Had she heard Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn”? She was eight, so maybe she had and maybe she hadn’t. It was certainly the first time she remembered knowing about the place—Mississippi—the sound of its name a type of slant rhyme to the city where she lived, Mississauga. M-I-Double S-I-Double S-A-U-G-A. The movie opens on two drinking fountains—one labeled “White” and the other labeled “Colored.” She didn’t yet know what each of those fountains meant. This was before she understood that, back then, she would have had to drink out of one and not the other. But, she felt scared when her father paused the VCR the moment after a little Black boy drinks from the Colored fountain and then a white man comes and drinks from the “White” fountain. The space over the image is all the blurred lines and her father explained to her, “This was the thing the goddamn white man did to make all black people feel like Niggers.”
When he turned the movie back on, the gospel soundtrack crescendoed, intensifying as the screen went black to reveal the title card and then faded to pan up to wooden house in the dying stages of a fire before it collapsed in on itself entirely. And she went from scared to terrified.
This was what she knew about America: clothing was cheaper to buy across the border in Buffalo, Americans were fat, and outside Buffalo the rest of America looked like wherever they filmed Saved by the Bell. Both her parents – who were in the midst of divorcing – had both told her unequivocally on separate and varied occasions that they refused to live anywhere south of that imaginary line that bisected Lakes Ontario, Huron, Erie and Superior. Because it was Superior in the Great White North. Without racism? Not hardly. For her mother it was the tear gas of American soldiers during her childhood in Panama amidst protests in the Canal Zone. For her father, she realizes now, it was because no one was every going to make him feel like a Nigger.
Here was something that happened to the girl after she was grown up. In the summer after she divorced, men would approach her everywhere. In Target, drinking coffee in Starbucks, buying car parts or standing in line at the bank. Men of all ages and races. A retired NBA player who spoke passionately about his desire to have more children, a middle aged attorney with a wedding ring tan line, a CNN producer obsessed with Jamaica, and a Middle Eastern Venture Capitalist. A man who had been friends with her and with her ex-husband sent her a giant bouquet of flowers and told her he was in love with her, an Italian professor she’d met once at a restaurant bar while waiting for a table turned up late at night on her doorstep, even though she hadn’t remembered telling him where she lived. She felt flustered and surprised by it all. She was not a woman accustomed to that sort of attention. Perhaps these men smelled something on her? The scent of a fresh divorcee? She liked the dates, certainly, with men who, before, she would have never imagined having so much as an elevator ride. She let them take her out because it passed the time. Because she couldn’t seem to concentrate enough that summer. She was often too distracted to read, to write, to sleep. She couldn’t seem to do much but exercise and go out on date after date.
Then, she met a man in a fancy grocery store near her apartment. It was a store she could barely afford. As a graduate student, she was financially decimated by her divorce. She spent too much time carefully picking between bags of couscous or cans of beans. On Sunday nights, she would make a big bean salad with three different kinds of beans, corn, loaded with thyme, cilantro, and olive oil. And this is what she ate every single day. She was as skinny then as she had been at sixteen.
How did they start talking? She can’t remember. She remembers only that he was picking out bananas and she was contemplating whether the purchase of a single heirloom tomato might destroy her budget for the week. The man was tall and handsome with striking blue eyes. He was bald but in that way that looked purposeful. There was sweetness in this guy who told her that he couldn’t cook. That he lived mostly on bananas, cheese and crackers, and salads. What must she have looked like, flirting back with him in the dress she’d pulled from a bin that cost less than those bananas? He took her number before telling her that he was a cop.
In his essay “Down At The Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” James Baldwin writes,
If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
She was always afraid of fire, sent home early from Girl Guide Camp because she refused to hold a piece of lit kindling to a stack of wood.
“Call my mother,” she said. “I don’t care. I’m not doing it.”
Only eight minutes into Mississippi Burning, three men are shot after being pulled from a car. Later, a child is kicked in the face. Fathers are pulled from their beds and lynched. Black men pushed from cars, beaten to a pulp. But mostly what she remembers are the fires. So many fires in the movie. Fires started as people lay in bed, Molotov cocktails thrown through windows, gas poured on church pews, and people dragged from their houses. Fires behind lynched bodies, the smoldering cross planted on a front lawn, a house engulfed in flames, everything burning and burning.
For their first date she suggested a bar around the corner from her apartment in the city. He lived in the suburbs. The way-out suburbs. The kind of place where she thought dreams went to die. The kind of place she assumed that no person their age would want live, abutting strip malls and neighborhoods of tacky McMansions.
The bar was famous for being frequented by an odd mix of politicos, hipsters, and cops. Decidedly democratic Jimmy Carter announced his bid for governor there, and on the walls were picture of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. It was dingy inside but she thought it would be funny. Also some of her friends worked behind the bar. She figured that if things got too dicey, they would find her an out. She planned to clue them in on before he arrived. She planned to get at least half a drink in her before he got there so that she could seem relaxed and effortless. This is how she liked to imagine people saw her on first dates, as a cool girl whose feathers couldn’t be ruffled.
But as usual, she was late, and he was waiting for her at the bar looking nervous and a little jumpy. He’d seemed much more confident around the asparagus and potatoes.
When she teased him about being jumpy in the bar, he told her that the bar was a hangout for old cops. He told her that he was worried about seeing some of the old guys while he was out. And then he trailed off and she didn’t ask why.
The wall behind the bar was covered in pennants and a giant picture of JFK. Three urns sat on a shelf: one held the ashes of the owner, another those of his brother, and the third held the remains of a longtime customer, the first African American graduate of the Grady Memorial College of Radiology. There was a nameplate to honor a detective assigned to the Atlanta Missing and Murdered Children Unit, a unit that had been deeply involved in a case that ran from 1979 to 1981 to track the twenty-eight mostly African American children who were murdered and missing from one Atlanta neighborhood. Originally the offices of the unit was located around the corner from the bar and on the day it was moved, the detective brought a sign to the labeled Zone 7. While the city only has six zones, Zone 7 is Atlanta cop-speak to meet at the bar.
Once they’d had a beer, he relaxed. They talked about travel, the sudden death of his father when he was four, and the fact that they’d grown up close to each other—him in Rochester, New York, and she just outside of Toronto. Neither of them was from the South. They agreed the weather was good and the people sometimes hard to read.
She’d always been a person who was scared. She frightened herself by thinking about the many ways that things might go wrong. She’d imagine how the plane she was boarding was going to crash after take-off, or that the car that idled too long next to her on the street as she walked home alone contained a person who might jump out and snatch her. Being scared was how she kept herself safe. It was how she divided her life into acceptable and unacceptable risks. Did she feel safe with the cop? She didn’t. But she didn’t feel frightened either.
“Where does it all come from, all this hatred?” asks Ward, Willem Dafoe’s FBI agent character in Mississippi Burning. The movie is based on The Freedom Summer murders. That summer, activists Black and white came to the South to organize, to register citizen to votes, to march and counter the “separate but equal” amendment in June 1964 when three Civil Rights activists, two white and one Black, had been attempting to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Slaughtered on a dark country road. They’d been there to talk to members of a Black church that had been set ablaze. Arrested at a traffic stop in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the three men were sent to jail. After they were let go, they were followed by law enforcement and murdered – shot and buried in an earthen dam. The bodies were only found because of an anonymous tip. It later emerged that the Sheriff’s Office and the KKK had worked in tandem to murder the men. The FBI called the case Mississippi Burning.
Only two years earlier, Ole Miss was desegregated. And in this context, “desegregated” means that a single Black student was permitted admittance after he sued the school. Desegregated means that President Kennedy had to send 127 U.S. Marshals, 316 U.S. Border Patrol agents, and 97 Federal Bureau of Prisons personnel to escort one Black man onto the campus on September 30, 1962. A riot erupted and it wasn’t until October 1 that he was final able to enroll in a class.
After seeing a clip of himself in Mississippi Burning at the 1989 Academy Awards, Gene Hackman took a long hiatus from making violent films, worried that his performances might be misinterpreted when shown out of context. And then there is this scene in the barber shop:
Mayor: You can tell your bosses people got the wrong idea about the South. You know what I’m talkin’ about. Everybody runnin’ around ragged, backwards and illiterate … eatin’ sowbelly and corn pone three times a day. Simple fact is, Anderson, we got two cultures down here. White culture and a colored culture. That’s the way it always has been. That’s the way it always will be.
Anderson: The rest of America don’t see it that way.
Sherriff: The rest of America don’t mean jack shit. You in Mississippi now.
Or in America now. “The racial violence that erupted in this lumber-milling community twenty-four years ago is like a festering wound that refuses to heal. . . . They [the film makers] just want to stir up trouble between the races. It’s all out of proportion,” said Lawrence Rainey, the former Neshoba County sheriff who was exonerated of conspiracy charges in connection with the murders.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the recently divorced girl is Black, and the cop is white. In case you are wondering, I’ll tell you that this summer predates the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Abery, among the hundreds of others. But it comes after the summers of their childhood infused with the beating of Rodney King, the LA Riots, and the OJ Simpson verdict.
She had been dating the cop about a month when they had that weird postmodern conversation about Googling each other. She admitted she hadn’t.
“I’m glad,” he said. “Because I wanted to tell you myself.”
The thing he wanted to tell her . . . How does she write it, even now, with more than a decade of distance without being embarrassed of herself? How to keep yourself from nihilism, from suicide, when the world is crumbling around? As her mother would say, if everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you? A better analogy is: if your friends, your ideals, and your income are being pushed off a bridge, do you jump or do you wait to be pushed, too?
The cop was out on patrol not too far from where she lived in the city. He saw a Black man in a winter hat run out of the post office he’d just driven by. He assumed the man had just robbed the post office. Why had he made that assumption? She hadn’t asked.
He yelled at him to stop and the man picked up his pace. He jumped in a car and sped off. The cop was in pursuit and got the man to pull over. When he did, the man got out of the car and pulled a gun on him. The cop ducked behind his car and the shots the suspect fired hit the car and not him. He radioed for backup and managed to find cover behind a tree. And then he fired back. He said he did not remember firing the gun.
Another office who arrived a few minutes later shot the man down. This didn’t kill him, but it stopped him from shooting. In the transcripts from the inquest, she read that, after the black man was on the ground, the cop had yelled at him, “Show me your hands.” And he’d said, “I can’t move.”
The man was handcuffed before being taken to the hospital where he died on the operating table.
This is not the story he told her.
Here are scenes from their courtship:
He took her to a restaurant whose biggest selling point was that nothing on the menu was over 600 calories. She ate her salmon and grilled vegetables (420 calories) and drank an anemic pour of wine (60 calories) while he told her about his political beliefs without asking any questions about hers. They were all over the map. They hinted vaguely at a morality that she found overly simplistic. Certain things were good and others were bad. There were no shades of gray. She wondered if this was how you had to see the world to be in law enforcement. Or maybe this was how you had to see the world to arrest bartenders and waitresses who were not really drug dealers but underpaid people in restaurants who used or sold something to get by. Perhaps the shades of gray appeared to her because she remembered what it was like to work in a restaurant herself, and she knew the people there who bought and sold drugs. When it was time to order dessert, she demurred and he talked about how good they were, the desserts. And when they brought out what could only be described as the world’s tiniest Key Lime Pie (190) calories. He told her that he liked that she didn’t eat very much.
Another time, after a lunch date, she had him drop her off at the door of a friend’s house where she knew they were inside doing drugs in preparation to attend a music festival outside the city. They sat in front of the house, and she toyed with the idea of him meeting her friends. She wondered how dumb he was. She wanted to bait him, just a little bit. And she said, “Don’t you want to come meet my friends.” And he gave her a look, like he knew exactly what she was doing, but it wasn’t an angry look. He was amused. “Not today,” he said smiling. “Another time.” And he leaned across her lap and opened her door.
He was in the wedding party for the wedding of a fellow officer and close friend. They’d been through the Police Academy together. The happy couple met when he pulled her over for a speeding ticket and somehow that turned into a date, then a baby, then a marriage. She decided to wear a white cocktail dress to the wedding. A friend said, You absolutely cannot wear white to a wedding and she realized her friend was right when she looked up after the ceremony to see she was being watched by the bride’s friend, who looked at her through narrowed eyes before leaning over to whisper to the bride, their eyes meeting briefly before she looked away. But, before the reception, he snuck into the hall and left a note under her place setting, telling her in his childish scrawl how beautiful she looked. Wow, said the date of another groomsmen, I can tell he really likes you. I’ve never seen him do anything like that before.
Later, at the trivia night at a local pub, she knew all the answers. The capital of Portugal, the lead character in a 1970s sitcom, the name of a 19th century Russian novelist. He seemed surprised and then impressed. “How do you know these things?” And she’d shrugged. And when they won, he had hugged her tightly. And then collected the prize, a gift certificate for a free meal at the pub. Which she let him keep.
At the Rock of Gibraltar on vacation with his brother and sister-in-law, he texted her pictures of himself. Tells her the only thing that would make the trip more perfect was if she were there.
Lots of times she would get him to tell her stories about his work, about the bars in East Atlanta Village where he had befriended the bartenders or the waitress. Where he would drink with them late into the night. Where he would drink with them for weeks before trying to buy drugs. And even in all her imaginings, she couldn’t see him doing it because he seemed too stiff or too awkward. And then he would tell her about all the places that she liked to go, the places where people were dealing out of bathrooms or hiding drugs under a drop panel ceiling or in the walk-in refrigerators. He talked about pinning people to the ground and handcuffing them. About the ways in which he had started to mistrust the world, to see it as a place clearly delineated between people who broke the law and people who didn’t.
He slept with a gun under his pillow. She thought about it all the time, and once, when he was in the bathroom she pulled the pillow back and saw it. Once he showed her all of his guns, four in total, on a shelf in his closet next to a pair of sneakers. Once he showed her the place where he hid his gun while he was undercover. She went from having never seen a gun before to seeing half a dozen in three weeks.
She pitied him. She wasn’t sure what she liked about him except that he seemed to like her. And what were they doing, really? She didn’t know. Her mother asked if she could see herself marrying this man. Absolutely not, she said. And her mother grumbled, “That’s what you said about the last one.” And she said. I am never ever, ever getting married again. Because she was happy like this in her small but overpriced apartment with her books and her cat and a computer desk instead of a dining table.
“But you don’t want to end up alone,” her mother said.
But she did.
“Whatever kind of man you marry,” her father said as the end credits of Mississippi Burning scrolled up the screen, “just don’t let it be a white man.” He ejected the tape from the VCR and slid it in back into its case.
She said almost the same thing in another way years later after dealing with the in-laws who would not drink from a glass in her home, the father-in-law who, in a generous moment, liked to compare her to a prostitute. “I will never,” she proclaimed to her closest white married friends, “ever, ever, ever get serious about another white man. I am done with them. Done.”
To her closest Black friend, she said, “If you ever see me getting serious about another white man, shake me. Not ever. Not even if he looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not even if he has a million dollars.”
He told her that he had seen the man rob the post office. He told her that the man had pointed the gun directly at his head. He told her he thought he was going to die that day. He told her he fired the gun. He told her the man fired back and missed. He told that feeling like he had been so close to death made him feel that there was something inside him that was deeply broken. He told her that he had never been the same since that day. He told her he didn’t like to talk about it. And afterwards, he wouldn’t look her in the eye.
He didn’t tell her the man was Black. Did he have to? Or did she already know?
When she had been casually dating the cop a few months, she met a sociologist on a dissertation fellowship at Emory while sitting in a Starbucks. She was there drinking tea and pretending to read, but really, she was looking at her phone and writing about the people sitting around her. He approached her table after she had been sitting there an hour or two. He asked her what she was reading. He introduced himself. He had a business card. His first name was Swahili and his last name Nigerian. His work centered around racial and ethnic theory and the methods used to study inequality and stratification.
He was funny, and he was smart. And they talked for nearly two hours about politics and life. About the work each of them were doing. He asked her to call him. He wanted to take her to dinner. He told her he how pleased he was to have met a woman so beautiful and so smart. But she never called him. And why? Because wasn’t it easier to date someone that she couldn’t have a future with than someone she could? She might have had to marry that Nigerian scholar with the brown eyes and the sweet smile. Wasn’t it easier to feel like the smarter and the prettier one? Wasn’t it easier to date someone who wouldn’t cry with her at Mississippi Burning?
Ten years later, she learns that the mother of the man murdered by her cop testified to her son’s mental illness. Testified that he needed medical attention and had wanted to be hospitalized for the depressions and hallucinations he was having. He worked two jobs, during the day as a mechanic and doing security at night. But Lexapro made him sleepy and so he stopped taking it so he could work. He knew he was struggling. He wanted help. Needed help. Had asked for help. But he owed the hospital $5,000. And in these United States, you can’t get mental health treatment on credit.
$995 was taken from the post office. Far less than she makes now in a month and hardly enough to make a dent in $5,000 he owned. The money from the robbery was not recovered. The police speculated that it might have been disposed of in the blood-stained clothes that were cut from his body in the trauma unit. But the money wasn’t in the car, or anywhere else on the man. There were twenty gunshot wounds from two officers. No exit wounds. Twenty bullets from two white city of Atlanta Police officers to take down one man. He was not drunk or high. The toxicology report makes that clear. He needed help and instead, he was murdered.
When she re-watches it now, the racism in Mississippi Burning seems almost cartoonish. It is a protest movie, one meant to make examples of the white racists, with the characters in the film getting far more jail time than any of their real-life counterparts ever served. It’s meant to illustrate the evils of racism without scratching below their surface, really. When legal channels don’t work, the FBI resorts to rogue techniques, violence, and witness tampering to get the true story of what happened. The Black characters hover in the background, waiting patiently for both the FBI agents to develop a conscience and to save them.
Very near the end of the film, the fictional characters’ names are stamped on the screen, text explaining that many of them are assigned ten years in jail—a number the audience must assume had sounded fair to the filmmakers for murder and conspiracy. And as the movie comes to a close, a multiracial service on the site of a burned Black church takes place. The two FBI agents watch as a larger Black women sings a gospel song. And then they get in their car and drive away. The camera pans out and then back in to focus on a tombstone that’s been broken in half. On the remaining piece are chiseled the words “1964” and “Not Forgotten.” Its ending is neat. Tidy. No, racism is not extinct, but the audience is meant to feel that a mighty blow has been struck, thanks to these two kinds, white FBI agents.
Civil Right activists and Black filmmakers came out strongly against its release in 1989. The widows of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers condemned the film, and Spike Lee spoke out publicly against its message. These criticisms and frustrations seem fair and tempered as, in truth, the case wasn’t even fully prosecuted until 2005. The state of Mississippi refused to prosecute the suspects for murder. Instead, the FBI charged the suspects with conspiring to deprive the activists of their Civil Rights … when they killed them. Between a protracted court battle, the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a series of appeals, the men suspected of murdering three men in their twenties on a dark Mississippi road didn’t begin serving their sentences until 1970, a full six years after the murders took place, and the final defendant was not sentenced until 2005 at 80 years old.
She has never been to Mississippi. She won’t ever go to Mississippi. Because whenever she hears the word, all she can see are those fires, and those trees littered with that strange fruit. All she can hear is: Alabama’s gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam!
In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin writes that brutality of blackness means always having to battle for your humanity. Not country, or culture, but to be treated like a person.
Her generation, that micro-generation squished between Gen-Xers and millennials, who went to mostly integrated schools, who grew up with friends of different races and ethnicities, still knows what it means to have justify their humanity. Oh yes, she knows about the holy trinity of colorism, good hair, and a banging body. She understands what she is for these white men, that she is the socially acceptable version of black womanhood who is smart, who is cultured. She wears the right clothes and knows the right things to say. She is not a protest.
When she goes searching for the cop’s record to write this essay, she finds three charges against him prior to the killing of the man. Two for unnecessary use of force, one against another officer. And another charge for hitting a citizen with a baton and kicking him and then lying to his superiors about it. For that, he got a fifteen-day suspension. She can remember why they stopped dating. They were not really a good match. He was always kind of her, but they had nothing in common, and after a while she realized she was more interested in his stories about police work than she was about him.
When she tells the new man—yes, the white man—the one that she falls in love with, the one she marries, the one she does want to be with, the one she fell for so swiftly that she cannot imagine spending a day without him, the one who does cry with her at Mississippi Burning—when she tells that man about the cop, he is disgusted. They’d just been getting to know one another then. And when these many years later she tells him about this essay, he says, “You know I thought I should end things with you when you told me that. It was too confusing for me.”
It is confusing for her too, especially these days as a mother who has already started to find ways to have “the talk” with her own five-year-old Black boy. The younger versions of her, the one who watched Mississippi Burning, the one that dated the cop, they both seem a million miles away. It seems like something is always aflame, and she is still afraid of fires. In all the forms they take. But she thinks she know better now than to seek it out. Because she is she always burning. Hoping that if she burns enough, she can remake the world anew. She can build something better. But what can she do when the world that is perpetually on fire and she never has the water to put it out?
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick