Riding the train from Chicago to New Orleans, I impulsively got off in Jackson, Mississippi. I had never thought about visiting Jackson, never even saw a photo of it, so I had no idea what I’d encounter. In the train’s lounge car, however, a boisterous game of dominoes, with much laughter and trash talking, already told me I was in the Deep South, and the towns glimpsed along the way, Tchula, Eden, Bentonia, spoke of a quietly dignified world that’s also besieged and crumbling.
Jackson is no town, however, but the state’s biggest city, and I couldn’t quite recall Johnny Cash’s smirking lyrics, “Well, go on down to Jackson, go ahead and wreck your health,” as I trudged around a sterile downtown of massive parking garages and stultifying office buildings, banks and hotels. Everything was grimly functional, at best, or else abandoned. There was no art or flirtation, no life. Perhaps this is a mistake, I thought, but quickly dismissed the lame conclusion, for wherever there are people, there’s beauty and instruction. Just keep walking! The disused Greyhound station had a meek sign announcing an architectural firm. Passing a forlorn men’s clothing store, I noticed a security guard imposingly perched on a stool right in the doorway. Maybe they should build him a pillbox.
Having not eaten in 16 hours or so, I was fantasizing deeply about any three-piece, dark meat special with a biscuit thrown in, but I spotted no eatery, take out or bar. Yes, there was a sushi palace, but it was closed on Saturday, not that I was inclined to drag in my rank carcass. Having showered just twice in a week, I was not fit for any chichi sushi bullshit, and there was no way I’d turn my slim wallet inside out for a lacquered plate of Fukushima-irradiated or Corexit-seasoned fish. For such a price, I better get a boatload.
Snooping around, I paused to admire the rusting and boarded-up remains of the Sun-n-Sand Motel. Open in 1960, it served liquor even before Mississippi finally repealed its alcohol ban in 1965. At the capitol, one block away, politicians would vote no to imbibing, then amble here to booze. With its googie sign and technicolored poolside lounge chairs, it was built for a groovy, spacey future that never arrived. The racial tension of the ‘60s culminated in the police killing of two black Jackson State students in 1970. White flight then commenced, suburban malls were built, so now, the empty and wrecked buildings are scattered throughout downtown, only to multiply as you stray North, but this decay is all too common across much of Mississippi, for many of its cities and towns are like quainter versions of post-industrial Detroit. This is the poorest state, after all, and the fattest, too, for obese and broke go chubbily hand-in-hand in this upside down nation. Mississippi also just misses on being the least educated, so there goes the triple crown, Goddamn it! Under a lovely sun, though, things do rot more beautifully than with dirty snow.
On a billboard with 32 women and a man, “Tyronne Lewis / Sheriff,” who’s actually depicted twice, small then huge, there’s this message, “Mother’s Like You Shape Our Future.” Of course, that apostrophe is redundant, but millions of Americans, even those majoring in English, routinely make that mistake these days, so it’s no indictment of Mississippi. Across this sinking nation, we’re just too glaze-eyed to give a fryin’ okra! In any case, Sheriff Lewis has much more to worry about than bad English, for he’s being charged with losing control of the Jackon prison. According to a grand jury report, the guards are terrified of their charge, and “the inmates seemed to be in control of the jail.” Look closely, my friend, and you’ll see that all the wheels are loose or already bouncing off this much abused and neglected vehicle. On a wall a few blocks away, there was Richard Wright next to one of his haikus: “There is where I am / Summer sunset loneliness / Purple meeting red” The writer’s punctuation has been stripped away, but whatever, it’s only a poem. On another wall were lurid portraits of “Shawn Earl” and “Pretty Boy,” presumably victims of violence. In death, angel wings have sprouted from their painted persons. In black neighborhoods across this country, these memorials are ubiquitous, a funky form of folk art. Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, and so the beat goes on. Bang! Bang! Bang!
In 2013, Jackson attracted some rare national attention when it elected Chokwe Lumumba as its mayor (with 87% of the votes). A steadfast Black Nationalist, Lumumba had been vice president of the Republic of New Africa, a secessionist entity that would include Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Until this could be birthed, Lumumba wanted to solidify black political power in Mississippi, a state that already had the highest number of black elected officials nationwide. Though western Mississippi was already overwhelmingly black, blacks only made up 40% of its population, so a way to remedy this, according to Lumumba, was to encourage massive black migration into the state. In practice, this would also mean a flood of whites fleeing it, for that’s how it has worked all across this country up until now, though on a smaller scale, as in a single street, neighborhood or city.
Clearly, Lumumba saw blacks not as Americans but yet another nation that’s been terrorized and raped by America, so the only solution is to be liberated from it. In 1998, Lumumba spoke in Washington, DC, “We’re here in the governmental center of the citadel of imperialism, here amongst these buildings which have been built off the blood of our people [ . . . ] and as we come into the city, we see the outskirts where the people live in poverty, where the buildings are crumbling and the people’s lives are crumbling and we come and see these monstrous buildings fortified by our blood, fortified from the wealth that they have stolen not only from colonies all over the world but from the African colony, the Puerto Rican colony, and the Native American colonies that exist right here inside America [ . . . ] As we look back historically at this empire, we see how it has stretched out its tentacles all over the world, it has dug them deep into the veins of suffering people . . .” After only eight months as mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Lumumba died in February 25, 2014, and since the cause of death, heart failure, wasn’t immediately given, it fueled rampant speculation that he may have been offed by Uncle Sam.
Now, cynics might dismiss Lumumba’s dream of a black homeland as a wish to create, say, another Liberia or Haiti, and they can also point to the tendency of successful blacks to move away from other blacks, a phenomenon that happens not just within national borders, but across them. A Republic of New Africa, then, will not only struggle to attract the best and brightest blacks, but may generate a steady stream of black refugees and immigrants of all levels.
Though what Lumumba advocated was voluntary segregation, it was the forced kind, ironically, that yielded the last era of black self-sufficiency and relative prosperity. When black expertise and money could not be leeched from the community, there were black-owned businesses of absolutely every kind, not just those selling incense sticks, body oils and wigs. Just as the “free market” is destroying the American working class, it eviscerated the black community. Unfettered capitalism kills from the bottom up, but so does every competitive, cut throat arrangement. If you’re outsprinted by a blink, you’re human garbage.
Lumumba’s plan for black empowerment wasn’t merely demographic, however, but included structural components such as more citizen involvement in bank, business and land stewardship. He also aimed to turn around a gravely sick culture, and in this, at least, he’s not far from a conservative. In an interview with Final Call, Lumumba explained, “Rather than going to church, and yelling and screaming about it, complaining about it, rather than bad-mouthing the youth, my plan is to engage the youth [ . . . ] In the course of talking about what to do, you can always talk about some things that you shouldn’t do. We’re going to have summer youth programs here, and in those summer youth programs they’re going to have a chance to do some manual labor, help pick up paper on the streets, but another three hours of their day is going to be spent learning skills [ . . . ] This is going to do a great deal to help change the culture.”
What’s most interesting to me about Lumumba’s aspiration, however, is that it’s mirrored by whites who long for white havens, although this wish might not be openly admitted to, especially if the wisher is a “liberal.” Mouthing racial (as well as class) platitudes, this self-absorbed master of self-love recoils from all who differ from him to the slightest degree, although he’ll put on a jazz record, of course, and scarf Ethiopian once a year. To stroke his twitchy conscience, he’ll elect an Uncle Tom, twice even, and pretend that it ain’t so. Though the working poor of any color have daily, direct experience of the multiculturalism espoused by the liberal affluent, their opinions on its pros, cons and limits are peremptorily dismissed from “enlightened” conversations. In any case, when nations crumble, they often crack along racial or ethnic lines, and there’s no reason why it won’t happen here, but since racial hatred is as barbaric as they come, I don’t wish to live long enough to witness this catastrophe. From 1882 to 1968, white mobs lynched 539 blacks in Mississippi alone, the most in the entire nation, but now there are white groups who keep tabs of the staggering number of black-on-white murders, maimings, rapes and recreational assaults. Seeing their share of the population decreasing relentlessly, they speak of a white genocide. As for the elites, though they don’t welcome social unrest, since it’s bad for business, they will benefit from increasing racial animosity since it distracts from the serial crimes they’re inflicting on us all.
Beat, I hiked past boarded-up or burnt-out houses that were overgrown with weeds or vines, or impaled by gnarly trees. These were interspersed by well-kept homes, however, and when I saw a man striding out of one, I asked him to point me to the nearest beer trough. Lugging my backpack around, I had sweated away all my fluids. “I can’t think of any that’s open right now, but I’ll sell you a Coors Lite for a buck, and it’s cold too!” Sounded fair to me, so I handed him a dollar.
So far, everyone I had seen was black, but presently, I came across a white-haired white man jabbing a long steel rod repeatedly into the ground of an empty, dirt plot. At 80%, Jackson has the second highest percentage of blacks of all American cities over 100,000 people. With 84%, Detroit is top.
“What are you looking for?” I shouted.
Lifting his bulbous-nosed, razor nicked visage, the gent in pale gray T-shirt and dirty khaki pants slowly spoke. To let his thoughts coalesce, he’d often take a breather in mid phrase. “Old bottles, usually. I’ve found clay marbles, and sometimes even coins from the Civil War.”
“Wow, they must be worth a lot!”
“Not really. I do it for fun, not for profit.”
When I told him I was from Philadelphia, and had just gotten off the train, he counseled, “You should be careful walking around this neighborhood. There are lots of crimes around here, and drug dealing. Farish Street is kind of a bad deal, because they let it go so bad. I think you should head back downtown.”
“But you’re here!”
“Well, I’m a cop,” he smiled and wiped his brow.
Before leaving the unarmed officer, I did extract from him directions to a nearby tavern, though with this warning, “It can get a little rough in there.” Satisfied with the information, I went on my way. Farish Street turned out to be worse than advertised, with formerly handsome buildings now roofless and empty, their window and door frames left hollow or covered by warped or kicked-in plywood. Colorful, crude murals covered some of the sheets. The brick sidewalks, trimmed trees and stylish lamp posts appeared to be recent, half-assed efforts at restoration, for they contrasted ludicrously with the unchecked vegetation gaining on the ruins. During segregation, Farish Street was actually one of the liveliest black business districts in the entire country, an equivalence of Memphis’ Beale Street, but staring at it now, a visitor might hallucinate that this mess is somehow related to General Sherman’s brief courtesy call to Jackson in 1863.
My hoppy oasis turned out to be a small, red building with no name, just a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign dangling. Across from it, concrete foundations were all that remained of three houses. Though downtown was within sight, it looked like the sticks in the other direction, with more unkempt trees and grass than pot holed and cracked asphalt. Outside the bar door, several people mulled around a charcoal grill redolent of smoked meat, yumm, yumm, and they all saw me march down the middle of the empty street. “This must be the place!” I shouted and grinned quite inanely before entering an empty bar. Inside, the walls were also painted red, with here and there, a mini skirted or bikinied beer babe on a torn edged poster. I spotted two small American flags, but no homage to Obama. A disco ball anchored the ceiling. Mirrors multiplied the room’s dimensions, made it feel a tad bigger. Soon, the owner followed me in. In his mid 60s, the mild man sported a white and magenta floral shirt and panama hat. Rewarding myself a bit, I shunned Pabst and Bud and ordered a Heineken, this joint’s high end offering. In many places around the world, an obvious stranger can expect to be fleeced, but here I was treated not just equally, which is all a man can ask for, but even quite generously, as I would find out.
Settled, I said to the owner, “Sir, I’d like to order a plate of whatever you’re cooking outside.”
“It’s not ready,” he answered, “and it’s not for sale. You can go out and ask them, though.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, exactly, but I ordered a bag of potato chips just to have something in my maw. “I walked a few miles,” I continued, “but didn’t see any bar. I just got off the train.”
“We’re the only one around here.”
“So where’s everybody, if you’re the only one that’s open?”
“A lot of them went to the football game.”
“Jackson State is playing at home?”
“No, in Arkansas.”
“People drove all the way to Arkansas?!”
That’s a seven-hour round trip, but such is the devotion to the local team in many parts of America. In countless small towns, the streets are deserted if there’s a high school football game many miles away. If only such unity and singularity of purpose could be deployed for anything other than cheering for touchdowns, we wouldn’t be in such deep shit. Instead of columns of guerrillas, we have caravans of fans.
Every now and then, an old guy would mosey in, and he’d be dressed rather nattily in slacks, button shirt and a hat. According to several signs, even muscle shirts and backward caps were banned here, much less sagging pants. Starting a card game, the owner and a patron played mostly in silence, unperturbed by thumping music or television chattering, jingles and come-ons. Not just an old man’s bar, this was an old fashioned establishment, and all over its walls, aging itself was mockingly celebrated: “You’re living in the Metallic Age: Gold Teeth, Silver Hair and a Lead Bottom,” “LIFE is not passing you by, it’s trying to run you over!” “Your motor is still running, But your warranty has expired!” “IF YOU WERE A CAR, YOU’D BE AN ANTIQUE!” “TOO OLD TO ROCK ‘N ROLL, TOO YOUNG TO RANT ‘N RAVE,” “You’re stuck between the ‘Young and the Restless,’ and the Old and the Senseless!” “OLDER THAN DIRT!”
Like old men everywhere, these guys couldn’t avoid discussing their health and, by extension, diet. From where I sat, I could only catch an odd fragment here and there, something about eating only one meal a day, how catfish is preferable to shrimp, and how skinless hot dogs are best. After a lifetime of toil and near misses, a man is lucky to have all four limbs, a functioning brain and be outside earshot of Lil’ Wayne and such as he attempts to postpone his induction into the Greenwood Cemetery, not a long field goal away.
Older than bad luck, the men in the no-name bar remember only too well the day Medgar Evers was shot in Jackson, and how his fertilizer salesman killer wasn’t convicted until three decades later. They shudder at the memory of the bloody Woolworth sit-in downtown. Though they lived through Freedom Summer, and have helped to elect one black politician after another, they have come to realize the limitations, bordering on impotence, of the vote, for in Jackson, as in communities across America, incomes continue to dip, jobs disappear and young people are sent off to incomprehensible wars, while at home, robbing and killing have become a career choice for too many citizens.
Fed up with violent crimes, Jackson even elected one Frank Melton. In office from 2005 to 2009, this loose cannon liked to illegally pack guns, illegally carry a police badge and illegally lead drug raids and sweeps with a personal band of body guards and teens, many of whom had criminal records. Innocently dubbed “The Lawn Crew,” Melton’s posse once destroyed a purported drug den with sledge hammers, all without even a search warrant. Swinging with such glee, Melton slashed his hands with broken glass and had to be patched up at a hospital. Viewed as a folk hero by many Jacksonians, Melton never saw the inside of a jail cell, while others were nauseated enough by the mayor’s antics to prevent his reelection.
Since another bag of potato chips wouldn’t do it, I wandered outside to find a woman tending the barbecue. Again, I pleaded, “When you’re done, ma’am, I’d like to buy a plate of whatever it is you’re making.”
“It’s not for sale,” she stared at me, “but I’ll give you some!”
I had never been given a free plate of food in a bar, but that’s exactly what happened about 15 minutes later as the lady placed a styrofoam container of sausage, pound cake and deviled egg in front of me, and this will remain one of my most memorable meals, I swear, since it was served up with such sweetness. This became the theme of the day, for on the way to catch my New Orleans bus, I was also given an excellent piece of fried chicken by a homeless man with tattoos all over his face.
“You eat it, brother. These church people just gave it to me. It’s still hot, too! I’ve had enough, and was just going to throw the rest away.”
I wish I had more to report about Jackson, but my time there was short, though considering what’s lurking beyond the horizon these days, having little time anywhere might not be a curse. Still, there are plenty who can’t wait for the fireworks to begin, for they think their daddy of daddies will emerge from the red, white and blue smoke. Just before I stepped on the bus, a balding white man with fresh scabs on his face, arms and legs begged money for his “seizure medicine.” I gave him that, plus an extra buck. Jackson State ended up beating Arkansas-Pine Bluff 33-30, by the way, so life was good in Jackson, sort of, until the next tribal clash.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.