Last time I wrote about how isolated Cleveland, Mississippi is and how odd and unambitious many of its people are. Paradoxically one of the great things about living here is the community. Unlike most Delta towns, Cleveland attracts a substantial number of transplants. Most come here to teach at Delta State, though Baxter, Faurecia, and especially Teach for America and the USDA lab in Stoneville bring folks in as well. We also have a number of students from places as far away as England, Brazil, and Turkey. So within the broader region there is a subset of people who cluster around each other simply because we are all in a strange land far from home. Some will stay for the long haul. The nature of academia is such that professors don’t move very often. Plus life around here is relatively easy even if it has its drawbacks. Others will continue on their journeys. But for the moment we are all in the same boat and will hang together for that reason. In some ways its like being an expat in a foreign country.
A friend of mine calls it the Graham Greene effect, after the English novelist of the same name. A lot of his novels are set in far away places. There is always a group of expats living there and sticking together even though they might be from different walks of life. You see the same phenomenon in the Delta. Within the native population there is a relatively small, tight knit community who supports each other. It makes up for how strange and isolated many of us find it. I have never lived abroad, but have seen the effect elsewhere. Once upon a time a friend of mine was studying in the Netherlands (ie Amsterdam although he didn’t actually live in that city). There was a small group of American expatriates who all hung out together in the coffee shops and such. As a result most of the people I met on that journey were from the US. Cleveland is similar, minus the legal weed.
Holidays are a perfect example. Last week, a friend of mine invited me over to a barbecue on Easter Sunday. Most of them work in the music department and none were Mississippi natives. We all brought food and hung out for the afternoon. It was a good group of people and I enjoyed myself. There are similar gatherings on Thanksgiving although I always go home instead. It makes up for the reality of many of us being far from family. So when I say Cleveland has a “strong local culture” this is what I mean.
Within the transplant community there are distinct gathering points, places we all gravitate towards. Hey Joe’s is one of them as is Delta Dairy and Mississippi Grounds. The Wiley Community Garden is another. Many of us also go to local festivals such as Octoberfest, the Juke Joint Festival, or the Crosstie Arts and Jazz Festival. These provide much needed opportunity to socialize. I for one am fond of the garden. We just had our spring planting and things are definitely looking up. There are also a number of restaurants in the area. Soon Cleveland will have a bowling alley. All of the above intersects with some local efforts such as Keep Cleveland Boring. For all its drawbacks, the town really does have a lot to offer.
But one must live here to see the upsides. The existence of the transplant community is not very obvious to outsiders. If one walks into Hey Joe’s on a Wednesday or Friday night all one will see is a group of people sitting around having dinner and drinking. Unless you actually know someone around here, the existence of the transplant community or the significance of that place will be lost on you. And by definition most won’t care because they have little invested in Cleveland. So a tourist interested in the history of the blues will only see the Blues Trail. Likewise a journalist seeking to understand the Delta’s poverty will only see that. As meaningful as I find life in Cleveland, nothing I described will be of much interest to someone who isn’t moving here. Such is the nature of community and shared suffering.
Above all I will miss the transplant community the most when it comes time to move on. Fortunately I won’t have to face that for a while yet. And in any case one can likely find the Graham Greene effect elsewhere. Of course the wheel of life moves ever onward whether we want it to or not. For the moment I will enjoy myself and let what will come, come.