Are These My People?
A reluctant daughter of the Old South searches for her roots
“Let’s drive down to the Neshoba County Fair!”
It was a hot day in July and I was with my friends in the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group that meets monthly in Oxford, Mississippi to critique each other’s works-in-progress. The fair is an event I’d heard about my whole life, but had never attended. Part of the impetus was that Oxford author, Tom Franklin, would be reading from his story in the anthology, Southern Fried Farce. Tom would be part of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show which usually broadcasts from Off Square Books in Oxford on Thursday nights.
When we arrived around 7:30 that night, cars were parked along both sides of Highway 21 for a mile in either direction of the front gate, in addition to filling up a huge cow pasture that had been set up for parking across the road. Once inside, the sub-culture that is the Neshoba County Fair nearly took my breath away.
First it was the cabins. Six hundred darling, I mean darling¸ little two-story cabins decorated in shabby chic colors and furnishings with strings of lights and Japanese lanterns everywhere. Some of these cabins have been in certain families for generations. My friend Doug told me that the ones around “Founder’s Square,” the pavilion that’s used for political speeches and literary readings and musical entertainment, are worth a fortune. In Philadelphia, Mississippi? How can that be? But as I looked around, I saw generations of people who looked like old money—Mississippi beauty queens and golden boys.
My first reaction was, “I need a beer.”
Doug laughed and said, “it’s a dry county.” And then, answering the shock on my face, he explained, “Oh, there’s plenty of beer. You can bring in as much as you want to. You just can’t sell it.”
My throat suddenly constricted and my nerves got edgy as I watched people entertaining dozens of guests on their front porches around the square, all sipping wine and beer from plastic cups. Many of the folks looked like they could have been in my sorority or my husband’s fraternity at Ole Miss in the seventies. So I thought surely I’d find someone I knew that I could go up to and say, “Hi! Remember me?” and then somehow work into, “I didn’t know you couldn’t buy drinks here,” in my best Southern-eze.
But as I searched the crowd, while everyone looked familiar in a generic sort of way, there was no one I could put a name with. And I began to wonder: who are these people? Everywhere I looked I saw thin, gorgeous women and girls with beautiful hair and luminous faces, some in strapless sun dresses and sandals or cute little rain boots, others in shorts or capris or jeans with tank tops or peasant blouses. All sporting the quintessential Southern accessory—an even tan. And golden boys with khaki shorts or jeans and button-down-collar long-sleeved shirts rolled up to the elbows or t-shirts with sports logos on them. A few cowboy hats and boots and more than a few aging yuppies, but for the most part, they all seemed to be aging well.
Tom’s reading was great. Afterwards, being the gracious person he is, he went to a cabin and came back to the square with two cups of cold beer, one for himself and one for me! We shared a few laughs, especially when Tom said he had considered, for a moment, up there on that stage where so many Southern politicians have given speeches over the years, raising his hand in the air at the end of his reading and shouting, “Obama ’08!” We shook our heads—probably not a good idea in that setting. It was then, as we stood around and talked shop for a while with Tom that it hit me: Are these my people? Not the thousands of Beautiful People in the pavilion and the cabins, but the half-dozen struggling writers standing around our friend and mentor in a semi-circle. It was in that circle that I felt at home.
In the larger circle that is the Neshoba County Fair, a microcosm of the Old South, there was not one Black person to be found on that Saturday night. Not one. In a state that has the highest percentage of African Americans of any of the fifty, not one of them had come to Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty®. I mentioned this to someone that night, and he said, “I’ve never thought about that. They could come if they wanted to, but I guess this just isn’t their thing.”
Not their thing? Great music and political speakers and literary readings and food and beer outside on a summer night in Mississippi? Black people wouldn’t like that?
Or could it have something to do with the fact that less than three miles from the Neshoba County Fair, in 1964, three civil rights workers’ bodies were found buried on Olen Burrage's Old Jolly Farm, having been savagely beaten and shot three times? The juxtaposition of that part of Mississippi’s history with the fun and games of the Beautiful People on that summer night in July was a powerful but difficult image to hold in my head.
Driving home to Memphis, the image grew stronger. I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in the segregated fifties and came of age in the apocalyptic sixties before moving to Memphis in 1988. I’m continuing to try to connect with my roots as I hone my craft with other writers down in Oxford. But as I think about the Beautiful People at the Neshoba County Fair, and the writers and artists and musicians who had been invited there to celebrate life together in Mississippi—without their beautiful Black neighbors—I still wonder, are these my people?
Susan Cushman lives in Memphis, where she is working on a memoir about the darker aspects of growing up in the South. Her essays have appeared in skirt!, Mom Writer’s Literary Magazine, First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, and the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Magazine. She blogs at http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/.