"You can't go home again." So novelist Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, from New York, of his Asheville, North Carolina roots. That was the modernist myth of the 1920s, the myth of small-town innocence lost and urban sophistication gained. A generation acted it out in a haze of hung-over, dislocated angst. That generation saw the introduction of radio, movies, the automobile, and air travel. It also saw the collapse of Victorian social and sexual mores.
To most folks in the 1920s, it seemed that the old, small-town, rural America of centuries past was dead. And so were the religious and cultural values for which it stood (piety, fatalism, puritanism, centrality of kinship). Science and technology had killed them off. Some were glad, others mourned, but all agreed something had ended. Modern people now had to face the world alone, without the comforts of faith and tradition. In this new age, the cities were the center of action and the provinces were death.
"There's no place like home." That was the domestic myth of the 1950s. People tired of Depression and world wars re-created their small town havens in the suburbs. The federal government built big, wide freeways and people
found their patch of green at the end of them. Rural fatalism and superstition had no place here. This was the apex of human progress, and getting better every day. The piety and puritanism of traditional village life were occasionally invoked, but the notion of kinship shriveled from a village-sized network to a nuclear family consisting of an isolated, homebound mother, two or three children, and a father off making money at the other end of the freeway.
"Home is where you find a parking place." That's the motto of the 1990s rootless rush. This is the age of the generic, postmodern, digital nowhere person. Cheap and frequent airline service makes it so easy to get from place to place that the places are all alike. People have the same 57 channels on their cable TV systems all over the world and they run commercials from the same 57 global corporations, over and over, all day. A generation is arising that has e-mail addresses instead of real ones. Almost no one is really from anywhere anymore. Suburbs have proliferated so wildly that they are no longer suburbs "of" anything. They just spread of their own accord, gobbling up farms and fields because they're there.
Most people live and work hundreds, or even thousands, of miles from the places where they happened to grow up. They know their jobs could disappear tomorrow, so they'll move anywhere and do anything to keep them. The balance of power stacked against workers (regardless of collar-color) keeps wages depressed. To stay in the middle class, most families have to send both parents off to work. This leaves no time for extras like PTA or community service and precious little time for children. Extended family networks once supported people through times like these, but those are long shattered, along with other forms of community.
Back to the Roots
This fragmented and harried way of life isn't working for most people, and a cry for something better is plainly audible in the popular culture. It takes consumerist form in the fad for "country" home decor and all those best-selling books about how to simplify your life. Also related are the other popular books out there about relocating to small-town America. In January 1998 the "small-town" boom was even on the cover of Time magazine.
This is where my family enters the picture. In September 1997, for the first time in our lives, we became part of a genuine social trend when we moved from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, to Ripley, a town of 5,000 in the hills of northeast Mississippi. At the time we didn't know that moving to a small town was one of the "next big things." But we were seeking some of the same things as the other urban refugees we've read about. We wanted life at a slower pace and on a more human scale. We wanted to be part of a stable community where we could make a tangible contribution.
But there were also differences from "the trend," in us and in our new hometown. For one thing, we weren't just dropping onto rural Mississippi from Planet Washington. I grew up in a white, working-class family in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. All of my people are still in the state. My family was dropping out of the rat race, but I was also coming most of the way home. We wanted our two young children to grow up knowing who they were and where they were from. We wanted them to have grandparents and extended family in their lives. We also wanted them to grow up as Southerners, rooted in that particular place and heirs to its sad and beautiful heritage.
For its part, Ripley is not the picture postcard small town likely to attract cosmopolitan dropouts. It's a blue-collar town. There is no college. There is no significant white-collar employment base. There is no bookstore or fancy coffee shop. The town has two radio stations (country and gospel) and a 50-acre outdoor flea market. That about sums it up.
High school football is one of the main social rituals in these parts. Win or lose, on Friday nights the stadium is always full. Even people who don't have children in high school, or don't have children at all, come to the games. So, with our belongings still in boxes, we rushed off to the first home game of the season. But we only arrived 15 minutes before game time. All the seats were taken, and we had to stand with our two small children.
Our 5-year-old son was awestruck by the marching bands. The Ripley band is enormous. One-third of the entire student body is in it. When the band started to march, half the cheerleading squad put down their pompoms and picked up trumpets and flutes. The band's student leader is a tall, lean young black man. He moves with feline grace and confidence. When he appeared in full uniform, girls in the student section squealed and swooned.
We came back a few weeks later for the homecoming game. In the Church of Football, homecoming is Christmas and Easter combined. It's usually scheduled for a game against some smaller school that the home team is likely to beat. But the halftime pageantry of the Queen and her court of maids overshadows the game. The Queen and court are elected by the students in a contest that is considered more important than the one for student body president.
Homecoming is a matriarchal institution. There is no King of homecoming. The maids and the Queen all have escorts of their own choosing, but they are just walkers, standing in for the male royalty of high school society—the football stars.
At Ripley's homecoming, the proceedings began, as they always do, with a pregame prayer over the loudspeakers. It was a nondenominational prayer led by a high school student. She prayed for safety and good sportsmanship for the players, a good time and safe travel for the fans, and she gave thanks for "Jesus and what he means to each one of us." That was ecumenical, because she didn't refer to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. This passes for separation of church and state down here, where evangelical Christianity is even bigger than football.
The homecoming game did not go well. The Ripley Tigers were down by six at halftime, but that was quickly forgotten as the ladies of the court took the field. They all wore tiaras and long, shiny, elaborate gowns. They walked unsteadily from the sidelines to midfield, each balancing one arm on her escort, and holding up her gown with the other hand, as spiked heels sank deep into the plush turf. They took seats in a row of folding chairs and waited to be presented to the home-team side of the stadium.
The homecoming court was racially balanced. There were three maids for each class, two white and one black. The high school is about 20 percent black (it's 16 percent for the whole county). The Queen is white, and so far, we're told, they always have been.
A black girl made the presentation of the court. The introduction of each member of the court began, "Jill Doe is the daughter of John and Jane Doe." Next item of the introduction, without fail: "She is a member of Blankety Blank Baptist Church...." Well, they weren't ALL Baptists. There were also some Church of Christ and Assemblies of God, and two Methodists. After that, the young announcer said, "At Ripley High School, Jill is in the Honor Society, Spanish Club, Pep Squad, Band, etc..."—the usual rTsumT you'd expect. But here that stuff came last. Family and church came first.
You see the same thing in the obituaries in the local newspaper. They always begin with the person's church affiliation. Occupation or business comes second, and sometimes third after a hobby or avocation, as in "George Johnson, aged 77, was a member of Red Hill Baptist Church, a champion duck caller, and a retired railroad engineer." The obituaries often list four generations of the deceased's kinfolk. They go back to grandparents and forward to grandchildren, naming each one individually, along with all siblings living and dead.
Between the lines is a clear message, one that may startle the outsider, but is so imbedded in the local culture that it goes unnoticed. The message is this: Secular, academic, or professional accomplishments are nice, but they are far from the most important things in life. The most important things, the things from which a person's identity is derived, are family and church. And deeper still, those two institutions are really just different kinds of families. They are kinship networks of blood and Spirit. These are the structures of life in this rural community.
This all comes out in our first conversations with people we meet at the store or on the street. First family—"Are you kin to the Collums around here?"
"No," I answer, "they're all 'Mc-Collums.'" I tell them I'm from the Delta, with family roots in the hills some distance south of here. If the person I'm talking to knows anybody who ever lived near my home places, those persons are mentioned and discussed, although I almost never know them. When this ritual is complete the second question is often, "Do you have a church home?" Or, more bluntly, "What church do you go to?"
Everybody needs a church here. How else will you, or anyone around you, know who you are?
Good Times, Bad Times
I was in the supermarket late one Saturday afternoon. There were two customers ahead of me in the express line. One was a white boy of about 12. He was buying a brown paper bag of cookies. His mother was waiting by the door with a full cart. He paid for the cookies with two $1 food stamps. It seemed his mother had told him he could have the treat if there was anything left in the stamp book after the groceries were bought. They hurried out the door together. Everybody happy.
Right in front of me was a white couple in their 30s. No kids with them. They were both big, wide people. The man was a blue-collar guy, thick with muscle and fat. He carried his overweighted carcass lightly, as if he were used to heavy loads. He wore a baseball cap over dark hair and a full beard, both specked with gray. When he and the woman were positioned in line he left her and went and stood by the door.
When their items were totaled, he returned and produced an envelope from his jacket pocket. The man fumbled around with his envelope and produced two food stamps, a 10 and a 5. He pocketed the change and followed the woman out the automatic exit door. In the parking lot I saw them, loading their bags into a rusted gold Buick from the Carter administration.
A couple of hours later I was at a gas station, the cheapest one in town. Gas, 98 cents a gallon. Sausage and biscuits, two for a dollar. A mud-colored disco-era machine was at the pump beside me. A white guy in his 20s stood at the rear of his chariot. His breath made puffs of fog and floated around his head in the bright gas station lights. He was counting his change. He counted it again. Then he started the pump. It ran briefly. $1.10. He went inside the station and spread his change on the counter.
That month unemployment here in Tippah County was 4.4 percent. It's even lower in the three counties to our south. It's a boom. People go around saying it all the time. "Northeast Mississippi is really booming." And it seems to be true. But the poverty rate for this county is still about 19 percent—way above the national rate. And per capita income is below average even for Mississippi.
What does that mean? It means a lot of people doing hard and honorable work for very little pay. It means virtually all families have both parents in the work force, whether they like it or not. It means many people are working at more than one job. In brief, it means the proud hardship of the working poor.
On a Sunday evening a few weeks later we went to an interdenominational Community Thanksgiving Service. A family gospel quartet performed the special music. The mother played a digital piano with a drum box, and she swung pretty hard. Electronic keyboards and percussion are pretty standard gospel fare these days. I may miss the washboard and spoons, but these folks are proudly up to date.
A teen-aged boy took the middle vocal part. Daddy sang bass, as Johnny Cash would say. They had a little girl, maybe 7 or 8, who sang soprano and took the solos.
For the last number before the sermon, the pastor of the host church joined the combo as lead vocalist. He sang an upbeat tune in which the blessings of life in Tippah County were gratefully enumerated. "I've got a roof over my head," it went, "I've got shoes on my feet. I've got the love of my family. I've got food to eat...."
The Thanksgiving Service was sponsored by a new project called the Good Samaritan Center, which provides emergency assistance for the poor and desperate in the county. Good Samaritan is sponsored by area churches of all denominations across racial lines. The center is located in the community building of the Tennessee Valley Housing Authority subdivision out Blue Mountain Road.
Usually the three downtown "establishment" churches (First Baptist, First Methodist, and Ripley Presbyterian) put on a joint Thanksgiving Service that was labeled as the community-wide event. This year they cancelled in deference to the Good Samaritan project, and the Community Thanksgiving Service was held at a newer, and less affluent, Baptist church on the western outskirts of town. It has a larger seating capacity than the old-line places, and there was a decidedly down-home gospel feel to the affair. The main preacher for the day was the chairman of the board for the center, an Assembly of God pentecostal preacher. He was decked out in a gray plaid suit with a gray collarless shirt (like the Hollywood hipsters wear) with the same plaid on the piping.
He rocked the house. The pentecostals seem to have a clear grasp on the unity of body and soul. Their faith is not abstract. It is concrete and tangible. It sweats and groans. "This thing is real!" they cry. "We feed the poor," the Thanksgiving preacher shouted, "so that people will know, THIS THING IS REAL!" He seemed to think of charity as another gift of the Spirit, alongside healing, prophecy, and tongues, which it is.
The service was also mildly interracial. A black Methodist pastor gave the fund-raising pitch. A few of his parishioners were there, not much, but a start. When the black preacher took the pulpit, wearing the only clerical collar in the house, he cracked several jokes suggesting that he felt out of place. They were all Methodist-Baptist jokes.
One weekend soon after we moved to Ripley my parents, who live down near Jackson, came to help with the work and the kids. I was out in the yard with my mother when a burly, unshaven, bikerish-looking guy in a muddy old pickup truck passed and waved broadly. I waved back.
"Who was that?" Mama said, afraid that we were already associating with the wrong people. "I don't know, Mama," I replied, because I didn't. "People just wave here, so you wave back."
A few minutes later a young black man drove past, with the hip-hop bass from his tape player rattling the trunk of his 1970s-era Buick. He waved, too. I waved back, and nodded.
It's true, people just wave here, as a greeting. They do it all the time, to everyone, at least when they're in their cars. When I first encountered The Wave, I got a strange lump in my throat. It seemed like a visitation from a lost world of dead grandparents. As I remember it, when I was a child people waved over in the Delta where I grew up. But they lost it there. They lost it sometime before I left in the early 1970s. Probably around the time, in my middle and late childhood, that my maternal grandparents died.
Maybe it was the meanness of the racial climate down there in the '60s. Whatever the cause, The Wave definitely passed away in the rural Delta. They probably never waved in Jackson, the other place I've lived in Mississippi. Jackson aspires to be a city and the people there are scornful of country ways. I lived in New Orleans for a while. There people only wave from Mardi Gras parade floats.
But in these hills they still wave. They wave indiscriminately, to friends and strangers alike. Race and social class don't enter in to it. Men wave more than women, but women do it, too. People seem to spend their days, at least on the weekends, riding around the county in aging and over-loud vehicles, regally greeting one another. It's as if life itself is a carnival parade, and their modest conveyances are Mardi Gras floats in disguise.
They still pull over for funerals, too. That's just the other end of the parade.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, is the author of Black and White Together (Orbis Books, 1996).