I was about 10 years old, too young to understand the implications of what this well-meaning Black woman had said to me. It happened while I stood in the checkout line at a Chicago grocery store with my grandmother. The cashier asked me a question, and I replied, “Yes, ma’am.” Without thinking, she said offhandedly, “They have you all so well trained.”
This was my first visit back to my birth city, Chicago, since I had moved to the Deep South—specifically, a rural town in Mississippi—a few years earlier. I had acquired both the Southern accent and etiquette that had been drilled into me at school. After my grandmother told her where I lived, she mocked me with a terrible portrayal of a Southern accent. In that moment, I felt uncomfortable and ashamed.
Now having been in Mississippi for over 15 years—well over half my life—I have no choice but to call it home.
Since revisiting this incident as an adult, when I travel to new places I have had to reckon with the shame of being from Mississippi and anxiety over my not-easily-hidden accent. I used to have a bad habit of prefacing that I’m originally from Chicago before mentioning that I live in Mississippi. In my mind, it was okay to just live in Mississippi, but not actually be from there. Now having been in Mississippi for over 15 years—well over half my life—I have no choice but to call it home.
I am very much in, and of, the rawest part of the Deep South. From the white fields of the Delta to the Black oasis we call our capital city in Jackson, there is something painfully beautiful about this place and the people who refuse to be pushed out despite past and current political leaders. Still, it is often deemed the birthplace of America’s original sin, so I can’t help but feel like an outsider when visiting other regions of the country. Even more so, in Northern and theoretically more progressive areas, I often have encounters that exacerbate those feelings.
From the white fields of the Delta to the Black oasis we call our capital city in Jackson, there is something painfully beautiful about this place and the people who refuse to be pushed out despite past and current political leaders.
I remember talking with a former classmate and fellow Mississippian about traveling, and she expressed similar sentiments about experiencing a kind of subtle othering. I remember her saying, “When I start talking, especially with my accent, they look at me kinda weird. Probably thinking where did this little Black girl come from?”
There is something unsettling about being perceived as a little Black girl, especially from Mississippi. Or even perceiving ourselves as such. I think of how I feel myself shrinking into that little Black girl. Shrinking my deeply Southern, long and rounded vowels that fall from my tongue when I speak. I have to practice: “Not yes ma’am. Just yes. Mis-sis-sip-pi, not Miss’sippi. Remember to pro-nun-ci-ate.”
Recently, I took a trip to Philly, and I was again confronted with a type of othering that I was beginning to think was all in my head. I approached a woman to ask a question, hoping to avoid the formality of telling her where I am from. It could not be avoided when she asked me, and I reluctantly told her, “Mississippi.” She looked at me with surprise and responded condescendingly, “Good for you.” That familiar feeling swelled in the pit of my stomach. I immediately felt small and out of place.
I wonder why my presence, as a Black Mississippian, is always such a strange surprise.
Maybe folks think Black Southerners are still bent over in fields picking cotton. Or maybe they think we’re all Aibileen from The Help, raising white women and their kids. I’m not sure. But there has to be some underlying misunderstanding of what it is to live and survive in the Deep South in 2017.
Black folks have a complicated relationship with the South, especially Mississippi. I also have a shaky relationship with this place I call home.
My most awkward encounters while traveling have been with other Black folks. Although many of them are first-, second-, or third-generation descendants of the South, Black folks up North tend to have completely off ideas about what the present-day South is like. I think this applies to most people up North regardless of race, but Black folks have a complicated relationship with the South, especially Mississippi. I also have a shaky relationship with this place I call home. I struggle with the culture that seeks to preserve a legacy stained with my ancestors’ blood. I cringe at the sight of plantations that have now become a marketable tourist attraction. But beyond the ugly and exploitative part, there is a kind of community among Black folks here that can’t be broken. There is love. There is resilience. And contrary to popular belief, there is resistance.
Mississippi is home. The deepest, dirtiest, and reddest parts of the South raised me.
When I was a teenager, I took a trip to New York with my local NAACP youth group for a conference. Some of the other teens there were so intrigued that my peers and I were from Mississippi. “I bet it’s so racist there,” they said.
“Well, yeah, I guess,” was my typical response. It is only fair to acknowledge that Mississippi is historically known to be among the worst of the South when it came to slavery and racial violence. Those histories are still ever-present in the very culture of the state and the South as a whole. However, in the age of Trump and the growing violence against people of color, it’s ironic how one can disconnect a part from the whole—assuming that racism is somehow restricted to the South rather than the very foundation of an inherently racist-ass country.
Over the years I have felt a weird kind of safety in the South. Traveling to New Orleans, Memphis, and even parts of the mildly Southern Texas feels less intimidating. Being older and sitting more firmly in my conflicted love for Mississippi, I make more of an effort to affirm my belonging in new places. These days I am ready to branch out and see more. To not shrink at the thought of being perceived negatively because of where I’m from.
Mississippi is home. The deepest, dirtiest, and reddest parts of the South raised me. From my Southern drawl to the down-home spiritual parts of myself I can’t seem to shake. When I travel, I am learning to unapologetically bring all those things with me. Feeling a sense of not belonging is the experience of so many woman of color, but especially those from places like Mississippi that are seen as the “bad part” of an allegedly great country. It is so important for Black and brown girls, wherever we come from, to know that we can and should see the world. And that wherever in the world we find ourselves, we belong there just as much as anyone else.