William Kammler: Blindness in the South: Looking to the past and ignoring the present

KKK burning crosses

I just returned to DC after spending two weeks in New Orleans working on a project for a different Gallatin grant. I initially thought of this has been completely divorced from my DASR project but it has worked to inform it so greatly that I cannot imagine why I initially thought of them as separate.

Louisiana is an extremely similar yet dissimilar place to Mississippi. Attitudes are similar, can’t be bothered. There are monstrous issues facing both: a failing education system, infrastructure crumbling everywhere you look, racial and socioeconomic divides so visible that they seem almost comically fictional. Yet things seemed to be tinged with an awareness in Louisiana that is not contained in Mississippi. The people of Jackson and the Gulf Coast, my family members and the larger community, carry this weight of forgottenness on their shoulders. Media attention, cultural value, even history seems to etch a particular importance to Louisiana while Mississippi edges closer and closer into the shadows.

Living in the shadows allows for obscuration and lessened transparency. Things seem to pass in Mississippi without people caring too much. The system is broken and change seems so far off that it is hard to materialize into something tangible.

My relationship with my Aunt Amy, who I chronicled in my last post as having a debilitating case of hypochondria and grief, becomes more and more of an embodiment of the positives and negatives of Southern identity the farther I get from her and the region. Her inability to quit smiling, her insistence that everything and everyone has a story to tell is infectious. She lives in the past, her head turned to recount and recall the successes of her past and the South’s past, guarding it as if it is being threatened. Her inability to see in the present prohibits a healthy future from being formed. I used a quote in my last post and it seems more and more salient as time has passed “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. This was used be a multitude of my cousins to describe life in the South and it is incredibly apt.

My research continues and the more I learn about my family. My grandma, Big Mommy, was completely unaware of the the KKK’s presence in her hometown of Moss Point when I broached the topic this past week. I was made aware of a cross burning that happened in the 1950s in front of Moss Point’s Magnolia School, the segregated school for the black community, and she was completely unaware of its happening. This violent act happened when she was in high school in her small town of 15,000. How is this possible? Unawareness seems to be a common thread amongst the greater Mississippi community. The status quo stands as it has for the past two centuries, those at the top are apathetic to the plight of others, unaware of the reality of their lives even though it unfolds in front of them.

I will be conducting further interviews with my Big Mommy this week so I will update this when I hear more. My plans for these rounds of discussion includes the day-to-day details of living in a segregated South, the presence of the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression to many of my family members) in daily life, and the inability to break the cycle of deterioration that is happening around them. Southerners are story tellers and history plays such an important part to the foundation of their identity. It is my goal to get closer to an understanding of how storytelling and recalling has obscured the reality of current day issues for my family and for the residents of Mississippi.

Attached is a photo of the welcome sign to Moss Point, vandalized by the local KKK chapter in 2015.KKK moss point