I have it made. Through absolutely no effort on my part I have ended up at the top of the societal food chain. I’m a card carrying member of the lucky sperm club. I am a white, heterosexual male with a Canadian passport.
Given my position, I don’t need to care, everything will be fine for me. I have the highest percentage opportunity for good paying work, and the lowest chance of violence, abuse, or discrimination. I have no idea how it feels to be a victim. I can go pretty much wherever I want and will be respected. Doors open for me simply because of where I was born.
Most of the time I am unconscious of my position. And there in lies the problem. It takes effort to empathize, to understand, and appreciate how damn hard it is for folks who don’t share my DNA. I am not ‘getting over’ generations of oppression – slavery, segregation, reservations, residential schools, or war. My gender is pretty much immune to sexual violence. I don’t have to worry about the implications of coming out and being open with who I am.
But, having been given this much, much is expected. I have to pay attention. It is not a matter of simply understanding, I need to stand in the gap. I am not sure what that means, but I know it means doing things differently than I have. I often rest too easy in my accidental place of privilege.
I was in a coffee shop in Clarksdale Mississippi last week. A young woman was working on her laptop. She had covered the top with a verse from the Old Testament. It made perfect sense within that context, and is a good word for me today:
Act Justly, Show Mercy, and Walk Humbly.
I met a guy whose life’s work has been harmonicas. He even changed his last name to Harp. About a month ago I was at a workshop with a fungus expert. Mushrooms have been his sole endeavour for the last forty years. Then there is the 87 year old DJ, who’s been doing the same half hour radio show since 1948.
I sat for an afternoon in Mr. Harp’s store, more like a fort, where he had on sale all things harmonica – from custom marine bands, to mikes, to special amplifiers. He kept me amused with his stories, and accompanying curled edged photos tacked on the wall behind him, of everyone he’s played with over the years. “I slept on James Cotton’s couch”. I think he lives in the camper parked out front. But, he was alive and on, and it was obvious there was nothing else he’d rather be doing.
Listening to ‘King Biscuit Time’ you can hear the history in the voice of Sonny Payne. When it comes to Blues music he has seen and heard it all – from his perch in the middle of the, now sad, little town of Helena Arkansas. He began his show announcing it was his 17,138th. The only thing I’ve done that consistently is breathe.
Those folks are not going to eradicate poverty, cure cancer (the mushroom guy may beg to differ), turn the tide on global warming (again I’ll get push back from Mr. fungus), or get rich any time soon(at this point mushroom dude will up and leave the room). But, in their chosen worlds, it matters.
It would have seemed absurd to ask them if they felt they had missed out by being so blindly attentive to one thing. I am not even sure they’d have understood the question.
A long way down a dirt road, far off the highway, the little building stands on its own on the edge of the bean field. It’s mid afternoon. There is a huge bonfire threatening the trees. An older man walks slowly towards us. He extends his hand, “I’m Po’ Monkey”.
William Seaberry is 74 years old. He’s lived here his whole life. He’s happy to talk, but is a man of few words. “People want me to come visit ‘em, I say – I’m not getting on no airplane”. His family was sharecroppers, he’s the only one left out here. “This whole area used to have houses just like this” pointing to his place. He drags another pallet onto the fire, he’s cleaning up the yard for the party later that evening
The cabin is where he lives and where he been hosting a Thursday night juke joint ‘Po Monkey’s’ since 1958. In the old days it was live music, now it’s a DJ playing soul and R&B. “People come for a good time”. He has signs dictating the rules: ‘Not like this, or like this’ – next to pictures of a guy wearing a backwards hat, and another of pants hanging below the butt. No dope smoking, no rap music. “We don’t get no trouble” then he flashes a badge he has attached to his belt, as if to confirm his status as peacekeeper.
The inside is five decades of accumulation. Low ceilings, crooked floor, a jumble of chairs and tables, DJ booth in the back. The ceilings and the walls are covered with memories, recognitions, and patron’s claims to having been there. The place seems to have a life of its own that William is now simply witness to from 8pm to 2am once a week.
We leave him to his preparations. It all starts again later that evening.
Began the day in Leland, Mississippi looking for a cup of coffee. I asked a guy on the street. “Yo’ options are the laundramat, or the Kwikimart”. Great. We decided to wander around town a bit anyway. In the next block we found a place surprisingly, and aptly, called, The Coffee Shop.
The cafe has been open for five years, run by Betsy with sometimes help from her husband Bob. We sat down with hot cups of the ‘exclusive blues blend’. They were putting lunch on for the Daughters of the American Revolution, so things were a little busier than usual.
Bob introduced himself as a farmer, author, Vietnam vet, and professional storyteller. He was in his late sixties and had grown up on a cotton plantation outside of town. His was a different take on the ‘black’ situation. “My daddy took good care of the fifty families that lived on our property. I grew up with those kids – we played, hunted, and skinny-dipped together”. He made it sound idyllic. “Those folks had all that they needed – if they were outta coffee, well they could just come down to the commissary and get some!”
The economics were a system of credit – with the owner managing all the books.
Bob blames the end of the system on the Northerners, claiming the Federal Government imposed new wage laws in the ‘60’s. “We don’t say yankee, we say damn yankee.” There wasn’t much talk about Civil Rights.
The elderly Daughters started to arrive for their luncheon. Tables needed setting. Bob invited us to the old place anytime we wanted as they had turned the commissary into a guesthouse. “Not tonight though, I lead worship at church”. Bob and Betsy were lovely folks. They had long history here and saw things from their point of view.
Off the highway, around the corner, and across the railroad tracks, it was there on the right. A small standalone cinder block building painted blue with the faded sign out front. If I hadn’t read about it, I would have driven by without a second’s thought. The Blue Front Café.
We sat in the car a minute. There was nothing about the place in the middle of the day that offered an invitation inside. When we got up the courage and opened the door, there were no lights on, just the daylight shining through a couple of small windows. Three men were sitting around a barrel woodstove, one of whom was the owner Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes. They didn’t seem surprised to see us.
Jimmy’s had a few more than his fifteen minutes of fame – at least in the world of the blues here in Mississippi. He’s played festivals all over, including France. But now he only picks up the guitar if a tour bus shows up. “Locals don’ wanna hear my tunes”. I am sure the town had had its fill of the twelve bar.
We talked for a bit, but then he was called outside to fix some drainage issue in the building next door. Waiting for him I read the names and places of people who’d made a similar pilgrimage. Folks from all over the world had stopped by.
In its heyday the café had served the local cotton workers. Inside, on a Saturday night was where life was better. Music, dancing, a few drinks, whatever it took to both remember and forget.
Now it was a faded place marker, a roadside shrine to a difficult history. The dark times of oppression mingled with creativity and hope. I left with a new respect for the music.
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