Write On, Mississippi is a podcast on which I appear as Chapter 12. Click the link to hear me hem and haw. Unless they edited it out, I apologize in advance to the unflappable Eric Stone for referring to him as “Eric Smith.” I’d been thinking about Lydia Chin and Bill Smith and I was, you know, on the radio, and if you don’t make a big screw-up while you’re on the radio you got nuthin. This was recorded in advance of the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson on Aug 17, at which I will be. I tried to steal their photo of me for here, but I couldn’t, so here’s one of me relaxing with Craig and Karina Buck on our B&B porch in Natchez. And if you think getting that phone to balance on the railing while Craig set the timer, ran back and sat down was easy, well, bless your heart.
Here we have the gate to the first Chinese Cemetery in Greenville, MS, the existence of which got me started down the rabbit hole of the entire history of the Chinese of the Mississippi Delta. This cemetery was founded in 1913. In 1931 a second cemetery was begun when it became clear the needs of the growing Chinese Delta community would soon outpace this one. This one, however, was still receiving new occupants in family plots as late as the 1990’s.
The gate is kept locked, but security is not tight. I myself found it simple to sneak in. It’s a Chinese tradition to offer food and drink to the deceased. As you can see, even the older graves are still well-tended.
PAPER SON comes out today! On the shelves at your local indie — or if not, they can get it stat. Or you can order it to wing your way, or download it on your e-reader or for audio. If you pre-ordered, thanks and you probably have it in your hot little hands, or ringing in your ears, by now. To celebrate: Party at Red’s!
Red’s Juke Joint, Clarksdale, MS. Photo, me.
The Chinese of the Mississippi Delta had their own schools. Why, you ask? This is the US of A, we have public schools. Ah, but this is Mississippi — a phrase Lydia Chin learns well in PAPER SON. In Mississippi, right up until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — and, in a complicated way, beyond it — schools were tightly segregated.
In 1927, long before Brown, the Supreme Court heard and decided the case of Lum v. Rice. Lum argued that a young Chinese girl should be allowed in the white schools, having been “incorrectly classified” as “colored” under Mississippi’s Jim Crow laws. A generation later, Brown argued that separate was intrinsically unequal; but Lum didn’t, only that, essentially, Chinese weren’t “colored.” The Supreme Court said Mississippi was entitled to define “colored” any way it saw fit.
So the Chinese of the Delta, seeing the kind of education to which black children were condemned, founded, opened, and ran their own schools.
And the Lums moved to Arkansas, just across the river, where Chinese kids were allowed in white schools.
Chinese school, 1938
photo link: https://bit.ly/2ZVfc4H
This monument at Highways 40 and 61 in Clarksdale MS (where PAPER SON is set) marks the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for the ability to play the blues.
Or maybe it was a different crossroads, a little distance from here.
Or maybe, as some legends say, it was a graveyard.
And speaking of graveyards, when Johnson died of poison, or syphilis, or Marfan syndrome, he was buried in Morgan City MS, or Quito MS, or Greenwood MS. Or a Potter’s Field near the Dockery Plantation, where he died.
In other words, little is known for sure about the guy. Except he could sing and play like the Devil himself.
Herewith, a cotton gin, near Clarksdale MS (where PAPER SON is largely set) in 1939. What does a cotton gin do? It gins cotton. No, seriously, it separates the seeds out from a boll of cotton. Why is it called a “gin?” I dunno. Can someone help?
But here’s the thing about the cotton gin: its creation invoked, in a big way, the Law of Unintended Consequences. Once it was invented (by a Northerner just solving a mechanical problem, or so he thought), human, meaning slave, labor was not needed for the time-consuming task of seed removal. That allowed cotton to become a profitable crop — more profitable than rice or anything else. In truth very little grown on Southern plantations would have been profitable without an endless supply of free, meaning slave, labor. (An interesting contradiction in terms, that, no?) But cotton was more marginal than most crops, until the gin. Then it became a good deal less marginal. The South rapidly moved to near-monoculture, and slavery became the foundation on which that rested. Any nascent anti-slavery movements were nipped in the boll, until finally the Civil War.
Always, always, follow the money.
If you’re like me and this is the first you’re hearing of the 100-year-old Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta — don’t be a wise guy, the community is 100 years old, not the people — you’re probably scratching your head and saying, “Wha?” When I was told about them that was my reaction. So I researched, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. What brought Chinese people to the Mississippi Delta? Not gonna tell, but you’ll find out if you read PAPER SON. (See what I did there?) But I’ll give you a hint. This photo is of a Chinese-owned grocery store in Greenville, MS. Check out the clientele hanging around outside.
image credit: https://bit.ly/2WNay6S
PAPER SON drops July 2, at which time all those of you who’ve pre-ordered (and I sorta hope that’s lots of you) will find your copies winging your way. To celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event — well, THIS book will never have a first day again — I’ll be posting historic photos of the Delta, from which I have just returned and in which the book is set. Those will start tomorrow, but I thought I’d offer, first, a little orientation. This is on account of because a friend of mine asked yesterday whether the Delta was the area around the mouth of the Mississippi River, down by New Orleans.
A reasonable assumption. But incorrect.
A river delta is, rightly, where a river breaks into smaller flows at the place where it hits the sea. (Called a “delta” because it’s usually a roughly triangular shape, like the Greek letter.)
The Mississippi Delta, though, is a misnomer. Broadly speaking, this Delta is the floodplain to the east of the river. Check out the map, below. The Delta’s outlined in green. It’s said to start just below Memphis, TN, and extend to Vicksburg, MS. Most of PAPER SON takes place in and around Clarksdale, MS.
So why do they call it the Delta?
Ya got me. Anyone?
PAPER SON, my sixteenth book and the twelfth in the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series, will be out July 2. Mississippi, however, got a special dispensation to have books early, because I went down there last week to do a book tour. Cleveland — yes, Cleveland MS — Clarksdale, Greenwood, Jackson, and Oxford. Plus a podcast for the Mississippi Book Festival, where I’ll be on a panel Aug. 17, in case you’re in Mississippi and didn’t get sick of me last week.
For those of you not in Mississippi, I thought you might like a few photos. I posted some others on my Facebook page while I was there, and you can check them out even if you’re not on Facebook.
For those of you in Mississippi and not on my mailing list, or not on my mailing list and not in Mississippi, which I do believe covers everyone unless you ARE on my mailing list, you can sign up right here on the left of this page. I promise no more than a couple of newsletters a year, and you’ll get to hear from Lydia’s mom each time.
My buddy Eric’s porch, my Mississippi Delta home.
Sunset over the Delta.
Greenwood sidewalk and don’t ask me.
I guess the message here is, Oxford is Oxford is Oxford.
Here I am at the end of another Novel-in-Progress Bookcamp. This is my sixth year as writer-in-residence here and I love this gig. The writers who come are serious and work hard; my fellow staff members are a joy to be with; the caffeine flows freely; the food is plentiful; the place is beautiful. And in the evenings there’s beer, wine, and chocolate. What’s not to love?
View from my window
Lonely bull on the neighboring farm. His cows and calves have been moved to a pasture over the hill. He keeps bellowing for them. They’ll be back next week when the near pasture’s grown in again, but meanwhile he has no one for company but a big flock of geese and some heirloom chickens. (He’s a Belted Galloway, for those of you keeping score.)
The front of the property is a retirement home for goats and horses. Right now two aged goats and an old pony are in residence.
After this week’s weather more streams than usual are flowing on the 100 acre property. Some of the new ones are in what are usually paths. This one, however, is a real stream.