The Mississippi Delta

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We travelled along US-412, a serpentine route carved through the mountainous woodlands of the Arkansas Ozarks. The new bridge ferried us across an ebon river at Black Rock, a tiny patch of a town of just 662 people. It dumped us out onto a vast swath of flat lands that melted into the horizon. The western edge of the Arkansas’s Upper Delta region, or so I was later told. 

My first reaction was one of panic. Wide-open and desolate, I felt completely exposed, vulnerable. Except for an occasional car and the rumbling of a freight train, there was nothing for miles. The landscape was as foreign to me as Mars might be. Boundless fields whizzed by to the left of me and the right. The only break from the monotony, a random silo or apocalyptic agricultural apparatus. There were no animals and not a soul for miles.

This landscape was the antithesis of what I knew of Arkansas. The crops, I would later learn, were soy beans and rice. I had no idea Arkansas produced rice, let alone that the State is the #1 producer of rice in the US.  I realized quickly that I knew nothing about the Arkansas Delta, or for that matter, the Mississippi Delta – a larger area that includes the Arkansas Delta and portions of Mississippi and Louisiana. I knew nothing of the region’s geography, geology or most importantly, of its history.

Since that first encounter, I have developed a deep affection for the Mississippi Delta and an intense curiosity about the region. The soil here, it seems to me, is steeped in history and soaked in the blood of some our country’s greatest sins – intense poverty and economic inequality; racial disparity, injustice and strife. It holds the painful memories of Japanese Internment, POW camps and the Elaine Massacre. And the Mississippi Delta has weathered Civil war, massive floods, and the wholesale migration of residents, mostly due tot the harsh economic and racial climate and  agricultural mechanization. Yet in spite of these hardships, or perhaps because of them, the Mississippi Delta has endured and in some ways, even prospered. The region has created a rich food culture; produced musicians, writers, artists and athletes, to name a few; given the world the Delta Blues and Rockabilly music; and it has been an incubator for Country, Rock & Roll and Gospel. To get a sense of the Mississippi Delta, all one need to do is listen to Johnny Cash. Like the lowlands themselves, you’ll hear, the deep, low, guttural rumbling of the Mississippi Delta in his voice. You’ll hear the soul of the south and perhaps of the country.

Below are some of the places, faces and stories I’m encountering as I travel through the Mississippi Delta.