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.