he lived in a nursing home in Natchez until he died recently, in his 90s. “It’s a common name in these parts.”

Another beautiful back road in the Deep South—a narrow road past pinewoods and swamps, the hanks of long grass in the sloping meadows yellowy-green in winter. Some orderly farms—a few—were set back from the road, but most of the dwellings were small houses or bungalows surrounded by a perimeter fence, a sleepy dog inside it, and scattered house trailers detached and becalmed under the gum trees; and shacks, too, the collapsing kind that I only saw on roads like these. I had crossed into Jefferson County, one of the poorest counties in the nation and well known to public health experts for having the nation’s highest rate of adult obesity. Every few miles there was a church—no bigger than a one-room schoolhouse and with a similar look, a cross on the roof peak and sometimes a stump of a steeple, and a signboard on the lawn, promoting the text for the week’s sermon: “Lord Jesus Has the Roadmap for Your Journey.”

I was as happy as I had ever been driving in the South. There is a sense of purification that seems to take place in sunshine on a country road, the winking glare in the boughs passing overhead, the glimpses of sky and the stands of trees, wall-like pines in some hollows, enormous oaks and columns of junipers in others, and a fragrance in the air of heated and slightly decayed leaf litter that has the aroma of buttered toast. Oaks and pine trees lined the road for some miles and narrowed it and helped give the impression of this as an enchanted road in a children’s story, one that tempted the traveler onward into greater joy.

And it was about that point that the ominous signs began to appear, real signs nailed to trees. For some miles, large, lettered signs were fastened to the thick trunks of roadside trees, their messages in black and red letters on a bright white background.

“Prepare to Meet Thy God”
Amos 4:12

“He Who Endures to the End Shall Be Saved”
Mark 13:13

“The Eyes of the Lord Are in Every Place Beholding the Evil and the Good”
Proverbs 15:3

“Faith Without Works Is Dead”
James 2:26

“Strive to Enter at the Strait Gate”
Luke 13:24

Mark 6:12

In a church of believers, these sentiments, spoken by a pastor in a tone of understanding, could be a consolation, but painted on a tree in the backwoods of Mississippi they seemed like death threats.

“One of the great places”
In my ignorance, I had believed the Delta to be solely the low-lying estuary of the Mississippi River, roundabout and south of New Orleans, the river delta of the maps. But it isn’t so simple. The Delta is the entire alluvial sprawl that stretches northward of that mud in Louisiana, the flood plain beyond Natchez, emphatically flat above Vicksburg, almost the whole of a bulge west of Mississippi, enclosed in the east by the Yazoo River, all the way to Memphis. It is a definite route, as well; it is Highway 61.

I swung through Hollandale, which was just as boarded-up as other places on and off the highway I’d been through, but I heard music, louder as I entered the town. It was a hot late-afternoon, dust rising in the slanting sunlight, the street full of people, a man wailing and a guitar twanging: the blues.

When I hesitated, a police officer in pressed khakis waved me off the road, where cars were parked. I got out and walked toward a stage that had been set up against a stand of trees—this was the limit of the town, and a powerful, growly man was singing, backed by a good-sized band.

“That’s Bobby Rush,” the police officer said to me as I passed him.

A banner over the stage was lettered “Hollandale Blues Festival in Honor of Sam Chatmon.” Stalls nearby were selling fried chicken and corn, ice cream and soft drinks and T-shirts. Bobby Rush was screaming now, finishing his last set, and as he left the stage to great applause from the people—about 200 of them—standing in the dust, another group took the stage and began stomping and wailing.

A black biker gang in leather stood in a group and clapped, old women in folding chairs applauded and sang, children ran through the crowd of spectators, youths dressed as rappers, with low-slung trousers and hats turned back to front—they clapped too, and so did 17-year-old Shu’Quita Drake (purple braids, a sweet face) holding her little boy, a swaddled 1-month-old infant named D’Vontae Knight, and Robyn Phillips, a willowy dancer from Atlanta, who had family in Hollandale and said, “This is just amazing.”

But the music was so loud, so powerful, splitting the air, making the ground tremble, conversation was impossible, and so I stepped to the back of the crowd. As I was walking, I felt a hand on my arm.

It was a man in an old faded shirt and baseball cap.

“Welcome to Hollandale,” he said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m the mayor,” he said. “Melvin L. Willis. How can I help you?”

Melvin Willis was born in Hollandale in 1948, and had grown up in segregated Delta schools. (And, alas, in November 2013, some months after I met him, he died of cancer.) He went to college and got a job teaching in York, Alabama, a small town near the Mississippi state line. He had become a high-school principal in York.

“I worked there 40 years, then retired and came back home to Hollandale in 2005. I ran for mayor in 2009 and won. I just got my second term. This festival is an example of the spirit of this town.”

The music, the crowds, the many cars parked under the trees, the food stalls and the festive air—none of it could mask the fact that, like Rolling Fork and Anguilla and Arcola and other places I’d visited, the town looked bankrupt.

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