Go Back to the Delta

Creative Nonfiction at The Crossroads
September 21-22, 2012
Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale MS

A WRITING WORKSHOP WITH NEIL WHITE

Come to the land of the blues, hear it, experience a bit of its history, feel the mystery born out of its extremes, draw from the creative spirit so rich and full here, brought to completeness in the heat and hardness that was once…the Delta.

1960

Coming out of Memphis, I sit in the backseat of Dad’s 1960 Ford Fairlane with the glass rolled down, leaning into the opening, arms folded on the window, chin resting on them. The hot wind hits my face and whips my hair. We have been to the zoo, then shopped a bit in Whitehaven. Mama always picks up a bag of that orange marshmallow peanut candy when we go to a five and dime. I got one of those new rubber coin ovals with a slit down its middle that opens for accepting change when you squeeze it in your palm.

All of a sudden, from the top of a shady ridge, the road goes down—straight down into unending flatness and cotton fields. The last hill always causes a stir in my soul, a thumping in my chest, a funny feeling in my stomach. It is like Almighty God started digging here and scooped out a big basin of rich land so farmers can plant cotton and kids can grow up looking at it.

The Delta begins here. It is bordered on the east by the Yazoo, born of the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha near Greenwood, and on the west by the Old Man River, who “must know somethin, but he don’t say nothin, he jes keeps rollin along.”

Highway 61 cuts through the Delta—two lanes, straight-as-an-arrow, with just enough room for two cars to pass, one going south, one going north. The whole earth outside my window is cotton. Row after row, pressed against the road, running out to the end of the sky. Nothing but cotton as far as I can see. I smell the dirt, I smell the green, I feel the hum of growing things. I think it is mine, all mine—I was born of it, steeped in it. When it is cotton pickin time, I know that God is on his throne and all is right with the world.

Weatherbeaten cypress shotgun shacks sit just off the highway, squeezed in between crop rows, careful not to take too much space away from the cotton. The houses are one-room wide, two, maybe three rooms long, with tar paper to cover cracks in the boards. If we don’t go too fast, I can see straight through the front door and out the back. Every house has a front porch with an old ripped-up couch on it where people sit stirring a breeze with cardboard funeral home fans. Every porch has a galvanized tin tub hanging by the front door for taking a bath in, and every yard has a pump for water and an outhouse in the back. The yards are broom-swept, baked hard, and full of children rolling old tires or bouncing balls or watching cars go by. I see skinny dogs with their ribs showing and stacks of firewood and pink rose vines winding around wire fences and yellow cannas coming out of old tractor tires splashed with white paint. I see drooping clotheslines with big-cupped bras and blue work denims.

On down Highway 61 fieldhands chop cotton. They wear overalls or ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and big straw hats or bandanas wrapped around their heads, with nary an inch of skin showing. I wonder why they are dressed like this when it is hot as an oven outside. Mama says it is to protect them from the sun. They move forward and backward from the waist up, in unison, sticking hoes to the ground, chanting words to old spirituals, made-up words, field hollers. One lead voice sounds stronger than the others, all singing in rhythm with their hoeing, landing hard on the word that comes as the tool strikes the earth. Mournful lamentations spring from those souls trapped in an endless cycle of hard work and no way out. Stuck here, they toil from “can see till caint see,” choppin cotton, to bring cash to the pockets of wealthy planters. …

***

Come to the Delta sharpen your writing tools, let the spirit of this place strike your soul, work, write, read, listen, in the heat draw from the riches of this place, tap the creative spring here.

Email me: kathyrhodes at turnstylewriters dot com

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