Artwork by Karl Wagner
As someone who has been lucky enough to live outside the confines of this home state of mine, I know how Mississippi is perceived by a large part of the population. I mean one time in college I told a guy I lived in Mississippi and he said, “Oh, Mississippi, Tennessee?” He proceeded to show genuine shock over the fact that Mississippi was, in fact, a state. He thought it was either a city or a river, and he meant it. Many people got it mixed up with Missouri or Minnesota, asking me how growing up in the Midwest was. Others yearned to visit, talking about it as though it was a Neverland-esque haven of Lost Boys with Paula Dean accents and guns. Well, Neverland might not be a good reference to bring in because the outsiders’ perceptions were largely negative overall. If they were able to narrow down what and where exactly Mississippi was, they recalled its history of racism and bigotry. Those types of people couldn’t wrap their heads around displaying a dead animal head on your wall or owning a gun, let alone a personal arsenal. I’ll tell you — I don’t fault them for thinking that way. Like everything and everyone in the world, Mississippi comes with the good and the bad. I post a lot of political rants beseeching my fellow Mississippians to change the bad, but today I want to talk about the good. I want to talk about why I am happy here at home and why I think I’m going to stay.
For starters, it’s beautiful here, and there is a lot of “outside” to appreciate. There were river otters in the lake outside my boyfriend’s family’s house this weekend. There are also a pair of bald eagles that nest there. I love living in a place you have to watch for deer while driving. There are wide open spaces all around you, and every Mississippian feels at home in the outdoors. There is a vitality to our nature that pulses through all of us who are from here, and we are able to enjoy it at a moment’s notice. We are able to be one with it at a moment’s notice. For people like me who are animal freaks with pigs in their backyards, Mississippi suits our wildlife needs in an up-close way that other places I’ve traveled in the continental U.S. just haven’t.
This one is simple: it’s cheap.
The people are Mississippi’s greatest treasure. Anyone will give you not just their time of day but the very clothes off their back. You will never laugh harder than you will during a night out in Mississippi; I can guarantee you that. We are called the Hospitality State for a reason, and we wear that name with pride. We know how to take you in and show you the time of your life. It comes naturally to us. We might not have many formal events or activities offered around town, but we do have each other. Most of the time that is plenty. By a very, very long shot, I have never been treated as generously or as kindly by a group of people as I have in Mississippi. It’s in our blood to be good to each other. There are always bad eggs, but Mississippi’s reputation shouldn’t be tarnished as a whole because of those (very loud) few. We are kind. We are smart. We are important (lol…get it??).
Mississippi’s history of producing great artists and providing the foundation for American popular music makes it a hidden gem. My dad was an honorary pallbearer at Willie Morris’s funeral, and in my room hangs a portrait of my grandmother done by William Faulkner’s mother. Next to that is a picture of my other grandmother holding a birthday cake as Eudora Welty blows out her candles. In Mississippi there seems to be some great creative wellspring amidst the kudzu and the clay, and those who have found it have influenced not only our culture but also the Western canon as a whole. I plan to write a post exclusively about this topic, but I had to mention that being able to love art and the artists that produced it in an intimate way that is unrivaled in other parts of the world is a big part of my love for Mississippi.
The ultimate reason I live here, the understanding that really led me to be confident in that decision, is the fact that we can be prominent figures in our community. With a smaller population and a close-knit community, we are able to rise to positions of prestige and acclaim within our town or even our state. It didn’t really surprise me to see my lifelong friends’ dad featured on CNN’s website the other day (though I was very proud) or to see my dad’s face on the cover of our local magazine the Northside Sun. You can make a real difference living in Mississippi. You are able to effect change in a tangible, visible way if you are passionate enough, and people will know your name. This is a long-winded way of repeating the old adage of being the “big fish in a little pond.” Big fish get things done. Big fish make a difference. I’m not being critical of living in big urban centers — I just want to show what living somewhere smaller can do for you. If you’re like me and crave attention, why not settle in a place where you can be a big fish? If you want to do good in the world and see it play out before your very eyes, why not find a little pond to do it in? You can always work your way up to a national or global scale, but you have to start somewhere. Starting somewhere that allows you to run for office or get a professional degree with relative ease seems to be the smartest move, to me and my mindset.
Don’t get me wrong — Mississippi isn’t for everyone. It absolutely has its flaws. However, it also has so much beauty and purpose and love. I feel like I’ve found myself here. I am proud of the person I’ve become here. I’ve been able to cultivate a support network that is steadfast and unconditional in their support of me, and I’ve been able to make my mark on the institutions I’ve attended (not to sound conceited). I’ve found better education, better food, and better people than I have almost anywhere else, to put it bluntly. The South is storied; it’s like a beat-up old farm truck that looks like it shouldn’t be running but will actually carry you comfortably for another 100,000 miles. The stains of its history and its placement within the philosophical evolution of the world (its “red”-ness, for lack of a better word) shouldn’t keep young people from seeing it as an option when determining where to plant their roots. This place is good. I am proud to call Mississippi home. I hope to help and nourish it as it has helped and nourished me, and who knows, you might see my face on CNN one day 😉