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How Poverty and Racism Persist in Mississippi

As an adult, this is how I carry the poverty of my Mississippi youth forward with me ... hoeing and weeding and harvesting; who worked in homes, cleaning and cooking and caring; who hoped that the children they bore would not have to do backbreaking ...

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Skip to content The Atlantic Popular Latest SectionsSections Politics & Policy Culture Business Science Technology Health Education Global Notes Letters The Masthead Photo Video Events Writers Projects MagazineMagazine Current issue All issues Manage subscription Subscribe MoreMore Create account Your accountSign in Sign out Newsletters Audio iOS App Life Timeline Events Books Shop View all SubscribeSearch Search Quick LinksJames FallowsTa Nehisi CoatesManage subscriptionSearch The AtlanticQuick LinksJames FallowsTa Nehisi CoatesManage subscription How Poverty and Racism Persist in Mississippi The National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward reflects on choosing to raise her children in her home state, and how the forces that Martin Luther King Jrfought against still shape its destiny. Paul Schutzer / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Most Popular What Is Sam Nunberg Doing? Adam Serwer Mar 5, 2018 'Corporations Are People' Is Built on an Incredible 19th-Century Lie Adam Winkler Mar 5, 2018 China Is Not a Garden-Variety Dictatorship David Frum Mar 5, 2018 The 2018 Sony World Photography Awards Alan Taylor Mar 5, 2018 Two Ways to Read Italy's Election Results Rachel Donadio Mar 5, 2018 Jesmyn Ward MLK Issue KING Share Tweet … LinkedIn Email Print Text Size Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. I did not understand how poor my family was until my maternal grandmother told me a story about sackcloth dresses and beansI was in my 20s, and we were sitting in her kitchen, the tickle of cool air from the window air-conditioning unit barely on us, when she told me that while she was a child, her mother made dresses for her and her siblings from sackcloth, and that she was always disappointed because the sacks with pretty patterns were taken by the time she was given the opportunity to choose“We ate beans every week when I was little,” my grandmother said“We didn’t have meat, just some fatback for flavor.” The white wave of her hair fell across her face as she shook her head“I could do without them nowWhen I moved out, I bought myself dresses, nice dressesAnd I never wanted to eat beans again.” Beans and rice fueled the children through school, through work after school and on weekends, through the hours they spent planting, hoeing, weeding, and harvestingMy grandmother speaks openly of her lasting desire for fancy clothes, but she never mentions hungerIt is the subtext of her stories, the unspoken thing I imagine following her through the fields, crawling along the rows with her like one of her siblings as she chafes against her dress.Perhaps I was blind to my poverty because it was so ubiquitous that it was rendered invisibleAs a child, I lived in my grandmother’s house with my parents and siblings and our extended familyThirteen of us shared five bedrooms (one was a converted dining room)We had no central heat, no central airMy grandmother installed gas heaters in the long hallway bisecting the house and, later, a fat wood-burning stove in the living roomDuring the summer, box fans hummed in all the windowsMy mother says we never starved, and this is trueI had it better than my grandparents and my mother did when they were young, but I remember hungerI think it was the hunger of childhood, the need for fuel to grow, but it was blinding sometimesSometimes not even the food in my belly appeased itI recall eating four hot dogs once and still feeling as if my stomach were filled not with food but with airThe hunger was most insistent during and after hurricanes, when crackers and Vienna sausages and sardines were mealsWhen I was a teen, I read Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, read of him putting his mouth under a water faucet as a child growing up in Mississippi and drinking until he could swallow no more, so that his belly would fill with something, anythingThe familiarity of that unquenchable desire floored me.As an adult, this is how I carry the poverty of my Mississippi youth forward with me: by remembering the emptiness inside meBy remembering how that emptiness permeated every bit of meHow I was hungry in my belly and ravenous to fill my brain with something that would one day help ensure that I would not be hungry foreverHow I was desperate for stories, just as the young Wright had beenThis is a legacy of my childhood, of the hopes and dreams of all the people who worked themselves to the grave in fields, hoeing and weeding and harvesting; who worked in homes, cleaning and cooking and caring; who hoped that the children they bore would not have to do backbreaking labor but instead could, through education, become something more, become doctors or lawyers or nurses.Perhaps the most tragic manifestation of racist sentiment in Mississippi is silent.Material poverty is persistent, both for my family and for all black Mississippians: It cleaves to generations, passes from grandmother to mother to child like a genetic trait—like a crooked nose, or detached ears, or frecklesIt walks hand in hand with a kind of poverty of the imagination, of what is possible, of what we can grow to beWe are at the southernmost tip of Mississippi, but even so, we saw some of what DrKing and other civil-rights activists accomplishedSome aspects of our lives have changed: We can access the same public beaches as everyone else, on the Gulf of Mexico and on Lake PontchartrainWe attend desegregated public schools; we can attend any college or state university we desireWe can walk into any public restaurant on the coast and ask to be seated and served, and, often without incident, we areThis was not the case for my parents and grandparentsI grew up to be a writer, an artist, but I came to this in spite of my poverty, which insisted that my desire to create was frivolousWhich claimed that it was the natural state of my life, that I and those like me should always want, should always be empty. Related Story The Chasm Between Racial Optimism and Reality The seed of difference, and the belief in our poverty, our inferiority, persistsThis seed, present at the beginning of our subjugation as slaves, has sprouted and thrived as virulently as kudzuIt has strangled us for hundreds of yearsUnder the thin veneer of mutability, the belief that anyone of African descent is inferior still flourishes: sunk into the soil, springing from the well of the riversIt made itself known after emancipation, when minor offenses committed by black people led to imprisonment for crimes such as vagrancy and loitering and petty thievery, especially of food, and black men and women were essentially re-enslaved; a century later, some civil-rights activists in Mississippi would be sentenced to the notorious Parchman Farm to suffer tortureThe belief made itself known when Mississippi finally ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery—on February 7, 2013Now it makes itself known in the letters to the editor of local papers, where white people excoriate any and all activities associated with black college students’ spring-break festivitiesIt makes itself known when high-school football players take a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and then the parents of their white classmates call them nigger thugsIt made itself known on Martin Luther King JrDay in 2017, when the city of Biloxi declared that it would celebrate “Great Americans Day” instead.Freedom Riders enter a segregated waiting room at a bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, before their arrests for breaching the peace and disobeying a police officer(Paul Schutzer / The LIFE Premium Collection / Getty)It makes itself known in all these very vocal, confrontational waysBut perhaps the most tragic manifestation of racist sentiment in Mississippi is silentBuilt into the very bones of this placeMy state starves its people and, in doing so, actively resists King’s legacyOur Republican lawmakers have made an effort to undercut programs that serve the poor, maybe because so many people of color in Mississippi live in poverty and depend on social programs for helpThirty-two percent of the state’s African Americans, 25 percent of its Hispanic Americans, and 38 percent of its American Indians live in povertyAll of these numbers are higher than the national figures: 22 percent for African Americans, 19 percent for Hispanic Americans, and 26 percent for American IndiansRacist sentiment is built into the fact that the state government squeezes the funds for public schools, which might technically be desegregated but remain very segregated because the whites who have the money send their children to private schoolsBuilt into the fact that Mississippi has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation and some of the lowest test scoresBuilt into the fact that Medicaid provides health insurance for more than 50 percent of children in the state and many senior citizens as well, and yet our public officials repeatedly vote to deprive the program of resources, to shrink coverageBuilt into the fact that, during a recent push to unionize, some black workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, near Jackson, said they were denied promotions and assignments, which resulted in their being paid less than their white counterpartsIt’s a story familiar to many Mississippians of color.One of the revolutionary ideas King encouraged was a guaranteed income, apportioned to all poor people, designed to bring poverty to an endHe argued that a government willing to spend billions on an “unjust, evil war in Vietnam” could afford to give its citizens a guaranteed incomeIn Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote:Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measureFirst, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not at the lowest levels of incomeTo guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditionsSecond, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income growsWere it permitted to remain static under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative decline.He argued that such a system of wealth distribution would not only “diminish … the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars” but would also free men and women to pursue work that would increase knowledge, encourage literary pursuits, and elevate thoughtIn King’s estimation, this guaranteed income could solve all the other problems we associate with poverty: the fracturing of the family, the lack of access to quality education, the moral depression that mires folks in darkness when they think the circumstances they were born into are their fault and indicative of their worthA guaranteed income could even close some of the distance in stature and fortune between black people and white people, a distance created by hundreds of years of subjugation and brutality.But the Mississippi I grew up in, the Mississippi that I live in now, that I’m raising my children in, resists this broadened understanding of what it means to be a human beingIt resists the desire to rise above the circumstance of caste that we are born into and to never worry about the next time you’ll eat or whether your children are hungryThe desire to avoid having to feed your children the cheapest, most filling food you can—beans and rice one day, hot dogs the next—and still see them openmouthedThis Mississippi insists that there is a natural order to this arrangement, that if you are poor or wanting, you’re to blame if you starveThat you deserve your poverty, your squalor, your suffering, and that you do not deserve help or, as this Mississippi likes to say, “handouts.”I am raising my children here because so many of my extended family members, more than 200 of them, live in my small hometownI want my children to understand what it means to belong to such a large family, to grow up in such an intimate communityI live here because my brother died here, and this is where I am closest to his memory.Yet every day I wonder at living in the kind of place that would have my children understand that they are perpetually lessThat would starve them not only of food but also of a sense of what is possible in their livesI wonder at raising them in a place that has been telling people like them for decades, for centuries, that they are perpetually lessI wonder at raising them in a place that made my mother decorate bricks as baby dolls for want of toysMy grandmother says that when she was a child, she and her siblings entertained themselves by making small graves in their front yard and surrounding them with twig fencesThe fun was in decorating them, in building the most ornate, splendid plotI take my children to our local park, which happens to share space with our ever-encroaching community cemetery, and the only play equipment for little kids consists of four rusted swingsTwo of our basketball hoops are collapsed, and the two left standing are netlessA few years ago, county officials decided to put a volleyball net in the park and haul in sand for a courtIt is now a large litter box for wild catsThis is the truth of what Mississippi thinks of me and those like me, of all those whom King fought for: This is your shitty playgroundYou earned it.This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “The Belief in Our Inferiority Persists.” Share Tweet Latest Video Children of the Night At Camp Sundown, kids suffering from a rare skin condition are afforded a semblance of normalcy. Emily Buder Mar 1, 2018 About the Author Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, and again in 2017 for her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, SingShe teaches creative writing at Tulane University, and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2017. --> KING Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his legacy is still being written. Start Here Table of Contents Support for this project has been provided by the Fetzer Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Charles HRevson Foundation. Most Popular on The Atlantic Andrew Harnik / AP What Is Sam Nunberg Doing? Adam Serwer The former Trump aide’s decision to announce that he was defying a subpoena from Robert Mueller is more likely to pique the special counsel’s interest than dispel it. Updated at 8:15 p.mET When former Trump aide Sam Nunberg called into MSNBC on Monday to declare his intention to defy a grand-jury subpoena in the Russia investigation, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team was almost certainly watching with interest. “I’m not going to cooperate! Why do I have to spend 80 hours going over my emails that I’ve had with Steve Bannon and with Roger Stone?” Nunberg asked NBC News reporter Katy Tur on Monday afternoon“Why does Bob Mueller need to see my emails when I send Roger and Steve clips and we talk about how much we hate people?” Nunberg, who was exiled from Trumpland early in the 2016 campaign, has been consistent in defending President Trump from allegations of collusion with what U.Sintelligence agencies have called a Russian campaign to swing the 2016 election in Trump’s favorOn MSNBC on Monday, Nunberg repeatedly called the special counsel’s investigation a “witch hunt” and said that there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and RussiaYet defying Mueller’s subpoena could lead to conviction on charges of civil contempt, and then imprisonmentNunberg, an attorney, said he was willing to go to prison if necessary. Continue Reading Library of Congress / Corbis / Getty 'Corporations Are People' Is Built on an Incredible 19th-Century Lie Adam Winkler How a farcical series of events in the 1880s produced an enduring and controversial legal precedent Somewhat unintuitively, American corporations today enjoy many of the same rights as American citizensBoth, for instance, are entitled to the freedom of speech and the freedom of religionHow exactly did corporations come to be understood as “people” bestowed with the most fundamental constitutional rights? The answer can be found in a bizarre—even farcical—series of lawsuits over 130 years ago involving a lawyer who lied to the Supreme Court, an ethically challenged justice, and one of the most powerful corporations of the day. That corporation was the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, owned by the robber baron Leland StanfordIn 1881, after California lawmakers imposed a special tax on railroad property, Southern Pacific pushed back, making the bold argument that the law was an act of unconstitutional discrimination under the Fourteenth AmendmentAdopted after the Civil War to protect the rights of the freed slaves, that amendment guarantees to every “person” the “equal protection of the laws.” Stanford’s railroad argued that it was a person too, reasoning that just as the Constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of racial identity, so did it bar discrimination against Southern Pacific on the basis of its corporate identity. Continue Reading Jason Lee / Reuters China Is Not a Garden-Variety Dictatorship David Frum It is far more ruthless and determined to protect its power. The Chinese National People’s Congress is convening to consider among other things a “recommendation” to abolish term limits for China’s president and vice presidentThe outcome of that deliberative process is unusually un-suspensefulPresident Xi Jinping will soon rule for life, confirming him as the most absolute ruler of China since the death of Mao ZedongChinese authorities have decisively suppressed dissent in any forum, including online mediaThe last flickering hopes for Chinese political liberalization seem crushed for years to come. Twelve years ago, at a time when those hopes still burned bright, a dissenting China expert named Minxin Pei published an arresting argumentNot only would the Chinese Communist Party never willingly liberalize, he argued, but rather than permit liberalization, the party would eventually smother China’s economic growth tooI read China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy shortly after it was first publishedPei and I have kept in touch over the years sincePei now serves as the director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont-McKenna College. Continue Reading © Mitch Dobrowner, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards The 2018 Sony World Photography Awards Alan Taylor The annual competition just announced its shortlist of winners for 2018. The Sony World Photography Awards, an annual competition hosted by the World Photography Organisation, just announced its shortlist of winners for 2018This year's contest attracted nearly 320,000 entries from more than 200 countriesThe organizers have again been kind enough to share some of their shortlisted and commended images with us, gathered belowOverall winners are scheduled to be announced on April 19All captions below come from the photographers. Continue Reading Max Rossi / Reuters Two Ways to Read Italy's Election Results Rachel Donadio The people have spokenBut what are they saying? ROME—Anyone who’s spent more than a vacation in Italy knows it’s a country with deep reserves of discontent, economic stagnation, and political dysfunctionSo the anti-establishment

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