What Jackson Mississippi Really Means

[Author’s note: Trigger warning for graphic quotations of a racial slur and violence.]

On June 26th, James Craig Anderson, a black auto plant worker, was preparing for work early in the morning, when he was attacked in a parking lot by seven white men. The group, led by 18-year-old Deryl Dedmon and John Aaron Rice, viciously attacked, beat, and spat at Anderson, screaming, “White Power.” After beating Anderson, the group quickly dispersed and made their way back to their cars, where Dedmon ran over Anderson in his Ford F250 green pickup, killing Anderson. The district attorney has said racial slurs were used during the attack and that Dedmon later bragged that he “just ran that n—– over.” The entire attack was caught on videotape.

The teenagers, seven in all, are alleged to have been led solely by 18-year-old Dedmon, who is now being investigated for ties to a local branch of the KKK. “According to police, they had left an all-night party in the neighboring upper-class white enclave of Rankin County with the sole intention of finding an African-American to attack,” said Michael Deibert in an article. The article addressed the stark reality that the racial bias of the attack was, again, a fact that many feel the need to debate. Both Dedmon and Rice have been released on bail, Dedmon with a pending charge of murder and Rice charged with assault.

To call this a tragedy, a nightmare, a further blemish on the deep-seated racism that still bubbles over in this country is frankly, a vast understatement. America’s historical amnesia blatantly glosses over the darkest stains in our country, a country predominantly built on evolving institutions of bondage and oppression. This mindset is currently exemplified by “leaders” like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, and the frequent racially-tinged vitriol directed at our very own president. Countless other incidents remind us that we are not the post-racial America we sometimes arrogantly convince ourselves we are.

Of course, mainstream news coverage of this attack in Jackson, Missisippi, has been pushed aside in favor of the white-washed, blissful, and fictional Jackson that appears in The Help, a new film based on Kathryn Stockett’s book. There have been many justified criticisms of the movie that articulate the countless reasons why the film fails and what that means on a larger scale in history, entertainment, and representation. But my concern right now with The Help is that it presents this idea of a latter-day Jackson, Mississippi, where segregation ruled and was then magically better. The danger with the love that surrounds this film is that it is so easy to watch and think, “Look at how we were! Look at how we used to be! Look at how far we have come!” This is one of the pitfalls of cultural nostalgia: looking back at our ugly history, cherry-picking the parts we want to remember, and thinking how silly and backwards we were back then.

Except, with the case of James Craig Anderson, that’s not true at all. To say that the climate in the Jim Crow South is far different from what it is now is somewhat true and simple. Bathrooms are not segregated and Jim Crow is not legally on the books. Yet this crime stands here and stares us straight in the face. Can we honestly look at this crime and still be able to tell ourselves, why yes, we indeed came so far? Can we simultaneously look at a film like The Help and think, what a heartwarming story with lovable characters who also overcame? Does this not continue the cycle of emotional and even physical violence by denying the fact that we still have deep-seated racial trauma sown into our culture?

In his recent essay, “Why I Can’t Talk About Race Anymore,” Steve Locke speaks on the many reasons he feels conversations about race cannot progress any further then the stalemate space they exist in now.

Black people can’t talk to white people about race anymore. There’s really nothing left to say. There are libraries full of books, interviews, essays, lectures, and symposia. If people want to learn about their own country and its history, it is not incumbent on black people to talk to them about it. It is not our responsibility to educate them about it. Plus whenever white people want to talk about race, they never want to talk about themselves. There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. As James Baldwin said, “As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.”

As evidenced by these types of conversations that eventually delve into, “But I’m not a racist!” responses, it is concerning that Dedmon and his family would rather admit that he might take a human life before they admit they harbor racism. “He is not a racist or a murderer”¦ If anything, he is being tried by the media, suffering from reverse racism and placed in jail without bond. I am sick of the race card,” said Dedmon’s aunt in a Facebook page set up by supporters of the teen. One has to wonder how being white became a targeted and threatened racial group and why it seems that swaths of white people cannot readily face all the constructions, the history, and the uglier facts that have built whiteness up to the perceived status it holds today.

Terry Keleher, in covering this story over at Colorlines has said:

How do you give someone back his or her life? How do you give people back their stolen land, their foreclosed homes, their precious health or the wealth lost by their exploited labor? Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty to do about the racism that’s already gone down. We can and should strive for racial reconciliation and reparations. We should force predatory lenders to return the goods to their rightful owners. We should support affirmative action and equitable policies to help level the playing field of access and opportunity. And we should bring people to justice for racial crimes, past and present. But remedying racism cannot be confused with reversing it. Sadly and soberingly, “reversing racism,” much like “post-racialism,” is just not possible. To talk about either is delusional and disingenuous. There’s too much water, and blood, under the bridge.

One hopes that the upcoming trial and national response will bring justice to Anderson and his family, one of the least possible things that could be given after inflicting such deep, echoing violence. His death is all too reminiscent of a history often forgotten, and a present filled with all too many people willing to forget. One also hopes that Anderson’s story, unlike the palpably “feel-good” story of The Help, will not be rewritten, nor whitewashed, but above all, remembered for what it actually was.


One reply on “What Jackson Mississippi Really Means”

The danger with the love that surrounds this film is that it is so easy to watch and think, “Look at how we were! Look at how we used to be! Look at how far we have come!” This is one of the pitfalls of cultural nostalgia: looking back at our ugly history, cherry-picking the parts we want to remember, and thinking how silly and backwards we were back then.

Damn straight.

This is exactly what bothered my about the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Not that it isn’t a worthwhile place, but there’s a floor that’s dedicated to the progress of civil rights movements, and the tone to me felt unbalanced: too much “look how far we’ve come” and not enough “and now look at where we still need to go.”

I just read The Help, and I also just moved back north from Mississippi, and while I was reading I felt that the descriptions were sort of trying to put a sepia lens on this story. As if I were supposed to be surprised at these injustices that happened back then, but what was most striking to me was how much was not history, how many times I thought, “yeah, white people still talk like this.” And how much my own ability to leave Mississippi, to in fact move pretty much wherever I want, mirrors the white protagonist of the book. Many of my students will not leave Mississippi. “The help” did not, could not leave Mississippi.

Fantastic post. Too slow, indeed.

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