States 1 & 2: Mississippi & Louisiana, February 2017

pink = where we went

I had never been to Mississippi or Louisiana before. I think I wanted Mississippi to be my first state for this project because of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam." My imagination had latched onto Mississippi as the heart of a protest song. Anna and I cashed in our frequent flyer miles, with a special uncle to stay at home with our boy. This started out as a single-state trip but at the last minute turned into two states when I realized how much there was to see in Louisiana just over the state line, and that it would be smart for me to visit two states for the price of one plane ticket when possible. But doing both states in four days was rather harried and I'm going to try not to do that again.  

We flew into Baton Rouge and spent the night in this little Airbnb cabin in the woods in St. Francisville, LA.

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The next day we drove on bridges across vast swamps to Breaux Bridge, LA. We went to the visitors center, and I asked the woman working there where she thought I should go if I wanted to get a sense of this part of the state. She told me about Lake Martin, and wanted to show me pictures on her computer of what it looks like in the spring; she seemed disappointed that I was going to see it in winter, and not at its best. She said, "It's so serene out there. So beautiful." She's lived in Breaux Bridge her whole life. 

We had a picnic lunch and then went on a ride in boat through Lake Martin with a man named Shawn. Shawn and his dad Butch have a business giving swamp tours. 

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I asked Shawn if he grew up around here and he said yes, and that this lake (not technically a swamp, he told us) was his classroom. His dad studied Zoology and Botany and taught him everything he knows. 

He told us about the biology of the lake, about the animals that live there, and about the history and culture of the area: about duck hunters and Cajuns and swimming habits of local youth (not afraid of alligators); about the birders who come faithfully every winter and sit in lawn chairs in hopes of seeing the bird we just saw, but rarely do - a vermillion flycatcher. I didn't even try to take a picture, and instead just watched this quick small flying flash of pure bright red darting through the blue sky.

Alligators aren't active hunters. They just wait for their food to come to them, while lounging and soaking up sun through these crazy bumps on their back. Shawn knows which mama alligator with her kids live in which part of the lake. (Males don't stick around.)

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Duck hunters build structures to hide behind. Shawn tells us that people eat what they kill, and that the ecosystem depends on the hunters to stay balanced. But he is not pleased with what gets left behind. 

Near the end of the tour, we were admiring a bird that Shawn was saying makes many trips back and forth to Mexico. Then he said, "Don't tell Trump! He'll build a wall for the birds!" We laughed, and I wondered if he had different jokes for people from different places. 

I was so gobsmacked by this place that I completely forgot about my project. I did not take notes. I had this man alone on a boat for two hours and did not ask him about any other place I should go, not even where we should go for dinner. I later realized that as silly as this was, it was good. I had been in the place and not thinking about a different place. 

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After the boat ride we drove to Lafayette, had dinner and headed over to our Airbnb. The map lady in my phone led us astray into the wrong neighborhood, and thank heavens she did, otherwise we would have missed this marvel.

This (3D, moving) thing is in the middle of a neighborhood (?), and in better shape than most of the houses around it. As you can see, it is at ground level (!), so apparently meant to be experienced on foot!

So far we have struck gold with our Airbnbs! Why stay in a hotel again? This one had a little goldfish pond in back. 

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In the morning we chatted with our friendly host on the porch. When I told him about my project and asked him to tell me which places we should go, he talked about the land itself; how the Mississippi River has shaped the region by making the soil near it rich and fertile. I thought about the landscape in a new way after that conversation. We said we were thinking of going to St. Martinville, and he said if we did we should go to St. Martin de Tours church, the town's historic Catholic church. 

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Inside was a sculptural shrine that I recognized as a recreation of the grotto in France where St. Bernadette had her vision of Mary. I was especially enjoyed the pretend rocks.

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Next to the church is this trophy/monument to white American stories. 

 "ATTAKPA INDIAN : ROVING SAVAGE TRIBE WHO SETTLED HERE PRIOR TO THE FRENCH. PARTLY CHRISTIANIZED AND CIVILIZED BY MISSIONARIES. DEDICATED NOVEMBER 3, 1961"

"ATTAKPA INDIAN : ROVING SAVAGE TRIBE WHO SETTLED HERE PRIOR TO THE FRENCH. PARTLY CHRISTIANIZED AND CIVILIZED BY MISSIONARIES. DEDICATED NOVEMBER 3, 1961"

We headed up route 61 to Natchez, Mississippi. Nearly there, we got out and looked at Mammy's Cupboard, which I'd read had good biscuits but was closed.

 the right side of Mammy's Cupboard

the right side of Mammy's Cupboard

 Mammy's Cupboard

Mammy's Cupboard

There was a note on the door saying there had been a family emergency. (The next day we were told that it used to be called Black Mammy's, and that it really was a shame that it was closed when we were there.)

 The left side of Mammy's Cupboard

The left side of Mammy's Cupboard

When we got to Natchez we wandered around a little bit. Coming from winter in Seattle, I was enamored of the flowering bushes everywhere. 

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Sunset on the Mississippi! 

Our Airbnb was a pink house built in the 1800's just a few blocks from downtown Natchez, owned by a composer. There was a baby grand in the living room. While we sat on the front porch eating breakfast, people drove by waving and shouting "How y'all doin!" 

In the morning we went to the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. When we walked in the director, Darrell White, greeted us and asked how we wanted to structure our visit. Did we want to walk around looking at stuff and find him if we had any questions? Or did we want him to give us a private tour of the museum? I told him I am a painter doing an art project about place, and would love to hear whatever he has to tell me about Natchez. He said, "Sit." So we sat. He spent well over an hour with us. Shortly after we began our lesson, two ladies in elegantly coordinated dresses, hats and shoes came in and sat down and joined us. They are regulars.

We learned a lot in a short amount of time. I took notes furiously. Natchez was one of the most violent and active territories of KKK activity. Guns were legal as long as they weren't concealed; people had guns on them like they do cell phones now, just hanging out of their pockets. There was a group in Louisiana called the Deacons for Defense and Justice. When their kids were threatened and attacked for going to school, the Deacons told their kids to fight back. They would go to school with the kids to make sure they got in and out safely, and they intimidated the Klan with guns. It worked. This inspired people in Natchez to get guns and defend their kids and community with force, if necessary. (This was mid 1960's.) They had more guns than the KKK. It worked. The KKK leader put a 90 day moratorium on Klan activity until they could figure out what to do with the "niggers in Natchez with the guns." 

He told us about Nellie Jackson, who had the most successful, longest-standing African American business in the city's history - it thrived for over sixty years. She used to bail civil rights fighters out of jail, and to help members of the black community in need. I asked, "What kind of business was it?" Darrell White, deadpan: "A brothel." 

In the 1990's Miss Nellie turned away a white man because he was drunk; she had strict rules that she upheld to protect her girls. That night he set her house on fire. Miss Nellie died a few days later. 

I asked him if the house was still there. He said yes, but it's nothing to see. I said I really wanted to go there and he seemed perplexed. I persevered and he told us what street it's on and the cross street.

We had to hurry off (which I regret even more in retrospect than I did at the time) because that day was our only chance to see a nearby cotton plantation. Before we left, he showed me the sad state of his cotton basket that has been picked clean by museum visitors. He gave me a note to give to the owner of the plantation asking for fresh cotton. 

Frogmore Cotton Plantation was just a half hour west over the state line. Learning about slavery and the Civil War as a child, cotton took on this mythic quality for me; as though all of the human suffering that took place at that time was somehow related to the nature of cotton itself. I had never seen it growing in person and felt like I needed to, to satisfy this narrative that lingers, as nonsensical as it is. 

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When I was reading about the different plantations, I was surprised to discover that few of them devoted much space or time to communicating the realities of slavery. We chose to visit this plantation because it is particularly invested in telling the story of the people that lived and worked there as slaves. We joined a tour of about ten people and walked through the grounds, the slave quarters, overseer's house, and cotton gin. At one point, the woman leading the tour was showing us a typical piece of clothing worn by the slaves. It looked like a sack and was made of lightweight cotton. The woman told us, "Now, the men had one muslim for day and one muslim for night. The women just had one muslim, period." I still don't know if we should have said something. 

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We went and saw the earthen remains of the Natchez Indians. There are mounds covered with nicely trimmed grass. I had a hard time looking at them without imagining the lawnmower that goes over them. 

The mounds were used for different things. One was for the home of the chief; each new chief's home was built on top of the former home and the mound got higher with each generation. Some were for burial, and some for ceremonial use. 

We drove a bit of the beginning of the Natchez Trace Parkway which starts in Natchez and runs diagonally across the entire state into Alabama. It is an old path, originally made by animals, then used by Native Americans, then eventually paved over. There is a part of the trail that is preserved called the "Sunken Trace." It was an amazing mammalian experience to walk on an intentional path of earth that has been walked on by so many beings for so long.  

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We didn't eat out much and mostly got food from the grocery store to prepare at the house. That night at Natchez Market, the woman in line behind me said she liked my striped pants. I guess the way I said "thank you" communicated that I wasn't from there, because then she asked me where I was from. The cashier joined in easily, naturally, and they asked me how I liked Mississippi and Louisiana. I said I particularly liked Natchez; that I wasn't just saying that. The cashier said she wishes she could go to Seattle. She said she'd never been anywhere outside Mississippi except Georgia. 

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The next morning we stopped by the river and then a cafe to get Anna a biscuit. After the young guy behind the counter gave her the biscuits, she asked where she should pay for them. He said, "Aw, I ain't gonna charge ya." Wow! They came with a little container of butter mixed with apricot jam.   

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We drove around looking for Miss Nellie's house. It's a white house with red shutters in a quiet neighborhood. Next door there was a family - three generations, I think - sitting on their front steps in the sun. When I got out and went up to the house, they watched me curiously. I got the feeling that people don't ever go there looking for Miss Nellie's house, and that I was intruding. By way of explanation for our presence, I said "Is this Miss Nellie's house?" The woman got up and said, "Yes Ma'am." I looked at the house like it was something to see and took a few hasty pictures while they watched me. When we left, they waved goodbye, and we waved goodbye, and they watched us drive away.

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I had the very clear feeling that I was making some kind of mistake during this interaction, but did not know what it was. I thought the mistake was my mere presence there; that I had intruded on this family enjoying their morning. Now, after having had the help of some friends processing this and other interactions on this trip, I wonder if the mistake was not staying long enough. Maybe I should have gone over and introduced myself and told them what I was doing there; offered to share my story as I was entering theirs. 

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We drove south and east past Woodville. This is what residential trash cans look like in rural Mississippi. They were empty and dotted the roads lit up by the sun. They're maybe 3 feet cubed. 

Driving down country roads we came upon a makeshift cemetery on a stretch of hilly land on the side of the road. A few of the gravestones were handmade. 

We were going to Clark Creek Natural Area, where we had hoped to have time for a short walk. There were several school buses in the parking lot and as we started walking down the trail we met in dreary, exhausted succession many preteens straggling up the hill. Nearly all of them asked us how much longer it was to the parking lot. When we told them, some were visibly relieved and a few glared at us like teenagers should. "Only 3 more minutes! You're almost there!" then "Only 10 more minutes!" then "Just like 20 minutes!" then, to ourselves, "Damn this is a steep hill. Maybe we should turn around." The teachers with the kids were maybe in their twenties and were giving constant, loving encouragement. I found myself relating so much to both the kids and the teachers. I remembered feeling like that on family hikes - at the end being hungry, thirsty, tired and complaining and my mom pushing me up the hill. 

On our way back to the Baton Rouge airport we stopped at Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville. The gardens and grounds are beautiful. Fluffy mounds of pink flowers on green bushes, trees dripping with Spanish moss, little fountains in the middle of geometrically patterned hedges, gazebos, benches in lush alcoves. I found it completely impossible to separate it all from its meaning; not that I think I should try. 

as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the result of weeks James Agee (writer) and Walker Evans (photographer) spent living with poor, white sharecroppers in Alabama in summer 1936.

Agee writes about this church that he and Evans come across on the side of the road, which "shocked us with its goodness straight through the body." It is closed, and they want to get inside, to document its loveliness: 

"While we were wondering whether to force a window, a young negro couple came past up the road. Without appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, they made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded, gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. They made us, in spite of our knowledge of our own meanings, ashamed and insecure in our wish to break into and possess their church, and after a minute or two I decided to go after them and speak to them, and ask them if they knew where we might find a minister or some other person who might let us in, if it would be all right. They were fifty yards or so up the road, walking leisurely, and following them, I watched aspects of them which are less easily seen (as surrounding objects are masked by looking into a light) when one's own eyes and face and the eyes and face of another are mutually visible and appraising. They were young, soberly buoyant of body, and strong, the man not quite thin, the girl not quite plump, and I remembered their mild and sober faces, hers softly wide and sensitive to love and to pleasure, and his resourceful and intelligent without intellect and without guile, and their extreme dignity, which was as effortless, unvalued, and undefended in them as the assumption of superiority which suffuses a rich and social adolescent boy; and I was taking pleasure also in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, which was incapable of being less than a muted dancing, and in the beauty in the sunlight of their clothes, which were strange upon them in the middle of the week. He was in dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow, soft straw hat with a broad band of dark flowered cloth and a daisy in the band; she glossy-legged without stockings, in freshly whited pumps, a flowered pink cotton dress, and a great sun of straw set far back on her head. Their swung hands touched gently with their walking, stride by stride, but did not engage. I was walking more rapidly than they but quietly; before I had gone ten steps they turned their heads (toward each other) and looked at me briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field, and faced front again; and this, I am almost certain, not through having heard sound of me, but through a subtler sense. By the time I raised my hand, they had looked away, and did not see me, though nothing in their looking had been quick with abruptness or surreptition. I walked somewhat faster now, but I was overtaking them a little slowly for my patience; the light would be right by now or very soon; I had no doubt Walker would do what he wanted whether we had 'permission' or not, but I wanted to be on hand, and broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel, the young woman's whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so, smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: 'I'm very sorry! I'm very sorry if I scared you! I didn't mean to scare you at all. I wouldn't have done any such thing for anything.' 

They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet. That impulse took hold of me so powerfully, from my whole body, not by thought, that I caught myself from doing it exactly and as scarcely as you snatch yourself from jumping from a sheer height: here, with the realization that it would have frightened them still worse (to say nothing of me) and would have been still less explicable; so that I stood and looked into their eyes and loved them, and wished to God I was dead. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn't scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking, and because I could not walk away abruptly, and relieve them of me, without still worse a crime against nature than the one I had committed, and the second I was committing by staying, and holding them. And so, in this horrid grinning of faked casualness, I gave them a better reason why I had followed them than to frighten them, asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and was seized once more and beyond resistance with the wish to clarify and set right, so that again, with my eyes and smile wretched and out of key with all I was able to say, I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back."

- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1939

(Red Country reading list)