Clarksdale, Mississippi is known for two things. The first is its importance in the history of the blues. Located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, it boasts a cabin once belonging to the famous Muddy Waters and houses the Delta Blues Museum. When you’re there, you can practically feel time move more slowly.
The second is its poverty.
My first trip to Clarksdale was in February of 2011. The year before that, the U.S. Census Bureau had declared over one-third of Clarksdale residents to be living below the poverty level. That’s more than three times the rate they found in New Haven.
I was there on a Habitat for Humanity trip to volunteer on construction projects. When I look back on that week, though, and on all subsequent weeks I spent in Clarksdale, I rarely think about hammers or paint; I remember the schools.
I sat through teachers telling their second grade classes, “There’s no such thing as a seven-sided polygon,” or that “plants don’t have life cycles.” I never wanted to speak up because I knew I was supposed to be helping, not criticizing.
One day, the class was talking about St. Nicholas Day and how it meant that Santa Claus came several weeks earlier in Europe than he did in the United States. One boy was intrigued and announced that, if this were the case, he would move to Europe when he grew up. The teacher bent down and, without missing a beat, told him, “No, you’re not. You ain’t never gettin’ out of the Delta.”
Moments like that can make Clarksdale seem devoid of hope, but when you’re there, you know that’s not the case. As a friend once said to me, the Delta region is only “materialistically poor.” People you’ve never met before will stop on the street to chat with you, and the people you have met will dote on you any chance they get.
Whenever I get back home to Illinois from a trip to the Delta, I wave hello to any stranger I pass for the first couple of days before the glares I receive in return make me realize that I’m not in Clarksdale anymore. My life picks up its pace again, and suddenly the “slow your roll” attitude I felt in Mississippi becomes a distant dream.
My most recent trip to the Delta was with a group of younger students who had never been to the region before. Watching them experience everything for the first time was like reliving my own first trip through their eyes.
I am reminded with each visit that, as a privileged girl from the Midwest, I may never truly understand what it’s like to spend a day in a Clarksdale lifer’s shoes. But, at the same time, I know I’ll always learn something from trying. And each time I’m there, I slow my roll just a little bit more.
Nikita Dutta was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and currently resides in Champaign, Illinois. When she was a sophomore in high school, her history teacher introduced her to the Delta region, and she couldn’t be more thankful that he did. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.