With many thanks to David Henley for suggesting this treat.
Tommy on the guitar, Jason on the vocals. Rural Alabama collaborates with rural Australia.
For decades, the Chinese-American community has been an integral part of the Mississippi Delta, the rich farmlands south of Memphis, Tennessee.
That surprises people who don’t know the area, just as the presence of a Jewish community in the small towns does.
Now, the area’s population has shrunk because of large farms, expensive equipment, and good highways. Walmart and Amazon played their part, too.
The Chinese and Jewish communities have shrunk disproportionately, as they children have become professionals and moved to the cities. There are still vibrant Chinese-American and Jewish communities in the South, just not in the rural Delta anymore.
We are fortunate, though, to have two recent documentations of the Delta’s Chinese-American community when it was thriving.
The New York Times has just published a long piece, combining photos and text, with lots of references to Clarksdale, Greenville, Marks, and other towns.
The link to that piece is here. (I wish to thank Robert May, formerly of Clarksdale, now of Chicago, for letting me know about it.)
I have not included the fine pictures from that article here since they are copyrighted by the photographers. Take my word, they are worth viewing.
Please note: the NYT photo essay is different from the documentary film, Honor and Duty, I mention below and mentioned in an earlier ZipDialog post. Pictures from the film are the ones to the right.
UPDATE: My friend, Vernon Shelton, says that Taylor Pang, whose photograph appears in the article, was one of his students at Delta Academy in Marks.
The only additional point I would make about the NYT piece is that the headline is wrong. It says the Chinese-Americans were/are “neither black nor white.” I think that misunderstands the historical social divisions of the region, which, unlike South African apartheid, only briefly had any intermediate category. In the days of Jim Crow, there were black schools, churches, and restaurants, and there were white ones. Groceries, clothing stores, and drug stores were mixed-race. Basically, if you sat down, it was segregated. If it was recreational, it was segregated. If you stood up, it wasn’t.
The Chinese-American community were, according to the film, given an intermediate category in the 1920s and 1930s, but after that, they were clearly “white.”
That was true when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and I wrongly assumed it had always been so. They went to the white schools and churches, dated white classmates, went to Ole Miss long before James Meredith desegregated it, and so on.
Oddly, the families almost all owned grocery stories, just as the Jews owned clothing stores. The children of both groups became accountants, eye doctors, lawyers, and the like, rather than taking over their parents’ businesses. Many moved to Memphis, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Austin, and other cities, mostly Southern, were the opportunities and cultural life were richer.
What I learned from the film is that they were not always considered white in the Delta. Nor were they considered black. They had an intermediate position, even in law. That ended during World War II when they joined the military.
The story of how the Chinese-American community of the Delta evolved is told in a fine, new documentary film by E. Samantha Cheng, a New York news producer who stumbled on the subject. Here is a brief and very thoughtful interview with Ms. Cheng (link here), who clearly admires the people she profiled. Her film is entitled Honor and Duty: The Mississippi Delta Chinese, and I highly recommend it.
The city of La Marque, Texas, proclaimed March 8, 2018, Evoni “Nini” Williams Day in the city after seeing her act of kindness that went viral on Facebook this week.
Earlier this week, Waffle House customer Laura Wolf snapped a photo of Williams cutting up food for a partially disabled man during a busy shift at the restaurant.
The photo went viral, with 97,000 reactions and nearly 46,000 shares. ….
Williams couldn’t stop the tears as Texas Southern University handed her an oversized check for $16,000.
A representative for the university said, “Your act of kindness is exactly the kind of student we want at Texas Southern University. “
“That’s just me,” Williams said of the photo. “It came from the heart. I would do it any other time, not just this time.”
She added, “All I know is we were busy. And all he asked was, ‘I don’t have functioning in my hands, can you cut (my ham) for me? It would be easier for me.’ I was like, sure, I stopped. I had food on the board to pick up. They were calling my name. I stepped away, came back and finished.”
Both are by the “Altered Five” and I’ve posted one of them before.
But “On My List to Quit” is so damned good, and so catchy, that I want to make sure you see it. Frankly, it is caught in my head, happily repeating.
The second one, “Take me back to Three Forks, 1938,” refers to the location of the juke joint where Robert Johnson was poisoned that year. Another great song.
Btw, if you look at the image on “ZipDialog Presents the Blues,” you will see the signs for Mississippi Highways 49 and 61. They are the great blues highways in the Delta, both named in countless songs.
They meet in Clarksdale and that town claims them as the “crossroads” as the one where the devil taught Robert Johnson how to play. (Those of us from around there know it as the place where the devil taught Abe Davis how to make great BBQ.) In the “Three Forks” song, you’ll hear highway 49 in the lyrics.