By Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, PhD
Special to The Jackson Advocate
Black struggle is the sum of all actions taken to help better the lives of Black people. It is found in the ways we have organized our lives within segregated spaces. Black neighborhood spaces include physical and psychological locations such as homes, churches, schools, labor practices, and leisure activities. Each space has its own code of conduct best understood and practiced by the people who live together, in close proximity to one another. It is within these spaces that the term folklife finds its definition. The word folklife is used to sum up the everyday actions of everyday people, specifically, for the purpose of this essay, Black people living in Deep South, Mississippi, USA.
The Mississippi Black struggle existed long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and it continued long after and echoes in the present day. Nearly thirty years after I entered the struggle, and sixty years after the event that shook me into a consciousness about what it meant to struggle, I began to attempt to decipher why and how Black people had to struggle the way we did and still do. I doubt that August 28, 1955, had been forgotten when June 12, 1963, shook Black folk to our collective core, yet again.
It was August 28, 1955, when Emmett Till was killed. It was June 12, 1963, when Medgar Evers was assassinated. Both were viciously murdered in Mississippi. The circumstances surrounding the reason each was brutally violated are rooted in how American society is structured and the roles assigned to its citizens based on skin color. The social and civil expectations for how Black Americans should function in society were made clear from as early as 1865 when “many southern governments enacted legislation that reestablished ante-bellum power relationships. Mississippi passed laws known as Black Codes to regulate Black behavior and impose social and economic control.” Acts of violence could be visited upon any Black person for certain kinds of behavior. Black behavior deemed unacceptable by white citizens came with consequences that – for Till and Evers – meant death. Both were believed to be in violation of some aspect of the social codes considered to be a threat to the social order designed to maintain power relationships between Blacks and whites in Mississippi, as described above.
Till, a 14-year-old boy, was murdered after allegedly whistling at a white woman who decades later confessed the incident did not happen. Evers was murdered for working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP leadership was helping Mississippians gain access to full rights as citizens of the state, and many were targeted by the White Citizens Council and killed for their efforts. The killings of Till and Evers were supposed to be examples to others; the message sent was: bad behavior could mean death. What qualified as ‘bad behavior’ was at the discretion of any white person who felt aggrieved in any way by a Black person. This is the condition and the climate under which Black folks’ lives took shape for survival sake.
Black folks’ interpretation of what constituted ‘bad behavior’ outside of our designated Black spaces was clear. We were to make white people feel comfortable, important, and in control at all times when we interacted with them. If not, what happened to Till and Evers could happen to us, our family, or – like the Greenwood, Tulsa Massacre in June 1912 – our entire neighborhood could be met with white mob violence and death.
Black folks have lived under a constant threat of violence and death. Individual or collective behavior could incite what Carol Anderson calls ‘White Rage’ – the backlash that follows Black advancement in American society. Black resistance, or the belief that Black people are behaving outside of the manner or means they should function within, could invite what Koritha Mitchell calls ‘know-your-place aggression’. This is “the flexible dynamic array of forces that answer to the achievements of marginalized groups such that their success brings aggression as often as praise.” To struggle in Mississippi was to understand there could be responses that ranged from individual aggression to collective backlash expressed via verbal threats, physical violence, destruction of property, and death. All could be the response to Black people associated with doing organizing work in Mississippi.
When Emmett Till and Medgar Evers died, I was not yet born into the physical world, but I was on my way. As a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, I had heard of “that Till boy they killed”, but I had not heard of Ancestor Medgar in any substantive way. The ‘Malcolm, Martin, and Me’ T-shirts I encountered during my graduate school days at Grambling State University left him out of the narrative, initially. He was left out of my blossoming understanding of Black liberation and the struggles to access freedoms denied to many Black people in Deep South USA.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as they were featured on those T-shirts, were national historical figures in a way that Medgar Evers was not, in my limited understanding of how local and national organizing work happened. They were attached to a history of national organizing efforts while Medgar Evers was attached to a history of local and statewide organizing work. He was connected uniquely and deeply to how Black folk in Mississippi understood what was happening to them inside of Mississippi and what was required for their struggle to be successful to improve their human condition in the state.
Each state in the deep South had a “look and feel for how you move, how you organize” and those born and raised in segregated spaces knew best how to move, how to struggle, how to “make forceful efforts to get free of restraint or constriction.”
My Louisiana History class at Linwood Jr. High School in Shreveport had introduced me to a book title, not the required reading of the book. The title was ‘12 Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup. It was his 1853 account of being a free Black man in New York and being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. I would not hear the history again until 2013 when the film adaptation of the book was released. I took my daughter to see the film; she was seven years old at the time. Just as I had ‘kinda heard about’ Solomon Northup, I had heard nothing at all about Medgar Evers, until I became an adult living in Mississippi.
I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1993. My sister, Jacqueline, drove me from Shreveport to Jackson to find lodging. I would be a member of the young acting company at New Stage Theater, the only professional theater in Mississippi at that time. I arrived into what I found to be a continuation of the organizing work done during the Civil Rights Movement in the state. It was 30 years after the assassination of Medgar Evers, and it was months before his murderer would go on trial. This fact supports my observations of Black cultural traditions and provides a historical through-line that connects folklife and civil rights activism (organizing work done by Black people to access equal treatment under the law). It also makes plain how each, folklife and civil rights, intersect and were embedded into how and why Black people have struggled in Mississippi. History gives us evidence that Black struggle was still happening because it took over thirty years for a killer to be put on trial and convicted of the crime. He had been protected by the same structures that created the Mississippi Black Codes mentioned earlier.
I crossed the Mississippi River from Louisiana into a world of familiar traditions and familiar historical narratives, but I was surrounded by unfamiliar names and events. That would change. New Stage Theater would provide the platform I needed to be introduced to Mississippi history, the people and events that made Mississippi the “hotbed of the Civil Rights Movement.”
My first professional job as an actor was at New Stage, and I learned a lot about myself. My true ‘theatrical’ beginnings were at the young age of 3, when I told my mother I wanted to be a movie star. I had no other words to express that I wanted to perform on stage and in films. In retrospect, I have always wanted to tell stories. My nickname, Jolly, has a similar pronunciation as the word Djali – meaning griot, storyteller, and historian in the Mandinka language from West Africa. Over time, from Louisiana Tech Theater of Performing Arts to Grambling State University Theater Department, I realized that the stories I wanted to tell were deeply rooted in the lived experiences and history of Black people, i.e. the Folklife of the Deep South USA.
My mother was a pianist in the Black church. She taught songs to me when I was three years old and I sang in the church. I would recite speeches for holiday celebrations as well. My father introduced me to the poems of Ephraim Tyler, a local man in Shreveport, who wrote, published, and recited his poetry. I would perform his poems and the literary works of other poets. Eventually, I would begin to write my own work. I write in a voice that conjures the past in an attempt to better understand the present moment. I question how the present will impact the future. I use every opportunity as an artist to teach about Black folks’ lives. My culture, the value of what it means to be Black and Southern, is always in conversation with my artistry and academic work. In my present academic work, this process of observation and interrogation of the Black experience has become a writing style and performance preparation method I call the ‘Progenic Voice’. It is an internal voice located in the human psyche and consciousness. It is accessed to connect past, present, and future perspectives of the human experience.
My love for acting and theater made me aware of myself as progeny and that it is acceptable for me to speak in a voice that includes those who came before and those who will come after, i.e a ‘progenic voice’. As an actor, I submit myself to a communication process. I develop a character who has been created to teach lessons in written form to be brought to life by an actor. It is my responsibility to embody the character to effectively tell her story. Therefore, I must seek meaning, create spaces to mind travel to and return from, and temporarily suspend all of who I know myself to be so that I become what the script needs me to be – what the audience needs me – to be to help them see their own humanity.
As an actor at New Stage Theater, I had to perform excerpts from literature written by Margaret Walker and Richard Wright in a touring educational play titled Mississippi Talking…, Walker’s Jubilee and Wright’s The Long Dream. The school Wright attended in the 3rd grade was now the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center. Within one year, my work at New Stage afforded me opportunities to not only learn about the Black lived experience in Mississippi, it put me in the room with some of the people who made Mississippi history.
When I lived in Mississippi, the intersection of folklife and civil rights work was still visible and meaningful in the work of Margaret Walker (Literature, Archival Preservation); Billie Jean Young (Theater, Fannie Lou Hamer); John Horhn (MS Senate, Theater); Chokwe Lumumba (Law and Malcolm X Center); Charles Tisdale (Black Press); Rhonda Richmond (Arts and Entertainment); Charles Evers (Public Radio); Hollis Watkins (Community Organizing); David Dennis (Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project, CORE); and Robert ‘Bob’ Moses (Education, Math Literacy, The Algebra Project, Inc., SNCC). Each of these people (and others) were examples of “how you move, how you organize in Mississippi.” Each taught me how to better love Black people and be a better artist. The lessons were embedded in how they engaged the people, the folk, in the community.
Folklife and civil rights would meet again during my time in Mississippi. My introduction to Bob Moses’ work happened when I was an intern at New Stage. Senator Horhn extended an invitation to hear Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier speak at a local school. While preparing to leave, Ward Emling, head of the Mississippi Film Office and interim Chair of the New Stage Theater Board of Directors, said to me, “You see that man…you really need to get to know him. His name is Bob Moses and he did a lot of work for Civil Rights in Mississippi.” I registered this in my brain and moved on to shake Sydney Poitier’s hand.
Two years later, I would see Bob Moses in the Jitney Jungle grocery store while picking up a Western Union to pay for my plane ticket to travel to Detroit for the closing ceremony of the Rosa Parks Tour in 1996. While boarding the plane to return to Jackson, Coretta Scott King was sitting on the flight. Over one weekend, I had brief encounters with three key figures of the Civil Rights Movement, Bob Moses, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King. I did not think this was a coincidence. I would later become the Project Assistant to the Algebra Project Lanier High School Office.
In July of 1997, after being the opening act for Patti LaBelle at Thalia Mara Hall and witnessing the inauguration of Harvey Johnson, the first African American mayor of Jackson, MS, I flew out to Detroit, this time to join the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development Pathways to Freedom Summer Tour Program as chaperone on a 30-day tour. The previous year, Theresa King at Smith Robertson Museum asked me to write a poem to perform because Mrs. Parks was coming to town. This time, I would chaperone young people between the ages of 11- 17 as we retraced the Underground Railroad locations and Civil Rights History.
On July 29, 1997, our bus crashed into the Nottoway River in Virginia. I returned to Jackson, MS in need of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. My pathway to healing was through poetry, performance, and work in the arts community.
I then worked for the Farish Street Heritage Festival. I opened four more times for Patti LaBelle. And because I was passing out flyers for the promoter, Arden Barnett, who booked me for a gig in Vicksburg, I met C. Liegh McInnis on the campus of Jackson State University near the Margaret Walker Center. I invited him out to the Birdland Lounge to recite poetry with David Brian Williams during Tri-Tone Band’s (Rhonda Richmond, Nellie Mack, Rufus Mapp, and Ezra Brown) weekly Sunday night set.
Ezra Brown had a Jazzoetry set at The Living Room Coffeehouse on Thursday nights. Sundays, before the Birdland, there was Gospazz (gospel jazz and poetry) at Anderson United Methodist Church. I met Diallo, Marcus Uganda White, and Derrick Johnson at Anderson UMC. They asked if I would host a poetry set they wanted to put together to encourage artists and intellectuals to gather, in the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The first attempt was at Frank’s World-Famous Biscuits in Downtown Jackson. Their gathering was called Southern Vibes and eventually turned into Mississippi Vibes Open Mic Poetry Set with C. Liegh, David Brian Williams, and Derrick Johnson as my ‘partners in rhyme’. We hosted the weekly set on Saturday nights at Chris Burkett’s Highlites Restaurant and Sports Bar across from Tougaloo College.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this kind of arts scene was present in Jackson long before my arrival. Ramona Ward, Cassandra Wilson, Judy Kay Jefferson, Jerry Ward, Charlie Braxton, and others used to frequent a gathering called ‘The Shop’. It was those relationships that held the legacy and the nuances of the struggle.
Local arts were a part of local activism because it allowed me to engage with people in multiple venues across the city. Black folk brought their lived experiences to creative spaces to read poetry, to see theater, and to have conversations about what was happening in our communities and in the day to day lives of Black people.
This is what Artivism (Art + Activism) in Mississippi looked like through my Mississippi eyes between 1993 to 2003, and it continued after I left to live in Indiana. I left Mississippi but Mississippi never left me. No matter where I am in the world, those threads of connectivity keep me connected to the state, its history, the folk, and the lives they lived to “get free of restraint or constriction, to resist attacks” sanctioned by a system that continues to try to remove us from our rightful place as part of the ‘We’ in “We the People of the United States…”
Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, PhD is an artist, educator, curriculum developer, and education/arts consultant for DJA Consulting, specializing in school-community relations (DrJolly2015@gmail.com).