The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
- Nina Simone
In the spirit of the Freedom Riders, I recently caught the Greyhound bus to Mississippi. I got a call from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). They wanted to interview me and include me in a *documentary about Emmett Till. So I boarded a Greyhound in Atlanta and headed to Jackson to meet them. I decided to take the Greyhound so I can reflect on Freedom Summer, Emmett Till, and the Civil Rights Movement, a critical time in American history. I had to get myself mentally and spiritually ready. America, goddamn, it seems is in a critical state of Civil Rights 2.0.
About two hours into the bus ride I just happened to look up from what I was reading and peered out the window. We must be in Alabama… I thought to myself. I deliberately looked down at my phone to read the time. I almost couldn’t believe it was 2018. I looked back up to examine a grandstand of hatred waving down the highway. Confederate flags wielding in the wind for all to see, greeted us with malevolence on this American highway. These symbols of defiance flew high as we passed by. As usual, I ignored these implied symbols of racism and reflected on my goals. I could feel the bus continue to progress forward. And I did too.
It was about 10 pm when I arrived in Jackson Mississippi. I checked in with the front desk of my hotel, got my key and called for the elevator. When the elevator arrived and the door opened, there they were, Maria Margaronis and Mark Burman.
I immediately knew it was them and they knew it was me. Chemistry. We hugged liked old friends even though we had never met in person. Maria was short and petite with a big spirit. Mark was tall and friendly with a determined heart. There were good vibes only.
When they started to speak, I could hear their British accent stand out reminding me of how far they traveled to pursue their interest in race in America. But their spirit and character spoke the loudest. They reeked of spunk. Both of them. Their eyes held a sincerity that I can't explain. It wasn't hard to love these two.
I liked their vision. Here they were all the way from London chasing the story of Emmett Till and examining racism in America through they eyes of artists like me. A few days earlier they had just met with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in New York. Keith Beauchamp executed an important documentary on Emmett Till and completed one of the most thoughtful interviews with Mamie Till.
I highly regarded Maria and Mark’s vision to tell history in a contemporary story through the minds and eyes of artists. Different.
We all immediately realized we were hungry so we chatted and decided to walk across the street to the local fast food restaurant, Whataburger. While we stood on line ordering our food Maria suddenly wanted a beer. There was no beer on the menu. It was a fast food joint. She decided to go across the street to the local corner gas station. Being the native New Yorker that I am, I observed my surroundings and looked across the street. There were some men hanging out at the gas station. I couldn’t let her walk by herself. Besides, Maria came all the way from London to benefit the history of my people. I couldn’t let anything happen to her. I went with her while Mark ordered our food.
Once we were in that gas station and I saw how she handled the people, I knew she was one spunky white chick who knew how to handle herself. She went to the refrigerated area and looked for a particular beer. She turned and asked me if I wanted one. I don’t drink beer so I told her “No thank you”, but still wanting to be in a celebratory state I added “but I’ll have a wine cooler.”
She purchased our drinks and we walked back to Whataburger. Maria realized she didn’t have a bottle opener to take the top off her beer. Maria is remarkably spirited, and thought nothing of walking around asking the patrons around the restaurant if they had something to take the top off. She didn’t stop until she succeeded. I never would have had the courage to do that. There we were, in the middle of Whataburger, drinking beer and wine coolers chatting away until we were tired. I was grateful to be a part of such company. When I got to my hotel room that night, I thanked God for letting me meet such spirited people and I prayed that whatever was in me to say during the interview, God would push it all out of me.
The next morning, we got up and met in the lobby and headed out to breakfast. I was getting to know Maria and Mark even more. I liked them and I felt very comfortable with them. I got a sense they were on a serious mission.
They really cared about this story. The more I started to observe them and listen, the more I realized I needed to document the people who were supposed to be documenting me. They were so interesting. I started taking notes in my head.
We got in the car and started driving around downtown Jackson looking for breakfast. I observed while sitting in the back seat as Maria drove and Mark played co-pilot. At one point, we turned a corner and Maria started fussing and Mark was her hype man. They were disturbed as we drove downtown Jackson Mississippi to see confederate flags waving so prominently. They pointed them out one after another. I think Maria thought the elected officials could hear her fussing. I made like Black Beauty and neighed to myself. I wasn’t spooked. It wasn’t anything new for me to see. These flags are made and displayed to make people like me feel non welcomed and try to make us feel inferior. As a Black person in the US, you learn to cope and deal with these things as they continue the rhetoric to justify the historical reference in flying confederate flags. Isn’t that the purpose of a museum?
Finally, we settled on a restaurant. Maria parked the car and we got out. I watched an older white man with a hat eyeball me as I got out of the back seat of the car as he realized Maria was the driver of me, a Black woman. Most white men in America don't notice Black women here. Black women are mostly invisible to white men. But I could read his old school thoughts in this old school town.
My brain scanned the streets. For it to be a weekday it sure was a ghost town. Atlanta would be bustling. I would see stores, and traffic, and people. Black and white people. But contemporary downtown Jackson Mississippi looked like it was straight out of the history books from the 1950s. Nothing looked like it changed. Nothing was modern. The parking meters were dated and still took coins. Even the air was stale. Jackson, Mississippi is stuck in the past. One of the first unspoken things that most Black people do in new places is gage ‘Did you see any Black people?’ I think I only saw two. One of them was outside the building standing by a confederate flag taking a smoke.
As we had breakfast, Maria got on the phone and was trying to reach some of Emmett Till’s relatives.
I thought to myself Maria and Mark were not playing. They have come to get the juice and are not leaving without it. As I sat across the table looking at them making their phone calls, and digging into documents while I was eating my breakfast, I wondered if they really knew how much I appreciated what they were doing.
After breakfast we headed to the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. It’s a brand new museum, just opening December 2017. It was bigger and more massive than I imagined. Now I could be wrong but this building was the newest and most modern and contemporary establishment in Jackson.
We parked. As we walked across the parking lot, Mark asked me if I had an agent for my art. “Working on it.”, I told him. And as I started walking into the building, I began to wonder if this could be a permanent or temporary home for Emmett Till (my painting). I have a task ahead of me to find him the right permanent home. Could this be a possibility? My mama bear eyes began to wander and examine every little thing. The depth and strength of the security. The people at the front desk. The security guards at the door. The security guards in the museum. The thickness of the walls. Were they thick enough to keep him safe? My imagination was on 100.
I liked seeing teachers come in with their students, and tour guides ready to greet them. Mama bear was pleased.
When we got our tickets we were greeted by a petite, very smart looking Black woman. She turned out to be the director, Pamela Junior. Whomever made the decision to appoint her made a good choice. She was sharp, intelligent, warm and in charge.
Maybe this museum would bring the change this city needed and she would be the catalyst for that change. Maria was going to interview Mrs. Junior for the project and snapped me out of my thoughts. “Lisa, you want to walk around the museum or do you want to sit in on the interview?”, she asked. I looked at Maria. “Oh no…I’m not missing a thing,” I told her, “I’m sitting in on this interview.”
It was divine to see Mark and Maria in action. They were a team. Maria asked the questions and Mark recorded the interview. Mark’s body language was amazing during the interview. He was in awe with the responses from the director. He never took his eyes or ears off what she was saying. There was warmth and compassion in his eyes. I watched him listening and I remember snapping a picture of him because his body language said everything about his character and intent. It felt awesome being a witness to this. Then I wondered what questions they were going to ask me. Maria sure knew how to dig and prod.
After the interview with the director, Maria, Mark and I decided to go explore the museum and then come back later to a quiet area to do my interview. Good. I was itching to get to the Emmett Till exhibit in the museum. I wanted to see how Mississippi had represented the Emmett Till story.
Once we got back downstairs I noticed how overwhelming going through the museum could be. I appreciated the thoughtful organization of such a massive exhibit. I didn’t want to miss anything. Mark and Maria jumped right in soaking in the information getting lost in their own thoughts. The experience was educational and emotional at the same time. I stared at photographs of people that I wanted to know and talk to for their strength and wisdom. The people in the photographs stared right back at me.
How did they get through these times? There were so many enriching pictures, artifacts and information to take in that gave insight into the evil that existed in Mississippi. So many stories untold.
The exhibition on lynching left me melancholy. I moved at a turtle’s pace as I looked up and read account after account, one right after the other---of the outrageous reasons a Black person died at the hands of a lynch mob. It’s always sad to know someone died so violently, so mercilessly, for having brown skin. How do racist people sleep? I wondered. Did they have no conscience? Then suddenly I was very much startled and I jumped when I heard a big voice say “Nigger move out my way.” I turned around and clutched my invisible pearls. Thank goodness. It was an audio exhibit. I was relieved. The museum had successfully managed to put me into the time and space of African Americans in Mississippi. Ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement. I let out a big sigh.
By this time, I had lost Maria and Mark. We were all absorbed in our own thoughts and interests moving through the museum. But I could see Emmett Till’s face in the distance, and I became eager. Somewhat agitated. I skipped through a section and went ahead to the Emmett Till exhibit. Found myself walking up to the door of the infamous candy store. Now I’ve been going to museums most of my life and I know the rules. Yes. I know better, but I wanted to touch it. It felt so automatic. Yup, I tried to touch the door. Very clean plexiglass stopped me. Dammit. For a second I was frustrated. Truly agitated. It felt like I should be able to grab the handle of that door, open it and look for Carol Bryant, Emmett Till’s accuser. What would I say? Would I give her the Lisa Whittington stare down? I wanted to grab that handle and go in---why couldn't I go in? My imagination went to that day when Emmett and his cousins went inside. Moments later Maria and Mark caught up with me and broke my trance. I collected my thoughts and the rebel in me asked “Maria will you take a picture for me?”. I then took a picture in front of that infamous door with a copy of my painting, ‘How She Sent Him, How She Got Him Back.’
After while it was time to do my interview. “Lisa, you ready?” Maria asked. “Yep”, I responded. we went back upstairs to the director’s conference room to do my interview. It’s different being in the hot seat, but I was ready. When it comes to art and to Emmett Till, my heart stays on ready. During this interview, I realized I underestimated Maria and Mark. They knew even more about me and about my work than I realized. They were naming pieces of my artwork that I almost forgot I had. They did their homework. We talked a lot about art, racism, painting Emmett Till, and the Whitney Museum. Important stuff. Relevant stuff. Real stuff. Sometimes I felt like I over talked Maria and spiritually I apologized but kept right on talking. I just didn’t want to leave anything on the table. Nothing. Nada. Not a thing. I had to live in this moment and push out everything that was in my soul. I pushed like I was delivering a baby.
By the end of the interview, I looked up and saw Maria starting to weep. “Why are you crying Maria? What’s the matter?”, I asked her. But deep in my heart I knew. The look in her eyes said everything. Mark was silent and something radiated in the room. Maria really didn't have to say a word. I got it. I knew. Sometimes other people bring gifts that we can't touch but can feel. Gratitude brings peace, hope and a vision for tomorrow.
Thank you Maria, Mark, and the BBC.