Wow what a first day! I tried to take thorough notes on my computer, and came out with 17 pages worth! I’m going to attempt to condense the whole experience down to a couple pages. For those interested in education, this is a good one.
Our journey began in the morning in Gibson Gunn Hall. First let me tell you a few cool things about Delta State University, home of the Fighting Okra.
– First of all, it started out life as a teaching college, and still trains a significant portion of the teachers in the state of Mississippi.
– It has a proud status as the most integrated school in the state, at roughly 50% black, 50% white.
– It is home to an accomplished aviation school, and is one of the few schools that are home to an aviation business academy.
Our literature for this course has looked deeply at the Mississippi’s past, so it was worthwhile for us to begin the week with a look at the delta’s present. We began our course in the present day with a 2001 documentary, Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, directed by Deborah Dickson, Susan Fromke, and Albert Maysles. After having watched it, I will argue this is essential viewing for anyone interested in poverty and education in the United States. Anyone going into Teach For America in the Mississippi Delta needs to see something like this to understand how deep poverty goes in this part of the world.
(Note for film and music fans. Albert Maysles helped popularize the cinema verite style, meaning his film rarely contain narration. This film is no exception. For music fans and musicians, he co-directed with his brother David the Rolling Stones concert documentary, Gimme Shelter, which chronicles their 1969 American tour and the tragedy of the Altamont Festival.)
The mission of the filmmakers was simple: Tell the stories of a black family and a white family in the Mississippi Delta. The white family backed out of the film, leaving the filmmakers to follow Laura Lee Wallace, or Lalee, and her family. Lalee had an extensive family—8 children and dozens of grandchildren and even great-grandchildren—and we see only a small part here. The film focuses largely on her great-granddaughter Cassandra (nicknamed Granny) and her two grandsons, nicknamed Redman and Main. Cassandra is in 6th grade, while Redman and Main are just entering school.
Lalee is an older woman with extensive experience as a parent and worker in the cotton fields. She is also illiterate, and we see her struggle with this problem throughout the film, particularly as she tries to enroll her young children in school. The parents of Lalee’s grandchildren often have to work outside of Tallahatchie County, and since they don’t have cars they leave their children in her care. Lalee is shown to be a strict matriarch who does not take trouble from children. Granny takes on extensive responsibilities as a babysitter, ones which often take her away from her schoolwork.
Meanwhile, the film also follows the story of Reggie Barnes, the superintendent of West Tallahatchie Schools as he desperately works with staff to get the school district off probation . Reggie comes across as an honest and articulate thinker who wants the best for his students and the school system. His approach is blunt, and he blatantly and openly pushes for teachers to teach to the test. Yet children seem to respect him and recognize the value of what he’s doing, and he is no huckster. Too many people in education sell the notion that we can close the education gap as long as we have smart teachers, but Reggie makes clear that is not the case. The schools are badly underfunded and under-resourced, there are no jobs in the community, and children are coming home to unstable families where almost no one reads. Reggie makes that argument over and over in the film, but nonetheless maintains the hope that the schools can improve. And it turns out he’s right. The school at the end of the year is taken off probation.
The strange thing, though, is it’s not at all clear why the school was taken off probation. They raised their test scores, but we never get a glimpse into the day-to-day reality of the classrooms that helped make this happen. We only see teachers for brief moments, and almost never while teaching. Now while this is not a film about education, this nonetheless would have been quite insightful. The result is that the film celebrates the efforts of their superintendent—who is quite impressive—while the teachers who are with kids everyday are left silent. I’ll have more thoughts on this later.
Above all else, the movie is a grim presentation of the realities of poverty in the isolated Mississippi Delta. Lalee and her family live in a trailer. They have no car, no running water, no phone, no books, and minimal access to fresh food and water. The older generation is hamstrung by habits left over from the days where cotton was king. Many cannot write; they were not expected to for work. In fact, white cotton planters downplayed the importance of education so that they could not read and write. This made such workers easier to exploit. They did not know their rights, and could not even read the checks they were being given.
More than that, it’s only now that education has become essential to the way of life of the rural delta. Many of the old cotton jobs have disappeared; the ones that are left are highly mechanized. Few farmers are going to allow farm hands to work with heavy, expensive machinery without basic reading skills, Barnes later argued. In short, the Delta changed rapidly after the Civil Rights Movement, and these old farmers need to change with it.
I actually have questions about this argument, since education has, in fact, been historically highly valued among African Americans in the south. During Reconstruction, African Americans quickly jumped to an almost 90% literacy rate, with little assistance from whites, save a few folks from the federal government. I would like to know when that changed and how it changed.
A phenomenon that is presented but unexplained throughout the film is the total absence of men in Lalee’s family. Only two men appear in the film: one is a grandfather living in Memphis, the other is a son who briefly returns from prison, only to return almost immediately on charges of crack cocaine possession. Lalee, herself, and most of the characters have no trust for men. They have all seen men walk out on them, often times never to return. This has a profound effect on Antonio Main, in particular. He wants to live with his father, but no one knows where he is, and he clearly lacks any role model who looks like him.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe—and have never believed—that single mothers are not fully capable in raising children as well as two parent households. Two parents do not a functioning household make. Yet it seems clear from this film that there are simply no models, period, for how to be a good man in the Delta. And I have no good answers for why this is to be, and the people of the film have no great reason either. I would speculate that this relates to the fact that men have to often leave home to find work, and often run off. It’s not that women might not do this if they could, but that in a male dominated society, men simply have more opportunities to run.
The film ends just as Granny has moved to live with family in Memphis, and has graduated 7th grade. She shows great promise, and we hope only the best for her. The documentary itself was shown at numerous prominent film festivals, including Sundance, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. Reggie Barnes, in the process, became a prominent advocate for West Tallahatchie schools, and effectively lobbied politicians in Mississippi and in D.C. for funds for the district. Lalee passed away in 2010.
We watched the movie and discussed finer details of the policies that surrounded it, and we got to meet Reggie later in the day to discuss his experience with the movie and the school district.
Reggie is not afraid to celebrate his own work in the district, and frankly he deserves it. By his own estimation, his work as superintendent included providing running water and sewer systems to the schools of the district, mowing the lawns almost every morning, and rebuilding playgrounds at the elementary schools. He maintained constant connections with the families of the district, sending Mother’s Day cards out to every mother in the district during the course of the year. When he needed to hire teachers, he built connections with every local realtor so he could find those teachers housing, and lobbied the Mississippi State Legislature for housing for new teachers in the county so as not to lose them to city schools in the Delta.
Reggie clearly made enemies, though, particularly, it seems, with the teachers of the building. By Mr. Barnes’ account, he alienated older teachers at the school who were unwilling to make changes to their curriculum. He was also not afraid to have teachers removed from the school who, as he said, were reading the newspaper or not showing up to school.
Now as a teacher, I have developed an innate distrust of those in education who celebrate the firing of teachers. That doesn’t mean there aren’t teachers who read the paper during class, but I have never—as a student, tutor, student teacher, or teacher—felt this represented the majority of teachers, whether that be at a wealthy suburban school or struggling inner-city school. While I trust Barnes when he claims he saw teachers doing just this, I can’t help but wonder if there is more to this story.
When asked what he saw working, Barnes is also not afraid to heap praise on teacher certifications like the Mississippi Teacher Corps—a program similar to Teach For America which provides a free Masters in Education and National Teacher Certification in exchange for two years teaching in Mississippi. Such programs have garnered controversy in recent years, as they are often used to displace local, veteran teachers who may understand their kids more, but be more expensive to hire. We saw some Teacher Corps teachers in the school where Lalee’s kin went to school. Barnes passionately defends these teachers in the starkest terms.
“Guess who in a lot of ways cared more about my babies? White teachers from the outside! And by God, I made everyone aware of it. I made enemies. I tried to embarrass every African American teacher who wasn’t trying hard enough, because they were fighting me. They had been there 20 years. They were the matriarchs. They weren’t giving up their lesson plans. And I wanted to take every lesson plan and start a bonfire!”
Again, I present only what I heard. I suspect there were such teachers in this school, but it bothers me we did not hear from the teachers themselves. You can’t tell me a teacher who teaches at a school system like West Tallahatchie for 20 years doesn’t care about their children.
Nonetheless, Barnes successfully captures the central problem at the core of the Delta in the 21st century. The cotton kingdom is decayed and broken. And we as Americans have left these areas behind. We build no industry there. Our welfare programs are minimal there. We provide no effective solution to the cycle of pregnancy. Until we address these issues, we will not solve the problem of education. Barnes knows that, and says it.
Getting to the root of that economy which has produced such poverty and desperation—and yet also great wealth, music, poetry, and food—will be the goal of the next few days. On that first day, we also discussed the rise of the cotton kingdom and particularly the 1927 Mississippi Flood which was a bigger event than you thought. But I want to hold off on those discussions and discuss them in greater detail as we explore those topics in depth throughout the course. I will also take time to review the restaurants I see as we go. (Don’t worry, I took pictures of the food.)
For today, we discuss that most southern of musics: the blues. We will witness landmarks of the music, including Charley Patton’s grave, the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul, and B.B. King’s Museum in his native town of Indianola, MS.
Thank you for joining me on the journey! I’ll close out with a tune from the so-called Father of the Delta Blues, Charley Patton. Patton gives us so many of the basic conventions of the Delta Blues, including that distinctive moan of the Delta, and the sound of slide guitar. Delta blues, by the way, is often percussive, but it rarely fits the standard 12-bar form that you hear on most Chicago blues. We can talk about that later.
This song is called the Mississippi Boweevil Blues. The boll weevil is a tiny tick-like insect that ravaged the cotton crops of the early 20th century when introduced to the Deep South, and helped contribute to the First Black Migration of unemployed Delta sharecroppers into the cities of the North, including Chicago. That first migration—which began during World War 1 and extended into the 1920s—led to the creation and popularization of jazz. So for music fans, you should all make sure to thank the little bug for its reign of terror in the Deep South.
Anyway, here’s the song and I’ll have details of the trip tonight!