Nobel Prize winning Mississippi-native author William Faulkner famously said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Such a catchy quip, this sentence is printed on t-shirts and home decor objects all over my new hometown of Oxford, MS. As a lit-major in college, I was constantly reminded of this statement, and through the years it’s often bubbled up into my stream-of-consciousness.
When I left Mississippi at the age of 27 for greener pastures in the upper Midwest, I was relieved. It was nice to be in a place that was more politically diverse, less conflicted, more even-keel. New acquaintances would chide me about preparing for the brutal winter, and I responded that at least I no longer had to fear the venomous spiders, snakes, and fire ants of the South. I was only half joking.
Time came for the next transition, for my giant leap into professional life. I stepped back into this place where I am a native and feel like a stranger. Just about every day, people ask me where I am from, and they smile from tremendous relief when I say, “Jackson.” “Oh! I did realize you were a Mississippi girl!”
Mississippi has been decorated with many superlatives, most of which are negative. Poorest, most obese, worst infant mortality, and worst health disparities. “Black women in Mississippi are 60% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.” It’s been called, “One of the riskiest places to be born in the developed world.“
My first week here, I went to the post office. I had no big expectations of this mundane errand, so I was unprepared for the level of welcoming, genuine warmth that beamed from the postal worker. I left smiling. I went out to eat lunch, and my waiter put my food down and gushed, “Watcha know Hon? Ooooh that looks GOOD!” Never in my life have I ever felt so validated in my lunch order; I rode that high for the rest of the afternoon.
I’m raising two little girls in a two-surgeon household, and I have no doubt I could ask any of a dozen acquaintances and neighbors for ANYTHING and they would drop EVERYTHING to help. There are deep abiding roots of selflessness and generosity of the individuals in this community.
I was compelled to return by this idea that Mississippi is both the hardest and most tender of places. That going anywhere else was a cop-out. That if I want to fight for humanity, I need to meet on the mat here.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Faulkner was right. He wasn’t being optimistic; quite the contrary, I think he was saying no one will understand Mississippi, much less the world. I sure don’t feel like I can understand Mississippi. But one thing I have come to understand is that change is hard. That feelings are more powerful than logic. That this community suffers from the wounds of the past and struggles to live in the present. I want the future to be brighter.
As I pondered my new life and decision to come here, and wrestled with whether I could handle it, a simpler statement came to my mind than the one Faulkner wrote. “To change the world, you first must change a place like Mississippi.”
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand a place like this. I might understand it better than an outsider would. But I am bound and determined to change it, and that, I believe, we can do. And maybe all these places in the world that are considered the hardest, most complicated, most entrenched, most hurt, will change too.