“Daddy, what’s Mississippi like?” In the prologue to his 2003 memoir Ever Is a Long Time, author W. Ralph Eubanks recounts this innocent, yet surprisingly complicated question posed to him by his young son one night during a bedtime conversation. The answer he gave told the story of a pastoral life, full of happy memories from his childhood growing up on his family’s farm in the little town of Mount Olive. It was a true story, but incomplete, and its gaps would leave Eubanks wondering when—and how—to tell his children the whole story of Mississippi. The full story would have to include some awful truths. How, for example, do you tell your children that when you were a boy, a group of white protestors had gathered outside the building on your first day at a newly integrated school, brandishing mops and brooms as they threatened to clean you out of the place like trash? And how do you explain that it’s possible still to have a deep abiding love for such a place?
Ever Is a Long Time explores these questions, as does Eubanks’s second book, The House at the End of the Road (2009), which recounts how three generations of his interracial family have survived and thrived amid the politics of racial identity in the South from the Jim Crow era to the present. Now, A Place Like Mississippi, another evocative first-person account, continues the conversation on race in the region. Through a deft amalgamation of autobiography and cultural exploration, Eubanks uses archival research and oral history, filtering his investigations through a literary lens that focuses on how Mississippi shapes the iconic writers it produces and, in turn, how those writers help shape how the rest of us see Mississippi. “The American idea of blackness,” writes Eubanks in the opening chapter, “—not merely as a racialized category, but as a cultural, political, and economic identity—has its origins in the American South.” And if Mississippi exists, as the author states, in America’s imagination as a metaphor for the South at large, then it stands to reason that the literature of the place is largely responsible for conjuring those images, its writers the arbiters of our perceptions.
A Place Like Mississippi is precisely what its subtitle suggests—a journey through a real and imagined literary landscape in search of what feeds the works of great writers who have called Mississippi home. The reader follows Eubanks as he travels across the Magnolia State exploring the backdrops that influenced many of its most prolific and heralded authors, from canonical literary figures such as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner to a new group of heavyweights—an elite class of young Black writers that includes Jesmyn Ward, Angie Thomas, and Kiese Laymon. Binding this diverse roster of writers is their ability to unearth the “silences,” those ways in which we cloak the shames of our history, which Eubanks contends are where good Mississippi stories can be found.
There, too, he says, will you find all the ways in which we are connected. It is clear that Eubanks’s goal is not to denigrate the state but to bring clarity, to show Mississippi all the adoration it deserves and none that it does not, by highlighting writers who commit the compassionate act of shining a light in the dark corners and uncovering the truth about Mississippi’s good and its bad. These artists praise the ways in which the state is beautiful, and yet are honest about those ills for which it must still atone.
Eubanks’s visitation of Mississippi begins on the Gulf Coast, where he discusses the importance of memory and memorialization with Mississippi poet laureate Natasha Trethewey and two-time National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward, before heading north to the Piney Woods to which he is native. A small Piney Woods town called Centreville was also the home of writer and activist Anne Moody, whose 1968 book Coming of Age in Mississippi left an impression on Eubanks for both the ways that their personal stories were so intertwined and the ways in which they diverged—“Moody’s writing made me realize that I grew up with a measure of privilege, something I struggled to make clear in what I wrote.” The author’s self-realization and real-time reckoning make the journey a compelling one, and it’s hard to imagine a work with more rigorous research and depth than Eubanks exhibits here.
As Eubanks travels through the state focusing on writers he admires, Black and white alike, both for their skill and for the way they tell the truth of Mississippi, he also charts a path from the past to the present, underscoring the ways that writing about race has evolved. Kiese Laymon’s work in particular, profiled in the chapter “A Tale of Two Jacksons,” embodies what Eubanks refers to as a “post-integration blues” ethos, which sets it apart from the works of earlier blues writers like fellow Jackson native Richard Wright. According to Eubanks, while Wright’s version of the blues lamented the ways in which Black folks were downtrodden at the hands of white folks—a bitter truth, to be sure—Laymon acknowledges white supremacy and its continued effects but refuses to be defined by it, representing a powerful shift in the dynamics of both the real and literary world. This post-integration blues ethos is also seen in the work of Jesmyn Ward and fellow Jackson native Angie Thomas, whose works, like Laymon’s, are rooted in the present but not dominated by the past. Theirs is an unapologetically Black “perspective that is free of the historical burdens about the civil rights era,” which Eubanks feels that his own generation clings to closely. But different eras notwithstanding, their collective blues connect them, rendering their experiences more alike than different.
White writers, too, have had to reckon on the page with the brutal and beautiful nuances of Mississippi. Toni Morrison famously said of Eudora Welty that she wrote “about Black people in a way that few white men have ever been able to write. It’s not patronizing, not romanticizing—it’s the way they should be written about.” In the second part of “Two Jacksons,” Eubanks takes a deep dive into the work of Welty, who was also a photographer. He traces a footpath through her old stomping grounds in the capital city, giving the reader a behind-the-lens view of her creative process. Welty, Eubanks writes, “used photography to create an intersection of fictional narrative, personal memory, and the region’s historical past.” It is worth noting here that photography is also used as a tool throughout A Place Like Mississippi—including one of Welty’s photos, entitled “A Woman of the ’30s”—to transport the reader into place and time. But beyond the inclusion of images that tell a wealth of story from beyond the lens, Eubanks’s greatest tribute to Welty is his echoing of Morrison’s sentiment that hers was a soft and empathetic literary touch that sought to be genuine and respectful. He also offers praise for her deliberate choice to wrestle with racism on the page and speak directly to white moderates as she did in 1963’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?,” written from the point of view of the man who murdered Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers in the driveway of Evers’s Jackson home. This willingness to hold the mirror that forces a place to take a long look at itself sets Welty and each of the writers she communes with in Eubanks’s book apart from those who would tell stories of the South that are rife with idyllic romanticism and selective memories.
Reading A Place Like Mississippi is as much a visceral experience as it is an intellectual one, even down to the supple feel of the pages and the soft, elegant texture of the book in your hands. Many of the included photos are so striking in their beauty that to render them as words on the page is to plumb the depths of one’s own literary ability. To translate a sunset over the Mississippi River at Natchez, one must capture it as it appears in a viewfinder, as with the photo offsetting the book’s third chapter, the sky sprayed with a luscious port-wine blush, giving way to sweeping strokes of lavender; the clouds, like stretched tufts of cotton hanging low and gauzy, shading the shimmering yellow sun. This visual opulence seems a fitting way to present a text that is trying to introduce the reader to “a place like Mississippi.” The imagery provides a backdrop for each chapter that helps the reader visualize the landscapes that inspire Mississippi writers to become virtuosos who illustrate it lovingly on the page despite its complicated past, its complicated present.
This tie, Eubanks argues, “between what once was and what remains will most certainly be the inspiration of the next generation of writers” from Mississippi and throughout the South. It is, arguably, what has always inspired them. It was even, it would seem, the inspiration for Eubanks, who when writing one of his previous memoirs, was coaxed out of writing what he thought would be a historical examination of a Civil Rights–era segregationist spy agency called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, into writing a memoir in which Mississippi in general, and his corner of it particularly, became a main character in the story that wanted to be told.
I can empathize with this phenomenon of being drawn to your homeland, that feeling of the place calling you away from the story you thought you were writing and repeatedly setting itself squarely within your view until you finally give in to the mutual need—the need for the writer to find and know and feel the land and the need for the land to be seen and felt and to have all of its secrets tilled and laid bare. My own literary biography of a Georgia writer from my hometown became a story I didn’t know I was telling, that I didn’t know I needed to tell, until “the mirror” made plain that so much and so very little had changed in Augusta, Georgia, in the sixty years between my subject’s birth and my own. Visiting and revisiting the land revealed how much of my own identity as a Black woman and a writer was tied to my homeplace, and how the home I loved had hindered and harmed and helped and honed us both in ways that I couldn’t appreciate from my own perspective as much as I could from tracing a path back to those who had come before me, had walked the same grounds, beheld the same contradictory splendor, lifetimes apart.
Collectively, the Southern states are America’s tangible reminder of slavery, a place with the distinction of being the birthplace of Jim Crow, and in response, the Civil Rights Movement. Jagged lines crawl across the map from the eastern seaboard to the west coast, sectioning the country into disparate regions that have each inflicted their own particular horror onto Black folk throughout the nation’s history. But among these regions the South has stood apart and stands even still as the mirror America reluctantly holds up to itself during times of tumult, bearing the weight and the responsibility of being the epicenter of the racial divide. And even among the Southern states, in many ways, Mississippi stands alone.
For Southern writers, reconciling their love of their homeland with the harsh realities of pervasive racism and white supremacy can be a delicate balancing act. To be Black and American is to experience a complicated love of country, one that comes with the knowledge that the land of the free doles out its freedoms laden with asterisks. Being Black and Southern presents its own kind of “dual consciousness” fraught with contradictions that the Black writers highlighted in A Place Like Mississippi not only deftly write into, but wholly embrace.
Both the Black and the white authors represented here have all been influenced and affected, albeit in vastly divergent ways, by living in Mississippi. And because Mississippi is the embodiment of the South, and the South itself is a microcosm of the rest of the country, engaging with these writers in the way that Eubanks presents them here allows readers who think they know Mississippi, and those who may not know it at all, to go beneath the surface into a rich cultural biography that travels far beyond Mississippi’s reputation for racial violence—a problem that is not, neither currently nor historically, confined to the South. A Place Like Mississippi is an education. It is a book bursting with discovery and pride. And its truths challenge our inclination to view the South as a monolith. Southern culture is diffused throughout the United States in a way that doesn’t set it apart, but rather makes it an integral part of the fabric of society. Perhaps if there is a chance for this nation to heal, those conversations can start here. And perhaps they will be begun by the writers who were not afraid to tell the tale.