Mississippi is often regarded as the worst of the United States. The worst politics. The worst education system. The worst healthcare. The worst.
As a child, I became privy of it in ways I couldn’t articulate at the time. I just knew it was shameful to be from here. And I thought that if I ever wanted to be a real writer, I had to leave. I daydreamed about leaving all the time. There had to be something better than this.
I was not unlike my grandmother who had vowed to leave this place as a teenager and never come back. And she did leave, for a while.
My grandmother and three of her older siblings were among the hoards of Black folks who left the South for economic opportunities and to escape segregation and violence. For my grandmother, leaving Mississippi meant she was able to get a well-paying job that allowed her to take care of herself, my mother and help out others in the family from time to time.
Against all odds, she created a beautiful life for herself.
Her childhood best friend, Lodean Cotton, had the same determined spirit. She learned early on that the only jobs for Black women in their hometown was housework. But she had dreams beyond toiling in the home of others.
“From the time I went to college, I wanted to work in the corporate world. I don’t know why, but I always wanted to work for a telephone company. I ended up at an aircraft company [and] that was a better choice because I was able to grow and be promoted to a higher position.”
Cotton and my grandmother, both in their mid-seventies, were honest in that moving North didn’t shield them from discrimination. But it did offer greater access to the resources they needed to be successful.
Marrion Carrington, another elder I had the pleasure of speaking with shared these sentiments. Having grown up in the heavily segregated town of South Boston, Virginia, she recalls the difficulties of her life there.
“We worked very hard. I worked very hard. I used to get up in the morning before going to school to milk cows and then walk to school, which was about maybe a quarter of a mile on a dual highway,” she tells me.
In 1956, when Carrington was in the sixth grade, her mother moved her and her nine siblings to Mount Vernon, New York. Moving from their Virginia town opened up a world of possibilities for her and her family.
“We had opportunities to get jobs, like working in a store or cleaning a beach house or something like that ...I learned to type and I don’t think I would’ve learned to do that in South Boston. I became a secretary.”
Carrington, Cotton, and my grandmother all came of age during the same time period. And share eerily similar experiences in seeing more for themselves than what living in the South offered young Black women at the time.
Now, in 2023, I am more curious about what migration looks like for younger Black folks. Where are they leaving? Where are they going? How have their migration patterns transformed their relationship to place?
Oftentimes, we think of Migration within the United States as moving from South to North, or vice versus. Maybe from the West Coast to the East Coast. But really, migration is any move of great enough caliber to garner culture shock. Black folks exhibit such a diverse range of cultural markers based on the part of the country we live, so we are especially sensitive to the upheaval intrinsic to a cross-country move.
The South-ish: gray areas of the Mason-Dixon line
As someone squarely rooted in the deepest of the South, I only became privy to the debates on what does and doesn’t constitute as the South in the past several years. Kentucky and Virginia are among the states that often come up in that debate. Regardless, both states have very southern sensibilities and political climates.
Kristina Mucker, a 30-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky grew up in a predominantly Black, community-centered neighborhood.
“It was the type of atmosphere where everyone knew their neighbor. Obviously I don’t wanna make it sound like a utopia, but I think, as a child, it in a lot of ways felt that way. I don’t know how much I appreciated it back then,” she says.
A little under five years ago, Mucker moved to Portland, Oregon and for the first time she could step outside her door and not see anyone that looked like her. While the initial move there had several bumps in the road that almost sent them running back home, the community they had slowly been building there encouraged them to give Portland one more chance. After a few months, she finally felt settled in her new home.
While she missed her family and the community she left behind, living in Portland had benefits she couldn’t ignore.
“When I lost my job, [I didn’t] have to fight super-duper hard to be able to tap into different resources to help me live. [Despite] Oregon’s history, there are a lot of organizations and a lot of groups working to shift the narrative. In a lot of ways, I’m not having to fight for things that I know I would have to in Kentucky.”
E.N. West, who moved from Virginia to Seattle, Washington, shared many of the experiences of Mucker, including the culture shock of Washington’s lack of diversity. However, they accounted their success in making the move to being intentional about getting acquainted with the community and figuring out their needs:
“I think my Seattle experience was good as far as finding community and finding my safe space pretty quickly because I did a lot more listening than I did talking, especially my first year here. I was just like, I’m brand new and I wanted to get into community organizing spaces. . . before you move [think about] who you want to spend time with [and] what you want to do?”
Reclaiming the best of the South
I am 100 percent guilty of asking people, “How on earth did you get to Mississippi?” Because those of us that grew up here and are still unpacking that shame, can’t imagine why someone would move from a big city to here.
There was a similar surprise sitting quietly at the back of my mind when speaking with Ari Green, a 29-year-old Ph.D. student who moved from Sacramento, California to Raleigh, North Carolina for school.
Moving South was not necessarily a culture shock for her, since her parents and grandparents were from Alabama and Texas, but it was a vastly different landscape than what she was accustomed to.
“When you drive in Raleigh, you can visibly see the segregation. You can even see what looks like an old plantation, and I think that was a shell shock for me when I got here [and] I was like, why is this landscape so hilly? What is this food desert and all these things?”
Despite this, Green speaks of her transition into the community fondly:
“I do a lot of community engagement work [and] I love getting to know the elders here in Raleigh. . .They’re so welcoming, so loving and so encouraging. And they just want you to learn things. I feel like being in community with them has made living here so much better. . .”
Black rural South vs. Black urban South
Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected Migration story came from 33-year-old Araya Baker who grew up in a small town called Springfield, Tennessee. They describe their area as rural and segregated.
“The Black section of Springfield is so segregated and set apart from downtown and the other areas where lots of other amenities and businesses are. And so for that reason, everybody knows everybody.”
When they were 11-years-old their family relocated to Houston, Texas, which is southern, but also the fourth largest city in the United States. It was a very difficult adjustment for Baker due to how different they were from their peers. Not to mention, it completely reshaped how they thought about Blackness and place.
“I didn’t realize that I was rural until I was in a non-rural place. I just thought rural Blackness was Blackness. And it wasn’t until I got to Houston that I realized my version of Blackness was not the definitive narrative of what Blackness was.”
One thing that struck me and felt close to home was their assertion that rural Black folks aren’t represented in the dominant mainstream depictions of Blackness. To take that a step further, when rural Black folks are depicted, it is often in demeaning and stereotypical ways.
“I feel like being a rural Black person, there’s so much [society makes you] ashamed of. People are always so judgmental toward folks from small towns and rural areas. There’s a whole stereotype about ignorance and being backward and people making fun of low educational attainment in rural regions. As Black people, we already have those stereotypes going against us. So, it’s like doubly so for [rural Black folks].”
In many ways, this mirrors the shame I spoke of earlier. Becoming innately aware at a very young age that the place I called home, that familiar rural landscape, was not associated with anything that was good. Of course, back then, I took it as truth rather than the anti-Black narrative that was perpetuated even within the broader Black community.
As I embark on my own migration story in the coming months, I reflect on how my “why” has shifted from shame to wonder and possibility. Like my grandmother, I don’t think I could ever stay gone forever, but I owe it to myself to take a leap of faith to create the life I want.