Racial Reconciliation in the Deep South

VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI

I joined a number of white and black ministers on my stop in Vicksburg, Mississippi for their special monthly breakfast sponsored by Mission Mississippi. Their goal: To cross racial and denominational lines by building relationships one by one.

Interviewed in this piece are: Rev. Reginald Walker, Word of Faith Church, Vicksburg, MS; Dan Hall, Special Advisor, Mission Mississippi, Jackson, MS; Rev. Chan Osborn de Anaya, Christ Episcopal Church, Vicksburg, MS; Rev. Randall Burge, New Christian Fellowship, Port Gibson, MS; Vickar Margaret Ayers, St. James Church, Port Gibson, MS; Rev. Lister Bowdoin, Bovina United Methodist Church, Bovina, MS; Rev. Linda Sweezer, House of Peace, Vicksburg, MS.

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Transcending sand dunes

I first met Sath Kandaswami at the Windsor Hotel in Cairo.  We had both just arrived into that city and immediately struck up a friendship over breakfast, identifying each other as fellow adventurers.  Sath had come in overland from Morocco and I had arrived via plane from Cape Town.  

Eager to experience the country, we booked ourselves onto a bus bound for Bahariyya Oasis, Western Egypt, where we heard rumors of a dusty frontier museum full of golden mummies.  From Bahariyya we continued onward, hiring a duo of Bedouin guides who took us out into the proper desert for a good handful of days. Here we experienced the Black Desert, Emerald Mountain, the Mummies of the Magic Spring, and the White Desert, camping out under the stars.  The sand dunes stretch forever.  Sath would climb one and I would climb up the next, sitting there at sunset, surveying a most glorious land.  You look and you look and at the exact moment when the sun disappears, there’s a magical puff of air.  You sit there on the dune and it blows directly into your face.  From the desert back into Cairo, we again joined forces for a trip down South – hopping on the Wagons Lit Sleeper coach.  I jumped off in Luxor while Sath continued on to the end of the line – Aswan.  

From Egypt, Sath travelled down into the Sudan, crossing the desert between the countries in a rented 4×4, later taking pictures on the streets – a practice that was banned and thus brave.

I met up with Sath again in Washington DC – a city we traversed in the odd down time between working actual jobs.  From here we shook hands and went our separate ways.  

The moment I realized I was going to canoe the Mississippi, one of the first people I contacted was Sath, who was now based in Dallas, Texas.  At that time he thought he’d either do the first half or second half of the river with me, but as I reached St. Louis, Sath said he might be game for Oxford, Mississippi.  I had given him the hard sell a couple of times and didn’t want to push him, so when I got to Oxford, I didn’t contact.  

Two days ago I got back on my canoe from Quapaw Landing, Mississippi, and paddled south.  From the river I found a sand dune, right out in the middle of the mighty Mississippi, and readily made for shore.  The dune was highlighted by the sun and even though it was an hour before sundown, I thought I’d stop here and make camp and enjoy the sunset.  My map said Island 67 and after setting up camp I checked my email and found a note from Sath’s sister, Chithra.  The sun was on its final descent when I read the news that Sath had died suddenly, in Texas, back on October 30th.  

I couldn’t sleep that night and I couldn’t contact anyone from where I was.  My phone had no reception and my email became spotty.  It was a hard night, full of memories, and as the sun rose the following morning, I shouted out, “You could have been here…  Look at this sunrise…  You should have been here!”  Which was when I realized that I was a fool.  Of course Sath was there. 

First light on Island 67, Mississippi River

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Life lessons of the dugout canoe

HELENA, ARKANSAS 

Canoe guru John Ruskey’s exploits along the Mississippi River have been featured in Southern Living, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic.  But it’s his work with the at-risk children of this region of America that intrigued me: the idea of using a canoe as education; of transforming a log into useable art; of the dugout canoe as a life-changing experience.

QaGaron, Fredrick, Brooklyn, and Veronica, four KIPP Charter School Middle School kids from downtown Helena, Arkansas smile as they walk the levee from their school to Mr. Ruskey’s Helena-based workshop.  This is their second class at Quapaw Canoes, and even though their friends are catching the bus for home, these kids walk with a stride in their step.

Helena has a rich and illustrious past.  As one of the few original bluff cities on the Mississippi River, the boomtown that once was is now an economically-depressed region, save – one of the only things going for it – the hope, promise and vision of the children. 

Mr. Ruskey has been volunteering his time with the local KIPP Charter School for over a year, so when the principal phoned and asked if it would be possible to transform a log into an original dugout canoe, comprised of KIPP-only students, the answer was, “We’d love to do that.”

QdMr. Ruskey does not speak in sound bytes. He speaks from his soul and he speaks with conviction.  When asked how art, education, and the Mississippi River come together, Mr. Ruskey explained, “They come together with each paddle stroke you take.  If you watch the way a paddle cuts thru the water – it creates a double spiral on either side of it – and if you look at the shape of a classic canoe, it’s almost the same shape you see created in the water as you’re stroking the paddle.  And that’s the wonderful thing about the Mississippi River and any moving water – but on the Mississippi you see it more than any other body of water I’ve ever experienced.  You see expressions of patterns, of life patterns – the very basic patterns that govern our life – you see them expressed, constantly being expressed and then re-created over and over again.  And so it’s actually there on the face of the water that you see all those things come together.  One of our mottos here is Qcthat the River brings us together, and in that sense it literally does bring together education and canoes and art – they all come together as you’re paddling the canoe.”

The KIPP Dugout Canoe Project, as it is officially known, is a twice-weekly after-school class that begins with a pad of paper and a pencil.  The students are asked to sit quietly and look at the log and visualize what it will one day become.  Some draw the log as they see it while others draw a dugout canoe with an animal head.  At some point, the kids, in coordination with their school, will vote democratically on what the final shape is to become.  For now, part of the fun is just that idea alone.  The idea that this cottonwood log can one day become anything and everything they hope and desire it to be.

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Hurricane Katrina Survivor and Mighty Quapaw, Shemiah Timberlake

HELENA, ARKANSAS

Video interview with “Mighty Quapaw” canoe apprentice Shemiah Timberlake.  Shemiah, age 15, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, speaks of his family’s departure from Louisiana, of his time in Mississippi, and of his love for the Mississippi River.  Filmed at the Quapaw Canoe Company, Helena, Arkansas.

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Bardo of Rose

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

I recently had the privilege to meet and interview Memphis-based artist Roy Tamboli at Oxford’s first annual Memory Walk.  In this piece, William Andrews, Director of the University of Mississippi Museum introduces both the sculpture as well as the sculptor.  Symbolizing the experience of individuals with Alzheimer’s, their families, and caregivers, this is a work that is designed to both comfort and inspire.

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Flash River Safari on CNN’s “This Week in iReport”

Chikan

Super Chikan in his Chicken Shack, Clarksdale, MS

Flash River Safari has been mentioned on CNN’s weekly citizen journalism wrap-up “This Week in iReport”.  The short piece, which features Super Chickan, will run this weekend on CNN North America & the main page of CNN.com. To view the segment CLICK HERE.

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Illiteracy to Literature in the Enlightened South

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

Known as the home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, the University of Mississippi, and one of the finest independent book stores in the nation, Square Books, it came as a shock to learn Lafayette County’s illiteracy level amongst adults equals that of the national average – dead even at 23%.

And so began a search for answers.

One of the first things that catches your eye in Oxford is that folks from all walks of life are serious about the arts. From a rich and illustrious tradition of Hill Country Blues to a celebration of outsider art to the local Arts Council which hosts and funds a revolving door of local events to the three Square Book establishments on Oxford Square, there seem to be multiple celebrations of the arts every day and night of the week.

One of these Oxford institutions is billed as Thacker Mountain Radio – a weekly variety show of music and literature – held via Square Books every Thursday night stringing back to 1979. The show is live and the public are welcome and for those who can’t make it in person, there’s the radio.  Thacker Mountain is broadcast on both “Rebel Radio” and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

To take a seat at Thacker Mountain is to get into the groove of the local arts scene. The oversized windows at Off Square Books are opened up and those who don’t get seats pour out into the town’s Square. The night that I caught Thacker Mountain through the lens of my camera was the night I met authors Jessica B. Harris and Roy Blount Jr. Their advice for the public at large – “You’ve got to read” – a mantra which led me to the local Literacy Council.

Nicole Bass is an “Americaore Vista” which is a title and branch of the Volunteers and Service to America. While the council spends most of their time dealing with “preventative” measures – working with children – I thought it would be interesting to tag along for the first lesson of an adult, by the name of Sherry Crocker.

Sherry is in her late thirties and has two young children.  She wants to break the cycle of illiteracy in her family and has asked the Literacy Council for help. According to Sherry, she’s taking lessons to “help [her] four year old with homework” as well as to “read [the notes] he brings home from school.”

The idea of taking that first step into a first lesson in reading is a daunting prospect for many adults who in so doing are forced to acknowledge they don’t know how to read. There’s a stigma attached to both being unable to read as well as the fact a healthy percentage of our nation cannot read, like unto a secret.  A secret that isn’t talked about in polite society – a secret that as painful as it might be, needs to be brought out into the open and turned around and discussed.

The lesson for Sherry was intense and at times difficult. She was not able to pronounce many consonants, but she tried and although visibly embarrassed, was determined not to give up. When asked why it might be scary for folks around the nation to take the bold step that she took this day, Sherry, full of confidence on having completed her very first lesson, beamed, “They’re just scared – but me – I’m not scared at all – I’m enjoying … learning how to read.”

From the basic grasp of consonants to the next step up the ladder of literacy – actually craving the concept of literature – I found the idea of introducing a literary mantra in the epicenter of what some folks refer to as the “Enlightened South” an interesting prospect.  

David Swider and Michael Bible are affable and giddy and very much sincere about literature.  I joined the duo for a beer at the Square’s greasy spoon, Ajax, to talk shop about the region before sitting down for an interview back on their work-turf of Square Books.  Their energy plays off each other when they talk, turning every conversation into a brainstorming session of what would be cool or what could work out literary-wise for the literary journal, Kitty Snacks.  At ages 25 and 28, respectively, David and Michael are relatively young to undertake the launch of a literary magazine – but this is their point. They want to make the rather lofty idea of literature a possibility for folks of all ages by offering it to the public as bite sized snacks.

According to Michael Bible, Mississippi “is the fattest, poorest, dumbest state in the country – that is full of geniuses.  You have people that can’t read right next to people that win Nobel Prizes – and it’s this weird kind of dichotomy that works to both illuminate that kind of difference but also recently, bring it together.”

“The book is kind of a hard commodity right now,” explains Wayne Andrews, Executive Director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, who immediately saw the potential for the journal and helped to get it published.  While “publishers [are] not taking risks on new authors [nor] publishing diverse works, we’re finding new ways to do it.” According to Mr. Andrews, quarterly publications like Kitty Snacks are “leading [people] down the path to discover a magazine and then hopefully discover a book.”

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