Where I was Born and Raised
The Delta Land
The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta and many who are on the make.
Memphis is the metropolis of the Delta. It is its financial, social, and cultural capital. Many of its citizens grew wealthy by lending money at exorbitant rates of interest to Delta planters. When a gentleman of the old school needed a loan he did not quibble about the cost, especially if there had been a disastrous stud-poker game the night before. Other Memphians founded their dynasties in lumber. They leaped from cypress to Cezanne in one generation. Some of them brought fortunes to Memphis from Arkansas. They had lived on land which “wasn’t fitten fur a houn’dawg.” But oil spouted underneath their feet. On the whole, however, Memphis draws its sustenance from its immense surrounding territory, and the Delta is one of its richest tributary provinces.
Culturally, Memphis is to the Delta what Paris is to Toulouse. One day I wandered into a bookshop there. I asked for a book by William Faulkner. The clerk, a fragilely lovely woman of the old régime, flew into a rage. “That man!” she said. “He ought to be run out of the country, writing about the South the way he does.” I retreated rapidly to my second line of defense. “Have you anything by Thomas Wolfe? Isn’t he one of your famous Southern writers?” “Well, he might be, but we don’t approve of him, either.” Finding that both my authors were on the Index, and that I had been mistaken for an upstart Yankee, I browsed among the shelves for a while, quietly licking my wounds. Then I asked delicately whether books were not at least a minor passion of the people of Memphis. “No, people don’t read many books here. Do you live in town?” I regretted profoundly that I did not. “Then,” she said, in a sudden burst of confidence, “I’ll tell you the truth. We don’t have any real culture in Memphis. We have culturine. You know, like oleomargarine. Looks like butter but isn’t.”
That may or may not be true. There are many cultures in the world composed of many things ranging from sauces to symphonies. I do know that Memphis has beaten biscuit, rambler roses, and luscious lawns. To Delta citizens in search of light it glows with the beauty of the honey-colored pile of the Erechtheum seen at sunrise from a high Athenian hill. Here they all come in good time to see the occasional flesh-and-blood actors who appear upon its stage, to hear the rare symphony orchestra that straggles down from the north like a lone lost wild duck, and to dance to the music of some radio band advertising the virtues of a genteel purgative.
Here, too, come the business men of the Delta to make loans, sell cotton, buy merchandise, and attend conventions. For a day or two the lobby of the Peabody is filled with ice-cream men and their ice-cream wives. They suddenly melt into nothingness and are succeeded by ant-exterminators bent upon destroying the termite, which, like the politician, is blind but destructive. Then the undertakers appear. They discuss embalining by day. By night they dance delicate dances macabre with their necrophilic ladies under the scared and disapproving eyes of the Negro waiters. Finally they vanish into the outer darkness from which they came, giving way to hay-and-feed men who year long have cherished harlequins in their hearts now to be released in this place of bright carnival. Month after month come the conventions. The banners of business adorn the railings of the mezzanine, songs and resounding speeches come like the roar of the distant sea to lesser citizens as they sit at lunch or dinner in the hotel dining-rooms, and town competes with town for the honor of entertaining the carbonated-beverages men next year. During these periods the panoplied life of the sixteenth century guilds is created anew. The lobby glows briefly with the glory of the vanished Cloth Hall of Ypres.
The Delta, however, loves life as well as art and profits, and in Memphis the stern business man shows the world his other soul-side. Here he meets his inamorata, come up from his home town to sit for a little while together under a mango tree and lose the noisy sentient world. Here he goes in search of frail women, human, all too human, who live in houses with shades perpetually drawn, or he stumbles perhaps with a sudden gasp of delight upon some peripatetic beauty strolling sloe-eyed and lost in the soft darkness of the hotel mezzanine. Sin, a hydra-headed monster at home, becomes in Memphis a white dove cooing in the shade of tall cathedral columns.
Women of the Delta pass transiently through the lobby of the Peabody as they go to buy clothes or to get a permanent wave. A trip of two hundred miles is but a pilgrim’s tribute to loveliness. Or sometimes they track culture to its lair in the recesses of a metropolitan woman’s club where the nineteenth century in Europe is taken up intact at three o’clock and set down in fragments among the tea things at four.
Here the young men and young women of the Delta stop between trains en route to schools and colleges. Everybody in the area is whole-heartedly for what is vaguely called “education,” but the reasons for it are always a little dim. For a while they fill the lobby with their laughter, and suddenly, like migratory birds, are gone, to come again at Christmas and in June.
All in all, at one time or another, everybody passes this way, and here one begins to glimpse the civilization of the Delta and to bruise his perceptions on the jagged points of its paradoxes.
Catfish Row, far to the south in Vicksburg, is a typical gathering-place of Negroes. Here are no marble fountains, no orchestras
playing at dinner, no movement of bell-boys in bright uniforms. Tumble-down shacks lean crazily over the Mississippi River far below. Inside them are dice games and “Georgia skin”; the music of guitars, the aroma of love, and the soul-satisfying scent of catfish frying to luscious golden-brown in sizzling skillets. In Vicksburg Negroes eat catfish as catfish at fifteen cents a plate. In the cities white folks eat it as filet of sole at a dollar a portion. Negroes are realists and purists. They are satisfied with the catfish as God made it without benefit of the expensive euphemisms of a white maftre d’hôtel.
Racially the white of the Delta are largely Anglo-Saxon. Religiously they are Protestant. The Episcopalians are smallest in numbers and largest in membership of old families. Baptists are myriad. They assail the ear of heaven with stentorian voice on Sundays. There are a few Catholics. They walk alien ways lighted by tall candles and perfumed with incense redolent of Rome, intent upon their own purposes, seeking salvation with Latin incantations. But they are lost in the Protestant mass.
This is a church-going and whisky-drinking society. That which is due to the church and to the bootlegger is offered up with such smooth harmony that the life of the body and the life of the spirit go happily In mystic marriage. Mississippi is legally dry, but the liquors of Louisiana are brought across the river, and potent brews are distilled in the swamps. The Delta has indeed the distinction of having created its own yin de pays, the corn whisky of one of its towns being famous for hundreds of miles around.
The churches of the Delta are not content merely to assure the salvation of their own members. The woes of. the world impinge upon them and they mourn for the lost of Africa and Of China. Bazaars, dinners, and “social? are held continually for the purpose of raising money for foreign missions. Occasionally the bread cast upon the waters returns tenfold when a missionary comes from overseas to report how the sweating heathen of Africa have been taught, in the midst of a thousand false gods worshiped in a thousand false ways, to render homage to the one true God in the one true way which is the sole possession of his sect. Then there ensues a great feasting and communion of souls mystically joined in the common task of bringing light into the darkness of hearts which Cod for some strange reason failed to illuminate with the brilliance of Godhead. Amid music and song eyes are lifted on high in gratitude. If they are blurred by a myopia which reveals the plight of Bechuanaland blacks ten thousand miles away, and obscures the fate of poor whites near by as they descend from degradation to degradation, who shall question the wisdom of God’s plan and the works of his appointed ministers on earth?
The civilization of the Delta is on the surface simple and almost naïve. Actually it is filled with complexities, with clashing contradictions and irreconcilable disharmonies. In its tolerance it shelters without hindrance every sect and creed within its borders. In its fanaticism it has descended to the hatreds and bigotries of the Ku Klux Klan. Devoting large sums to secondary education, it scarcely considers that literacy has profounder meanings than the ability to read and write. College-going, its students largely miss the point. They rarely return with a passion for truth, with an intellectual curiosity aroused and a desire to pursue beauty and wisdom for their own sakes.
Culture is distrusted. One who bears it or seeks it is regarded as being unfitted for the stern struggle of life. If a man should collect Byzantine textiles or Persian ceramics, his business ability would be discounted and serious doubts thrown upon his sexual virility. It is suspect to read good poetry and catastrophic to one’s reputation as a normally functioning male to write it. Red-blooded men simply do not do that kind of thing. Fine distinctions are, however, drawn and exceptions made. A man may with impunity collect firearms, stamps, daggers, and stuffed birds. These are protoplasmic. He may like bird dogs, but not Persian cats. Coffee, but not tea. Whisky, but not wine. The Delta, in the midst of a Western civilization, cherishes taboos as rigid and as all-inclusive as may be found in a Melanesian village.
The field of intellectual culture is a matriarchy ordered and pre-empted by women. This is done with the cheerful consent of the men, who feel that the manifestations of culture are things with which their wives may harmlessly amuse themselves in the long afternoons. And they do.
It is no feat at all for a study club to toss off the Periclean age of Greece in an hour and send its members away in plenty of time to get the dinner going before their husbands come home. The jump from Aristotle to trailing arbutus is easily made because there is a magnificent indifference to relevancy and continuity. Subject matter is not of much importance provided that it be non-controversial and delicately ladylike. Shelley is a favorite. Little essays on religious leaders are always welcome. Marie Antoinette, gentle, fragile, beautiful, and queenly, dies a merciful death just before the ice-cream and cake are served. Napoleon, torn without benefit of anaesthetic from the encyclopaedia, collides with the tea and comes out second best. The veil is torn from the mysteries of ancient Egypt by a member just returned from a cruise, while the audience sinks into a mood sweetly-sad as another plays Humoresque on the violin. Sometimes poets read original poems. Virgin brides entangled in disappointment and false rhyme die in the white moonlight. Gallant youths stammer of undying love in metaphors hopelessly mixed. Mockingbirds sing among the poison ivy. For poetry, too, is of the company of the seven arts and every member must have her fling.
The pursuit of knowledge is not, however, the sole diversion of the Delta. The people are kind, gregarious, and genuinely hospitable. Isolated from theaters and night clubs, few in number in the towns and fewer in the country, they visit and are visited by innumerable friends and relatives throughout the year. The length of visits is usually vague in the minds of both host and guest. Hospitality is not chilled by the blight of a parsimonious invitation for a weekend, and if the visit of days lengthens into months the host is usually pleased. A gracious elderly woman of the old régime told me, without sense of the unusual, that “Mary Bruce came to stay for six weeks and remained eight years.” So hospitable indeed are these people that if you are at all presentable and have any charm—fortunately for civilization charm remains here the passport to all homes and all hearts — you will be passed on from family to family in the Delta for as long as you like. When you leave one town in the Delta to go to another, your host insists upon telephoning his Aunt Clara to meet you. You stay then at her house. She in turn passes you on to her Uncle Fred who lives on Swan Lake plantation, and thus you may go on for years moving from one house to another, paying for your keep in the bright coin of chatter and conversation.
Summerlong, when the crops are growing, the youngsters are at home from school, and there is little business to be done, the roads are alive with automobiles, and the nights are merry with the music of dance orchestras. Everybody within a radius of fifty or a hundred miles knows when a dance is to be held, and neither heat, perspiration, nor rutted roads keep them away. Often these gatherings are held in the courthouse. Then one may see girls in bouffant frocks of organdie powdering their noses in the jury-box or nursing their weary feet on the judge’s rostrum, while a sweat-bedrenched Negro orchestra hurls jagged bits of jazz into the heavy heated air.
At rare intervals a large steamboat built solely for dancing comes up the river from New Orleans. The old-fashioned “floating palace” or showboat has vanished. The drama has given way to the dance. The huge boat glows with light, and its orchestra, through amplifiers, hurls its music out upon the river, against the banks of the levee, high up to the unblinking swarming stars of surmner. Its searchlights play upon the streaming crowds as they ascend the hill of the levee and march over the gangplank to fairyland within. On the crown of the levee stand or sit hundreds of Negroes, their ears wooed by the music, their eyes enchanted by the myriad lights, their souls weary in the presence of this other-world beauty suddenly come within their view but beyond their grasp. Crowds stream down to the river’s edge, and when all those who are going have finally been assembled after repeated hootings of the whistle to warn the lagging, the boat shoves off downstream.
The dance floor is thick-clotted with people moving to the music of a Negro orchestra whose members are resplendent in uniforms which are a doorman’s dream of heaven. There are loud laughter, shouts of recognition, tilting of bottles, and hurried introductions. The dancing is energetic. In it is a bit of Saint Vitus and the movements of standing upon a hot stove. Dark splotches soon appear upon the white linen suits of the men. On the faces of the women the make-up runs in tiny rivulets. The rich voice of a Negro baritone floats above the heads of the dancers. He recalls the sadly voluptuous fortunes of that
“St. Louis woman with the diamond ring,
St. Louis woman with that man tied to her apron string.”
The close-packed mass of humanity pillows itself upon the soft bosom of a waltz. It becomes excited by the hot staring eyes of jazz. It oscillates a bit wonderingly to the alien rhythm of the rumba. The night slips by.
Outside on the top deck there is darkness. Restless breezes of the river come coolly blowing. There is no sound save the far-away murmur of the music, the muted voices of lovers, and the drip, drip, drip of water on the paddlewheel. The boat is suspended between river and sky. Its fingers of light search the nether banks both sides. Green willows of Arkansas suddenly appear out of the black night. Shantyboats of fishermen pop up shining white out of the dark waters. The lanterns of the aroused occupants glow like insect’s eyes for a moment and vanish. It is nearing midnight and the boat slowly turns to begin its homeward voyage.
When the passengers disembark the moon has risen. The land lies drowned beneath a flood of silver. Cows lie sleeping on the levee, resting heavily upon their folded feet. Mules move about, cropping grass, looking like questing creatures out of a dream. Negroes gaze at the incredible blaze of the steamboat’s lights, and watch the white folks as they get into their automobiles and go away. Over the levee’s rim the town lies sleeping and the roads that lead to plantation homes far away shine in the white moonlight. The air is alive for a little while with the coughing of motors and the shouts of good-bye. Then there is stillness. The lights of the boat go out. Only the beams of its searchlight are alive now as they search the shores. Its paddle-wheel makes silver circles as it slowly turns and goes downstream to bring beauty and enchantment to another river town. Far off there is the baying of a dog. A mockingbird essays a fugitive note or two from the top of a tree. Silence then. The Delta sleeps the hot night through.
If the Delta is radical about its jazz, it is conservative about its social and legalistic points of view. In rapidly changing America it remains a society almost feudal. It fears change. It does not welcome political innovations. Its whole system of codes and criteria of conduct are set up to preserve the status quo based upon the plantation tradition, the one-party political order, and white domination of a numerically black majority.
The voters are almost entirely Democrats. The few Republicans straying lost and alone seem prehistoric creatures miraculously surviving into modern life. They are so rare indeed as seldom to be seen in the flesh, and rich rewards are open to the showman who captures a few of these strange animals and exhibits them here in a cage for a fee. This is the land of the Democratic party, come hell and high water.
The non-Anglo-Saxon portion of the population is composed of Sicilians, Chinese, Syrians, Greeks, and Jews. The first generation of Sicilian men in the Delta wore gold earrings and celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph with colored candles and tiny cakes intricately wrought. The second generation wear dandruff like an aura on their tight-fitting suits and cheer the home team from the bleachers. The Chinese, celebrated for their thrift and industry, have lost the one and retained the other. They are victims to the American passion for the automobile. They have Negro mistresses who support black lovers out of their largesse. The Syrians traffic in little grocery stores not for ivory, apes, and peacocks, but for tinned milk and snuff. They lend neither their culture nor their color to the Delta. The Greeks, far from the wine-dark sea, conduct fruit stands and concoct greasy messes in smelly restaurants faintly reminiscent of the crowded anterooms of free venereal clinics. The Jews, by legend both intellectual and shrewd, seem in this soft climate to have lost both these qualities. They are distinguished neither by learning nor by riches. The national frenzy for uniformity is at work here as elsewhere in the United States.
The Negroes, who constitute a vast numerical majority of the population are of every kind and intermixture. The white man’s blindness to differentiations among them was long ago summed up in one of his songs: “All coons look alike to me.” They exhibit, as a matter of fact, an astounding diversity. They are, to begin with, descendants of hundreds of tribes torn from every part of Africa. Many of them were markedly different from others in color, physique, language, culture, and occupation. Some lived by hunting, others by agriculture, by keeping herds, by warring on their neighbors. They dwelt on coastal plains, in the hot interior, in the foothills of mountains, in every kind of climate and against every kind of background. They had many cultures. Some were rude barbarians. Others created those sculptures of wood and bronze which have enormously influenced the world of modern art.
A curious case based upon this diversity of Negro peoples came to light some years ago in a criminal trial in the Delta. A Negro woman stabbed a Negro man. Her reason was that he had called her a “Nigger.” “I’m no nigger,” she said. “My grandma told me not to let nobody call me no nigger. I’m a Molly Glasser and an ink-spitter.” Upon examination it developed that she was descended from the tribe of Malagasi. They were a strong and superior people who themselves had owned slaves. They were betel-chewers and expectorated black. Unfortunately, the law does not recognize distinctions of this kind. The descendant of the Malagasi went to jail.
Some of the slaves brought to America had been kings, chiefs, and warriors. They were men of spirit, proud and dignified. Others had been slaves in Africa. They were craven and obsequious. To the white trader they were all “black ivory,” ethnologically indistinguishable. And the white planter, if they were strong and obedient, had no deeper curiosity about them.
After three hundred years in America the blood of these diverse peoples has been improved or debauched — it depends upon one’s point of view — with the blood of nearly all the whites who inhabit this continent, and with many of the Indians and Asiatics. Negro women have borne children to men who were members of the first families of the land and to the lowest white degenerates. They have been mothers to impossible hybrids and nurtured inconceivable mixtures of blood. These hybrids have in turn bred and interbred with other full-blooded and hybrid Negroes, so that the strains are hopelessly confused and mixed.
In the Delta one finds Negroes with the clearly defined features of the best Anglo-Saxons. There is a song about it:
I had a baby and its eyes are blue,
It can’t be mine, Cap’n; it must be you.
Others have the slant eyes of the Chinese, or the nose of the Jew. The bed of the Negro woman has been a leveling-ground of democracy. A doctrine upon which all could agree. Delta Negroes are of every shade. There are at least three gradations of brown dark brown, deep brown, and reddish brown. They are black, pale black, and profoundly deep black. Some have the golden-yellow of the banana. Others are smoothly chocolate. A man passes you, the color of ripe olive. Another is copper. In a church choir a man of bronze stands next to a girl the color of cream. The eye searching for color is enchanted observing the delicate variations of shade in a Negro crowd. Because, however, of the isolation of the Delta and the overwhelming majority of the Negro population, thousands of Delta blacks are still full-blooded.
All of these people, white, black, and yellow, live in the ten counties which make up the Mississippi Delta. It stretches from a point just south of Memphis to a point just north of Vicksburg. It is one hundred and fifty miles long and fifty miles wide. The Mississippi washes its entire western side, and the Yazoo much of its eastern.
Here live 293,000 Negroes and 98,000 whites.
The Negro completely dominates the Delta in numbers. This is the one fact indispensable to an understanding of this society. Out of it flow the contradictions, complexities, and paradoxes which characterize its social and economic systems. It is the cause of distortions and stresses in the beings of the whites. It brings about inevitable repercussions in the blacks. It is largely the reason for the restrictions and disabilities placed upon Negroes. It is the source of difficulties which perplex the governing whites. The men who control the Delta never forget for a moment that the Negro is the majority. It colors their actions and stands in the forefront of their thoughts.
Mississippi is the only state in the union having a preponderance of Negroes in its population. At the census of 1930 there were slightly more than one million Negroes among the two million people of the state. Negroes made up 50.2 per cent of the whole. But in the Delta more than 70 per cent of the population is black.
Unless you have lived here, the density of Negroes in the population seems incredible. A comparison of this section with other parts of the country brings out the disparity in high relief. Figures are taken from the census of 1930 and are in round numbers.
In New England, for instance, there are 8,000,000 people. Only 90,000 are Negroes. The Delta has less than 400,000 people. And nearly 300,000 are Negroes.
The state of Maine has 795,000 whites and 1000 Negroes. The Delta county of Issaqueena has 1000 whites and 4600 Negroes.
Many Delta plantations have more Negroes than are to be found in the entire state of Vermont with its 565 blacks.
Massachusetts has over 4,000,000 whites and 52,000 Negroes. That is precisely the number to be found in the one Delta county of Bolivar.
The Middle Atlantic States have a total population of 25,-000,000. They have 265 times as many whites as are in the Delta. But only 3 times as many Negroes.
There are more Negroes in Sharkey County than in all of Minnesota. But Minnesota has 700 times more whites than this county.
North Dakota’s whole Negro population of 377 would not make an impressive “turn-out” for the funeral of a Delta Negro preacher. South Dakota’s 646 Negroes are just about the number to be found working in many Delta lumber-mills.
The combined states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada have fewer Negroes than live in Coahoma County in the Delta.
More than 7,000,000 people live in the Pacific States. But the two counties combined of Bolivar and Leflore in the Delta have as many Negroes.
If the population of the Delta is considered with reference only to its own components, the dominance of the Negro remains strikingly apparent.
In Coahoma County there are 3000 Negroes for every 1000 whites. In Humphreys County there are 5000 Negroes for every 1000 whites. And in Tunica County there are 7000 Negroes for every 1000 whites. These ratios apply to every county in the Delta. At his fewest, as in Humphreys County, the Negro constitutes 68 per cent of the population. At his most numerous, as in Tunica County, he makes up 85 per cent of the whole.
It is obvious that there can be no Negro problem where there are no Negroes. Nor where there are few Negroes, as in Vermont. Nor where there are many Negroes lost in an overwhelmingly white population, as in New York. But there is a Negro problem where a few whites live among vastly dominant masses of Negroes. That is the situation in the Delta.
The Negro’s identification with the life of the Delta is fundamental and complete. He came here as a slave with the earliest settlers. He has remained to live and multiply as a freedman. This land is first and last his handiwork. It was he who brought order out of a primeval wilderness, felling the trees, digging the ditches, and draining the swamps. He erected the homes which shelter him and the white man. He built the schools, the courts, the jails, the factories and warehouses. He was a roustabout on the river boats which connected the Delta with the outside world, and toiled up the steep banks of the landings bearing incredible loads on shining black shoulders singing:
“O Lawd, O Lawdie.
All right, boys.
De man done called us
An’ let us go.
“O Lawdie, de Cap’n Done called us
But us didn’t send for you.
We sent for a bar’l er pork An’ looked up de road
An’ seen you come pokin’.
“O Lawdie, O Lawd,
“O Lawdie, let us go.”
The Negro was builder, too, of the railroads which were forever to extinguish the glory of steamboating on the Mississippi and the gorgeous dynasty of the river captains. Later he built the concrete roads which in turn were to cripple the railroads. rhe vast ramparts of the levees upon whose existence the life of the Delta depends sprang from the sweat and brawn of the Negro. Wherever one looks in this land, whatever one sees that is the work of man, was erected by the toiling, straining bodies of blacks.
The white men with whom the Negro came to the Delta as slave were unique among pioneers. Here were no lean Yankees marching with rifie, family, and meager possessions across the illimitable plains. No refugees from the Germany of forty-eight. No Irish of the famine years, empty-handed and eager, searching for a new home in a new world. These men were the embodiment of a seeming contradiction — pioneers with means. They were sons of wealthy and moderately wealthy planters of Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee. They had a definite gentle culture and the deep-rooted sense of responsibility common to their kind. Used to wealth and possessing it, they were men of property moving with their families, their slaves and manifold possessions, like princely patriarchs of the Old Testament.
The land to which they came was land of the loins of the river. It had sprung from the body of the Mississippi in a gestation eons long. Untold centuries ago it began to deposit here the rich detritus of mountains and plains borne on its bosom as it flowed from the north to the south to sea. Accretion by slow accretion, without foundation of rock or shale, it laid down this land. Here are no hills, no rocks, no thin earth barely hiding the stones beneath, but pure soil endlessly deep, dark and sweet, dripping fatness.
And when, after tens of thousands of years, the land had been built, the forests came. There were oaks and cypresses, sweet gum and leafy cottonwood, persimmon and pecan, walnut, and maple. Cane grew to great heights to make an impenetrable jungle. Vines and creepers laced and interlaced in intricate tangle. Here was an animal’s paradise of bear, deer, opossum, raccoon, rabbit, squirrel, panther, and mink. Birds native and migratory filled the silent woods with the loud music of the singing. In the autumn, dawn rose on the wings of myriads of wild ducks. Darkness fell with their swift-descending flight to the bosoms of lakes and ponds. Snakes swarmed on the land and in the water; mosquitoes ascended from the steaming swamps in clouds; bullfrogs disturbed the austerity of the night with their obscene croakings; turtles elongated their reptilian heads on logs rotting in green-scummed creeks.
Century after century the land lay as in a dream. The rich earth became ever richer with the decay of leaf mold and vegeation; the passionate embrace of deep-rooted trees and close-clinging vines made it secure against washing and erosion in torrential rains. The Spaniard came and Hernando de Soto was buried in the Delta’s river, but the land did not stir in its sleep. More than a century later, when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, it was still primeval wilderness. It sent no soldiers to the War of 1812 because there were no men to send. It was not until 1825, scarcely more than thirty years before the Civil War, that the first settlers came. The civilization of the Delta is little more than one hundred years old.
At this time many planters in the more northerly states of the South began to find that their farming operations were becoming unprofitable. Their lands under an unwise system of cultivation were losing their fertility. Some of them suspected that slavery was eating Into their profits. ‘these doubts nowever, to be resolved for forty years and were then to be expressed not in rows of black figures on white paper, but in rows of white grave-markers on the dark earth.
Rumors of the fertility of the soil of the Delta, then called "the swamps,” began to drift back to Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and South Carolina. Planters made inquiries about this yirgin land inhabited by only a few Indians, fugitives from justice, and wild animals. Then they purchased huge tracts and came with armies of slaves to clear the ground and open plantations along the rivers and on the creeks. Roads, too, after a fashion, were constructed. If they were mule-belly deep in mud in the winter and storm-swept with dust in the summer, it did not greatly matter, for there were the rivers, the Mississippi, the Yazoo, and the Sunflower, to serve as arteries of transportation. And here on the banks of the rivers, in the bends of the streams, on ridges or high ground safe from the floods, the pioneer planters of the Delta built their homes.
This was a régime of the wealthy well-born planter; an economy of the huge plantation worked by large numbers of slaves. Lu it there was no room and no welcome for the small non-slave-holding farmer who with his family’s labor might till a few acres. This was a society of gentlemen, overseers, and slaves. If now the gentlemen have almost vanished, if the sons and grandsons of overseers rule where they once reigned, and the slaves liberated into a dubious freedom, it still remains true that neither then nor now has the Delta ever welcomed the so-called “poor white.” He took to the sterile hills of Mississippi. There he raised large crops of children and meager crops of cotton. He Worshiped a fierce God, hated aristocrats and Negroes, dwelt in poverty and darkness, and awaited the day when he might descend upon these fat lands. Now two terms out of three his Governor rules the state, his Senator sits in the seats of the mighty, and he himself is coming down from his hills.
The tradition and fact of the Delta’s dependence upon Negro labor began in the earliest days of the settling of the country. The men worked in the fields and performed the manifold tasks that make up the daily round of the plantation. The women cooked, washed, sewed, baked, and nursed in the planter’s home. Younger boys served in the stables, waited at table, and were companions in hunting and fishing to their master’s young sons. When the Civil War came they rode off with them as body servants. Hundreds of others, suddenly liberated from slavery and without hope of tangible reward, remained behind to help and protect the planter’s defenseless womenfolk and children. The bonds of slavery were sundered. The stronger ties of affection held these alien peoples together.
In the beginning the labor of every man and every tool was needed for clearing the land, and while this task was being done time ran swiftly toward the conflagration of the Civil War. It is for this reason, perhaps, that one does not find in the Delta, ruined or intact, homes that remotely resemble in beauty or magnificence the mansions that stood along the James and the Potomac or high above the Mississippi at Natchez. Men contented themselves in the present with comfortable, if modest, homes. They dreamed dreams which were never to be realized of the day when they might erect replicas of the great houses they had known and recreate the gracious culture they had abandoned.
The pioneers of the Delta, faced with a host of difficulties and intent upon founding a civilization in a wilderness, did not know that this land sheltered one of the most stubborn and dangerous diseases known to man. It lurked in the swamps and lowlands of their new home. Its symptoms were still identical with those described by Hippocrates more than two thousand years ago. Its effects were as deadly here as they had been in Greece and Rome and India where it had decimated armies and depopulated cities. That disease was malaria.
In the spring and summer and often until late in the autumn nearly every man, woman, and child in the community was ill with malaria. They burned with fever. They froze with chills. Their teeth chattered and their temples flamed. In the intervals between the attacks which came every third or fourth day they were listless and exhausted; too dull to think and too tired to work. Traveler after traveler noted the physical debility of the people. The more charitable ascribed it to unknown causes. The less charitable said that they were lazy. But the disease went on and its cause was unknown. Each year the bodies of the victims were drained of vitality and their minds of vigor. Each year many died and found premature graves where they had hoped to find happy homes.
There is no way to estimate accurately the social and economic damage caused by malaria in the Delta. Its destruction in terms of human pain and suffering is immeasurable, but it was undoubtedly a factor of grave importance in impeding the progress of this section. Men are not active in the white shadows of anaemia. They do not create in exhaustion. They cannot function in fever. Life, to be fruitful, must be more than a rhythm swinging from chill to chill.
Malaria came year after year at almost mathematically regular intervals. The community knew when it would come, how long it would stay, and what it would do. They saw it so often that they became accustomed to it despite its pain and suffering. But when the deadly yellow fever came among them they were stricken with terror. It did not come at regular intervals. Its victims did not linger. They quickly died horrible deaths, or in rare cases recovered. The cause of the disease and its treatment were equally unknown. The people were helpless before this deadly scourge.
When the stricken began to vomit black and cough up their life’s blood in thick clots, when their chests turned yellow and their enfeebled bodies were storm-swept with dreadful retchings, the living could do nothing to assuage the agony of the dying save to pray at their bedsides and await the coming of merciful death. Safety, they knew, lay in flight to the north. Many would not go, others could not go, and still others would not leave their friends and relatives behind. Through the long, hot, melancholy summer in 1878 hundreds sickened and died of yellow fever, while the living, worn with pain and grief, nursed the sick and buried the dead. Volunteer nurses, one after one, contracted the illness and died. Others stepped promptly forward to take their places. There seemed to be no way to arrest the busy, inexorable hand of death, until, as the Greenville Times reported in November of that year:
A big white frost last Monday morning was a glorious sight for our people to see. To those within the infected districts it was a token of rescue and rest; to those who were shut off from their homes it was an assurance that their exile would soon be over, and the sad homecoming was near at hand. With what agony of heart the white robes of the blessed frost was watched and prayed for, none can know save those who passed the fearful hours within the death-haunted districts, and friends and relatives who watched and waited for the dark clouds to pass away.
The white frost of the autumn of 1878 marked the passing of yellow fever for that year, but not its final end. It came again and again to claim its victims in the summer and retreat before the frost in the autumn, and when it did not come the threat of its coming chified the hearts of the people every year. It inificted untold suffering and grief, kept prospective settlers and investors away from the Delta, and wrought enormous damage to the entire economic and social structure.
The Delta was founded and wrought in pain. By legend it is a land of dolce far niente where the sun shines, Negroes work, white men loaf on the verandas of white-porticoed mansions, and money mysteriously rolls in. As a matter of fact the pioneers who founded this land fought against enemies as grim as those confronted by the men who opened the west. The Delta has struggled for its existence against a dark company. It has wrestled with malaria, yellow fever, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the floods of the river. A handful of white men without enormous wealth or political power, without gold or oil under their feet to bring them sudden affluence, and against great odds, converted wilderness and tangled swamps into a fat land. It is a measure of their effort that today, one hundred years after the first settlers came, one of the most powerful enemies of the Delta is yet unconquered, although the resources of the federal govermnent have now been thrown into the scales against it. That is the Mississippi River.
The landscape of the Delta subject to the attacks of the river is both beautiful and ugly. In the spring and summer the fields are touched with the never failing beauty of green growing things. Under the wide sky and immense horizon of this flat land cotton marches in endless ranks of green save where it is joined by tall troops of corn to which peavines cling, piling richness upon richness and color upon color. The humble okra at capricious intervals thrusts its fuzzy fruit into the warm air. Watermelons lie like fat helpless drunkards, their dark bellies turned upward to the sun. Pumpkins lie pale yellow upon the earth attached to the slender umbilical cords of their vines. Sorghum stands in thick tropical jungles. Great stretches of alfalfa carpet the earth lushly with deep green. Soy beans pile their vines thick-clustered upon the warm land. Clover matches the blue of its flowers with the blue of the azure sky. From hour to hour as the sun burns with a greater or a lesser whiteness the landscape changes color. The tin roofs of Negro cabins become burnished silver. The gray coat of a mule far away in the fields becomes suddenly black. A passing cloud shades a field to darkness so that it seems in the shimmering light surrounding it a bit of dark driftwood afloat on a tossing sea of bright green. From sunrise to sunset in the spring and summer the white light of the Delta creates miracles of shadow and shade under the vast arch of the heavens.
As the brief spring glides imperceptibly into the hot days of summer, the crops grow with furious rapidity, forced upward by the rich earth, the warm rains, and the long hours of sunlight. Weeds grow with equal rapidity, and as they come up the fields become alive with the chatter and laughter of Negroes wielding hoes. The contest between man and nature for the rich prize of the annual crops is never ending. In this warm climate, this teeming soil, the earth throbs to give birth to myriad forms of plant life, little caring whether they are friend or foe to excrescent man clinging to its surface by the sweat of his brow.
In June the fields are starred with the beauty of millions of cotton blossoms cream-white, soft-red, shell-pink. They vanish after a brief day in the sun and give way to boils; hard tight little globes of green containing the embryo of cotton. For three months they grow until suddenly in August the cotton begins to burst through its confining walls. Bits of white here and there fleck the sea of green. As the days pass the whiteness spreads rapidly and more rapidly until it undulates in waves and rolls in billows, drowning the land beneath its softness. Now the Negroes come to gather the harvest. With long sacks of coarse canvas slung over their shoulders and trailing the ground they pick the cotton. In time only the stalks remain to become brown and withered with the frosts of autumn and rattle forlornly in the winds of winter until they are plowed under in the spring. The fiat fields stretch away mile after mile in a brown monotony unbroken by the surge or lift of hills. Stumps of trees that were hidden by the thick-clustering leaves of the cotton now splotch the fields. Beauty has flown from the Delta. It will come again in the spring.
The roads become, in cotton-picking time, a thronged Appian Way leading to the gins. Their rusty tin roofs shine now in the eyes of Negroes with as great a glory as the dome of Saint Peter’s ever shone for home-haunted Romans returning from exile. The fields are filled with cottonpickers, and as fast as wagons and trucks can be filled they move to the gins in an almost unending procession around the hands of the clock. Here the cotton vanishes, at one end into the maw of a suction pipe, and emerges, stripped of its valuable seed, at the other as the jute-wrapped bale of commerce. Long lines of wagons and trucks wait their turn. Negroes lie sound asleep aloft on the high-piled cotton under the shining sun or the starry sky. Ginned bales rumble down inclines and are stacked by black brawny arms for shipment. The gins make a fearful clatter in the quiet air of the countryside. For nine months of the year they are silent. For three months they run. They seem now to crowd into this too-brief season of activity the repressed forces of strength that must lie dormant for most of the year. Plumes of steam wave in the autumn breezes. Columns of black smoke stain the immaculate blue of the sky. Cotton seed rattles loudly in tin pipes as it is blown under pressure into the seedhouses.
At night sudden blasts of flame assault the darkness as tne nre doors of boilers are opened and shut. The gin is the annual journey’s end for Negro share-croppers and white farmers.
This is the glad time of the year for Negroes. The long road down which they have toiled for months now opens upon enchanting vistas of cash money and uninterrupted leisure. For weal or woe the crop has been made and gathered. They will soon taste its first fruits in the form of “seed money” — the cropper’s share of the cotton seed. Later there will be a final settlement of accounts for the year’s work.
The cropper sees but little cash during the cultivating and growing season. Now that he has money in hand he goes on a spending spree. The little country grocery stores which summerlong have had in stock only the most utilitarian foods such as beans, fat meat, flour, lard, and coffee, now flaunt on their shelves the unaccustomed luxuries of dried figs and raisins, apples and oranges, lemons and grapes, and tinned California fruit. The dry-goods stores, which have sold only work clothes and cheap cotton dresses, now display wondrous suits for men dyed strange shades and richly adorned with multicolored buttons. “Sunday” shoes, too, are now to be worn every day. Rayon socks and rayon neckties are bright with shine, dripping color. Caps will be worn, jauntily backwards, and there are shotgun shells for rabbit-hunting.
For the women there are dresses of fairy-like splendor woven of the mist ingeniously mixed with satin, billowing with ruffles, bouffant with lace, smart with pink and blue marabou, and all for less than five dollars. Admirable dresses for walking in the rain across muddy fields to visit neighbors; superbly smart when worn with long white kid gloves to stand long hours in hot dusty streets, waiting for the circus parade. Underwear, too — Negroes in their conservatism still wear it of maize and purple rayon embroidered with magenta roses. Shiny panties are only seventy-five cents, and that is merely the garnered sweat of ten hours’ work with a hoe in the hot sun magically crystallized into silver. Love flourishes, beauty burns, and “us sho gwine have us a good time while us can.” So with the buying of this and that, with the garnering of trinkets and bright trash, the stores are crowded and the money is spent. The paean-obituary of a year of hard work is then written by the financial agencies reporting that “business in the Delta section of Mississippi is 5 per cent ahead of last year.”
Delta white folks complain bitterly that the Negro with a few dollars in his pocket will not work until the money is gone. Fortunately for the white folks, these periods of spasmodic prosperity do not last long. The Negro and his money are soon parted. It is as difficult for him to hold money as it would be to cling life-long to the face of a precipice by his fingers. In his opinion thriftiness is utterly silly a characteristic of “mean mens.” Tomorrow does not press, a crown of thorns upon his brow. And when the last extremity has been reached there may be always found somehow a white man to assume the burden of his meager keep.
‘Taint no use fer to work so hard,
I got a gal in de white folks’ yard;
She gives me biscuits and she gives me lard.
Ef it wa’n’t fer de bulldog I’d go in de yard,
Skeered he bite me, we shall be free,
Skeered he bite me, we shall be free,
‘Cause de good Lawd done set us free.
This is true of the majority of Delta Negroes. There is a tiny minority who are far-sighted, thrifty, parsimonious, and even miserly. By virtue of their thrift they rise to economic independence and places of importance in their communities. But they are lost in the thriftless mass.
Whether the Negro acquired his thriftlessness from the white man or he acquired it from the Negro is a moot question. It is certain in the Delta that both are guilty of it. When money is plentiful the planter and townsman commit the same crimes against economy that the Negro does, differing from him only in kind. In prosperous years they recklessly buy expensive automobiles. They travel up and down the country to visit friends or merely to move about. They buy whatever they see and want at the moment with the fatal inability to resist that marks the swiftly-upward open-mouthed night flight of a trout to the lure of a fly. One bale of cotton buys a case of whisky. Two pay for the “fixings” for the party at which its is drunk. Five bales buy a trip to Chicago, and ten to New York. It is not hard to spend a cotton crop if one works devotedly at the task. Soon the money vanishes. Usually it leaves no traces of beauty or grace garnered; no utility gained; no memories of things done and places seen to shine in arid after-years like unquenchable stars.
White folks complain, too, that the Negro won’t work unless he is driven. This is true of many Negroes, but not of all. In the Delta there are Negroes who are hard-working and industrious. They prosper without supervision and point the way to their less energetic fellows. The attitude of the average Negro toward work, however, is tempered by several considerations. He feels, for one thing, that “he ain’t goin’ ter have nuthin’ nohow,” arising either from a fear that he will be exploited or a knowledge of his own inability to save or both. His wants are simple and easily satisfied. A little labor suffices. He does not burn with the white man’s passion for acquisition. He does not seek power. Money is a form of power, but the Delta Negro could not wield it if he had it. He cannot, therefore, see why he should continue to work when he is in possession of enough money to provide for his simple wants in the immediate present.
He feels deeply that work is an unmitigated evil. It is a form of dark penance which he must suffer if he would win through to the bright pleasures of women, train-riding, gambling, and picnics. De Lawd put man on earth to enjoy hisself, and when this life has done gone He’s gwine take us all to a better lan' where don’t nobody work and Jesus sets on a golden throne, a little white chile-angel on one side an’ a little black chile-angel on de yother. Only white folks and fools work for the sake of working. They have no time to enjoy the pleasures of this life nor to anticipate joyfully the glories of the eternally happy life to come.
The Delta Negro has a high capacity for the artless employment of leisure. Time does not hang heavy on his hands when he is free of labor. The wellsprings of his being have not been poisoned at their source by the white man’s virus of let us then be up and doing. On Sundays he does not have the haunted, unhappy appearance common to many whites who shift from foot to foot in drug stores through a day unbearably long, or, impelled by some demon of discontent, drive aimlessly in wide circles through city streets or over country roads. The Negro’s soul does not harbor the boredom which so often drills with the insensate ruthlessness of a dentist’s instruments into the white man’s soul, driving him to strange excesses of escape or to obliterating narcotics of violence. He does not feel strongly the white man’s need for the complicated paraphernalia of organized entertainment. Out of his sheer gusto for living, his warm and earthly animalism, he creates his own amusements. He makes his own songs and sings them, enjoys the company of his fellows, the thrills and solace of religion, and the never-ending pleasures of conversation.
The Delta Negro likes to talk. His images are illumined by vivid imagination. His speech drips color. It is filled with a sense of wonder and biblical simplicity; often with an extraordinary quality of epigram and precision. He is a maker and teller of stories. A creator and singer of songs. A speculator on the origins of the universe. The birth of man and his destiny; the sweetness of Jesus; the humanness of God; the mysteries of the Scriptures; and the vagaries of the white folks — are stock themes of conversation among Delta Negroes. They sit for hours on end in their cabins, at the gins, and in country stores, talking in groups without cease. If one leaves, another, entering, throws himself headlong into the conversation, although he has not the slightest idea of the subject under discussion. The Delta Negro and this he probably learned from his preacher — is a master of the non sequitur. He throws sentences recklessly about as he throws dice, uncertain where they are going to land or what they are going to reveal, but praying for the best.
On a Saturday morning two reverend elders of the Bright Morning Star Baptist Church sit on smooth-worn benches in front of the Crescent Café (for colored only), to remain until they go home hours later at nightfall. They talk for a long time about Jesus. Their discussion ends with a review of the day when He walked upon the waters — an alluring theme in this land of floods — and they turn then to Nebuchadnezzar, who strongly appeals to the imagination of the rural Delta Negro.
“Does you ‘member dat day,” says one of the elders, “we’en de zebers chased ole Nebuchadnezzar clean back in dat cave where de Lawd had wrote on de wall in letters of fire, ‘Mene, Mene, Tikel, Tikel’?”
“Sho I ‘members dat,” replies the other elder. With bewildering irrelevancy and devastating assurance he reminds his friend that “hit’s jes’ lak I tole you. Dey wa’n’t no people at de beginnin’ of de worl’. Dey wa’n’t nuthin’ but apes an’ monkeys an’ A-rabs. Right fum dat po’ start de Lawd He made everything —hawgs, chickens, dawgs, contrary wimmens, Shetlan’ ponies, white folks, niggers, and Chinermens.”
His companion gravely agrees that this is true according to the Bible. In turn they wonder “w’en us gwine git a sho-nuf price for us cotton.” They assert that “Gawd sho will strike you dead if you ‘fends His commanderments,” and reiterate that their plantation manager “don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout makin’ no cotton nohow.” They praise their preacher because “dat’s a squallin’ nigger if dere ever wuz one in dis country.” From time to time their conversation is interrupted to greet effusively, and as though they had come from a far country, members of their community whom they had just left that, morning, would see again that night, with whom their whole lives had been spent.
A white planter passing stops to ask the elders, “Have y’all seen any of my niggers?” The language of slavery still carries over into freedom, although its implications are softened now by paternalism. “Naw, suh, Mister Ed, I ain’t see a one of ‘em,” replies an elder. His is the language of caution and secretiveness in the presence of the white man. It is a survival, too, of slavery and still flourishes in the Delta. “Well, I got room for two or three of ‘em in my car and I thought I’d take ‘em on out home with me to save ‘em walking.” “I b’leeve I knows whar dem niggers at,” says the other elder, who had been silent. “Dey’s at the Chinermen’s gittin’ theyseif somethin’ t’eat.” The need for caution has vanished. The information is freely given and the planter goes off to the “Chinermen’s” in search of “his niggers.” Sometimes Negroes illuminate with a single sentence the differing points of view which motivate the white man of the North and the white man of the South in his conduct and attitude toward Negroes. A man migrated from a small Delta town to Boston. He was dissatisfied there and returned home. “Dey calls a nigger ‘mister’ up dere,” he said, “but it ain’t a white man will give you two bits to put somethin’ in yo’ stomach when you’s hongry. And de niggers dey is jes’ as bad. Dey won’t do nuthin’ to he’p nobody if dey down.”
In the Delta no white man will call a Negro mister. But thousands of white men will cheerfully give almost any Negro two bits “to put somethin’ in yo’ stomach.” He will indeed give small sums to the Negro more quickly than he will to a fellow white man. But he will never under any circumstances “mister” a Negro. This democratic title is reserved exclusively for white men, as “Mrs.” and “Miss” are for white women only. Any Negro seeking to be called by these titles by whites is deemed guilty of a serious breach of the prevailing customs. And conversely, a white man using them in addressing Negroes would fall under the grave suspicion of the community.
The code of the Delta white man is in many respects less severe toward the Negro than whites. He is not held up to the same standards of conduct. The people are enormously indulgent of his faults and petty vices. Negro servants, for instance, go on year after year committing the same crimes of inattention, negligence, and extravagance with their employer’s goods and money. Only the repetition of the grossest misconduct brings about their discharge. They are severely reprimanded and forgiven in the same breath. These reprimands are governed usually by well-understood conventions on both sides. They have the rigid stylization of a Japanese Noh play. Each acts his part as though he were on a stage, knowing full well that the speeches of castigation on the one side and the appearance of humble submission on the other have no contact with reality. The white employer storms and shouts. He makes dire threats of dismissal. He will not tolerate that kind of conduct again. The
Negro looks sad and contrite. He fervently promises to menu his ways. His head is bowed to the storm. He “yassuhs” everything his employer says. Yet the white man knows even as he flings the lightnings of his wrath that he will forgive his servant. And the servant knows that he will be forgiven.
Not long ago I was the guest of an old family in Vicksburg. We sat talking one afternoon and drinking sherry. My hostess, usually a talkative and abstemious woman, drank steadily and silently. Finally she left the room. “My wife rarely drinks anything,” her husband said, “but she has been sitting here trying to get tight so that she could get up enough nerve to fire the cook. She’s been trying to do it for eight years. When the time comes she just can’t see it through.”
In a little while my hostess returned, sadly triumphant. She bad told Louisa that she must leave. She would give her a month’s pay and another month in which to find a job, but when the time came she reckoned she just couldn’t bear to see her go. Louisa was so fond of the children and they of her. She was such a good cook. She did take care of the house when they went to New York. What did it matter, after all, if she took too much food out of the house, and occasionally went off, without warning, for a week at a time with that good-for-nothing Negro from across the river?
It had taken her eight years and half a bottle of sherry to summon strength to fire the cook. Now that it had been done she spent the afternoon miserably searching for reasons to keep her. When I left the issue remained undecided. I feel, however, that Louisa will continue to cook for the Hennings for a long time to come, that her large family will always flourish on the Henning groceries, and that Louisa herself will leave the household without warning when love calls, to go off for a week at a time with that good-for-nothing Negro from across the river.
The unwritten and unwritable codes which govern the conduct of white men toward the Negro in the Delta function in strange ways. There are men here who would lynch a Negro without the slightest hesitation or compunction. And equally without the slightest hesitation they would risk their lives to save Negroes as they did in the great flood of 1927. There was a famous physician in the Delta. He was a handsome figure of a man, gentle, kind, and soft-spoken. He might always be depended upon for aid at the lynching of a Negro guilty of a sexual attack upon a white woman or a brutal homicide upon a white man. Yet the Negroes knew him and loved him as one to whom they might always unfailingly turn in time of illness.
During his life he spent hundreds of nights in forlorn Negro cabins, waiting often until the dawn for the arrival of a child. His car stood frequently in muddy streets outside the homes of Negroes. His office was daily crowded with blacks to whom he gave aid and comfort. If they could pay, they paid. If they could not pay they received the same treatment. And if they had no money for medicine, he bought it for them. Illness alone was the passport to his skill, and it mattered not whether those who carried it were poor and black. Hundreds of Negroes in the Delta mourned his passing and venerate his memory as their true friend.
There are white men in the Delta who exploit Negroes ruthlessly. There are others who treat them with every consideration of fairness and justice. There are whites who cherish a venomous hatred of Negroes. There are Negroes who bitterly hate whites. And there are thousands of whites and Negroes between whom there exist long-sustained relations of good will, confidence, and affection.
If the Negro in the Delta is isolated by ignorance and distance from the intellectual currents of the outside world, the white man is isolated by lack of curiosity. Year after year the Delta functions in almost complete detachment in the land of the radio. All kinds of “isms” come and go beyond its borders, but it hears little of them or, hearing, little heeds. The roaring sounds of revolution in a changing world dwindle in this far distance to tiny whispers. Change shatters itself upon the breast of this society as Pacific breakers upon a South Sea reef.
The Delta does not go far afield in its reading. It has an instinctive Anglo-Saxon dislike for ideas. It reads the local newspapers which report what everybody already knows, and the newspapers of Memphis which have a distinctly sectional tinge. Among books it prefers non-controversial best sellers. For critiques of the whole America it goes to the syndicated columnists. Disturbing ideas crawl like flies around the screen of the Delta. They rarely penetrate. It is only when the price of cotton is affected that the Delta takes cognizance of the outside world.
Cotton is more than a crop in the Delta. It is a form of mysticism. It is a religion and a way of life. Cotton is omnipresent here as a god is omnipresent. It is omnipotent as a god is omnipotent, giving life and taking life away. Here the industrial revolution is an academic adumbration dimly heard, an alien device scarcely comprehended. In an age of machines, the patient mule lost in prehistoric thought, followed by a plodding Negro down a turnrow, remains the machine age of the Delta.
Year after year the Delta struggles to maintain itself upon an economy resting squarely on cotton. And cotton is produced by Negroes, who bring in their train a whole set of difficult and delicate problems. They are largely bound to the land as sharecroppers on large plantations, and out of this system, essentially unchanged since the Civil War, flows another set of problems which no man has been able to solve. The result is that the Delta is affected not only by the general economic conditions prevailing in the world, but also by those peculiar to its economy.
Spiritually the white man here constantly struggles with his desire to be just to a people who are helpless beneath white domination, and the all too human temptation to exploit them. He is tortured by his indecision whether to attempt to raise their educational and cultural level, or to leave them where they are. Racially he is determined that the white race shall be kept free of Negro blood. But he makes no serious objection if white blood is poured into the veins of Negroes. Individually he must accede to the prevailing codes governing racial relations, whether he agrees with them or no, and traditionally he moves within the shadows of noblesse oblige cast by the founders of his society.
The Negro, for his part, must work out his destiny within a framework created and ordained for him by the white man. He must be all things to all people, an actor who never steps out of character. He must adapt himself with the fluidity of water to all the varied personalities of the white community with whom he comes in contact. He must be prepared to play clown or tragedian at a moment’s notice. He must accept, silently and unhesitatingly, the conditions of living laid down by the dominant race. He must not forget that he dwells in a white man's country. Within these limits, and subject to these exceptions, be may pursue to the best of his ability the way of life that be prefers.
This, briefly, is the Mississippi Delta. Under these conditions, against this background, and in this environment nearly one hun dred thousand white and three hundred thousand Negroes live and have their being. It is a strange and detached fragment thrown off by the whirling comet that is America.