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Scenes From a Documentary History of Mississippi

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

1. King Cotton, 1907

From every corner of the photograph, flags wave down
the main street in Vicksburg. Stacked to form an arch,
the great bales of cotton rise up from the ground

like a giant swell, a wave of history flooding the town.
When Roosevelt arrives—a parade—the band will march,
and from every street corner, flags wave down.

Words on a banner, Cotton, America’s King, have the sound
of progress. This is two years before the South’s countermarch—
the great bolls of cotton, risen up from the ground,

infested with boll weevils—a plague, biblical, all around.
Now, negro children ride the bales, clothes stiff with starch.
From up high, in the photograph, they wave flags down

for the President who will walk through the arch, bound
for the future, his back to us. The children, on their perch—
those great bales of cotton rising up from the ground—

stare out at us. Cotton surrounds them, a swell, a great mound
bearing them up, back toward us. From the arch,
from every corner of the photograph, flags wave down,
and great bales of cotton rise up from the ground.

2. Glyph, Aberdeen 1913

My bones cleave to my skin and to my flesh. . .
for the hand of God has touched me.

—Book of Job, Chapter 23

The child’s head droops as if in sleep.
Stripped to the waist, in profile, he’s balanced
on the man’s lap. The man, gaunt in his overalls,
cradles the child’s thin arm—the sharp elbow, white
signature of skin and bone. He pulls it forward
to show the deformity—the humped back, curve
of spine—punctuating the routine hardships
of their lives: how the child must follow him
into the fields, haunting the long hours
slumped beside a sack, his body asking
how much cotton? or in the kitchen, leaning
into the icebox, how much food? or
kneeling beside him at the church house,
why, Lord, why? They pose as if to say
Look, this is the outline of suffering:
the child shouldering it—a mound
like dirt heaped on a grave.

3. Flood

They have arrived on the back
of the swollen river, the barge
dividing it, their few belongings
clustered about their feet. Above them
the National Guard hunkers
on the levee, rifles tight in their fists,
blocking the path to high ground.
One group of black refugees,

the caption tells us, was ordered
to sing
their passage onto land,
like a chorus of prayer—their tongues
the tongues of dark bells. Here,
the camera finds them still. Posed
as if for a school-day portrait, children
lace fingers in their laps. One boy
gestures allegiance, right hand over
the heart’s charged beating.

The great river all around, the barge
invisible beneath their feet, they fix
on what’s before them: the opening
in the sight of a rifle; the camera’s lens;
the muddy cleft between barge and dry land—
all of it aperture, the captured moment’s
chasm in time. Here, in the angled light
 of 1927, they are refugees from history:
the barge has brought them this far;
they are waiting to disembark.

4. You Are Late

The sun is high and the child’s shadow,
almost fully beneath her, touches the sole
of her bare foot on concrete. Even though
it must be hot, she’s takes the step; her goal

to read is the subject of this shot—a book
in her hand, the library closed, the door
just out of reach. Stepping up, she must look
at the two signs, read them slowly once more.

The first one, in pale letters, barely shows
against the white background. Though she will read
Greenwood Public Library for Negroes,
the other, bold letters on slate, will lead

her away, out of the frame, a finger
pointing left. I want to call her, say wait.
But this is history: she can’t linger.
She reads the sign that I read: You are Late.


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