HM - Dec. 2014 - Brown

NEH Program Profile

 
The Mississippi Delta:
The Most Southern Place on Earth


by Luther Brown
Delta Center for Culture and Learning

The Mississippi Delta is simultaneously a unique place and a place that has influenced the American story like no other.  This paradox is summed up in two simple statements.  Historian James Cobb has described the Delta as “The most Southern place on earth.” At the same time, the National Park Service has said ”Much of what is profoundly American – what people love about America – has come from the delta, which is often called ‘the cradle of American culture.’”

This is the Mississippi Delta: a place of paradox and contrast, a place described by Will Campbell as being “of mean poverty and garish opulence.” A place that has produced great authors yet continues to suffer from illiteracy.  A place that has produced great wealth for a few but persistent poverty for many.   A place of privilege for some and disadvantage for others.  A place that has produced powerful political leaders, both for and against segregation.  A place in which apartheid has been replaced by empowerment. A place of unquestioned artistic creativity that has given the world both the Blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and is also home to Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Bobby Gentry, Sam Cooke, Mose Allison and B. B. King.  This is the Mississippi Delta, a microcosm of America, the most American place on earth.

The Delta has played an enormous and much undervalued role in the American story.  It has given the world much in terms of music, literature, journalism, political action, foodways, and even sports heroes.  It is the ancestral home of many Americans who today live in metropolitan areas like Detroit or Chicago or Oakland.  It has played an important role in changing America’s attitude towards human and civil rights.  At the same time, many Americans do not really know where the Mississippi Delta is, and places far from the Delta now claim its rightful title to being the  “birthplace of the Blues.”

To correct this mismatch between the Delta’s historic importance and its public image, Delta State University created The Delta Center for Culture and Learning in 2000.  Delta State is one of eight state universities in Mississippi, primarily serving the people of the Delta.  The Delta Center was given the mission of “promoting the history and culture of the Mississippi Delta.”  One way that the Center fulfills this mission is through its participation in the Landmarks in American History and Culture program offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The Center’s workshops are titled “The Most Southern Place on Earth:  Music, History and Culture of the Mississippi Delta.”  Like other Landmarks workshops, The Most Southern Place gives teachers an opportunity to hear from humanities professionals as they explore important issues in the American story.
The two summer 2015 workshops will be held in Cleveland, Mississippi, on the campus of Delta State University, June 21 through June 27, and July 12 through July 18, 2015.  Participants must be K-12 teachers of American students or Librarians.  Check http://www.neh.gov/files/divisions/education/eligibility/landmarks_eligibility_criteria.pdf for complete eligibility requirements.  Participants receive a stipend of $1200 to help pay for their travel and living expenses.  Enrollment is limited to 36 participants per workshop, and participants can earn five graduate credit hours upon completion of the workshop.  Application information is at http://deltacenterforcultureandlearning.com/southern-place-workshop/how-to-apply/.
The Most Southern Place workshops are highly experiential learning communities.  Presenters are either humanities scholars or people having first person knowledge of historic events.  A portion of each day is spent in the classroom, but much of each day is spent on a coach bus traveling to sites where events occurred.  The bus is a traveling classroom, with presentations, videos, music and discussion.  Topics range broadly, and include special emphasis on the great flood of 1927, religious, racial, and ethnic heritage; cotton and plantation life; the Blues; the struggle for Civil Rights and especially the murder of Emmett Till and its aftermath; and the Great Migration.  Each day of the workshop is associated with a particular song and a taste that help preserve the day’s learning.  Participants visit historic sites in Greenville, Greenwood, Money, Ruleville, Indianola, Clarksdale, and Memphis, and stop at the BB King Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the National Civil Rights Museum, along with numerous historic sites.  Days are long, discussions are intense, and topics are frequently emotional.  Evenings include live musical performances and an optional trip to the last rural juke joint in the Delta, Po’ Monkey’s Lounge.  Over 400 teachers have now completed these workshops, and many now include Delta stories in their own curriculum.  Participants have come from all fifty States plus several US schools in foreign countries, and teach every grade from K-12.

The Delta Center does many other things besides offer summer workshops.  It organizes an annual academic conference on the Blues, another conference on race relations, and it is the manager of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, a formal partnership with the National Park Service.  It also works with visiting groups, including school groups, from across the country to help them plan field trips or to include information about the Delta in their own curricula. 

The Mississippi Delta has played a huge role in the American story.  It’s difficult to imagine what our country would be like today without the contributions, good, bad, and ugly, of the people of the Mississippi Delta.  Our music would be different, our literature would be different, our politics and race relations would be different.  Musician Rosanne Cash recently said “If we don’t know the Delta, we don’t know ourselves as Americans.”  The Most Southern Place workshops will allow a total of 72 school teachers to experience this place in ways that will almost certainly make them better teachers and may help them better know what it means to be an American.  For more information, visit http://deltacenterforcultureandlearning.com/southern-place-workshop/.