Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Day 56: To The Vanquished

Yazoo City to Bentonia. 18.8 miles/971.5 total

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I'm in front of the Sunflower grocery store at the corner of Fifteenth Street and Highway 49 in Yazoo City, headed toward downtown, then out the south end. I'll end the day in Bentonia.

I'm headed west to Grand Street, then left and down the numbered streets toward the center. Yazoo City is the home town of the writer Willie Morris, who was once editor of Harper’s magazine. Also the hometown of Haley Barbour, a blowhard Republican who is the current governor of Mississippi. Additionally, Yazoo City is the birthplace of the actress Stella Stevens, who was born Estelle Eggleston in 1938. One of her first film roles was in the musical Lil Abner, where she played a character named Appassionata Von Climax.

Weatherwise, it’s a bright sunny day in the 40s, with a bit of a wind. It’s supposed to get into the 50s, but I don’t know about that. But it’s dry, and that’s good.

In terms of anything worth talking about, this walk is definitely front loaded. Once I get back out on Highway 49 south of Yazoo City there’ll be a lot of nothing until I reach Benzonia, which isn’t a hell of a lot, either.

Grand Street is wide and residential, filled with handsome late 19th century houses with wide porches and columns. The shacks and lesser houses are on side streets. The First Baptist Church is looking fat and happy between Sixth and Fifth Streets. In terms of money and influence there’s no doubt that the Baptists have it all going on here in the south. These premier Baptist Churches, one in each town, usually called First Baptist (Southern Baptist denomination), seem to be where the serious money reposes. It goes almost without saying that these are white churches. Most of them have several things in common. First, they’re very large, built on prime parcels in the nicer parts of town; second, they’re made of red brick; and third, they’re pretty new, built within the last quarter of the last century. What I’m trying to say is that the Baptists take very good care of themselves and they’re certainly part of the power base of the southern economy and political scene.

At Canal Street I turn right. I go past the Canal Street Laundr-O-Mat, about which I wrote a few things on Monday. As I stop to take a picture of the front a couple of people gawk nervously at me from the front window, and I see that one of them is the old woman I talked to when I was in there. Well, let her wonder and worry.

Next I pass El Palenque, the pleasant if undistinguished Mexican place where I ate lunch on Monday. Across the street are the Yazoo City Police Department and the Yazoo County Jail.

I turn south from Canal Street onto Main, which splits into two one-way streets. Here in front of an old building that might once have been a courthouse or city hall, is a Civil War monument dedicated to the Confederates. The inscription on the pedestal is so outrageous and absurd that I’ll set it out in full:


Oh my God, what a bunch of horseshit. Did I miss something? Wasn’t this glory and nobility and valor all expended in order to perpetuate chattel slavery? Wasn’t that the cause for which the south fought, and against which the north fought? I’m aware that there may be some blue dogs out there in blogland who think there was something more (or less) going on during that war, but guess what? There wasn’t. The Civil War was fought primarily over the issue of slavery, let revisionists try as they might to divert us from that essential truth. It matters little that many northerners were also racist. The essential difference between the sides was that the southerners were willing to fight and die so that white people could buy, sell, whip, and work to death black people, and northerners were willing to fight and die in order to end, or in the short run at least limit, that practice. Period.

You’ve got to wonder when people are going to take the wrecking ball to some of these monuments. Well, I have to climb up the outer edges of the base of the monument to get close. Then I summon forth from my lungs and sinuses everything I have available, and expectorate it onto this monument. Ah, that’s better.

I come to the Yazoo County Courthouse, built in 1872 and renovated and added to several times, most recently in the 1990s. It’s a white building. I go inside, but it’s undistinguished. No rotunda or clever marble work. Just a working courthouse. I’m aware that the courtrooms may be very nicely appointed—they usually are. But I don’t have time to go upstairs.

I take a quick turn around the downtown business district, with its empty stores and a few brightly painted ones, then head uphill on Broadway, toward the highway. The painted buildings are obviously an attempt to jazz up the downtown so people will come there, but the real business district is on the Highway 49 bypass. I could make a fortune as an urban planner in these little cities if people were willing to listen to the truth, which is that they should abandon their downtown business districts. Convert them to housing or raze them and make parks. I’d say to Yazoo City, pay more attention to development on Highway 49, which appears pretty willy-nilly and ugly and functional. Impose a few inexpensive design requirements out there just to beautify it a little, and forget Main Street. Nobody goes there. And while you’re at it, make these big fat churches pay some taxes. Oh, and tear down that Confederate monument.

The two branches of Highway 49 that parted in Tutwiler have merged again, just north of Yazoo City. I make my way across the four-lane divided road and begin trudging along the wide gravel shoulder, which is remarkably dry, considering how much rain we had last night. I guess it’s because it’s so hilly.

While I’m walking along with nothing to do, I might as well air another grievance about the south. It’s this obsession with nicknames and diminutive first names for men. Like Jimmy, Willy, Billie Bob, Johnny. Some people actually have those for their given names. I can see having a nickname and all that, but they should be given a respectable first name to begin with, not a nickname or something that makes them sound like a child for their entire life. Take me, for instance. I have a few nicknames, to be sure. I’m known as Pete, Petesie, the Petester, or even His Royal Peteness, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, but I was given what I consider to be a fairly dignified fullout first name—Peter. And that goes for most of the rest of you guys out there in the blogosphere.

So what’s the deal down here? Is it that the men of the south don’t want to be thought of as men--just as boys? It seems to me that if you come into the world with a name like Willie, which evokes an image of a boy in short pants, you’re going to live up (or down) to that name. It’s a statement by your parents. You’re destined to work at a gas station, like Goober, not to be a president, a general, or a mogul. This is a form of subtle preemptive emasculation. It’s a sign that this is a place with diminished expectations. People responsible for giving children their names have a responsibility. Maybe your name is Edward and they call you Booger at home, but at least when you go out into the world you can present yourself as Edward and hold your head high. But if your given name is Booger, well, that’s a different story altogether.

At 12.7 miles I come to the village of Little Yazoo, a collection of stores on the west side of Highway 49. I go into one of them, a sort of general store, and get a drink for the second half of the walk, then walk on down the access road, which is probably the original Highway 49, a two-lane affair. This must be the road Howlin’ Wolf traveled down in search of Melviney.

Eventually that piece of road stops, and I get back on the big road, and in a few miles I veer left onto Mississippi 830 into Bentonia, a town of about 500. Route 830 is called Railroad Street, and the tracks are on the west side while the east side is lined with tidy middle class houses. White peoples’ houses, in other words.

After a mile and a half I get to the downtown. There’s a little place called the Blue Front CafĂ©. A historical marker says this place was started in 1948 as a blues club by a couple named Holmes, whose son, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, still operates it. Every year there’s a blues festival here in June. Bentonia considers that it has its own style of blues, as played by Holmes and, before him, a guy named Jack Owens. Bentonia Blues.


Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head-they are so easy to misread when you only see through your eyes and not theirs. My own unstudied opinion is that these nicknames to these people are a cool way of seeing themselves as separate and different from the rest of us: they are part of the good ole boys. lThey are country folk-hillbillies and proud of it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. Sounds like you need a vacation! (At least yesterday.)

Linda Moses