“From Memphis to New Orleans” Understanding the Heart of Darkness in the Delta

Well, come on everybody, take a trip with me.

Down the Mississippi, Down to New Orleans.

—Gary “U.S.” Bonds’s 1960 hit, “New Orleans”

 

Won’t you come along with me,

Down that Mississippi

We’ll take a boat to the land of dreams

Dream right down that river, down to New Orleans . . .

Where all the light and dark folks meet

Down in New Orleans

—Spencer Williams’s 1926 song, “Basin Street Blues,” famously sung by Louis Armstrong

 

Memphis is my favorite Southern city. I must qualify that by saying that it is the only Southern city I know to some degree. I lived in Nashville for a year and a half, teaching at Fisk University many years ago. I grew to know Nashville much better than Memphis in a purely geographical sense because I never lived in Memphis. Yet in the sense of being in tune with a place, with having an ease with one’s sense of familiarity with a place, I know Memphis much better than Nashville. I like Memphis much better because it seems so much more deeply Southern, more centered as a Southern place.

I started going to Memphis when my children were little. We always did the same things every time we went: visit Graceland, visit the National Civil Rights Museum, visit Beale Street, visit Sun Records, visit Lemoyne Owen College (a tiny HBCU), and visit the statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, located in what was called, until 2013, Forrest Park but what is now called Health Sciences Park. I remember discovering the statue accidentally the first time we went. We were just strolling through the park when we came upon it.

“Hey, they have a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Can you believe it?” I said excitedly to my wife, Ida.

As she had no idea who Nathan Bedford Forrest was, she could believe it very well. Cities were always throwing up statues honoring some military hero or the other. When I told her that Forrest was the Civil War general who was responsible or was blamed for the Fort Pillow Massacre that resulted in the slaughter of scores of black soldiers who were defending that fort as they were surrendering, and that he was a leader, some say a founder, of the Ku Klux Klan, she shrugged her shoulders and could still believe it very well. A lot of white Southerners had fond memories of the Confederacy.

“I am surprised the black folks down here haven’t forced the city to get rid of this statue,” I concluded.

Ida shrugged her shoulders again. She thought they might have more important things to do than to get worked up about a statue dedicated to some old Confederate racist who does not have anything to do with the price of eggs today. She has always been pretty phlegmatic about this sort of thing.

Sometimes we went to the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks walk through the lobby. It was not much of a show but my kids liked it. The Peabody makes a much bigger deal of it now than it did years ago. We would spend hours driving aimlessly around the city, my children bored, my wife bemused by my interest but encouraging all the same. I kept driving around trying to figure out what the city must have felt like during the days of Jim Crow, wishing I could have experienced Memphis when it was virulently Southern while thinking how lucky I am to have missed that. I made this trip annually for several years.

When I returned to Memphis on June 11 to await embarking on the modern-day riverboat (complete with paddle wheel) American Queen on a trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans, I had not seen the city for maybe five years. I decided to spend an evening watching the Memphis Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, something I had always wanted to do on many of the other trips but for some reason or the other was not able to. I love minor league baseball, the intimacy of the park, close to the field and the players; the serenity of the fans with their relaxed civic pride about the team; the homegrown, provincial nature of the between-innings antics; the lack of the big business, high pressure commercial hysteria that surrounds and taints major league baseball these days, the constant deafening drumbeat of “Isn’t this fun?” or “Aren’t we all having fun?” A major league baseball game is the frantic combination of watching a game somewhat uncomfortably and enduring a business desperately selling you on the experience of watching a game. A minor league game is just baseball, good local baseball, cheering on barely twenty-somethings who aspire to be major leaguers or somewhat older players who have been to the majors and are trying to get back. On this particular night, warm but pleasant, the Redbirds beat the Round Rock Express, the Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers, 3 to 2. I avoided some of my usual haunts, not visiting Graceland, the Forrest statue, or the Civil Rights Museum. However, I did hang out a bit at A. Schwab’s on Beale Street with all the tourist notions from voodoo potions to Panama hats to penny candy (that costs much more than a penny these days). With its soda fountain, upstairs museum, and old-fashioned look, it tries to gives you the Southern past without the oppression, so to speak. I also went to the Cotton Museum, at Front and Union, a fascinating place, except my visit was cut short by some rampaging camp children whose adult supervisors were looking to kill time and escape the heat.

The trip was memorializing the triumph and tragedy of King Cotton which, in some many ways, is the triumph and tragedy of the South itself.

Our riverboat trip through the Mississippi Delta, themed “The Civil War and Southern Culture,” reminded us constantly of King Cotton. This region of the American South was about cotton and slaves, which means it was about the entrepreneurial and brutally unregulated world of 19th century agriculture and labor. Our trip was about honoring the memory of this, or perhaps I am putting this too strongly or in a way that seems, to use a popular term of opprobrium, “un-nuanced.” The trip was memorializing the triumph and tragedy of King Cotton which, in so many ways, is the triumph and tragedy of the South itself.

Nothing made this clearer than the visit to the Natchez, Mississippi, cotton plantation, Frogmore, on the third day of our riverboat journey. Here we learned everything about modern-day cotton planting and harvesting: people no longer pick cotton; huge machines rak the fields picking the white, fluffy blossoms, and gins far more sophisticated and efficient than Eli Whitney’s original engine, separate the seeds from the lint. As with oil refining or pig butchering, nothing is wasted in cotton harvesting. The seeds are crushed, with the extracted oil being used for cooking by giant food companies and the hulls being used as cattle feed. In fact, this modern cotton farmer makes more from the seed than he does from the actual cotton, which sells at a low price on today’s market. The farmers who bring their cotton to him for ginning must give him their seed as payment. Apparently, no farmer can replant cottonseed but must get genetically modified seed from Monsanto. Most American cotton today is exported, the farmer sadly related. American cotton has gone the way of global free trade agreements.

But this story was only the preamble to the current farmer’s wife who gave the peroration of our cotton plantation trip. Dressed as a 19th century plantation mistress, Lynette Tanner took us into the past, showing us what the plantation would have been like during ante-bellum days, with a close-up look at the world of the planter’s wife of the past. This also included an extended tour of the slave cabin where we were reminded that slaves were generally well fed, did most of the crafts and building, and generally created the wealth of the South. (If one did not believe this there was the noted economic study of slavery, Time on the Cross, which she not only mentioned but also displayed.) Indeed, the current planter’s wife, our tour guide, took great pains to highlight several books during the tour, such as Catherine Clinton’s book on the plantation mistress and Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, relevant not only because Northrup was enslaved in this region but because, as a result of the movie, this book has become the standard text on the slave’s experience. Move over, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and make way for the new flavor of slavery and oppression. Our guide had, in fact, put together a book of WPA slave interviews entitled Chained to the Land, so she had true expertise in this subject. Overall, though, the presentation felt conflicted, contradictory, uneasy with itself: slavery was brutal, cruel, and inhumane, but slaves were well-fed, decently cared for, led fairly independent lives of a sort, were essential craftspeople, and, one might say, unbowed by their oppression. In effect, this view of slavery—as a brutal and savage reflection of the brutality and savagery embedded in whites, as a culture of intimate relations between two very distinct sets of people, and as a system that damaged blacks but also which blacks transcended—seemed to evidence slavery’s own complexities and our particular moral and imaginative confusion about how the past continues to haunt us. As with everything in memory, we want both to sentimentalize and to categorically condemn and with slavery, we are still feeling our way a bit to make sure the right aspects get sentimentalized and the bad aspects get vehemently disparaged. There is nothing like being on the right side of both history and historiography!

As with everything in memory, we want both to sentimentalize and to categorically condemn and with slavery, we are still feeling our way a bit to make sure the right aspects get sentimentalized and the bad aspects get vehemently disparaged.

While at Frogmore, we were offered a musical performance at the plantation’s church, an odd blend of black spirituals and Jerome Kern’s “Old Man River,” a song I personally have never liked with its pseudo-black existential lament that is nothing more than some white Broadway minstrelsy. That this note of inauthenticity should have been sounded in the South, the land that claims to be the home of authentic black music, is almost comical or should have been meant to be comical or ironic.

Authenticity is what we got when we stopped at Greenville, Mississippi, and were driven to Indianola, the birthplace and burial ground of the bluesman B. B. King and the location of his museum. There we were treated to an initial performance by a local saxophonist who played “Amazing Grace” for us as a straightforward hymn and as the slaves may have sung it, tinged with a blues-inflection. We were then permitted to tour the museum, which is informative and modern, with many film stations featuring interviews with King and those who knew him during his days in Indianola. King’s story is interwoven with the story of the rise of electric or urban blues music and the civil rights struggle in America. There are many King artifacts in the museum, including his remains as he is buried on the site. Clearly, being remembered in this institutionalized and officially narrativized way was very important to him and it is just as important to Indianola where little enough is going on in this impoverished realm. There is no reason for any tourist to come here except to see the museum and King’s grave, an interest that will obtain as long as King’s name means something. But the museums of far more famous people, like Muhammad Ali’s in Louisville and Ava Gardner’s in North Carolina, struggle in a marketplace where everything that can historicized is being historicized for tourist moola, for tourism seems to be our primary and most frenzied resort for revenue these days.

After touring the museum, we were taken a few blocks away to Club Ebony, a blues joint that B. B. King owned at one time. It looked like all the hole-in-the-wall R & B buckets of blood I remember seeing as a kid in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. A competent blues band performed for us while we feasted on catfish and coleslaw, something like Southern “soul food.” (We were reminded several times on the trip that the catfish we were being offered was farm-raised, fed a respectable diet, and not the nasty, stomach-churning bottom-feeders of the wild or from Chinese markets.) Probably the most interesting part of the trip to Indianola was not the story of blues music, such as it was, but rather meeting our two young African American tour guides, Abe and Adrienne, a married couple expecting their first child. They both grew up in the area (Clarksdale) and chose, unlike many of their peers, to stay there. They were energetic, appealing, cute kids, giving us their stories of growing up in the area while also giving us some of the famous or infamous stories of Mississippi such as the Emmitt Till murder and the deaths of the three civil rights workers in 1964. It brought to mind the refrain of the early 1960s Phil Ochs song that my sisters played for me as a child:

 

Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of;

Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of.

 

They were careful in telling these stories as they were unsure how some in their audience might take them. Tours are not meant to make tourists feel uncomfortable. Intrigued, it is hoped. Bored, possibly. Informed, maybe. But definitely not made uncomfortable by historical unpleasantries that have any possible connection to anything that is going on today. Speaking of the audience, Abe came up to Ida and me at the King museum and remarked how we were the first African Americans he ever had on his five turns as a tour guide. He was particularly anxious to know if we felt he was doing all right as a guide. We fervently reassured him. (Ida and I discovered we were the talk of the African American staff on the American Queen as we were the only African American tourists on board. Apparently, young people and African Americans of any age are very rare on these tours. This did not surprise me as I think the tour would have to be themed and marketed differently and more overtly related to black racial pride to appeal to a significant number of blacks but, in doing so, the tour might be less attractive to whites as it might seem too racial.)

Tours are not meant to make tourists feel uncomfortable. Intrigued, it is hoped. Bored, possibly. Informed, maybe. But definitely not made uncomfortable by historical unpleasantries that have any possible connection to anything that is going on today.

Probably the stop at Angola State Prison was the most unusual of the journey. Located in St. Francisville, Louisiana, there is little doubt that Angola, for a time, was one of the most notorious prisons in the United States, subject of numerous exposés in the 1950s for the brutal treatment of its mostly black inmate population. Parchman Farm may be most well-known because of the blues song in which it is featured, but Angola, which, incidentally, once housed the famed folksinger Leadbelly, reflects all the evils of the Southern Jim Crow system: convict lease labor, virulent racism, sadism and perversion, and the squalor and disease of the inescapable swamps that surround the prison, which is why the prison needs no perimeter fence. The odd thing about this visit is that Angola is today a functioning state prison, not an abandoned site like, say, Alcatraz in San Francisco or Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Its director of public relations accompanied us on the tour, telling us how the prison had changed, how it was no longer what it had been. This, I safely assumed, had to be the case, otherwise it would not be open for tourists. The prison is on 18,000 acres of land and the prisoners, about 6,500, are all put to work in some form or fashion, for, as it is said, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. This is, by and large, a maximum-security prison that houses mostly violent offenders serving long sentences. There is also a section that houses death-row inmates. The prison is 70 percent African American.

What was emphasized in the PR director’s presentation is how Angola has become a model for other prisons with its faith-based programs that have drastically reduced in-prison violence and recidivism. Numerous religions are part of the program. In fact, the theology of the religion does not matter as long as it does not promote violence or crime. The PR director repeated this many times, the ecumenical nature of the program. Prisoners who convert, evidenced not only by confession of the conversion but some demonstration of good works, largely the result of changed behavior, become mentors for newer prisoners; older converts with life sentences become mentors for younger ones with lesser sentences. So far, all of this seems to have worked remarkably well. (Some of the tourists were skeptical about using fervent religious belief as a form of social control; some others, rationalists, atheists, secular humanists, whatever, seemed offended by it. But that prison, in the mind of 18th century social reformers like Jeremy Bentham, was what prison was supposed to do, make the inmate seek penance, hence the word penitentiary. What made The Autobiography of Malcolm X so popular was that he politicized and thus freshened this old trope of salvation.) We mostly drove around the prison, with our guide, the PR director, selecting points of interests as we went. His presentation was as conflicted as the one we heard on the cotton plantation: the essential message was that Angola was a place of mercy and humanity as it sought to help prisoners seek redemption but we were also reminded of the sophisticated security of the prison, the stealth-like dogs who hunt escapees, the fact that the prison is virtually impossible to escape from, that the prisoners there are dangerous men. The prison is purgatory and hell combined. It is the discipline of reformation and the punishment of sin.

We entered only three buildings, an old, unused building that used to house highly rebellious prisoners in solitary confinement. This was discontinued as it came to be believed that this was inhumane treatment. (It is interesting to note that Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the earliest “true” prisons in the world, was built so that all the prisoners bunked alone, in essence, in solitary confinement, so that they might have time to reflect and repent of their sins. Many times they simply went crazy from the isolation but solitary confinement is rooted in a largely humanitarian theory.) We also entered the chapel where one of the converted mentors, a lifer in for second-degree murder, told us about the program and his role in it. His presentation, especially when he spoke about how his conversion transformed his mother and led her to study theology, was moving. (The iconography in the chapel was all white despite the fact that the prisoners, mostly black, created the art. Neither the converted mentor nor the PR director had any explanation for this puzzling contradiction.) The third building was the gift shop and museum. By the time we got to the gift shop, the purpose of the tour was clear. Angola is the story of a double redemption: the redemption of the individual prisoner who spoke to us, and others like him, and the redemption of the prison itself which makes these individual redemptive acts possible.

By the time we arrived in New Orleans, my left leg was painfully swollen and I could barely walk. (When I returned to St. Louis, I discovered that I had been walking around for more than a week with a blood clot, which, naturally, alarmed the physician who was treating me.) I enjoyed the trip but had become fatigued by it, the Southern plantations began to blur into one another; the Huey Long and Jimmie Davis exhibitions made me think that Louisiana had too many charismatic politicians for its own good; the tour of the Vicksburg battle site, monument by monument, felt longer than it needed to be, almost as long as Grant’s siege. I think it is inevitable on journeys such as this to think about how it could have been condensed once one reaches its end or to think about what one wanted to see but did not see in the end. Vacation tours always feel crammed but yet insufficient. I hobbled around the French Quarter with Ida but was disappointed by it all, packed as it was with tourists and feeling as it did like a bad combination of Piccadilly Circus and Times Square prismed through the Southern lens of Tennessee Williams. Even Hurricane Katrina was now nothing more than gristle in the tourist maw, now part of the gallery of New Orleans travel clichés about voodoo, mixed race prostitutes, Preservation Hall jazz, and beignets. I would have given anything, at the moment of being jostled by the crowds, to have seen a young Gary “U.S.” Bonds, with his pompadour processed hair, singing “New Orleans” somewhere in these environs back in 1960 no matter how bad the segregation was. Travel is like that for me: in the beginning, expectations are high and by the end I am exhausted and faintly disappointed. Travel is always a search for an authenticity that is forever receding like the horizon at the end of the mind, always just around the bend in the river. Travel is always better when you saw the place before or it is always better when you only think you have arrived.

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