I'm glad I listened to ZZ. I met some wonderful people, Henry and Annie Mae McKeal and their friend Herbert Williams, who helps out in the Disco 86.|
When the fat white guys on the Delta school boards suddenly realized that 50% of their voters were black, the black kids got new schools and new textbooks. Remember: that happened only one generation ago.
Only two things will solve the problem of poverty in the Delta:
You know what they thought: Goddamned long-haired liberal come down here to stir up trouble. Probably a goddamned faggot.
But the white owner, waitresses and customers tolerated me even though most of my conversations were with the black cooks. Those cooks thought I was great and gave me all kinds of information. One afternoon I was in there sipping coffee and I was bored. A middle-aged man, a regular, sat at the next table talking to a middle-aged woman, also a regular. I glanced over their heads, to the wall beyond them, and my eyes fell on a picture of downtown Greenville taken when Main Street still met the river, probably around 1910. The Main Street in that old picture contrasted sharply with the modern Main Street, which resembles a ghost town. In an effort to strike up a conversation, I nodded at the picture and said, "Things were sure booming around here back then."
They also glanced at the picture. He said, "Yeah. Everybody was better off back then."
All of the white people in the picture wore their Sunday best, strolled down the sidewalk or rode in buggies, and all of the black people wore rags and walked beside or rode in wagons loaded down with bales of cotton. "Everybody?" I asked.
Oh boy, I'm sure he thought. I can give this long-haired pinko-commie fag freak a lecture. And he did. I don't remember any of what he said because I got mad. I learned a long time ago not to argue with a racist, so I got up to leave before I said something I shouldn't. As I walked by their table, the woman looked up at me and said, "You know what's wrong with black people today? It's education."
Now, I might could agree with that, I thought, and maybe this woman isn't racist. So I stopped. "Yes indeed," she continued. "There ain't none of them educated now like they were back then."
"They got a good education back then. They don't get nothing now. An' it's the teachers."
"Yes. Them black teachers ain't educated. They bought their degrees. Paid money for A's."
I walked away, shaking my head at the unbelievable ignorance of some of the members of my own culture and race. But looking back on that incident now, the racist white woman was right about one thing--education is the problem. It is also the solution.
I think the Federal Government and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi should declare war on Delta poverty and fight all the battles in classrooms.
The Louisiana side of the Mississippi Delta is the most poverty stricken area in the United States. Get on US Highway 65 in Ferriday, Louisiana, and take yourself a drive. Go north through the Delta, Louisiana side. Be sure to drive through the towns of Waterproof and Lake Providence. Keep telling yourself, Oh, God, this is some 3rd world slum. This can't be America.
Three out of four black people in Waterproof, Louisiana, live below the poverty level. Not at or near the poverty level. Below the poverty level. Three out of four.
This elderly gentleman is Mr. Frank Roach. Folks call him Roach. He's in his 70s, but he still pumps gas at Waterproof's only filling station, shown behind him and located downtown near the red star in the above map. If Roach happened to bring his acoustic guitar to work, he'll strum you a tune between filling up cars.
When I took this picture in the summer of 1995, Roach had a slight problem with his electric guitar's amplifier and speaker--he loaned them to a friend. The friend spilled a beer in Roach's amplifier and blew the fuze and the speaker.
(There's a moral here: never loan anybody your toothbrush, your shotgun, your wife, or your blues-playing equipment--not necessarily in that order.)
Anyway, one awesome night in December of that year I was sitting at the Disco 86's bar and talking with Annie Mae McKeal and world-famous bluesman Little Milton Campbell. Up stepped not-famous-at-all bluesman Frank Roach. He plopped down on the empty stool between me and Little Milton, who greeted Roach like a long-lost older brother. One thing lead to another, and Roach soon lamented the fact that he had fixed his amp but his speaker was beyond repair.
I had always liked Little Milton's music, and I soon liked Little Milton the man. He surely knew that Roach struggled to make ends meet on an income of gas-pumping money and Social Security. He said, "A speaker? That all you need? Hell, I got two extras out there in the van. Take your pick."
One of my fondest memories is of watching Annie Mae McKeal's beaming face that night while Little Milton sang "Annie Mae's Cafe" to her. She was in heaven. You know what? So was I.
Now, dear reader, I ask you: Do you know another long-haired white boy who helped repair a Mississippi Delta juke joint?
Little Milton's Greatest Hits (Malaco)
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