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Walton S Mississippi: An American Journey | Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3746 words Published: 5th May 2017

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Before his travelling to Mississippi, he never really felt the severity of the issue of racism, for he was born into a neighborhood where people 'kept what prejudices they had to themselves' (4). For Anthony and most of the blacks today, Mississippi is 'something from which the blacks had freed [themselves], washed into the past'. The blacks like Anthony today enjoy the fruits of success, freedom and equal rights from the sacrifices of their ancestors. Their biggest concern surrounds trivial questions like 'whether to have espresso or cappuccino after dinner' (9). Most of his knowledge surrounding issues of racial discrimination towards African American are limited to textbooks and conversations with family. During the night of the assassination of Martin Lurther King, Anthony, who was only seven by that time, 'refused to take out the garbage'(5) for 'he was terrified of the dark. He knew that Mississippi 'had something to do with [his] fear' (5).

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His real image of Mississippi came only when his school, Notra Dame lost to Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) during a football game. He was petrified by the scene where the Ole Miss supporters raise the controversial Confederate flags to support their team. He was befuddled by their acts but he realized that something was not right. His experience towards racism was strengthen during his stay in New York to report the protest march in Brooklyn neighborhood in the wake of Yusuf Hawkins murder where he realizes the existence and the severity of racial discrimination. The roads were filled with whites who were 'throwing watermelons…and shouting NIGGERS!' (7) He was terrified. He thought that such kind of open racism would only happen in the past, during the pre-Emancipation period. But he was wrong. It happened right in front of him, in this contemporary metropolitan New York. He knew something was wrong but he could not figure out what.

That was when he decided to embark on the journey to Mississippi; to discover the root of the problem and find explanation for his many observations, he need to go back to a place where everything begins and that is, Mississippi. During his travelling in Mississippi, he has learnt and observed things that could never be learnt from textbook. During his visit to the Ole Miss football game, among the 'sharply and richly dress' (161) spectators raised Confederate battle banner that were in everywhere, 'particularly among the alumni' (161). Anthony was again befuddled by his sight. Shouldn't the Confederate flag, which is the ultimate symbolization of racism and oppression towards blacks, be removed in this day and ages? What was the intention of white Mississippians raising the Confederate flag? Don't they know that the flag was the key symbol of the period of greatest pain and suffering of the blacks ever in the American history?

As he searched for the answer, he soon learnt that the Mississippians have not truly recovered from the pre-Emancipation period. Beneath the seemingly peaceful racial relationship are the prejudices which are deeply rooted in every Mississippians, that even the passage of time could not erase them completely. In places like football stadium in Mississippi, blacks would not be present, as Anthony suggest, for the blacks 'did not [feel] belong' and certainly 'were not missed' (162). There is still a great rift between the black and whites, that Mississippi contains 'two cultures' of blacks and whites that are 'mutually hostile' at each other. Just like the confederate flags that were waving high in the stadium, the whites see it as a representation of 'history and heritage' while blacks think that the flag is a 'totem of subjugation'. Two contrasting and opposing idea, again, reflected the very core problem of the contemporary Mississippi society - the lack of understanding and tolerance between races.

After having been meeting with a few people like Mrs. Luckett and visiting places like the big mansions that whites reside, he realized that he was missing one major linkage in his search for the true and ugly American history - his father. Being a direct victim of racial prejudices and oppression in the 50s, Anthony's father Claude did not talk to his child very much about his past. Anthony realized that by involving his father in his search for the roots of the problem, he would be able to find the linkage between his family past history with the disgusting, violent and often brutal Mississippi history. Through his father, Anthony knew that he was able to learn and feel the suffering of a black directly. Claude was born in Holly Spring. Just like many black children, he too faced with a lot of discriminations from the whites. For instance, he has to receive old books which 'always have pages missing' (215) in school. Unlike the white kids, he 'didn't get to ride the bus'. When there was no school, Claude had to work in cotton field from early morning till at night. Through the vivid description of his father, Anthony finally understands how the aspect of Mississippi was like, that he often find 'hard to imagine'.

It was not until the brutal and merciless murder of his friend James, coupled with the hatred towards whites that he had long carried with him that James decided to leave Mississippi for Chicago, for he was 'tired of the racism and meanness'(213) here. He wanted to be 'treated like a boy, like a man' (213). Through his journey to Mississippi, Anthony is able to gain more appreciation towards the Blues music, that blues has increasingly 'shadow everything', including his own 'worldview and those of [his] parents' (227), as the 'detune notes' (227) of the blues truly reflect and echoes the delivers of the spirit, 'the growl and the shriek' (227) of the oppressed blacks towards the society.

As Anthony continues to reveal one of the bloodiest chapters in the American history and associated them with his observations, he was petrified and abhorred by the ugliness of history - the oppression of whites towards blacks and the inhuman and disgusting acts that have ever committed. He appreciates what his journey had taught him, though they might not necessarily be pretty. He tried to find the answers for what had happened around him. However, for each question he tried to answer, it will 'branch into three more, into infinitudes that he could no longer grasp' (211). He started to view the problems, which he put the blame on the blacks, that trouble that blacks in South Chicago as an continuation of prejudices that rooted in the long history of Mississippi and American in general. He had finally 'learned to stop to evade and forget' (275) the history but to embrace and 'call them [his] own'. (275)

In Mississippi: An American Journey, Anthony Walton travels back and forth in the river of Black history and his real-life journey to Mississippi. Walton's journey covers not only places that cast 200 years of history but also a long list of people: sharecroppers, planters, his parents and relatives, famous writers, bluesmen, aristocrats-white and black, those who create the history and those who inhabit it now. To Walton, once one of those who suffered from "historical amnesia" (274), this journey is a process of answering the contradictions and illusions around him, a process of gaining "knowledge" instead of being "an American innocent," (274) and a process of deciphering his heritage, Mississippi, a place bearing "the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge." (274) However, it is not the knowledge increment of truth and stories that disappoint him but the acknowledgement of that the past has not yet passed do.

Walton's innocence refers to his limited understanding of racism, Mississippi, even America. His knowledge of these is confined to awareness of them but not the insight into them. Walton once believed that the journey would bring him clarity and master of historical tradition of his race to compliment his inexperience. Certainly, the journey does give him enough "fruit" to appease his hunger. But what he discovers in Mississippi exceeds what he wanted to know. The "knowledge" he gains from the journey is that he progressively understands that the innocence comes from his "happily suffering the historical amnesia that leads Americans to think they are innocent of history because they 'won'-their values prevailed, their goals were achieved…" Moreover, the realization of "the pervasion of the darkness of America's history" wakes him up from the dream of the pursuit of truth and enlightment.

In the prologue of "Mississippi," Walton depicts a powerful scene in which his father, Claude, recounts an event happened on a Christmas Eve forty years ago. Claude points a shuttered building and says James Crump, his childhood friend, was shot "right here" where used to be a bus station because somebody called the sheriff and complained about James' singing and clapping his hands "on Christmas Eve." In Walton's mind, his father is a quiet man, well behaved, middle class as him, and never associated with violence because of his religion. But, what he sees in Claude's eyes when he recounts the story is indignation and grief that astonishes him. This old man turns to be a character lived under racism that he had never known. The increasing understanding of his father's lives inspires him to reexamine racism and Mississippi.

In a later chapter, Claude tells Walton the stories of his work during his escape from Mississippi to the North. Walton asks "Did you ever want to hurt white people?" (216) Claude responds with an ironic smile "Most definitely. I hate white people, with a passion… I hated them as much as they hated me. I often had visions of wiping out the entire white community." (217)Upon this time, Walton is amazed that his father and thousands of other people who experienced and suffered from racism did not "push their suffering down into another generation." (274) But, compared to what confused him before the journey, the toll of daily discrimination and hostilities he paid at New York, Walton realizes that he is still living in the same life as his father did except for the physical labor. Though Walton and other younger blacks can be well-educated, though their parents tried hard not to pass down their suffering and grief to them, the truth that young blacks are unconsciously suffering from the racism cannot be omitted, as long as they are blacks. The augmented knowledge of his father pushes him to realize the vagueness of what he deeply believed before-"history is [as being] progressive, as having a purpose."

In college, Walton's connection to Mississippi is only when his school, Notre Dame, loses a bitterly fought football game to Ole Miss, which is also the University of Mississippi. What he only knows about University of Mississippi at that time is that there is lots of "Confederate hoopla surrounding the Rebels" (6) and he does not glad about that.

During his journey, he visits University of Mississippi several times, with his mother, Dorothy, and his friend, Mona. Walton and Mona go to the homecoming football game. In the stadium, he once again catches the sight of the Confederate flag among the alumni occupying a half of the stadium. "The whites claim the rebel flag represents history and heritage whereas blacks see it as a totem of their subjugation; and it was astonishing to see fifty thousand whites waving Confederate flags to urge on their black gladiators." (162) This striking scene shows that racism is still here, at Mississippi. The society is still separate; the cost of their parents' generation has not yet been paid off.

However, as Walton and his mother wander around the campus, they find that some of the college students of Ole Miss and other younger blacks' generation seem to comfortably live in the "freedom" "in the cost of the 250-year battle of black Mississippians for recognition and civil rights, especially the battle for Ole Miss." (91) No one black student seems to be aware of what had happened here and what is going on here. In Dorothy's eyes, "A lot of them don't really identify with the cause of Mississippi or with blackness, or with what it took to get here. They don't care what it took as long as they can get in on some of the benefits… They probably don't even know who James Meredith is." (91) Statistics even shows that nine out of ten of the black college students in Ole Miss don't know who Medgar Evers was. The reality and statistics both convince Walton of the persisting racism in Mississippi and the ignorance of the generation of young blacks. He defines this symptom as "amnesia", an epidemic disease among young blacks. Fortunately, Walton recovers from the journey to Mississippi. In contrast to his previous innocence, Walton's new knowledge about Mississippi and the persisting segregation helps him see the hooplas as something more concrete than mere dislike. The emotion is more complex. It is filled with centuries of hatred and violence, the same as what he sees from his father's eyes.

Dorothy once asked him about William Faulkner when he was in graduate school at Brown University, because she wanted to write about a Nobel laureate from her hometown, New Albany. Walton laughed out loud and informed her that this Faulkner was white. "So?" she replied. Walton tries hard to not think of Faulkner during his trip to Mississippi because in his mind, Faulkner was a white, a celebrator of the Confederacy and the owner of a "big house" out on Old Taylor Road whereas himself is "a descendent of those who had been the slaves of his Sartorises, Compsons and Sutpens, who had suffered enormously under the Snopeses." But, he realizes he was wrong. Faulkner is everywhere in Mississippi. What Faulkner says about the past is undoubtedly right-"the past isn't dead. It isn't even past yet."

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Faulkner's novel "Absalom, Absalom!" reflects the history of South and foreshadows its future. In the novel, Supten disavows his black son by a black woman while embraces the white son by a white woman. The refusal of admitting the black son sets off a chain of incidents that lead to the destruction of the entire Sutpen family and plantation. After two years of his trip, Walton comes to decipher the metaphor in the novel as the reality what he is examining in Mississippi. "The state's tragic history is testimony to what this refusal has wrought. And it is now likely that the members of the two racial groups are permanent strangers, doomed to gape and stare but not see, blind to each other as siblings, humans, Americans." (163) Walton also refers Faulkner's family story as the history of Mississippi. Faulkner understands the conflict in the hearts of Mississippian because he has deeply fallen in love with a black woman, Caroline Barr. However, when looking around at Faulkner's marvelous mansion, Walton can hardly find anything implies the existence of Caroline and manifests the love of them. Walton's new knowledge or acceptance of Faulkner is the product of his journey, clearing his innocence, recognizing the truth and exposing the scar of history.

The book Mississippi: An American Journey emphasizes the shift of Walton's "innocence" to "knowledge" of history of blacks, of Mississippi, and of America. In the journey to Mississippi, the cotton plantation, the Rosaline mansion, the resting place of Medgar Ever, Holly Spring, New Albany, and Ole Miss are not simple places or scenic spots to Walton. The long roster containing Richard Wright, President Roosevelt, Ross Barnett, Meredith, sharecroppers, and bluesmen is not merely a review of history neither. They are testimony of racism, hatred and the logjam of history. In the end of the epilogue, Walton points out that "Most of all, we want to be innocent of how much the ghosts and bones of our beautiful landscape have shaped and twisted virtually everything that has happened here; and we want to remain ignorant of how costly our innocence is to our government, our communities and our hears." But now, after the journey, Walton is glad that he could recover from the amnesia, never "embrace the ghosts and cradle the bones and call them his [my] own." (275) again.

Work Cited

Anthony, Walton. Mississippi: An American Journey. New York, Vintage, 1996.

Innocence to knowledge

Anthony Walton, a black upper middle class man with an Ivy League education, decides to journey back to Mississippi in hopes of discovering more about the, "the troubled soul of the south"(Caryl Phillips). He describes his experience in his book entitled, Mississippi: An American Journey. Mississippi is a landmark place for him because both his parents were raised there and as a child he spent countless summers with family members there. In the end of his long journey Walton reviews over all that he has learned and witnessed while in Mississippi and he concludes that his findings have taken him from a state of innocence into " painful knowledge" he did not have before (272). Walton explains this knowledge to be much like the knowledge Adam and Eve received once they, "[ate] the fruit of the tree of knowledge, because, "[he] became aware of things [he] could never not know" again (272).

Now Walton is no ignorant person, he studied at both Brown and Norte Dame University, so when he talks of acquiring knowledge he is simply saying he was given in depth information on topics he did not know there level of severity. It is not just Walton who did not know the extent of Mississippi history, but he said Americans in general had this "amnesia about the past" (272). Some of the realities Walton received were the stories told by older family members.

His father told the first story of the book, and that was of his friend being shot to death on Christmas Eve. This story was told as they were walking in Mississippi's humid summer weather in the exact location that the killing took place. At the time of the story Walton could only focus on how terribly uncomfortable he was in the weather, while it seemed like his father had stepped in a time machine that put him back at the scene. The deceased boy was innocent, young, and had not hurt a soul that night, but without the slightest bit of questioning was shot and killed instantly by a white man for expressing his happiness. Seeing the emotional and long term effect this had on his father, Walton began to get a glimpse into the sufferings his father experienced as a child in Mississippi compared to the privileged life style his father had given to him. A life style in Illinois where people, "kept what prejudices they had to themselves" (4). That single story was the beginning of a long string of knowledge Walton would collect.

In the journey Walton and his mother visited Ole Miss. Ole Miss is the University of Mississippi, the fighting ground for people like his mother and father's generation. As the two of them sat on campus, Dorothy Walton, his mother reminisced on her dreams about Ole Miss. She said although her generation was not able to attend it she would think, "if i could get a chance to go here, that would everything alright," (95). Dorothy also noticed black students on campus who did not acknowledge her and she felt as if they had disconnected and forgotten about all the hard work before them that allowed them to be where they are (91). For instance the first black man to attend Ole Miss, James Meredith, having to be escorted by, "five hundred U.S. marshals, border patrolmen, and deputized prison guards" (94).Walton listens to her and thinks back to the time when they were touring colleges for him and that bit of information about Ole Miss and his mothers discontent with blacks interaction on campus let him understand the true cost of education.

Walton would attend an Ole Miss football game while in Mississippi and witness a sign of racism he had never seen before. He was obviously aware that black people were not always admitted into the university and therefore the past alumni would be white; what he did not know was that the alumni carried, "Confederate battle banner[s] everywhere" (161). That flag was not a flag that displayed unity amongst all but one that was symbolic of a time where blacks where suppressed and unequal. Whether the flag represented history or not it was offensive to groups and Walton had to be in disbelief when he saw it. These signs were the pieces of the knowledge puzzle he was putting together in his head.

Throughout Walton's journey he continues to ask the question of worthiness. His aunt and his mother were approached with the question. He wanted to know from his aunt was it worth moving up north and then moving back to Mississippi where racism is different from up north. She said the ghettos up north were the cause of death for many black men and if she wanted her sons to succeed then they would need to be in another area. This was an eye opener for Walton because he grew up in the north an assumed its was better then the rural south. Walton also asks his mom was it worth having black students who went far but did not even recognize each other? The response that his mother, Dorothy, gives is yes it being worth all the struggles her generations and the ones before endured. He then understands everyone wants better for each other whether it be now or in the future. This was where Walton's innocence was diminished because he now understood that his success was because of the sacrifices others before him made, and uncovering these sacrifices was like the key to knowledge.

Mississippi: An American Journey is truly a journey that people take as they read the story Walton writes. He brings to the light all of the dark in Mississippi's history that he learns. Through Walton's lens Americans and himself know little truth about Mississippi other than its racist and segregated past. What Walton ends with is not petty events and insignificant details found on the street or in a history book, but critical details and events he never knew existed. His newly found knowledge gave him a sense of the strength within the black people of Mississippi and the courage to embrace the past "ghost" and "call them his own"(275).


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