Why I’m Here

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The Mississippi Delta is a forgotten region. “You’re going where?” was the most common question people asked me when I told them I was headed here this summer.

Most Americans seem to suffer from a strange kind of amnesia when it comes to the Delta. It is a place so quintessentially American and yet so clouded in our cultural memory. The Delta played host to a resounding Union victory at Vicksburg during the Civil War, decades later birthed the Blues (rumor has it a Delta musician made a Faustian bargain one night long ago, swapping his soul for the Blues), and 60 years ago this August witnessed the brutal murder of Emmett Till. In 1947, Delta State played host to Dean Acheson’s announcement of what would become known as the Marshall Plan.

The most common follow-up question usually went something like, “Why Mississippi of all places?” Beneath the initial incredulity of the question you might be able to discern a hint of thinly veiled elitism. If we unpack the question a little more, it might just read: “Why would a high-achieving student like you at an elite university like Duke want to spend your precious summer months among mere mortals (or worse, Southerners)? Wouldn’t you be better off conducting research with a professor or interning at a private equity firm or taking classes at Oxford?” No, I wouldn’t. There’s no place I’d rather be.

Mississippi has its problems, and they are largely the nation’s problems, only magnified. Poverty, the breakdown of the family, obesity, an ever-failing education system, mass incarceration, unemployment, grappling with how to remember a past of shame and glory – these issues plague Mississippi and trouble the nation as a whole.

While Mississippi has its problems, Mississippi itself is not a problem. It’s much more than a punchline on The Daily Show or a bottom-rung ranking on a list of health, income, or other quality-of-life measures. For three million people, Mississippi is home. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity here. The Delta’s fertile soil has made it productive farmland for soybeans, corn, and rice. From Diane at the gas station to Jenny Kate at the Freedom Project, Mississippians are without fail the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever met. Teach for America has brought thousands of teachers to the Delta, and over 250 have stayed to pursue careers in education and entrepreneurship. Yesterday, I found out that one of our 9th-grade students is already taking steps to attend the college of her dreams – Duke. This is not a hopeless place, not by any stretch of imagination.

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Frederick Douglass Learns to Read

Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

Chapter SevenNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Exposition

Exposition breeds boredom, so I’ll keep it brief. The characters on this blog will develop for themselves over the coming months, so there will be no need for lengthy introductions. One exception: I ought to introduce myself.

As you might have guessed from the URL, my name is Matthew Taylor King. Until I joined the Duke Class of 2018, I had spent my entire life in Richmond, Virginia. This summer is my first time in the Mississippi Delta. Here, I’ll living with ten other people in Cleveland, Mississippi (yes, another Cleveland!) and teaching rhetoric to middle school students at the Sunflower County Freedom Project. The latter combines two of my longstanding interests: American rhetoric and the state of public education in the United States.

The purpose of this blog is to document and reflect upon my experiences here in the Delta. I anticipate the coming months will bring irrepressible joy, occasional conflict, unrelenting challenge, significant personal and intellectual growth, and surprises I cannot now imagine. I will share them all with you.

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Maya, Chinmay, and I move in to our house on Delta State’s campus in Cleveland. For now, it’s not too crowded. Once all eleven arrive, it will be downright cozy.

P.S. “Mississippi Learning” alludes to the 1988 film Mississippi Burning (starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe), which chronicles the FBI investigation of the murder of three civil rights workers during a “Freedom Summer” in 1964. I hope this blog draws on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and continues, in its own small way, the great unfinished work of making America’s education system work for all America’s children.