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Southern Art/Wider World is a digital humanities project that empowers dialogue about the historical and cultural themes present in WAMA’s collection and the Southern land. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also supported in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, and in partnership with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

In this lesson, sociologist B. Brian Foster, Ph.D delves into the "most Southern place on earth," as James Cobb once coined it – the Mississippi Delta.

B. BRIAN FOSTER, Ph.D. is a writer and storyteller from Mississippi. He currently holds a joint appointment in sociology and southern studies. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in African American Studies from the University of Mississippi in 2011, and both his Master’s Degree (2013) and Ph.D. (2017) in Sociology from the University of North Carolina atChapel Hill. Foster studies and writes about race and place—with special emphasis on questions and stories of racial stratification, regional development, placemaking, and culture. His scholarship has been supported by the National Science Foundation and American Sociological Association. Most recently, Brian’s work has focused on black communities in the “Delta” and “Hill Country” regions of Mississippi. For instance, his book I Don’t Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) tells a story of Clarksdale, Mississippi, chronicling the town’s recent inclusion of blues tourism in its economic development plan and, for the first time, noting the dismayed response that that commitment has stirred among black residents.

"Our long stay on the sandspit had depleted our water supply and the sun and heat made us very thirsty. [Walter] dipped his hat in. The water was clear and cold. He tried it, then dipped … for me. He called it a ‘distillation of America.’” 
– AGNES GRINSTEAD ANDERSON (WALTER'S WIFE) from her memoir, Approaching the Magic Hour
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Walter Inglis Anderson, Letter R, from the Alphabet series, circa 1940s. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.

Setting the stage for the discussion, Brian Foster asks the question, "what is a Delta?" beyond its geographic characteristics.

00:00 / 01:11

TRANSCRIPT: We think of the river as this thing that gives life and sustenance to human and nonhuman animals, to the land, to the geographics, or the landscape. What is a Delta, other than the deposition of sediment from a river? And the Delta, because of its agricultural and economic potential, becomes a place wherein indigenous folks are dispossessed of their land, wherein black Americans, enslaved black folks, are trapped in this system of American slavery – the peculiar institution. So, from a broad perspective, the River, I think one way to think about it is as the giver of life, as a thing that will make you laugh; but also as underwriting these broader systems that take life. The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry. This is why I really like tis Walter Anderson quote about the Mississippi River being something like the distillation of American life. I think this paradox of laughing and crying, living and dying, is what this place – the U.S. – has been for so many folks.

AGRICULTURAL SHADOW

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Walter Inglis Anderson, Cabbages. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.

In the 1940s, after a period of institutionalizations following a mental breakdown, Walter Anderson retreated into a life of relative domesticity at his in-laws antebellum home in Gautier, Mississippi called Oldfields. There, he farmed, tilled the earth, sweated through many shirts. This labor, born of the earth, was gratifying and helped him recover what had been a tumultuous period of mental illness. His experience farming his own land was much different than the kind of forced labor that had occurred across the region in the decades and centuries prior. His work was dignified, because it was his own. But for most of the South's agricultural history, labor was borne by those who had no choice, through institutions such as slavery and sharecropping.

American culture has for so long been molded by the privileged and wealthy, to the exclusion of many.

"Neither nature nor people alone can produce, human sustenance, but only the two together, culturally wedded."
– WENDELL BERRY, from The Unsettling of America
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Walter Inglis Anderson. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.

Brian Foster traces the development of large-scale agriculture in the Delta, which came at the expense of the enslaved.

00:00 / 00:48

TRANSCRIPT: The reason that folks are attracted to the Delta region at this moment – early 1800s – is because of the agricultural and economic potential of the land. And we know that that potential is directly tied, is a straight line, to the Mississippi River. And so, folks come to the Delta, white settlers come to the Delta, in the early 1800s. And in a very short period of time, the Delta becomes Cotton Kingdom, becomes one of the wealthiest, one of the richest regions, not only in the South, no only in the U.S., but in the world globally. And it is that system of American slavery that ... casts a shadow over every epoch, every historical period, that comes after.

BLUES & SURVIVAL

Walter Inglis Anderson, Revival, 1934. Block Print. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.

“The blues remains a revitalizing element that continues to preserve, discuss, and reinterpret the hard-learned lessons of the past while maintaining an unblinking gaze upon the present and the future…”
– CLYDE WOODS

As an artist, Walter Anderson did not believe in a separation between fine and folk traditions. Moreover, he understood the seamless continuity between product and process. For him, the outward manifestation of creativity was a byproduct of the discovery, the search, and the journey. In his own life, art making released him from the constraints of a suffocating modern world. While he was no blues scholar, Anderson certainly understood that the cultural value of any artistic tradition is not bound simply to the art itself; the process of creation, and the living and struggling that attends it, is the source of its power. Art making, for many, it a way to make sense of the world. A way to survive.

Short film by Zaire Love, with archival footage captured by folklorist Bill Ferris.

“The arrangements of pine trees suggested music -- vertical notes strung on the horizontal lines of road and horizon.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Brian Foster explains that the blues tradition is about much for than the music itself.

00:00 / 01:47

TRANSCRIPT: If you want to understand what the blues is, if you want to understand the conditions that produce the blues, I think the most important piece of scholarship that you can read is a book called Development Arrested. And what Clyde Woods argues, before we get to music, before we get to the idea of the blues as music or performance, we should start with this notion that the blues is a method. It's a method of moving through the world at a particular moment in time. So, the years after the fall of American slavery, so this period of reconstruction and afterwards. And for a particular group of people: black southerners, back ‘sippians, black folks in the Mississippi Delta. So, the blues, Clyde Woods argues – it’s not just about hard times, you had a difficult time with something. The blues is a function o a particular racialized – black; and regionalized – southern, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta – experience. And in this experience of the afterlife of slavery and then Reconstruction and then sharecropping and tenant farming, what black folks in the South, in the ‘sip, in the Delta, did was try to survive. Was try to get from sunup to sundown, from Monday to Friday, from January to December. And in the quest to survive, they di stuff, they built stuff, they said stuff, they made stuff. All of those things, the doing and the making and the building and the saying, are a part of, again, this set of blues methods that black folks used to survive and get from day to day.

PERSONAL LANDSCAPE

“Everything was there – provided I retained my consciousness. Yet I was driven even there, by the unborn or the most recently born, to leave all that world held, and accept identity with the countless thousands clamoring for existence and present consciousness."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
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Walter Inglis Anderson, On the River #2, c. 1940s. Block Print. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.

Whether on the River or in the Gulf of Mexico, Walter Anderson conceptualized his existence in relation to the water. This shift in perspective allowed him to see himself in concert with a much larger symphony of living things – to look from nature, rather than merely at it. His personhood made most sense in the boat, carried by the current or rowing against the waves. Fear left him, and balance remained.

Short film by Zaire Love, from her time on the Mississippi River with guides John Ruskey and Mark "River" Peoples.

“It's the one place I feel like I'm a complete person, and part of everything. I just feel good when I'm on the river."
– JOHN RUSKEY

Brian Foster reflects on Zaire's film, and on the role of the landscape in shaping our identities.

00:00 / 00:28

TRANSCRIPT: The world that we live in, geographic landscape, in which and by which our lives play out – it shapes us. It shapes who we are. Identity. Perspective. So, I think the thing that resonates the most is how deeply person the landscape, how deeply personal place is and can be for and to us.

final thoughts

"All movement is to invisible music although few people hear it.
It comes from the sun and the wind and the movement of water and
a running rabbit and a crowing cock, and together it is part of a great symphony.
The longer we listen and the quieter we are, the more we hear;
and when we do hear, we are part of the music instead of an unwelcome interruption.

– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Brian Foster leaves us with final thoughts and further suggested readings about blackness and invisibility.

00:00 / 02:40

TRANSCRIPT: You know this invisible music, if we listen to it the right way, can be instructive, can teach us something about the world that we live in. But Walter Anderson uses the language of quiet, and I think a framework that will help us think it through actually comes from this book, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, written by cultural studies scholar, cultural theorist, Kevin Quasie. And there’s a short quote: “as an identity, blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race, racism, or America, or violence and struggle and triumph, or poverty and hopefulness.” We follow that script so well. That quote, I think, captures the reality of race and blackness in America. We sometimes forget the people part of black folks. Or the “folks” part of black folks. And we only see the black. Because the blackness, again, is supposed to be a lesson about something. A clue about something.  A cue, a trigger.... Not seeing the people, the folks, but only the blackness, it’s a theme so pervasive, it’s a reality that’s been so heavy for black folks, that one of the most recurring things in black literature, in black scholarship, in black music, in poetry, is this idea of invisibility.

 

[There are] probably five or six books that I return to every year, maybe every couple of years. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is one of them. I was reading it earlier this year. There’s a funny quote. And I say funny because he talks about sociologists. So presumably, he’s writing then about me and my colleagues now. He says, “despite the bland assertion of sociologists, high visibility actually rendered one un-visible. Whether at high noon in a Macy’s window or illuminated by flaming torches and flash bulbs while undergoing the ritual sacrifice that was dedicated to the idea of white supremacy.” You know, there’s so much about the black American experience that, because of the racial project, because of racism, racial domination, some of the assumptions, the stereotypes, that have become attached to blackness – black life, so many parts of it, have been rendered invisible. And I think there are some parallels with this poem, with this quote, from Walter Anderson. What my work does, it says there’s actually some value in those parts of black life that have been rendered invisible.

Additional resources:

B. Brian Foster, I Don't Like the Blues Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life (2020) University of North Carolina Press.

The William R. Ferris Collection, part of the Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (2017). Penguin Random House.

Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (2012). Rutgers University Press

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952). Random House.