Nina Simone said “Mississippi Goddam.” I thought it. Last night. And then my faith in the American people, especially in the Mississippi people, was redeemed.
My friend Jodi Jacobson, editor of Rewire, pointed out this morning that while the “egg-as-person” amendment, Initiative 26, was roundly defeated by Mississippi voters yesterday, Initiative 27, the “voter ID” amendment, passed. (Loretta Ross has eloquently and passionately written about both initiatives here and here.)
Initiative 27 is also insidious; according to Jodi, it “…will disenfranchise minority voters who already suffer discrimination in a state with a history of denying African Americans their right to vote.”
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I recently gave a speech in which I told the story of asking my mother why she wasn’t going to Mississippi to register voters. This was in 1964, at a time when my mother –and father — were dragging my sister and me around as they relentlessly canvassed, leafleted, drove people to the polls, and otherwise made sure that local (Democratic) voters exercised the franchise. So, suffice to say, this daughter of an immigrant mother doesn’t take this matter of the right to vote lightly.
Yet, while my mother has never made it to Mississippi (in significant part because of its history of denying voting rights), I have – willingly and many times.In fact, I love Mississippi. I go every chance I get. Am I crazy? Nope, not in this respect, anyway.
I love, love, love Mississippi for its music. I first heard the (Mississippi) blues as a teenager growing up in New York. That song was Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” played every day to open Jack Spector’s WMCA radio show. Later, my love affair with Mississippi was sealed when, as a college student, I heard Albert King’s “Born under a Bad Sign” and Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” (ironically, a story of leaving “bad” Mississippi for “good” Chicago).
This Mississippi love affair is also why I live in Chicago. Where else (but Mississippi) could one hear Jimmy Reed live and that Robert-Johnson-type music live every night? And so sweet home Chicago it was: My husband and I packed our bags and moved to Chicago the minute we could: no jobs, no money, no home, no matter; we were satisfied with the knowledge we could hear Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson’s “grandson,” Muddy Waters, (who, unlike Johnson, had taken “Sweet Home Chicago” to heart), just about every night of the week. Mississippi (by way of its northernmost city, Chicago) was heaven.
So, when this egg-as person-in-Mississippi amendment reared its ugly head, so-to-speak, I looked up. I paid attention. This was my Mississippi these crazies were talking about.
And then I came to my senses: In her right mind, how could any Mississippian — black or white — think egg-as-person was a good idea? Well, as it turns out, she couldn’t. Notwithstanding Mississippi’s reputation as an oh-so-backward state, Mississippians, just like the rest of us, think carefully as they head to the polls. They thought about the full import of Initiative 26. They read about it. Then, they read some more. They grappled with the idea that egg-as-person just doesn’t work, even if you’ve looked at one of those jars with a dead fetus in it and been repelled.
Indeed, the more they grappled with it, the worse egg-as-person appeared. Here is what one Mississippian wrote, in the comments section on the website of a local TV station:
Had this bill passed, people from all over the world could have claimed American citizenship for a child they conceived on a visit to Mississippi!
Yes, I appreciate Planned Parenthood, the Episcopal Church, and the thousands of Mississippi parents who organized against Initiative 26 and defeated it. But, I also credit the unorganized, black and white, like the woman who wrote to the TV station, who thoughtfully exercised their right to vote and knowingly voted against Initiative 26 (for whatever reason made sense to them).
I also appreciate the implication of Jodi’s point about the differing fate of the two initiatives (I haven’t seen the county-by-county voter data that might confirm this), i.e., Mississippi whites split their votes, while Mississippi blacks voted against both measures, a presumptive indicator of the dim state of Mississippi race relations.
But, I say: “Same old, same old,” just as they say in Mississippi, and Chicago. Same race relations status quo as in so many other American home-places last night and this morning.
Yes, just like in so many other American home-places, black and white Mississippians see things differently, and, consequently, vote differently. It’s not a good thing, but it’s not the same thing as egg-as-person. In fact, as Mississippians proved last night, when things get really, really bad, together, we get our act together; we overcome.
Last night, while Mississippians were voting, I went to a dinner in Chicago for supporters of human rights, featuring a speech by Farai Maguwu, a black Zimbabwean man, who spoke about the racist atrocities of Robert Mugabe. (Racism knows no color, in case you were wondering.)
But this audience sure did (know racial color, that is) : Sold out, there was a mere handful of African Americans in a room of close to 1,000 people in a city whose population is 40% African American—most of whom descendants of Mississippians, who left Mississippi for “Sweet Home Chicago,” but haven’t found Chicago so sweet these days. In fact, in 2011 there are tens of thousands of fewer children of Mississippi in Chicago than there were just a decade ago.
Notwithstanding the likelihood of having to deal with a voter id law that will likely discriminate against them (and wouldn’t have passed in Chicago), many of the departed have willingly returned to Mississippi. It’s easier and cheaper to live there, and, well, while the schools aren’t that great, they stack up OK against the ghetto schools most of these Mississippi children attended in Chicago’s ghettos, where racism knows color, big time.
Which brings me back to where I started this piece: In 1964, when I was in school and asked my mother about her plans for the summer, I was attending school with one seemingly African-American boy. However, he was, reputedly, “really Puerto Rican.” Yes, neighbors really claimed that because that (alternative racial) heritage made his being around us excusable.
By contrast, it was the next town over (both towns barely twenty miles from Harlem), where I went to the YMCA, which had the “real” black people and the local black ghetto. I took the bus there and crossed our color line three or four times a week. I thought about this crossing every time I made it, even when I wasn’t on the bus. So-much-so that my writing opinion pieces about racial matters started then: I was having my own experiences with the issue of race and needed to think-them-through.
Today, 45 years since my conversation with my mother about Mississippi voting; 45 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, and a lot has changed for the better in Mississippi (say, blacks vote, and blacks and whites vote the same way, sometimes), many northern white Americans still abhor Mississippi. They think it’s racist in a way that the rest of America isn’t. I know they do. They tell me. Then, I ask them to reconsider. Then, they look at me with disdain.
Then, I remind them that Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney wouldn’t have had a song to record, much less the proverbial “pot …….” had they not listened to Mississippi sons Muddy Waters, Albert King and Junior Wells, whose great grandsons voted yesterday against eggs-as-persons, just like the grandsons of the white sharecroppers down the road.
When Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam,” she sang: “All I want is equality for my sister, my brother and me.” Well, in some ways, if not all ways, she’s got it. We just have to remember that we shall overcome and keep fighting, together, to get the rest of that equality.