Geography is fate
When W. Ralph Eubanks, MA ’79, traveled to Ann Arbor to pursue his master’s degree at U-M, he left his Southern accent in Mississippi’s Piney Woods. It seemed important for the Ole Miss grad to “erase the map of Mississippi from [his] tongue” before he left home.
“There’s racial discrimination and there’s linguistic discrimination,” the author/professor says. “I didn’t want to be a victim of both, so I decided to change the one I could control.”
Eubanks was lured to Michigan in the ’70s by the promise of a diverse and international community the University of Mississippi couldn’t match. William Faulkner’s biographer Joseph Blotner was on the faculty. And Ann Arbor was a whole new world that liberated the young scholar from the Confederate symbolism and Southern social hierarchy that defined his early life.
“I was free of the devil I knew,” he says, looking back.
The South writ large
By the time he entered U-M’s program in English Language and Literature, Eubanks’ original accent was virtually nonexistent. “I had learned to say the difference between a ‘p-i-n’ and a ‘p-e-n,'” he says. But he still had a few things to work on, and when a linguistics professor “outed” him at a party, Eubanks had a revelation. “Geography is fate,” just as Heraclitus – and Ralph Ellison — once said.
So, he decided to confront his complicated feelings about his home – its contradictions and complexities, its violence and beauty. Mississippi, in all its confounding forms, has consumed the writer’s studies, his teaching, and his affection ever since.
Eubanks currently is a visiting professor of English and Southern studies and writer-in-residence at his alma mater, Ole Miss. He is the former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia and has written for the Chicago Tribune, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and more. From 1995-2013 he was director of publishing for the Library of Congress.
“We’ve often thought of ourselves as the South writ large,” Eubanks says of Mississippi. “But there are many ‘Souths,’ and even many Souths within Mississippi. So I’m always trying to find topics that will speak to people and bring some clarity to understanding Mississippi, not only historically but from a policy perspective. What is it that Mississippi tells us about America?”
A place like Mississippi
With his new book, A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape (Timber Press, 2021), Eubanks attempts to answer that question through the writing of Faulkner and several Southern authors ranging from Eudora Welty and Margaret Walker to Willie Morris and two-time National Book Award winner Jessmyn Ward, MFA ’05.
“We tend to think of Welty and Faulkner as regional writers who wrote about ‘the South,’ but they wrote about the human condition that happened to be in the South,” says Eubanks. “And through their characters they got us to focus much more broadly on humanity.”
Welty once said, “place opens a door in the mind,” and Eubanks expands on that idea in A Place Like Mississippi. Reading about place opens the mind’s door to empathy and can advance social justice, he says. “I believe that studying literature can help us draw on that empathy.”
What are words for?
Beyond Mississippi’s “maddening beauty” lies a storytelling tradition that has much to teach us about the American South, the U.S., and the world, Eubanks says. It’s a place of rich soil and poor people, where past and present collide, and where folklore and myth serve as the pillars of culture. It birthed the blues, Emmett Till, and Civil Rights. It’s the home of the sprawling and horrifying Parchman Prison, a place Eubanks describes as an open wound on the Mississippi Delta.
Statistics about the state reveal the painful legacies wrought by slavery, racism, and poverty that still plague our nation. In 2019, U.S. News and World Report ranked Mississippi #48 among the states. It ranked #50 in health care, #43 in education, #49 in economy, #48 in infrastructure, and #44 in opportunity. The median income is $24,519; 32.8 percent of the population is college-educated.
Woven through those numbers is a multilayered “history filled with suffering that must be explained,” Eubanks writes. “It is the beauty of the land mixed with the state’s complex history that inspires and perplexes its writers. That is the burden one feels when writing about Mississippi because it is a place that everyone knows about – or at least claims to – yet few are willing to understand. We have so much to explain.”
Teaching about the South and its writers is a way to cope with “our brokenness and understand my own brokenness,” he says.
To that end, Eubanks explores the work of such familiar Mississippi natives as Richard Wright (Native Son), Greg Iles (Natchez Burning), and Kathryn Stockett (The Help), among many others. Readers also will encounter Kiese Laymon (How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America), a writer actively seeking to avoid sentimental Southern tropes, and Angie Thomas (The Hate You Give). Eubanks describes Thomas’ young adult novels as “rooted by the post-integration blues of the present but not overshadowed by the past.”
Probing the silences
Eubanks is the grandson of a mixed-race couple that hailed from Alabama. His parents relocated to an 80-acre farm in Mount Olive, Miss., where the writer grew up. In his 2003 memoir Ever is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past (Basic Books), he weaves his personal journey with social, political, and cultural history. The text recounts an era in which Black churches were burned, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King were murdered, schools were integrated forcibly, and white supremacy was maintained at all costs.His follow-up, The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South (Smithsonian Books, 2009), delves into his family’s complicated history. In one sequence, Eubanks writes about his white grandfather deeding his property to his Black children to ensure the white side of the family couldn’t claim it upon his death.
As a critical thinker, essayist, and observer of cultural history, Eubanks has advice for fellow writers who seek to discover the hidden meaning in the places that define us.
“If you begin to probe the silences, you can uncover something that adds layers to your narrative,” he says. “The only way to dig deeper is to listen. Watch for the things people don’t want to talk about. That’s where you find the great stories.”
Eubanks received a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and has been a fellow at the New America Foundation. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and three children. He recently was named a 2021-22 fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. His next book will combine reporting, archival research, personal history, the blues, and popular culture to tell the story of the Mississippi Delta.
(Lead image courtesy of W. Ralph Eubanks.)