“I wish you’d just married a Black girl instead.” These were the first words my mom said to me as I stepped onto the front porch of her house in the Mississippi Delta in the early months of 1990. I wasn’t offended — in fact, I knew that by not using the n-word, to her mind she was actually making an effort to be both polite and politically correct. After all, I knew how much my mother — like the rest of my family in Mississippi — did not like Black people in general and trusted them even less. Her words were the first indication I’d had that she was even less charitably disposed towards Asians. I soon realized that to her, this was a case of “the better the devil you know,” for she certainly never wanted me to marry anyone who wasn’t as white as our Irish forebearers.
I’m not sure if she ever forgave me for not marrying a white girl. I know my grandmother never did.
Backstory: The Delta
Before continuing my own story, I’ve often said the Mississippi Delta is ground zero for racism in America, and the reader needs to understand why this is so. To be sure, racism in general — and against Black people in particular — has left jagged rips and tears in the fabric of American history, but nowhere else are those flaws so evident as in the Delta.
Mississippi’s population is 39% Black — the highest percentage of any minority in any state — and in the Delta, there are quite a few small towns where Black residents comprise 100% of the population. My family’s house is almost midway between Indianola (82% Black) and Shaw (95% Black). One might think that with such a majority, racism shouldn’t be such an issue. But there are places in the Delta where the Jim Crow era never really ended.
Shaw is a farming community of less than 2,000 people, and it’s where I graduated high school. There was only one doctor’s office in town, and when I returned home on leave from the Navy in 1984, that office still had two entrances. Above each door was a marble plaque, one with the label “White” and the other labelled, “Colored.” The signs were completely painted over with a Kelly green, but paint does not hide inch-deep chiseled letters. Even then — twenty years after the passage of the…