By Seija Rankin
June 17, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Little, brown and company

When Andreaa Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney set out to release their latest book, they knew they would be doing so right in the middle of an all-too-important election season (it hits shelves September 29). What they didn't know is that this middle-grade novel would arrive on the heels of a (long overdue) racial justice uprising, making it all the more prescient. Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It uses a mix of prose and spoken-word poems to retell the civil rights struggles that won black Americans the right to vote. Read an excerpt of the forthcoming book below, and add it to your fall antiracist reading list.

Pretty Mississippi: A Troubled Brother’s Soliloquy

Where and When: Ruleville, Mississippi.

September 1955. Dusk. Out back at the Little home.

Roly, years later, a grown man, is seated in a rocking chair.

He’s just finished reading a newspaper.

Folds the tattered sheets, sets them in his lap.

His tone is weary.

When Mississippi’s ma and pa named their baby, they called her Magnolia. She was a beautiful sight. Magnolia later became the official state flower, and the whole place was known as the Magnolia State. So pretty, that place.

Pretty Mississippi got a nickname, too. Along with being named the Magnolia State, it came to be called the Hospitality State. That’s right, Hospitality. But see, uh-huh, the Magnolia State, she was, at times, a terrible hostess. Depending on who came to visit, Miss Hospitality forgot to put out her welcome mat.

Still had a lot of charm, though. The kind of charm you only finds in Pretty Mississippi. Speaking of pretty, the Magnolia State could sure turn some heads. She beckoned all kinds of folks with her sunflowers and fleecy cotton, dancing under puff-clouds floating in a bolt-blue sky.

Soon, though, when you looked up toward the bolt-blue, you could see that Magnolia, a white-on-white flower, had grown wings. She spread them feathers as wide and as high as the beaked creature that was one of her state symbols — the mockingbird.

Magnolia and the mockingbird flew side by side, along with a new winged thing that had swooped into Pretty Mississippi. This ugly bird came to add its darkness to Magnolia’s land. That winged thing! Jim Crow was his name. Meanest menace ever. Didn’t take long for Jim to lay down his iron-feathered laws. Colored people here, white people there, and ain’t no mixing.

We gets less, worse, half, none.

Negroes are separate and no kind of equal.

Jim, he called us inferior.

Called us second-rate.

Called us names not worth repeating.

That’s right, Jim told us go 'round back to beg at the alley door.

That’s right, Jim insisted we sit in the last seats on the bus.

That’s right, Jim made it real clear if we was thirsty, over there was a rusty water fountain with our name on it — for colored only.

Jim let us know our children didn’t dare go to school with their children.

Make no mistake. At the gate of the Magnolia Hospitality State, the front door to any public place was only open to white people. That gate was a locked riddle to this hate-riddled place.

Jim Crow put a name to the shadow he was casting over Pretty Mississippi. Called it segregation. In time, that pitch-black winged thing had turned Pretty Mississippi into something ugly.

Mississippi became a pretty nightmare. Her gardenias and fluffy cotton clouds were laced with hate. In the middle of everything that was growing from Magnolia’s garden, there were fields and fields of forgotten flowers — dandelions. These hot-hued pom-poms on a stem were accused of being flower-pests. But how can blooms so bright, so determined, be weeds? These was hardworking people like me, like so many daddies and sisters and sick-and-tired mamas, sticking to their convictions as their stuck-to-sharecropping grit helped them keep on.

Dandelions, forgotten flowers in the eyes of some, are forced to remember what it takes to summon enough strength to stay in the sharecropping game. To endure what it means to be blossoms who are just as pretty, but treated as separate-and-not-equal.

Even though ugly segregation had flown into Pretty Mississippi, there was so much to love. Still is. Mississippi has every reason to brag about her catfish, oysters, and cornbread. And when it comes to sugarcane, swallowtail butterflies, pecan trees, and bumblebees, the Magnolia State is truly special.

Part of Magnolia’s pride and joy is the Mississippi Delta, a triangle of land between two muddy ribbons of water.

The Magnolia State is good at singing the praises of her homegrown music, the delta blues. Uh-huh, the delta blues is gut-bucket tunes that can fill up seats at a honky-tonk or jook joint. But that sad music grew out of sharecropper struggle. Why do you think we sing it so much?

Those delta-blue notes came from the wail of black people so poor, they couldn’t even afford enough o’s and r’s to spell out their poverty. Couldn’t even borrow a letter from a friend, who was also worn thin, trying to make ends meet. Instead of saying we was poor, deprivation forced us to admit we was po. When folks invite you to the Mississippi Delta, they’re quick to crow about its plantations, front porches, corn pone, and fatback. What your tour guide won’t show you is the Mississippi Delta’s evil side.

Sometimes I think Jim Crow himself was hatched from an egg formed in the Mississippi Delta’s bedeviled soil. An egg fried in racist grease and topped with home-cooked cruelty. A month back, August 1955, Pretty Mississippi got her name in the Negro newspapers. But there wasn’t no kind of pretty in the headline that read:

BOY, 14, FOUND DEAD IN MONEY, MISSISSIPPI.

His body was floating and bloated in the Tallahatchie River.

The child’s crime was making eyes at a white woman.

Hooded men wanted to teach him a lesson.

For us colored people, Mississippi is no kind of pretty.

Plain and simple, Mamie Till’s son is now six feet under hatred’s soil, while Jim Crow flies overhead, casting his wrath.

But that child is not a forgotten flower. Emmett’s memory lives on, brightly. The recollection of that child’s legacy is as resilient as a dandelion’s determination. Yes, uh-huh, that’s the state of this state’s Hospitality. The sweet scent of Magnolia’s blooms rise in the air, while fertile hatred lingers everywhere. That’s the pretty nightmare that churns in Mississippi. That’s the way a state can be two ways at once — pretty and vile. Delicate flowers whose pretty petals try to hide what’s underneath the delta’s muddy land. That’s the mixed-up state of this state.

There’s more, too. Mamie Till’s son wasn’t the only one. Our Negro newspaper is filled with stories about ropes around throats. About slipknots, cinched. About colored boys gone missing. About husbands and fathers and brothers wrongly accused. About little girls last seen whirling in tall southern grasses, singing ditty-songs with Magnolia’s mockingbirds.

Most evenings, I look forward to reading my Negro newspaper. I like to roll around in all them words and sentences. I like to let the power of reading roll around in me. But the Negro newspaper’s stories sure bring home some foul truths. Its headlines remind me that sometimes there’s a curse in knowing how to read. When my eyes land on what I wish I didn’t have to see, it’s impossible to forget what I’ve just read — the unspeakable dread of wondering, Who’s next?

Used to be, I would read the Negro newspaper in bed before falling asleep. Used to be, I could turn those rattly pages, then turn onto my pillow. But I learned a hard lesson from doing that.

I started dreaming about those unspeakable acts.

I started spending the night with the mixed-up state of the state of Mississippi haunting me with her pretty nightmares.

Sunflowers, honeybees, cotton fluff, and magnolias, all dancing in southern breezes next to Sir-Sir garter snakes with big teeth, playing ring-around-the-rosy with Jim Crow, and cackling. In my pretty nightmares, the beauty and ugly dripped together under the light of a misty Mississippi moon.

How many mornings have I tried to throw off those strange dreams?

How many nights have I laid awake, hoping the pretty nightmares would go away?

At the same time, I love my Magnolia State’s cherry-bark trees. And night frogs that sing. And autumn mornings’ piecrust skies, rolling out as far as forever. And lightning bugs. And white butter. And washbasin music. And red carpet roses.

But for all its pretty, I can’t ever escape Mississippi’s state of mind that stays in my mind. You see, pretty nightmares are stubborn. Their stains won’t come out, even in the light of day. Scrub all you want. When you’re colored and living in Mississippi, oppression is dyed deep in your being.

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