The South and The Self in South: Reflections on Mississippi with W. Ralph Eubanks

by Alexandra Melnick

contributor

Dr. W. Ralph Eubanks is a 2007 Guggenheim fellow, author, journalist, frequent NPR guest, the former Director of Publishing at The Library of Congress, a former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review and a frequent book reviewer for The Washington Post. He is also a visiting professor at Millsaps for this spring 2016 semester as well as the fall 2016 semester. A Mount Olive, Mississippi, native but longtime Washington D.C. resident, Dr. Eubanks has had ample time to reflect on the state of Mississippi and the state of being in and of Mississippi.

His non-fiction books Ever is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past and The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South explore 20th century Mississippi and provide an eye-witness honest account of the (often fraught) history of the Magnolia state. Since his departure in 1978 for Ann Arbor, Dr. Eubanks has not resided in Mississippi, but he still holds strong opinions about the state.

 

The Purple and White: What I’d like to talk to you about today first is Jackson. What are your opinions on Jackson now, and where do you feel it and Mississippi might go in the future?

Dr. Ralph Eubanks: It’s kind of strange living in Mississippi. I’ve been here a lot, but I haven’t lived here since 1978, so it’s been a little bit of a culture shock. I think probably the thing that I was really, to be honest, taken aback by was how the infrastructure in the state has crumbled—particularly in Jackson. Mississippi is a network of small towns. We like to think of ourselves as small towns. Jackson is our main urban space. We tend to have a disdain for urban spaces in this state and I feel that Jackson is being neglected. If you really want young people to stay here, you’ve got to give them the same things the urban areas that are attracting them are [giving] them. That’s what I think Jackson needs to think about for its future. You already have the issues that come with any urban space, but why not give people the amenities that come with that?

 

P&W: What sort of amenities are you thinking of?

RE: I think a lot more nightlife. There’s a good bit of cultural offerings right now. But, I think if you [have] a lot more people living in the appropriate core, you would have a lot more nightlife. I live in the center of D.C. That place has been really transformed by people moving back in and claiming those urban spaces. I think what it’s going to take for Jackson is for there to be amenities for people to go to. It’s places for them to live. For people to be living and walking. I was in Chicago last weekend with my kids and that’s what I realized: I miss being in an urban space because I can walk on the sidewalk and it doesn’t…

 

P&W: End. I agree.

RE: For me, it would be nice to see Jackson do that. This is a 20 year sort of plan but still! It would be [a] really positive thing for Mississippi.

 

P&W: What was Jackson like when you were in college, and did you visit Jackson much when you were at Ole Miss?

RE: Not very much. I tell people I minored in Memphis! We spent a lot of time in Memphis then. Oxford wasn’t the hot and happening town it is now, so if you wanted to go to concerts or to bars, you went to Memphis. I never really spent too much time in Jackson then or when growing up because of the boycotts. They came to Jackson around 1963 and we never shopped in downtown Jackson. We would shop in Hattiesburg, I think because most of the merchants in Hattiesburg were Jewish and they weren’t that restrictive about letting African-Americans try on clothing. So that’s why we always shopped in Hattiesburg rather than Jackson. There wasn’t any way my parents were going to cross any of the boycott lines.

 

P&W: What do you think people [that are college] age should do if they are committed to living and improving Mississippi in the face of all the frustrating and mind boggling things that happen here every day?

RE: I think the first thing is mobilizing and the second is to vote towards some positive change. We have the people we have in the legislature in this state for two reasons. One is that people don’t vote. Young people especially don’t vote. They don’t see the point in it or they don’t turn out to vote even if they’re registered. I think it’s time for your generation to start thinking about what type of political future this state should have. One of the things I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around since I’ve been here is how we moved from William Winter and Ray Maybus to where we are now. I think the reason is that so many of us who were more progressive either left or just gave up. I think more of us left. Think about this: I think the statistics on out-migration in Mississippi is a very high percentage. I think ReThink Mississippi just put some stuff up about that. It’s a staggering number of people who leave the state. As people leave (as I did) they don’t come back. Of 3.4 million people born in Mississipi, 1.25 million have left. 14 percent left for work, 12 percent left because of education and 17 percent left because of culture/lifestyle. That’s a pretty staggering number. More than half [of people born here] live outside the state. Those are the people who can really change the state but we tend to give up. I know I, the first thing in 1978, I got out of here. I didn’t come back here to live until this past January. I visited a lot! But as I explain to people, it’s very easy to visit here and then go back. Most of my time when I’ve been here over the last decade has largely been in Oxford. And that’s a bit of a bubble. It’s a lovely place to spend time when you come to Mississippi. [But] you’re not in Jackson right by the legislature, seeing exactly what is happening. You’re in your own Snopesian paradise!

 

P&W: What are your general visual impressions of Jackson now?

RE: How much of the landscape remains the same. That’s probably the thing that sticks out the most to me. We haven’t gone California here, where when we’re done with something we tear it down and put something new up. There’s still a tendency towards that but it hasn’t happened in Jackson. I wish I would see a lot more of downtown occupied and populated. But it’s good that so many of the buildings are there. I rent a little garage apartment over in Belhaven and that neighborhood is virtually unchanged. I had a friend at Millsaps who was in college at the same time as I was at Ole Miss, and I would see her occasionally. The neighborhood is pretty much the same as it was then. Maybe there are a few more trees! For me, that’s kind of the thing that’s reassuring about coming back to Jackson. The small towns have changed. My own hometown [Mount Olive] is continuing to die. I think that’s what is happening all across the state; the little towns are on their last breath as we become much more of a suburban state. Where is the growth in Mississippi? Outside of Memphis, along the Gulf Coast and the suburbs of Jackson.

 

P&W: Which is unfortunate to me. As you’ve mentioned, nothing has changed in terms of the Jackson structures which can be in parts oppressive and empowering when it comes to repurposing and repowering Jackson. But when it comes to Madison—there’s nothing there. There’s no history. It’s all pre-fabricated. Madison is made-up! It’s hard to mobilize and care about things when there’s nothing to care about in terms of the past of where you live.

RE: Yeah! When I run every morning, I go by the Greyhound bus station. That’s a great piece of history. Actually, you know the old Sun and Sand? That’s a piece of history too. I mean, it’s a sordid history because of all kinds of stuff went on there but it would be great to see that restored as well. I think in Beth Henley’s play The Jacksonian, the hotel is really the Sun and Sand. It’s a thinly disguised version. I remember Jackson when the downtown was much more populated and vibrant. I really do miss that. I remember when my son was here, he said downtown was like when one of those bombs go off that kills all the people but leaves the buildings standing.

 

P&W: That’s how downtown is! When you walk around, there’s no one there.

RE: That’s the thing: there’s no one there. For that to happen, people have to live there. I think that’s when D.C. began its transformation, when right off Pennsylvania Ave, a lot of old department stores became apartment buildings. When people started to live downtown, it meant that they needed amenities like grocery stores, restaurants… All of that over the last 20 years has really come about. It’s a really vibrant urban space! I remember in the early ‘80s going to the 9:30 club, where I saw R.E.M. play for the first time and I ran to my car because you didn’t know what you would encounter. And it was isolated! There was no one downtown and you didn’t know what you would encounter between the club and your car. That’s all changed. Sadly in the place where I saw R.E.M. and all the great new wave bands is now an Anthropologie.

 

P&W: I hate that! That always happens! All little clubs seem to turn into Anthropologies.CGBG’s is a clothing store now! But anyway, that feeling of having to run to your car is how I feel about Farish Street, which makes me upset because I really like Farish Street.

RE: I like Farish Street too. I remember when Farish Street was a place to go—When Farish Street was Farish Street. I remember down on Farish Street about eight years ago there was a place called Peaches my dad used to take us. I remember when Peaches was still running the place about 10 years ago. When she died, it went too.

 

P&W: What made you decide to return to Mississippi to teach for a semester at Millsaps?

RE: Well, it seemed like a really good thing to do to teach for a semester. I get to teach things I want to teach. That’s an amazing opportunity to have. I love teaching literature because I believe reading makes you a better writer. So I wanted to teach books I thought were important for students who wanted to be writers or were interested writing about a particular topic. That’s why the photography and literature class was so important to me. So much of my work as an editor has been working and writing about photographs and knowing how to write about photography as well as how to sum up the background of being a photo editor. My Civil Rights and literature class… As someone who’s written and read about race and civil rights, there is so much we can learn from history but you get a sense of the cultural impact of the movement from literature in the canon at that time. That’s a different way of talking about that era rather than just the policy changes. There was an aesthetic change as well as a cultural change.

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