INDIANOLA, MISS.–If there is one place in Creation which symbolizes White racists with their lips dripping with “the words of inter-position and nullification” more than Mississippi, it’s the depths of Hell.
From Simon Legree’s final torment of the loyal slave Uncle Tom; to the bulging-eyed body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, tarred and feathered then thrown alive into the Tallahatchie River with a millstone around his neck; to Medgar Evers and Mack Parker; to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; my home state has an unmatched reputation for racial terror-on-terror, on into the 21st Century.
I returned “home” to the Delta with good intentions: to honor Riley “Blues Boy” King, a man who just turned 83, but who has a heart as forgiving as Tiger Woods.
But for me, I just couldn’t forget. I couldn’t let go of the pain.
In Indianola I often drove past the Sunflower County Courthouse–the brand new B.B. King Museum is just two blocks from the Courthouse, across the street from where B.B. once played his guitar and sang for nickels and pennies. Each time I saw its stately columns and Ivy walls I couldn’t help but think that here is a building where Black people have been denied justice, time after time, after time, after time.
B.B.’s heart is bigger than that.
Even though I grew up mostly in Los Angeles, and only went Home for summer vacations, I was haunted by the ghost of my mother’s younger sister whose name I never knew, about whom I learned only after my mother’s death. She was run down and killed one night long before I was born, on the road between Indianola and Ruleville. A neighborhood griot told me that when the killer was asked at a gas station about blood on his bumper the White driver said: “I must have hit a dog or something back up the road.”
Little wonder to me, that Mississippi is the state which invented the notion of “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court-ordered “all deliberate speed” when it came to 20th Century school desegregation. The birth state of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (who has many streets named after him in the Delta) also has a Black version and a White version of all things iconic. Separate-but-equal Pantheons, if you will.
There’s Richard Wright and there’s William Faulkner. There’s Jerry Rice and there’s Brett Farve. And of course there’s Elvis Presley–The King–and there’s B.B. King–the Blues Boy.
Mississippi honored the Blues Boy, who has a heart as big as all outdoors dedicating a new, $14 million B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, in his and my hometown, Indianola.
But for all the awe-inspiring, spine-tingling joy I felt when B.B. said “If heaven is more beautiful than how I feel today, then I’m ready to go tomorrow,” there were still two reminders of Mississippi’s ugly, race-hate-past…present. On Sept. 11 when Chicago harmonica player Billy Branch taught hundreds of Indianola school children how to play B.B.’s song “The Thrill is Gone,” he did it in two sections.
One group of mostly Black children came from Gentry High School, Indianola’s “desegregated” public school. The other children (who may not have even wanted to be there) came from the 99 percent White school, the private Indianola Academy.
And two days later at the official ribbon cutting, two college marching bands met on the street in front of the Museum. The Black band was from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the White band (which may not have even wanted to be there) came from Mississippi Delta State University.
And so, I’ll just go ahead and complain about that annoying reality of modern Mississippi, rendering myself the skunk at that Garden Party, because as proud as I am of B.B. King and those who made the museum in his honor a reality, and as touched as I am by the example of his forgiving heart, I reserve the right to make a stink because Indianola is my hometown too.