Follow by Email

Tuesday, February 28, 2012



Essay for COMING HOME TO MISSISSIPPI



OF BEING LIKE MY TREE



            I am an outsider/insider Mississippian, the subject of other people’s observations and the object of my reflections.  Born in Washington, D. C. in 1943, I was repatriated in the late fall of 1949 to Moss Point, my father’s hometown.  My six-year old self changed rapidly from being happy, care-free, and urban to being  town-trapped, sullen, and  confused.  I could not understand why having an ice cream cone in the local drugstore was forbidden. So, this was Mississippi.  A land of do-not-say-that and do-not-do-this.  I was too young to sense the invisible segregation of the nation’s capital and unprepared for the racism of the South and the permanent scar it would leave in my sensibility.

            Even a six-year old can have agency, however, even in 1950s Mississippi.  I chose to keep, as much as I could, the speech patterns of my brief years in the North. You do not have to talk like a Mississippian to be one.  I did not want to sound like my slow-talking cousins and older relatives, to sound like molasses creeping uphill on a cold day. The enervating drawl of the South did not appeal to me. I kept my vowels and my consonants and my distinct word-endings.  I was teased for sounding “white.” And by the measures used by my peers, I was odd for indulging my passion for reading, for wishing to be smart, as smart as my innately brilliant father and as well-mannered as my Louisiana-born mother, who insisted that she was not Negro but Creole and that I would not become food for the tragic appetites of Mississippi’s white folks. The nightmares I had in 1955 about the lynching of Emmett Till assured me that she did not insist too much.

Unlike a few of our relatives, we did not have money.  We were working-class, poor in pocket but rich in aspiration, sense of self-worth, dignity. I did not know we were poor. Poor people begged for things. We did not beg.  If we asked for favors, we had to repay them.  When my father’s early retirement pension was not enough, my mother did domestic work.  In my childhood imagination, I was an aristocrat exiled in a place called Mississippi. I was accustomed to the civilization of a bathroom.  I resented having to learn the ritual of the outhouse and the art of bathing in a tin tub. I silently hated and resisted the low expectations most non-black Mississippians had for black Mississippians and used my intellectual gifts to become who I am, a person for whom liking or disdaining Mississippi as home is a remarkably free choice.

            The story of choice begs for a plot, a charting of a life history in which Mississippi is the home space for departures and returns. Perhaps plot can be an idiosyncratic almanac, an emotional structuring of time and place:

1943-1949----Washington, D.C.--Moss Point, Mississippi : The bliss of childhood was destroyed when my father took an early retirement for health reasons from his civil service job, and we moved from the city to the country in November 1949.  My first Christmas in Mississippi was strange but not unpleasant.  Eating oranges and apples in front of a fireplace and the pungent smell of a cedar Christmas tree is a decisive moment in becoming a Mississippian.

1949-1964 ---Moss Point--Tougaloo, Mississippi : These fifteen years are the longest continuous period of my claiming Mississippi as home, years that resonant the sorrow song of  Richard Wright’s Black Boy far more than the fantasia of Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Planting a pine tree when I was eight years old in our two-acre yard was a symbolic act of attaching myself to the soil, and it was and remains the symbiotic sign of self.  That tree and I have survived dramatic changes of weather and social climate in Mississippi; it is the fixed point of the compass, the point to which I return in my mind no matter where my body might be. Whatever is Choctaw in my bloodline allows me to believe in the spirit of the tree and our primal entitlement to the land that time will restore to us.

The disadvantages of second-class citizenship in Mississippi killed any genuine feelings of patriotism I might have had for the United States and made me a loyal cynic in the Magnolia State. The false promises of American democracy as orchestrated in a sovereign closed society did, however, inspire me to be very serious about my education in public and parochial schools, and to be very receptive to a liberating education in mathematics, social responsibility and life at Tougaloo College. There I embraced the ideals of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and transformed my private anger into the public assertions of the Civil Rights Movement.  Graduation from college was the beginning of six years of absence from home.

1964-1966 ---Chicago: Two years of working for a master’s degree at Illinois Institute of Technology opened windows for seeing the joys and the horrors of urban experiences and for understanding that only New Orleans could meet my expectations of what urban life should be.









1966-1968 –Albany, NY: Two years of work on English Renaissance literature at SUNY at Albany, of learning about diversity in the mindsets of New Yorkers.

1968-1970 ---United States Army, Fort Knox, KY and  Vietnam: Although I opposed the war, I was loyal to my country; on the other hand, my Asian exposure hardened my heart against the hypocrisy of America, against its casual , Aztec-like sacrificing of young men on the altars of the war gods.

1970-1974Mississippi:  I returned to teach at Tougaloo College.

1974-1977 –Charlottesville, VA: I would serve my alma mater better if I had a terminal degree, so I went to the University of Virginia, wrote my dissertation on “Richard Wright and His American Critics, 1938-1960,” and received the Ph.D. in 1978.

1977-1984—Mississippi:  I returned to  teaching at Tougaloo College, served for four years on  the Mississippi Humanities Council, and chaired the Department of English, 1979-1986

1985 ---Washington, D.C.  The opportunity to return to the city of my birth and to work at the National Endowment for the Humanities as a program officer was a godsend.

1986-88 ---Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1987-88 ---Alabama: UNCF Scholar-in-Residence at Talladega College

1988-1989 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1990-1991---Charlottesville, VA; Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change, UVA

1990 ---Publication of Redefining American Literary History

1992 –Publication of Black Southern Voices

1991-2002 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College; Germany and France, 1993; United Kingdom and the British Museum, 1995

1996—Tennessee: Moss Chair of Excellence in English, University of Memphis

1997 –Publication of Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry

1999-2000 ---Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Fellow, National Humanities Center

2002-presentLouisiana: Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English, Dillard University; epiphany in Senegal, 2004 and induction into the Tougaloo College Alumni Hall of Fame, 2009.

2005-2006 ---Vicksburg, Mississippi: exile after Hurricane Katrina and the breaking of the levees flood New Orleans

2008 –Publication of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia and THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery

2009, 2010, 2011 –Visits to China

2011 ---Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award and publication of The Cambridge History of African American Literature; designated a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University –Wuhan (2011-2014)

            The vertical quality of the almanac represents ascent.  Something, rather like the bark of the pine tree, conceals the horizontal, the growth rings, the outward movements that have an inner core.  Like the tree, my life has been a process.  The tree does not control changes in climate; it endures them even as it is changed by them, and so too have I been changed by the historical events that have reshaped Mississippi from 1949 to 2012.  The concentric circles of my life are forever attached to Moss Point and Tougaloo College and the profound affinity I feel with the life and works of Richard Wright, il miglior fabbro.  And there is also the rootedness in the soil of Mississippi. In my life, long teaching career, and writings, I have sought and still seek to fulfill a moral obligation: facing naked truths squarely and articulating them for a future.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





Bio





Jerry W. Ward, Jr., is a Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English at Dillard University and a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University (Wuhan).   He spent 32 years as the Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature at Tougaloo College (Mississippi).  Recognized as one of the leading experts on Richard Wright, he is a founding member of the Richard Wright Circle and co-editor of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2008).  He received the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award in 2011 from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. Ward edited the anthology Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (Mentor, 1997), and his poems and essays have been published in such journals as The Southern Quarterly, African American Review, Yawp, Mississippi Quarterly, and Black Magnolias.  His most recent books are THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008) and The Cambridge History of African American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2011). His work –in-progress includes Reading Race Reading America (essays), Jazz South (poems), and Richard Wright: One Reader’s Responses.























Essay for COMING HOME TO MISSISSIPPI



OF BEING LIKE MY TREE



            I am an outsider/insider Mississippian, the subject of other people’s observations and the object of my reflections.  Born in Washington, D. C. in 1943, I was repatriated in the late fall of 1949 to Moss Point, my father’s hometown.  My six-year old self changed rapidly from being happy, care-free, and urban to being  town-trapped, sullen, and  confused.  I could not understand why having an ice cream cone in the local drugstore was forbidden. So, this was Mississippi.  A land of do-not-say-that and do-not-do-this.  I was too young to sense the invisible segregation of the nation’s capital and unprepared for the racism of the South and the permanent scar it would leave in my sensibility.

            Even a six-year old can have agency, however, even in 1950s Mississippi.  I chose to keep, as much as I could, the speech patterns of my brief years in the North. You do not have to talk like a Mississippian to be one.  I did not want to sound like my slow-talking cousins and older relatives, to sound like molasses creeping uphill on a cold day. The enervating drawl of the South did not appeal to me. I kept my vowels and my consonants and my distinct word-endings.  I was teased for sounding “white.” And by the measures used by my peers, I was odd for indulging my passion for reading, for wishing to be smart, as smart as my innately brilliant father and as well-mannered as my Louisiana-born mother, who insisted that she was not Negro but Creole and that I would not become food for the tragic appetites of Mississippi’s white folks. The nightmares I had in 1955 about the lynching of Emmett Till assured me that she did not insist too much.

Unlike a few of our relatives, we did not have money.  We were working-class, poor in pocket but rich in aspiration, sense of self-worth, dignity. I did not know we were poor. Poor people begged for things. We did not beg.  If we asked for favors, we had to repay them.  When my father’s early retirement pension was not enough, my mother did domestic work.  In my childhood imagination, I was an aristocrat exiled in a place called Mississippi. I was accustomed to the civilization of a bathroom.  I resented having to learn the ritual of the outhouse and the art of bathing in a tin tub. I silently hated and resisted the low expectations most non-black Mississippians had for black Mississippians and used my intellectual gifts to become who I am, a person for whom liking or disdaining Mississippi as home is a remarkably free choice.

            The story of choice begs for a plot, a charting of a life history in which Mississippi is the home space for departures and returns. Perhaps plot can be an idiosyncratic almanac, an emotional structuring of time and place:

1943-1949----Washington, D.C.--Moss Point, Mississippi : The bliss of childhood was destroyed when my father took an early retirement for health reasons from his civil service job, and we moved from the city to the country in November 1949.  My first Christmas in Mississippi was strange but not unpleasant.  Eating oranges and apples in front of a fireplace and the pungent smell of a cedar Christmas tree is a decisive moment in becoming a Mississippian.

1949-1964 ---Moss Point--Tougaloo, Mississippi : These fifteen years are the longest continuous period of my claiming Mississippi as home, years that resonant the sorrow song of  Richard Wright’s Black Boy far more than the fantasia of Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Planting a pine tree when I was eight years old in our two-acre yard was a symbolic act of attaching myself to the soil, and it was and remains the symbiotic sign of self.  That tree and I have survived dramatic changes of weather and social climate in Mississippi; it is the fixed point of the compass, the point to which I return in my mind no matter where my body might be. Whatever is Choctaw in my bloodline allows me to believe in the spirit of the tree and our primal entitlement to the land that time will restore to us.

The disadvantages of second-class citizenship in Mississippi killed any genuine feelings of patriotism I might have had for the United States and made me a loyal cynic in the Magnolia State. The false promises of American democracy as orchestrated in a sovereign closed society did, however, inspire me to be very serious about my education in public and parochial schools, and to be very receptive to a liberating education in mathematics, social responsibility and life at Tougaloo College. There I embraced the ideals of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and transformed my private anger into the public assertions of the Civil Rights Movement.  Graduation from college was the beginning of six years of absence from home.

1964-1966 ---Chicago: Two years of working for a master’s degree at Illinois Institute of Technology opened windows for seeing the joys and the horrors of urban experiences and for understanding that only New Orleans could meet my expectations of what urban life should be.









1966-1968 –Albany, NY: Two years of work on English Renaissance literature at SUNY at Albany, of learning about diversity in the mindsets of New Yorkers.

1968-1970 ---United States Army, Fort Knox, KY and  Vietnam: Although I opposed the war, I was loyal to my country; on the other hand, my Asian exposure hardened my heart against the hypocrisy of America, against its casual , Aztec-like sacrificing of young men on the altars of the war gods.

1970-1974Mississippi:  I returned to teach at Tougaloo College.

1974-1977 –Charlottesville, VA: I would serve my alma mater better if I had a terminal degree, so I went to the University of Virginia, wrote my dissertation on “Richard Wright and His American Critics, 1938-1960,” and received the Ph.D. in 1978.

1977-1984—Mississippi:  I returned to  teaching at Tougaloo College, served for four years on  the Mississippi Humanities Council, and chaired the Department of English, 1979-1986

1985 ---Washington, D.C.  The opportunity to return to the city of my birth and to work at the National Endowment for the Humanities as a program officer was a godsend.

1986-88 ---Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1987-88 ---Alabama: UNCF Scholar-in-Residence at Talladega College

1988-1989 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1990-1991---Charlottesville, VA; Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change, UVA

1990 ---Publication of Redefining American Literary History

1992 –Publication of Black Southern Voices

1991-2002 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College; Germany and France, 1993; United Kingdom and the British Museum, 1995

1996—Tennessee: Moss Chair of Excellence in English, University of Memphis

1997 –Publication of Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry

1999-2000 ---Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Fellow, National Humanities Center

2002-presentLouisiana: Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English, Dillard University; epiphany in Senegal, 2004 and induction into the Tougaloo College Alumni Hall of Fame, 2009.

2005-2006 ---Vicksburg, Mississippi: exile after Hurricane Katrina and the breaking of the levees flood New Orleans

2008 –Publication of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia and THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery

2009, 2010, 2011 –Visits to China

2011 ---Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award and publication of The Cambridge History of African American Literature; designated a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University –Wuhan (2011-2014)

            The vertical quality of the almanac represents ascent.  Something, rather like the bark of the pine tree, conceals the horizontal, the growth rings, the outward movements that have an inner core.  Like the tree, my life has been a process.  The tree does not control changes in climate; it endures them even as it is changed by them, and so too have I been changed by the historical events that have reshaped Mississippi from 1949 to 2012.  The concentric circles of my life are forever attached to Moss Point and Tougaloo College and the profound affinity I feel with the life and works of Richard Wright, il miglior fabbro.  And there is also the rootedness in the soil of Mississippi. In my life, long teaching career, and writings, I have sought and still seek to fulfill a moral obligation: facing naked truths squarely and articulating them for a future.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





Bio





Jerry W. Ward, Jr., is a Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English at Dillard University and a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University (Wuhan).   He spent 32 years as the Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature at Tougaloo College (Mississippi).  Recognized as one of the leading experts on Richard Wright, he is a founding member of the Richard Wright Circle and co-editor of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2008).  He received the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award in 2011 from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. Ward edited the anthology Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (Mentor, 1997), and his poems and essays have been published in such journals as The Southern Quarterly, African American Review, Yawp, Mississippi Quarterly, and Black Magnolias.  His most recent books are THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008) and The Cambridge History of African American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2011). His work –in-progress includes Reading Race Reading America (essays), Jazz South (poems), and Richard Wright: One Reader’s Responses.




















No comments:

Post a Comment