Winky takes the .40 and checks to see if there’s one in the chamber, stepping behind the abandoned building where the teenagers often hang out. POP! POP! POP! He shoots three times into the air. The woman raking her yard with a child 100 feet away doesn’t pay him any mind. The other kids are startled and Brandon jumps up and hurries away saying, “Damn Winky, that was some dumb shit.” They stash the gun under the abandoned building and continue rolling blunts, waiting for the cops to show but knowing that they won’t. Winky tells the other kids they’ve “gotta be hard”, and as the oldest of the group at 27, they believe him. He was sent to prison at the age of 14 for seven and a half years, allegedly for armed robbery. Reintegration seems a difficult task for a young man whose early life is formed during incarceration. For the kids who want more from their life than collecting a check each month, dealing drugs, toting guns and “being hard” are the only examples modeled for them.
In a place like Baptist Town, Mississippi there are two paths you can take in life but the people I have encountered there tread the line between the two, walking both in the light and in shadow. They are neither good nor evil, they are simply human. This is the beginning of a two-part examination of contemporary race and class disparities in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood. My goal is to remind people that while we may live in a time where civil rights are taught in history classes around the country, the real legacies of racism in the south continue to impact people economically and culturally, in persistent and often pernicious ways. I want to directly focus our collective attention on this complicated inheritance, honing in on Baptist Town in particular by continuing to document the neighborhood for the remainder of 2011 while launching into a separate facet of the project documenting the adjacent, white neighborhood in Greenwood. In the end I plan to bring an exhibition of the work created to both Baptist Town and the more affluent white communities that surround them. I do not want this to be a passive example of putting images in front of an audience and allowing them to draw their own conclusions. I want to actively engage the residents in a dialogue about improving the lives of their neighbors who have been disempowered for generations. These neighboring communities are separated by fear, distrust and a history of exploitation. By photographically introducing neighbors to one another in an honest and intimate way, my goal is to foster understanding and dispel uncertainty and fear. I hope to bridge the gap between these two worlds, so close together and yet so different.
Frequented by legendary bluesman Robert Johnson in the days preceding his death, the Baptist Town neighborhood is cut off on all sides by train tracks and home to around 500 residents with an estimated 90 percent unemployment rate. While many of us would like to believe that we live in a post-racial society it is hard to imagine a place like Baptist Town existing without the South’s troubled history of racism and segregation.
In late October a young man I know from the corners in Baptist Town, Demetrius “Butta” Anderson, 18, was shot and killed. His older brother and his cousin were both previously murdered. His girlfriend is pregnant, due in December. The following week I drive 16 hours to Greenwood, Mississippi for Butta’s funeral. Shoulder to shoulder, the community comes together to mourn the loss of one of their own. After songs and short remembrances, the Pastor steps up and quickly clarifies that he is not there to judge, but he speaks very pointedly to the young people in attendance. “There’s no salvation in hanging out on the corner”, he says. “The only thing that is assured is a visit to a jail cell or an early grave…if you see your friend going down a path, you don’t have to follow them…if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” His admonishment isn’t lost on the adults who nod fervently. They have seen too much violence, too much death over the years. For the younger generation, many of them have never lost anyone so close.
Your support will allow me to return to Baptist Town for two weeks this year as I continue to develop relationships and further embed myself in this struggling, but resilient community.