I’ve been thinking a lot about Mississippi lately. It’s probably because I’ve really been wanting to go back and visit and inevitably conduct research, but also because I’ve been meeting folks from there. Just recently I met two — one man a couple of weeks ago, while I was at the bank with my oldest sister and we were waiting in line, this brotha told us that he just came back from the state, where he is from. Of course that struck up a greater conversation between the three of us, when I told him that all of my siblings except for my little sister were all born there and from the same area, just about. The other day while I was waiting for the ferry I met a young woman who was from just a few hours from where my family is from down there. Before we got on the boat we started talking (initially because we were both taken back by the drunk woman who was throwing up in a bag nearby — I’m still completely grossed out) and then later she and I got into a conversation and that is when I found out she lived in Mississippi for most of her life and just recently left another southern state because of racism. We got on the boat and kept talking and when she asked I started talking to her about my work, telling her that lately I’ve really been putting some thought in going down to Mississippi, in order to conduct my ethnographic research because the state has the lowest breastfeeding rates of any one in the union — and then she told me to watch out! She told me that if I go there to be careful. If I find the poorest area — that I would probably want to work in because more than likely that’ll be where my greatest research on these low rates will become most evident — don’t stay. Get a hotel and stay somewhere else. She started talking to me about all of the tragedies that happen, and how Klan still roams the streets. She said that there are certain areas where you can literally feel the oppression and hopelessness in the air — that your personality changes while you’re there. She told me to get what I need for my research, and get out.
I started telling her a bit about my family — how my mom — a single mother of 5, drove us all out of there to escape that reality. We moved to southern California in 1981. I told her that had we stayed who knows where we would be right now. Probably not a good fate, I’m certain. I also know the stories my grandparents told us while us kids were growing up, about the racism they experienced in this ‘jungle’ as DuBois called the place — the South. I know a Black woman, an IBCLC who is from there and who says she can tell stories for days about the covert racially motivated hatred she’s experienced.
The last time I went to Mississippi was in 2000. And before that it was on that car ride out of there when I was four. Only days before my 24th birthday I drove coast to coast from California to Virginia (by myself). While I was on my way East, I decided to drop down in there because I wanted to meet my biological father’s side of the family, as well as many other people that my family had known for years and years, but hadn’t seen in just as many once we all migrated west. I was so excited seeing all of these people who I had heard stories of for years — many who remembered me, many of the same people that I couldn’t recognize because I was too young the last time we were together. I loved, loved, loved the southern hospitality — and the catfish. I took a zillion pictures, listened to the excitement on my mom and grandma’s voice when I called them and updated them about where I was and whose house I was at — their old friends and neighbors. But I do know that there was a certain feel that was kind of difficult to get past. I don’t really know how to explain it but when I was talking to this woman from the ferry I began to remember those feelings as she was explaining the lingering oppression. It creeped me out for a bit and also made me wonder if I really want to put any thought into going to a place with such sentiments, violence.
But I am seriously drawn to this place when it comes to understanding the history of Black people in this country. Not because I think everyone is oppressed and folks don’t have agency — that’s not really what I think at all — even though I would be lying if I said that the structure of injustice isn’t a primary reason why I want to go there. But it is, like I said before, because there is also a history of radical resistance — which is what drives this desire in me to understand more. People gave their lives — and people’s lives were taken waging resistance against the deeply ingrained anti-Black climate. Mississippi has problems — I think we’re all clear on that. But it also has answers. What those are at this point and how those will work towards Black breastfeeding in the USA? I do not have the slightest clue. But I think there’s a lot to be learned from down there.
Can’t you see it? I know you can feel it!
These are just some of my early thoughts. I will write more about other ones later.