I sat in the small, too warm auditorium of the Okolona Mississippi Elementary school totally enraptured. As a writer, I was experiencing a true Nirvana! In front of me was a group of internationally recognized journalist and authors and the room was sizzling. As enjoyable as this occasion was for me, I couldn’t help but note the site of this event. I was sitting in a building that one generation ago had been off limits to my mother. At the height of segregation, this had been the ‘white high school.’ In those days no one could or would consider the thought that writers of this hue would ever be invited to share their work. I sat quietly for a moment pushing to the back of my head the dark history of the school. I couldn’t stay somber very long as I scanned the room and noted the colorful mix of art lovers and listening to their excited buzz. Okolona, population approximately 2,700, is located in Chickasaw County in NE Mississippi. It is the home of my mother, her parents, and of the slaves in my family who picked its cotton, strung its tobacco and labored to enrich the Mississippi economy. Today it was Writer Central.
The reminders of the Confederacy aren't subtle in Okolona. Indeed we had just left the city's center as we honored a well loved State Senator. The city’s one roundabout was named in his honor and as I sat in the sweltering heat my gaze centered on the ornament at the center of the roundabout. It is a large statue that honors lost Confederate soldiers. It stood high behind my cousin’s head as she gave a tribute to the Senator. This small black woman is now the mayor of Okolona. The day continued to ooze with irony. My uncle, former Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner William Raspberry was among the small pack of writers. I've spent what seems like a lifetime enjoying his work and praying somehow he could miraculously transfer some of his talent to me! He talked about his experiences and then introduced his friend and fellow journalist Paul Delaney. Paul is a brilliant former New York Times writer and incredibly gifted essayist for The Root. Delaney in turn introduced Isabel Wilkerson, author of the 2010 bestseller, "The Warmth of Other Suns." She too is a Pulitzer Prize winner. So here I sat, in an auditorium that my ancestors couldn't enter located in a town where my library science trained grandmother couldn't access the public library. Now 105, I wondered what my grandmother would think about the scenario playing out in front of me. I had to shake my head and smile.
The opening chapter of Wilkerson's “The Warmth of Other Suns,” begins with the title, "Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Late October 1937." I remembered the first time I opened her best seller and my roots jumped out at me! What did she know of Okolona? How had she been touched by its red clay earth and difficult history? As she presented to us she began talked of her interviews with migrants from the area that had landed in large cities hundreds of miles from their roots. She made us know and care about them. She wove tales of their movement north and I could almost hear the sharecroppers rustling their sacks of food and clothing as they fled the segregated south and headed for what they prayed would be better opportunities. Wilkerson really did know my Okolona and my Mississippi and she had cared for them lovingly as she described the painful life and equally painful departure of so many of its citizens who felt forced to flee its grasp.
We listened to Ole Miss Prof. Elizabeth Payne who wrote the book, 'Mississippi Women' which included an essay about my remarkable grandmother and her sister. She shared things I'd never heard about the female heroes that had graced the area. We reminisced with Patricia Neely-Dorsey as she shared her poetic memories of the state. I could have stayed all day. Although born and raised in Indiana, this is the land, even with its bloody history, that best represents my journey. That evening I dropped my parents off at my grandmother's old homestead and turned my car onto the 2-lane highway that I have traveled on so many times. My windows down, I smelled the thick, sweet air and was enveloped by the pitch black landscape. In this stillness I was almost overwhelmed by the flood of memories. I saw myself laying on the backseat of my grandfather’s car pretending to be sleep as he navigated his old Ford towards home. I remembered the date I had that was literally thrown off course after the boy’s car tire lost its tread on the hot blacktop. I thought of how the land on either side of the road always made me think about which of my ancestors had worked it and how their lives had been lived. This had been a good day. The warmth of it left the writer in me humbled and very grateful.