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I’m a black man who moved to the Deep South. Here’s what it’s teaching me about race.

The South represents slavery and bigotry. Living here has emboldened me like nowhere else I've been before.

A protestor carries a Confederate flag while protesting the anniversary of the removal of Confederate flags from statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina in July, 2017.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

I almost swerved off the road the first time I saw cotton in full bloom.

I had seen the dull green cotton plants crawling toward the sky through the summer months. Then, practically overnight, the cotton bolls exploded to reveal their fluffy prize. Nothing moves fast in the South — except when it does.

My wife’s grandmother spent some of her childhood days picking cotton. She described to me how the plant grudgingly yielded its prize, how the spiny shell would scrape open her fingers.

Cotton farming is all automated now. Huge machines comb the plants for their fibrous cotton centers. The cotton gets smashed into huge rectangular bales that are loaded onto flatbed trucks and shipped off for processing. But when those fields are blooming, you can’t help but picture slaves dressed in rags, hunched over in the oppressive heat, their hands scarred from years of labor.

The first question I get when I tell people I live in the Mississippi Delta is, “Why?”

This is what strikes me most about the Deep South — the immediacy of the past. Nothing stands between you and the stories you hear about slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. This history is in the ground you walk on and the people you live among.

“It’s real down here”

The delta is a place historian James C. Cobb called “the most Southern place on earth.” For most people it’s a region that brings up pictures of slavery, lynching, and poverty. So why would I, a black man from the Midwest, volunteer to move to the cradle of American racism?

My journey in the South started as a middle school teacher. I joined the Teach for America program and signed up for a two-year stint in a new public charter school on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River.

At first, I hated it. This tiny rural town felt like an island. Even more remote than an island, it seemed detached from both space and time. I couldn’t even describe to friends and family back home — “It’s real down here” is the best I could come up with.

Some of the differences from places I’d lived before were trivial. Store hours were rarely followed. You still can’t buy alcohol on Sundays. Camouflage is always appropriate attire, whether you’re going to the dentist or even church. And be careful driving at night — you don’t want to be stranded on a country road in the delta with no towns or streetlights for miles.

But there was the darker stuff. On my daily commute, I would pass a truck weigh station that flew the state flag. Mississippi is the last state in the country to retain the “Southern cross” on its flag; it defiantly sits in the upper left corner of the banner. At this truck station, the flag hangs just below the American flag, the two symbols inseparable from each other.

Even the cemeteries are segregated. In our town, the Confederate cemetery, which now sits in the corner of a larger cemetery, was meant only for white people. A completely separate plot of land in another part of town, unkempt and underfunded by comparison, was reserved for deceased black people. The cemeteries still operate, and although segregation is no longer enforced, the racist history is literally etched in stone.

Most of the black folks I talk to outside of this region can’t fathom ever living here. I try to tell them that they can’t truly understand the nation or themselves unless they at least make a pilgrimage to the Deep South.

For black people, the South is our homeland away from home. We were divorced from our native soil on the African continent and shipped to agricultural regions of North America; the Deep South is as close as many African Americans will get to their past.

I could have easily left after my two-year commitment — but I didn’t. The people I surrounded myself with and the impact I was making on my students in this small Southern town kept me rooted in place. But it was more than that. In some sense, I chose to live in the Deep South not in spite of its racial past but because of it. The racial wounds are apparent here, and they help me see this nation for what it truly is.

The Deep South is a mix of Confederate messaging and civil rights heroes

Although the trend is changing, black people have been stealing away from the South for decades. It's a place that represents bondage, lynching, and the humiliation of second-class citizenship. Down here, you're constantly faced with physical reminders — the flag, Confederate statues — of our nation’s bigotry. Even today, the stigma of entrenched racism remains.

When I was a teacher, my roommates and I, all black, went looking for houses to rent. The real estate company showed us certain properties, while our white co-teachers had access to more and better options in the wealthier parts of town. My friends and I didn't get the best treatment, but we didn't get the worst either. The brokers knew we were teachers and from out of town. We also had steady paychecks. So in their minds, we weren't as big a risk as the locals who probably saw even fewer sites than we did.

Such blatant discrimination confused and then angered me. I wanted to boycott the company, but there were only a couple of real estate brokers in town and this one had the most properties by far. While we did have other options, they weren't very good ones. We ended up renting from them. A sense of powerlessness simmered into frustration — the bitter realization that principles and pragmatism don't often dwell in harmony when it comes to race in America.

But as long as there has been oppression, people have resisted it. Living in the South has turned my attention to the countless women and men whose acts of defiance, both everyday and exceptional, broke down barriers and built new bridges.

When I was teaching a Sunday school class at my church in Jackson, Mississippi, I noticed an older man with a rim of gray hair around his balding head sitting quietly. When I later asked who he was, I found out he was James Meredith — a man who, in 1962, became the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. The night before he started classes, white segregationists started a riot on campus. By the end, thousands of federal troops had been dispatched to quell the chaos and two people were dead.

This kind of thing — a personal encounter with a living legend of the civil rights movement — has a way of reminding you that the worst days of segregation and racism are not that far away.

There’s a new kind of racism

I think many people were appalled at what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, because they thought America had moved past such performative displays of white supremacy. But I wasn’t surprised at all. Living in the Deep South has taught me that racism never really goes away. It just changes forms.

I recently visited the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum, dedicated to the president of the failed Confederacy during the Civil War. The library, located in Biloxi, a six-hour drive from my house to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is dedicated to preserving and celebrating his memory. Like many rich Southern men, Davis owned people. Few placards mentioned slavery at all; several of them simply praised Davis’s beneficent care of his human property and their unfailing loyalty to him. Most of the exhibits ignored the war’s root causes in slavery.

In his illuminating look into the Southern mind, Baptized in Blood, historian Charles Reagan Wilson describes the South’s Lost Cause narrative as “a mythic construct that helped white Southerners define a cultural identity in the aftermath of Confederate defeat.” The civil religion of the Lost Cause is on full display at a place like the Jefferson Davis Museum, recasting Confederate history as heroic and virtuous.

And the Lost Cause isn’t just a Southern myth; it’s a national one. This is why you see Confederate flags in Maine. It’s why the current president can say “they are trying to take away our history and our heritage” at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, and still get wild applause. It’s why the domestic terrorist who rammed his car into counterprotesters in Charlottesville was born and raised far away from the South, in Ohio. It’s why cities from Birmingham to Brooklyn are grappling with what to do about their Confederate monuments.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, put it well: “The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war.”

The South is special — and progress will keep happening here

The promise of the Deep South, though, is that if racial progress can happen here, then it can happen anywhere.

Moving to the delta put me in touch with the legacy of liberation that my ancestors left me. I live here because it is where they learned resistance and resilience in the face of injustice. The South produced Medgar Evers, Coretta Scott King, Ruby Bridges, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Clyde Kennard. Even though the North boasted its own civil rights movements, the Deep South nurtured initiatives like the Delta Ministry, which provided relief services to poor, rural black people, the Freedom Rides to integrate public transportation and facilities, and kneel-ins to challenge segregation in churches.

I’m living where so many marched, bled, and died to secure my basic freedoms. It’s emboldened me in a way I don’t think I would have experienced in the Midwest.

I’m not sure how long I’ll live in the Deep South. But after more than a decade down here, this place has given me an unshakable respect for who I am and where I come from.

I still count down the time to see when the cotton will bloom. It’s a one-of-a-kind sight. Acres of white puffs blanketing the landscape like powder, the memory of brown-skinned men, women, and children bent over in the suffocating humidity.

My son was born and is being raised in the South, a region that has not been kind to black men. He is also being raised in a country that has denigrated the dignity of people like him. My hope for my child’s future is that his skin color won’t be a source of shame to him or derision from others.

Above all, I want my child, and myself, to be black and free. Free to live in the South as black human beings — no explanations, no apologies, no fear. Simply the freedom to be.

Jemar Tisby is a PhD student in history and a former school teacher and principal. He writes about race, religion, and culture as President of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and he is the co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast. Find him on Twitter @JemarTisby.

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