The Mississippi Delta is simultaneously a unique place and a place that has influenced the American story like no other. This paradox is summed up in two simple statements. Historian James Cobb has described the Delta as “The most Southern place on earth.” At the same time, the National Park Service has said ”Much of what is profoundly American- what people love about America- has come from the delta, which is often called ‘the cradle of American culture.’”
This is the Mississippi Delta: a place of paradox and contrast, a place described by Will Campbell as being “of mean poverty and garish opulence.” A place that has produced great authors yet continues to suffer from illiteracy. A place that has produced great wealth for a few but persistent poverty for many. A place of privilege for some and disadvantage for others. A place that has produced powerful political leaders, both for and against segregation. A place in which apartheid has been replaced by empowerment. A place of unquestioned artistic creativity that has given the world both the Blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and is also home to Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Bobby Gentry, Sam Cooke, Mose Allison and B. B. King. This is the Mississippi Delta, a microcosm of America, The most American place on earth.
The Delta has played an enormous and much undervalued role in the American story. It has given the world much in terms of music, literature, journalism, political action, foodways, and even sports heroes. It is the ancestral home of many Americans who today live in metropolitan areas like Detroit or Chicago or Oakland. It has played an important role in changing America’s attitude towards human and civil rights. At the same time, many Americans do not really know where the Mississippi Delta is, and places far from the Delta now claim its rightful title to being the “birthplace of the Blues.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities has made it possible for you to explore the Mississippi Delta. You will learn the stories that have given this place such a unique flavor, a mystique unlike any other place in America. You will learn about Charley Patton, the Father of the Delta Blues, and Robert Johnson, who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil in return for guitar virtuosity. You will learn about Senator James O. Eastland, powerful advocate for segregation, and Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper and equally powerful advocate for integration, who lived five miles from each other in totally different and separate worlds that were entirely co-dependent on one another. You will learn the tragic story of fourteen year old Emmett Till, and how his lynching sparked the civil rights movement. You will learn the stories of Mound Bayou, founded by former slaves as an all-black enclave, and called by President Teddy Roosevelt “The Jewel of the Delta.” You will learn how the Mississippi River created the Delta and how the great flood of 1927 destroyed it. You will learn about how waves of Russian Jews, French and Germans, Lebanese, Italians and Chinese immigrated to the Delta. You will learn about the clearing of the wilderness, the arrival of railroads, cotton, plantations, sharecropping, small towns, the Blues and Gospel, and the Great Migration to the North, East and West.
Most importantly, you will learn about sense of place as you study the place itself as a text. We will learn history where it happened as we move across the Delta, stopping at sites that tell stories. We will read what has been called “the invisible landscape,” the hidden landscape of stories from the past, as we learn about events that transpired in particular places and how they changed America.
While doing these things, you will also have the opportunity to taste Delta foods, from fried catfish and okra and barbecue to fried dill pickles and maybe even Kool-Aid pickles if you are bold enough. And of course you will listen to the music of the Delta, the Blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Charley Patton, and Willie Brown, the people who wrote the music that was made even more famous by Ike Turner, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, among others.
You will also learn from the Delta’s landscape, the vast sweep of flat, fertile ground that continues today to produce an agricultural bounty, formerly based on cotton, and now based on corn, soybeans and rice.
You will also have the opportunity to visit some of our nation’s great museums, including the National Civil Rights Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the brand new B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.
Finally, you will work with your colleagues to discover how other places, including your own, can be read as texts, and how you can return to your own place to teach others how to read their place as text.
By the end of the workshop, you will understand how the Mississippi Delta can be both ”The most Southern place on earth,” and ”the cradle of American culture.” If you are like most people, you will return home with stories that you will tell your classes for the rest of your life. And you will gain new respect forthe power and the poetics of place.
Let me end with some information about the Delta Center and workshops. We were funded through the NEH Landmarks program in 2009 and 2010, and again in 2012, 2013, and you will find portfolios for all of these workshops at links below this message. You can also see the outline of our workshop on the music and musicians of Mississippi, and the syllabus for a class we offer Delta teachers. The Music workshop was funded by NEH through the Mississippi Humanities Council. We have also presented two versions of what we call “The Three R’s of the Mississippi Delta: Roads, Rivers and Railways,” with support from the National Geographic Society and the Mississippi Geography Alliance, and we often present short workshops for local teachers on various subjects. The Delta Center is currently the manager of the new Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, a link to the National Park Service. We work regularly with people from all over the country, and increasingly from other countries, to help them learn the Delta’s stories.
I hope you participate in this summer’s programs and look forward to your application. The links below will lead you to further information about the workshops.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.