Is Mississippi MISS UNDERSTOOD?
By Lareeca Rucker
This is a story about two people.
The first has a violent past, and he spent a memorable part of his life committing hate crimes. Described as uneducated and insensitive, maybe his hateful actions are directly linked to the low opinion he has of himself.
While his friends are making strides, he always seems to be in poor health, psychologically and physically. He lives in poverty and finding a job that offers economic security has been challenging. He is slow to evolve, and many people have chosen to keep their distance because he is divisive.
Some of his actions have made all who have known and associated with him look bad. They won’t forgive him because they believe he deserves misery. Maybe it will teach him a lesson.
They might be more generous if he demonstrated a desire to change, but he remains largely unapologetic. It seems like as soon as those who love him believe he’s on the right path, another event happens to make them ashamed again.
He is often offended when others object to his actions. He rejects progressive ideas that would help him advance. Therefore, he remains stagnant and stuck, decaying in a wasteland or modern dystopia with images of his defiant past flashing before his eyes in an inescapable bubble that provides no room for original thought or self-growth.
The second person is a natural beauty with a calm, gracious demeanor. She is polite and generous and frequently complimented for these attributes. She often stands out in a crowd because her heart is giving, and she genuinely loves you.
You feel that love deep in your soul when she talks to you, welcomes you and invites you inside. Sometimes, when you visit her, you don’t want to leave because she is so comfortable. She feels like home. She smells like home. And being near her makes you realize nothing will ever feel as much like home as she does.
She takes pride in her manners and etiquette. She was traditionally taught to say “please” and “thank you,” and it’s beautiful how she goes out of her way to include people of every race and creed, offering love to anyone she encounters.
She was taught to love as a child before she could walk — taught we should all love everyone equally because everyone is our brother and sister, and we should never hate another person, because we are commanded to love others.
Because those lessons were placed in her heart early on, she smiles and waves at people she doesn’t even know. It’s easy to be her friend. She’s one of those people who would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it, and people tell her they have never met anyone who cares as much about them as she does.
You love being with her, because when you walk down gravel roads and see beautiful trees, green grass and hills for miles — when you see snow white cotton growing in fertile fields — when you go camping, sailing, and drink sweet tea on a sticky afternoon — she is so peaceful.
She smells like magnolias, gardenias and honeysuckles. She is cultured, artistic, musical and literary, with so many talents, but she is also humble. Despite her humility, she has quietly influenced an entire nation with her gifts, some passed down through generations from ancestors on other continents.
She’s also one of the best cooks you’ll ever meet. Come to her house, and she’ll serve you fried chicken, cornbread, neck bones, greens, chitterlings, crawfish, shrimp, fresh berries from the woods, freshly-made peach cobbler and homemade ice-cream.
Through her, you learn more about yourself and grow. She is respectful of other people. She knows what it’s like to work hard, because nothing has ever been handed to her. Hard work is an ethic and a principle. She is resilient. She is timeless and evolving. She is simple and complex.
Would your perception about person No. 1 change if I told you he was once one of the richest men in America?
Would your perception about person No. 2 change if I told you she was beautifully bi-racial, 38 percent African American?
What would you say if I told you both were descriptions of the same person … or place?
Both are how people have described Mississippi.
These Mississippi descriptions were taken directly from a project the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media mass communications students completed this semester about Mississippi. The project has been called MISS. UNDERSTOOD.
When you hear the word “misunderstood” attached to the state of Mississippi, does it evoke a certain feeling or emotion?
Does the word “misunderstood” cause you to empathize with Mississippi because you feel it is not understood by the rest of the country?
Or do you dismiss it because the term seems too sympathetic for a place historically known for racism, educational problems and poverty?
Words are powerful.
They are also subjective.
The title MISS. UNDERSTOOD and project are designed to prompt discussion and understanding about our state with hopes that honesty and dialogue will nudge state leaders and citizens to think of innovative new ways to help the state rise in the rankings.
We are tired of being last.
As humans, when we are criticized for something, we sometimes become defensive and reject the idea. But after taking some time to consider a criticism, we often choose to change, adapt and grow based on that feedback.
This project is about trying to better understand the perceptions of Mississippi internally and externally, considering positive and negative assessments that lead to evolution.
While some students who submitted projects preferred to highlight good things about Mississippi, others clearly expressed state obstacles and included outside perceptions. In most student projects, I think you will find a mix of the state’s good and bad attributes acknowledged, demonstrating its complexity.
Let’s pause for a moment. What is your perception of Africa?
Before you read any further, think of three words you would use to describe Africa.
The inspiration for this project was an NPR audio story featuring University of Mississippi Meek School of Journalism and New Media student Terrence Johnson. The piece is called A Student’s Perspective on Mississippi: Beautiful, Engulfing and Sometimes Enraging.
It was also inspired by a TED Talk video featuring novelist Chimamanda Adichie called The Danger of a Single Story.
In it, Adichie discusses her life in Africa before coming to America and discovering that her homeland, the largest continent in the world – diverse, complex and multi-layered – had been reduced to a single story in the United States.
A single story, she explains, is when someone creates a narrative or attaches a stereotype to a person or place, and that eventually becomes the narrow way it is defined and viewed by others. Adichie said she realized the rest of world had a single story about Africa as a place of poverty, strife, hunger, sickness and death.
Did you choose any of those words earlier when you were asked to describe Africa?
Adichie knew Africa was much more than the single story she heard others perpetuate, and her video warns about the dangers of stereotypes, misconceptions, judgments and prejudices.
The TED Talk reminded me of Mississippi, another multilayered, complex place often reduced to a single story by others. I sometimes wonder if people who stereotype Mississippi realize their single story impacts every member of our state, including 38 percent of Mississippians who are African American.
During one of the earlier mass communications classes, I handed out note cards and asked each student to write one word that describes Mississippi on the card. Here’s what they wrote: Beautiful, traditional, contentious, conservative, Southern, boring, underestimated, humid, controversial, serene, character, empty, genuine, secluded, family-oriented, bare, faithful, complex, racist, potential, rural, home, hospitality, unique, different, quiet, green, old-fashioned, spacious, country, redneck, prideful, welcoming, farming, improving, diverse, stuck.
This diverse group of Mississippians had many beautiful things to say about their state. If you read their projects, I think you’ll find honesty that includes positives, negatives, perceptions, stereotypes and the single stories they have heard about Mississippi.
The project was an enlightening exercise in diversity, and I want to continue using it in classes to help others understand what it’s like to be a member a group that is prejudged, and how those stereotypes and single stories can negatively affect us.
It is also a unifying project for Mississippi students who begin to think a little more deeply about their state, what it means to them, and the small, positive changes they can make it by moving the conversation forward.
I also think it’s also important to encourage others to break stereotypes — to evolve, grow, learn, adapt, consider new ideas and elevate themselves.
On December 10, 1817, Mississippi was officially recognized as the 20th state in the United States of America. As we approach the bicentennial anniversary this year, we have become more reflective about the state’s past and future.
Like some students said in their projects, I would like to see Mississippi leaders creatively address our biggest problems and for Mississippians to rise together and defy those who share a single story about our state.
Instead of being last in poverty, let’s become the state with the lowest poverty rate and best schools in the country. Let’s lead this country in education, social tolerance and equality.
As the Hospitality State that usually ranks Number 1 in giving and generosity based on per capita donations, let’s wear that description with pride, but rethink that word so “hospitality” means much more.
Let’s prove them wrong and strive to be more inclusive, tolerant, loving, welcoming, accepting and kinder than any other state.
Let’s make it loud and clear.
We don’t want to be MISS. UNDERSTOOD.
LaReeca Rucker is a writer, reporter and adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Mississippi.