Mississippi…Is the Future

In February 2021, Maurita Poole, Ph.D., director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, and Guirdex Masse, assistant professor of English at Augusta University, coordinated a conversation between Mississippi authors Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon. The event aligned with the New Mississippi(s) project for which Dr. Poole is an organizer.

Laymon and Ward compared and contrasted Northern, Central, and Coastal Mississippi regions and acknowledged the topographies influence on Black culture and identity. The natural world, while featured more prominently in Ward’s fiction, is a character that must be described or animated, Laymon said. Both authors discussed the forest as setting and character and tied this point to their deep connection to Mississippi as a homeplace.

Although this conversation was not structured to focus on the magically or mythically real, the topic punctuated the authors’ engagement with storytelling, surviving racism and poverty, and navigating real and imagined spaces. Laymon described Black people’s power and art as magic. Ward talked about time slowing down as she writes about the dead and the living world around the dead. She described her preference for stories that transport people, and Laymon reiterated Ward’s observation that time collapses. Afrofuturism permeates the ways in which these authors discuss their craft and worldviews. Laymon and Ward remind us that the homeplace is a valid source of knowledge, and it is in Mississippi that each finds the source of their magic and creative voice.

I didn’t understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me from the sky? How could I imagine Parchman would pull me to it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?

—from Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward

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