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To Understand the World

In Dispatches from Pluto Richard Grant tells the story of moving from New York City to live in an old farmhouse in the Mississippi Delta. For some reason, the book was shelved in the travel section at my local bookstore, but it’s not a travel guide. Instead it’s part humorous memoir and part cultural anthropology.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-8-31-51-amGrant, who is British and has the accent to prove it, spends some time adjusting to the soft drawl of his new neighbors. I am familiar with the process. My husband was born in Iowa and raised in Ohio. My father is what we call a “Southern mumbler.” When they first met, my husband would lean in and do his damnedest to decode whatever Daddy was saying. Sometimes my mother would translate without realizing she was doing it. Translation is no longer necessary, as my husband says he has “tuned his ears” to the way my Daddy swallows his words.

Grant lives with his girlfriend and their dog in the old farmhouse located in the swamps not far from Greenwood, Mississippi. Greenwood is where I lived and worked as a newspaper reporter for a year after college. Many of the people Grant writes about are the same people who were making news back in 1990. He eats at the Crystal Grill and at Lusco’s, familiar places to anyone who spends any time in the Delta. He goes dove hunting and deer hunting with the locals. He fights off the encroaching water moccasins, armadillos, and raccoons. He visits the last of the true Mississippi juke joints and drinks a lot of bourbon.

Books like this always make me nervous. I don’t like looking at any group of people as a source of amusement. I grew up in the south and I cringe whenever someone tries to report about what it’s like “down there.” Too often they go for the punchline or the pity. I hate it. It’s part of the reason it took me so long to dive into Grant’s book.

I’m happy to report that Grant mostly avoids the cliches. He does describe his new neighbors as gun toting, bible fearing, church going, heavy drinking people. But he also talks about their intense generosity, their good humor, their patience. He talks about the family who more or less adopts his girlfriend, giving her a bedroom in their home so she is never forced to stay alone in the remote swamp when Grant travels for work.

Even better, he tries to talk about the thing that is so hard to talk about: race. There are people of a certain generation in the Delta who still hold on to some old and uncomfortable customs. When I worked at the newspaper in Greenwood, an older black man handled basic maintenance around the office. Occasionally,  someone would give him a ride to or from work. He never sat in the front seat when a white person was driving. Everyone accepted this as ordinary. It was the way things had always been and no one was agitating for change, least of all the man himself.

Grant talks about this custom, and also about the black housekeepers who never sit directly across from their employers at a dining table, and the black men who never make eye contact with a white person. He talks to white people about their “second mamas,” the black women who raised them. And he talks to the black women about their white “adopted children.” There is great affection all around, but affection does nothing to bridge the wide gulf of inequality.

When Grant throws an enormous multi-day house party, his new friends mix and mingle with the visitors from New York and London. Before long, the city mice are shooting rifles with the country mice and the bourbon is flowing like water. There is only a moment of discomfort when Grant realizes that the only black person at his party is the blues musician he’s hired to entertain. He invited some black people; he’s careful to point that out. For various reasons, they couldn’t make it. And this is the thing about the south, particularly the Mississippi Delta: the issue of race is always flowing beneath the bourbon.

This is where Grant’s book falls a little short. He and his girlfriend are struggling to survive in New York City. They can barely pay the bills, but in the Mississippi Delta they are able to buy a huge old house for next to nothing. Grant can’t even get a mortgage from his bank, because his freelancer salary is too unreliable. In Mississippi, the seller of the house offers to carry the mortgage for him until a local banker who likes Grant’s story (and probably his accent) agrees to make the loan. Grant is gobsmacked by the generosity and the good fortune. He does not pause to consider whether any of this would be offered if his skin were darker. In fact, Mississippi has a long tradition of racist practices surrounding lending and housing discrimination. Incidentally, so does New York City (see Trump). In this way, he is more like his new neighbors than he realizes. It is one thing to explore the prickly issues of race as a social problem. It is quite another to recognize it on a personal level.

William Faulkner said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” I spent the first 21 years of my life in Mississippi. I have spent the past 26 years struggling to understand it. It is too much to expect Richard Grant or anyone else to understand it after only a year or two. I give Grant kudos for making the effort, though. I recommend his book.

Published in Mississippi Reading The South Writing

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