These Writers Will Challenge Your Assumptions About Mississippi

Disappointing election results led people to lament Mississippi as a racist backwater, but it’s so much more

Photo by Roger Smith

After the runoff election in Mississippi, where Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won an unusually hotly-contested Senate seat, there was a lot of liberal and media hand-wringing about the state of Mississippi. How it was backwards, deserved what it got, was uneducated. This isn’t a new take though: Joyce Carol Oates got blasted on Twitter in October 2017 for saying “if Mississippians read, William Faulkner would be banned.”

When the media, writers, and Twitter personalities define Mississippi by its most conservative impulses, they ignore the literary contributions made by liberal and radical writers of color from Mississippi, who are working to make Mississippi, and the country, a better place. (In fact, they ignore the existence of Mississippians of color entirely.) There might be a lot of white racists in Mississippi, but that doesn’t mean everyone in Mississippi is a white racist.

The following list focuses on writers of color from Mississippi, whose writing proves that Mississippi is anything but a conservative backwater.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Ward, who is proudly from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (and who moved back to raise her children) has won two National Book Awards for fiction (for Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones). She also wrote a memoir, The Men We Reaped (a tear jerker) and edited the collection The Fire This Time. Her work deals with race, trauma, and the South in ways that never stereotype or assume.

Native Guard by Natasha Tretheway

Tretheway is the former Poet Laureate of the United States and a Mississippian. She is best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning 2006 collection Native Guard, but she has published 7 books including Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

This was one of my absolute favorite books of 2018. Originally from Jackson Mississippi, Laymon now teaches at writing at the University of Mississippi. He is also the author of another memoir, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, as well as a novel Long Division.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Wright, one of the most popular black writers of the 20th century, hailed from Mississippi (though he had a complicated relationship with the state, depicted in his memoir Black Boy). He might be best known for his novel Native Son, but he was incredibly prolific, writing eleven works of fiction, as well as non-fiction, plays, and poetry.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Thomas, another writer from Jackson, garnered attention in 2016 when her novel The Hate U Give became an instant New York Times bestseller. In it, Thomas tells the story of Starr, a teenage girl in Mississippi, who becomes politically involved when she witnesses the shooting of one of her friends by a police officer. The novel was made into a film in 2018. Her second book, On the Come Up, will be released this coming February.

Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

A Civil Rights Activist originally from Centreville, Mississippi, Moody became known for her 1968 memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, which has been praised for its accurate depiction of rural Mississippi during segregation. Coming of Age in Mississippi has also become a commonly assigned book in schools across the country.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

Mildred Taylor is an award winning author of children’s literature, particularly middle grade. Her most well known book (and one of my very favorites) is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which won the Newberry Medal in 1977. Roll of Thunder tells the story of African American siblings growing up in Mississippi during the great depression. Taylor has written many other books, including a sequel to Roll of Thunder called Let the Circle Be Unbroken.

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