GREENWOOD, Miss.—In 1947, my father, along with his mother and older brother, boarded a northbound train in Greenwood, Mississippi. They carried with them nothing but a suitcase stuffed with clothes, a bag of cold chicken, and my grandmother’s determination that her children—my father was just 2 years old—would not be doomed to a life of picking cotton in the feudal society that was the Mississippi Delta.
Grandmama, as we called her, settled in Waterloo, Iowa, a stop on the Illinois Central line, and a place where thousands of black Mississippians would find work on the railroad or at the Rath meatpacking and John Deere plants. Grandmama took a job familiar to black women of her lot: working for white families as a domestic.
Almost every black person I knew growing up in Waterloo had roots in Mississippi. Mississippi flavored our cuisine, inspired our worship and colored our language. Still, when speaking about the land of their birth, my dad and grandmother talked about family and loved ones, but seldom about the place.
Mississippi was at once my ancestral land, and the sinister setting in any number of Hollywood movies, a villain in our national narrative, the place where a black boy named Emmett Till was tossed into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan around his neck. The only image of Greenwood I got from my family was of my great-grandparents’ farm, scenes of chickens and picking peas in the morning sun and my great-grandmother, Mary Jane Paul, refusing to take any mess. It was only when I got older that I learned my family did not in fact own the farm. Depending on who told the story, my family either leased or sharecropped the land that was, in fact, held by white plantation owners. In reality, the difference mattered little.