One of the first things I noticed about the Delta was how isolated it is. The nearest large city, Memphis, is over 100 miles away. It is also here that ones finds the closest national airport. The only chain stores around are Kroger, Walmart, and various fast food resturants. Even the major internet service providers seem to avoid the Delta or at least Cleveland.
But over time I began to realize something else. The people living here didn’t seem to have much desire to leave. It wasn’t so easy to see at first. A lot of the folks around here are transplants and the natives largely stick to themselves. However over time it became more noticeable. Mississippi Deltans seem largely content to stay around their families and the towns they grew up in. They don’t really seem to have much ambition or desire to travel places. And hardly anyone seems to move away or want to. Everything just stays the same.
Some folks do leave of course. I’ve talked before about white flight and its effects on the area. So clearly many people have left and never came back. Which may be the heart of the matter. After fifty years of out-migration the people who are still here are either can’t leave or won’t.
Coming from New York, all that is hard to process. My home is one of those parts of the country everyone wants to live in. So the idea of simply staying in the same town I grew up in is a foreign concept. Growing up it was assumed that I’d go to college and get a job. Moving away was always an option albeit not one I really thought about until I emerged from graduate school and realized jobs do not in fact fall from the sky.
However we need to be fair. In a land as impoverished as the Delta, it’s unrealistic to expect people to have the same opportunities I did. Being from a middle class background comes with certain assumptions and expectations. So does coming from the wealthy New York City metro area. And there really is no place like home. Even as I write this, I dream of moving back. My mom has never lived outside the New York area because her family and life are there. Once one builds up connections and a livelihood, it becomes very difficult to sever ties. So on some level it takes a certain type of person to take the sort of blind leap of faith I did upon relocating to the Delta.
All the same, Mississippians in general don’t seem to care much about the wider world. They certainly know what people think of this state. But all around me I don’t see a lot of efforts to change that. From education to job creation to poverty. Things just stay the same. It’s not really the people’s fault. Policy is set by the state government down in Jackson and that causes a lot of problems.
And that gets to the heart of the matter. As I’ve said numerous times before the view from 30,000 feet is very different from the view on the ground. Despite being the most conservative, impoverished, least diverse, most religious state in the nation the people are polite and helpful. There is a strong local culture and an emphasis on tourism which does bring travelers from elsewhere. Yet that is only the surface. There is a certain amount of theatricality in the manners people use in public. Partially for that reason I don’t know what folks are really thinking and how they see themselves.
Not knowing many native Mississippians well doesn’t help. I know there’s a huge difference culturally and socially from where I’m from. People are polite, religious and don’t talk about politics. A friend of mine pointed out that people go nowhere and do nothing. He’s been here a lot longer than me and would know better. Usually I try to see the best in people. But sometimes things are as bad as they look.