I don’t know why I believe that I’ll find the truth about America in Mississippi. It’s a dreamscape, really. So overlaid with lies, oppressions, and Faulknerian legend that to expect anything authentic about the place is foolhardy. But I persist nonetheless because I’m a sucker for myth and Southern lit.
Last summer it was Clarksdale that called. I was passing through on my annual summer journey from Virginia to teach in Dallas. So we stopped for a couple of nights at the Shack Up Inn. Don’t judge us. O, go ahead. I certainly did.
A day in, I looked around at the collection of sharecropper shacks lined with fence rows made of half-buried whitewashed tires and said, “What am I doing?”The nostalgia was endearing. I saw my grandmother’s simple rural home in the accoutrements of repurposed washtubs and assorted jello molds hanging on the walls. But it eventually dawned on me that everything is repurposed for a vision here. The Inn – smack on the tracks leading west out of town on the plantation where blues pianist Pinetop Perkins grew up – rides the ragged edge between funky kitsch and poverty porn – and fails.
I search for truth in Mississippi and even there it is too much to ask. The real and authentic, here as everywhere, is packaged and flogged at the market. Even Red’s Blues Bar downtown, which felt like true juke with Lucious and his pre-pubescent Kingfishers bending the strings, was full of the longing wanderers like me who keep it afloat. White money feeding on the bones of black soul – none of us expecting redemption.
So, no, Clarksdale and the Shack Up Inn can’t resurrect sharecropper soul or my grandma or the lost purity of the American dream. We can only keep beating the well-worn path. The next real thing is not in Clarksdale. But when it emerges, I fear, we will flay it into submission. And the crossroads where we sell our souls to the devil will make a fine place to visit.
—Alex Joyner is a writer, teacher, and United Methodist pastor living on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He is the author, most recently, of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine [The Englewood Review of Books, 2014].Follow us!
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