I grew up in the rural Mississippi Delta; infamous for its checkered past and renowned for its fertile soil - the sandy loam deposited by the great river and its tributaries. My late grandfather, a third generation cotton farmer, spoke of this dirt as though it were a sacred mixture. In 2010 corn and beans were planted on my family’s farm in place of cotton for the first time in 120 years. I noticed this shift developing elsewhere in the delta landscape a few years prior. The horizon, which is historically visible to its very limits, was beginning to disappear behind a wall of stalks.
The contemporary delta suffers from an existential malaise wavering between myth and reality, past and present. An exodus began in the 1940s with the mechanization of farming, and the population continues to decline. Schools are disappearing. Convenience stores are gone. Farm communities are dissolving.
Beginning in 2011, I traveled familiar long, straight roads through the Delta photographing those who reside on rural farmland and continue to farm cotton. In Cotton explores the tension between time and memory, place and identity. A few houses still sit on the edge of a cotton field, stretching to the horizon, while some are newly contained within walls of corn. These farms have names- some inherited, some given: Roebuck, Long Last, Buckhorn, New Hope, Due West, Ashland; and as Eudora Welty wrote, their names “put a kind of poetic claim on (their) existence.” And while most have left these remote places for larger delta towns or southern cities, the people in these photographs are some of the few who remain.
*this project is made possible with support from the Creative and Performing Arts Grant Program at the University of South Carolina.
INTO THE FLATLAND
In the fall of 2001, I relocated from New Mexico to the Mississippi Delta to live on my family's farm, Belle Chase. I ate from my great-grandmother's china, drank form her crystal and slept in her bed. At dusk I rocked on the porch and watched the blackbirds descend on the canebrake planted by my great-grandfather. Living on the farm I existed in a strange continuum. My family's history and their connection to this place were markedly present in my everyday experience.
I left Belle Chase in 2003 to take a teaching position at the University of South Carolina. Into the Flatland explores familial obligation and our conflicted relationship with "home." The photographs in this series were made during regular trips home to visit family over a period of several years. I chose to leave the Delta for many of the same reasons anyone ever chooses to leave a rural area. This is land that my family has inhabited for generations, and I am pulled to this place in a way that I am not able to fully articulate. It is not my nostalgia alone that creates this longing; it is that of my mother and my mother's mother.
*This project was made possible with support from the Institute for Southern Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina.