photo of door with "Colored Waiting Room"
Paul Schutzer / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

Racism Is ‘Built into the Very Bones’ of Mississippi

Jesmyn Ward reflects on choosing to raise her children in her home state.

Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

I did not understand how poor my family was until my maternal grandmother told me a story about sackcloth dresses and beans. I was in my 20s, and we were sitting in her kitchen, the tickle of cool air from the window air-conditioning unit barely on us, when she told me that while she was a child, her mother made dresses for her and her siblings from sackcloth, and that she was always disappointed because the sacks with pretty patterns were taken by the time she was given the opportunity to choose. “We ate beans every week when I was little,” my grandmother said. “We didn’t have meat, just some fatback for flavor.” The white wave of her hair fell across her face as she shook her head. “I could do without them now. When I moved out, I bought myself dresses, nice dresses. And I never wanted to eat beans again.” Beans and rice fueled the children through school, through work after school and on weekends, through the hours they spent planting, hoeing, weeding, and harvesting. My grandmother speaks openly of her lasting desire for fancy clothes, but she never mentions hunger. It is the subtext of her stories, the unspoken thing I imagine following her through the fields, crawling along the rows with her like one of her siblings as she chafes against her dress.

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Perhaps I was blind to my poverty because it was so ubiquitous that it was rendered invisible. As a child, I lived in my grandmother’s house with my parents and siblings and our extended family. Thirteen of us shared five bedrooms (one was a converted dining room). We had no central heat, no central air. My grandmother installed gas heaters in the long hallway bisecting the house and, later, a fat wood-burning stove in the living room. During the summer, box fans hummed in all the windows. My mother says we never starved, and this is true. I had it better than my grandparents and my mother did when they were young, but I remember hunger. I think it was the hunger of childhood, the need for fuel to grow, but it was blinding sometimes. Sometimes not even the food in my belly appeased it. I recall eating four hot dogs once and still feeling as if my stomach were filled not with food but with air. The hunger was most insistent during and after hurricanes, when crackers and Vienna sausages and sardines were meals. When I was a teen, I read Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, read of him putting his mouth under a water faucet as a child growing up in Mississippi and drinking until he could swallow no more, so that his belly would fill with something, anything. The familiarity of that unquenchable desire floored me.

As an adult, this is how I carry the poverty of my Mississippi youth forward with me: by remembering the emptiness inside me. By remembering how that emptiness permeated every bit of me. How I was hungry in my belly and ravenous to fill my brain with something that would one day help ensure that I would not be hungry forever. How I was desperate for stories, just as the young Wright had been. This is a legacy of my childhood, of the hopes and dreams of all the people who worked themselves to the grave in fields, hoeing and weeding and harvesting; who worked in homes, cleaning and cooking and caring; who hoped that the children they bore would not have to do backbreaking labor but instead could, through education, become something more, become doctors or lawyers or nurses.

Material poverty is persistent, both for my family and for all black Mississippians: It cleaves to generations, passes from grandmother to mother to child like a genetic trait—like a crooked nose, or detached ears, or freckles. It walks hand in hand with a kind of poverty of the imagination, of what is possible, of what we can grow to be. We are at the southernmost tip of Mississippi, but even so, we saw some of what Dr. King and other civil-rights activists accomplished. Some aspects of our lives have changed: We can access the same public beaches as everyone else, on the Gulf of Mexico and on Lake Pontchartrain. We attend desegregated public schools; we can attend any college or state university we desire. We can walk into any public restaurant on the coast and ask to be seated and served, and, often without incident, we are. This was not the case for my parents and grandparents. I grew up to be a writer, an artist, but I came to this in spite of my poverty, which insisted that my desire to create was frivolous. Which claimed that it was the natural state of my life, that I and those like me should always want, should always be empty.

The seed of difference, and the belief in our poverty, our inferiority, persists. This seed, present at the beginning of our subjugation as slaves, has sprouted and thrived as virulently as kudzu. It has strangled us for hundreds of years. Under the thin veneer of mutability, the belief that anyone of African descent is inferior still flourishes: sunk into the soil, springing from the well of the rivers. It made itself known after emancipation, when minor offenses committed by black people led to imprisonment for crimes such as vagrancy and loitering and petty thievery, especially of food, and black men and women were essentially re-enslaved; a century later, some civil-rights activists in Mississippi would be sentenced to the notorious Parchman Farm to suffer torture. The belief made itself known when Mississippi finally ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery—on February 7, 2013. Now it makes itself known in the letters to the editor of local papers, where white people excoriate any and all activities associated with black college students’ spring-break festivities. It makes itself known when high-school football players take a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and then the parents of their white classmates call them nigger thugs. It made itself known on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2017, when the city of Biloxi declared that it would celebrate “Great Americans Day” instead.

Freedom Riders enter a segregated waiting room, 1961
Freedom Riders enter a segregated waiting room at a bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, before their arrests for breaching the peace and disobeying a police officer. (Paul Schutzer / The LIFE Premium Collection / Getty)

It makes itself known in all these very vocal, confrontational ways. But perhaps the most tragic manifestation of racist sentiment in Mississippi is silent. Built into the very bones of this place. My state starves its people and, in doing so, actively resists King’s legacy. Our Republican lawmakers have made an effort to undercut programs that serve the poor, maybe because so many people of color in Mississippi live in poverty and depend on social programs for help. Thirty-two percent of the state’s African Americans, 25 percent of its Hispanic Americans, and 38 percent of its American Indians live in poverty. All of these numbers are higher than the national figures: 22 percent for African Americans, 19 percent for Hispanic Americans, and 26 percent for American Indians. Racist sentiment is built into the fact that the state government squeezes the funds for public schools, which might technically be desegregated but remain very segregated because the whites who have the money send their children to private schools. Built into the fact that Mississippi has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation and some of the lowest test scores. Built into the fact that Medicaid provides health insurance for more than 50 percent of children in the state and many senior citizens as well, and yet our public officials repeatedly vote to deprive the program of resources, to shrink coverage. Built into the fact that, during a recent push to unionize, some black workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, near Jackson, said they were denied promotions and assignments, which resulted in their being paid less than their white counterparts. It’s a story familiar to many Mississippians of color.

One of the revolutionary ideas King encouraged was a guaranteed income, apportioned to all poor people, designed to bring poverty to an end. He argued that a government willing to spend billions on an “unjust, evil war in Vietnam” could afford to give its citizens a guaranteed income. In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote:

Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure. First, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not at the lowest levels of income. To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions. Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income grows. Were it permitted to remain static under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative decline.

He argued that such a system of wealth distribution would not only “diminish … the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars” but would also free men and women to pursue work that would increase knowledge, encourage literary pursuits, and elevate thought. In King’s estimation, this guaranteed income could solve all the other problems we associate with poverty: the fracturing of the family, the lack of access to quality education, the moral depression that mires folks in darkness when they think the circumstances they were born into are their fault and indicative of their worth. A guaranteed income could even close some of the distance in stature and fortune between black people and white people, a distance created by hundreds of years of subjugation and brutality.

But the Mississippi I grew up in, the Mississippi that I live in now, that I’m raising my children in, resists this broadened understanding of what it means to be a human being. It resists the desire to rise above the circumstance of caste that we are born into and to never worry about the next time you’ll eat or whether your children are hungry. The desire to avoid having to feed your children the cheapest, most filling food you can—beans and rice one day, hot dogs the next—and still see them openmouthed. This Mississippi insists that there is a natural order to this arrangement, that if you are poor or wanting, you’re to blame if you starve. That you deserve your poverty, your squalor, your suffering, and that you do not deserve help or, as this Mississippi likes to say, “handouts.”

I am raising my children here because so many of my extended family members, more than 200 of them, live in my small hometown. I want my children to understand what it means to belong to such a large family, to grow up in such an intimate community. I live here because my brother died here, and this is where I am closest to his memory.

Yet every day I wonder at living in the kind of place that would have my children understand that they are perpetually less. That would starve them not only of food but also of a sense of what is possible in their lives. I wonder at raising them in a place that has been telling people like them for decades, for centuries, that they are perpetually less. I wonder at raising them in a place that made my mother decorate bricks as baby dolls for want of toys. My grandmother says that when she was a child, she and her siblings entertained themselves by making small graves in their front yard and surrounding them with twig fences. The fun was in decorating them, in building the most ornate, splendid plot. I take my children to our local park, which happens to share space with our ever-encroaching community cemetery, and the only play equipment for little kids consists of four rusted swings. Two of our basketball hoops are collapsed, and the two left standing are netless. A few years ago, county officials decided to put a volleyball net in the park and haul in sand for a court. It is now a large litter box for wild cats. This is the truth of what Mississippi thinks of me and those like me, of all those whom King fought for: This is your shitty playground. You earned it.

This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “The Belief in Our Inferiority Persists.”