Editor’s note: The Mississippi Delta’s Blues Trail attracts many overseas visitors. Recently, Cuenca expat John Keeble visited the U.S. deep south, taking a British traveller’s view of the music and civil rights sites. In the first of a three-part series, he hits the road from Memphis to New Orleans and returns via Alabama. Tomorrow, he compares two towns, iconic blues location Clarksdale and the old slave town of Savannah. In the last installlment, he experiences the most dramatic moments of the trip – the new lynching memorial at Montgomery, Alabama.
By John Keeble
You can think you know about a subject all your life but then travel confronts you with its own realities and everything changes. I experienced this in the deep south of the United States with a new view of the transatlantic slave trade.
Academics recently pinpointed the 500th anniversary of the start of the trade to August 18 and it was shortly before that date that I joined a friend for a Mississippi Delta road trip, in a rented car, to listen to blues music and see civil rights museums and monuments.
Most “Old World” people know about the slave trade in which Britain and other European nations played such a shameful part. Seeing it with the victims’ descendants, in their realities, was very different — especially since those descendants have never been allowed to forget their “place” in a society where discrimination is often deeply, sometimes violently, rooted.
Music of the region, too, evoked a feeling of past pain. If slavery were set to music, it would be the blues, and the two wrapped around each other on our trip from Memphis to New Orleans and back via Montgomery, in Alabama, to see a new lynching memorial.
“Slavery comes with civilisation,” asserts www.historyworld.net. Perhaps this is better expressed as slavery systems come from civilisations organising slavery as part of the economy. In the transatlantic slave trade, more than 12 million African people were turned into objects of monetary and labour value by European and British businessmen transporting them to North America, the Caribbean and South America. Nearly two million died at sea, many murdered for their insurance value.
“Every slave had a value,” Stephanie, a guide at the powerfully educational Whitney Plantation between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, told me.
The value mirrored today’s agricultural exploitation of non-humans — it ranged from forced reproduction for increasing stock to individual sales values related to gender, age and health.
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My trip into this history started mostly as a blues project but the powerfulness of the slavery and civil rights history soon demanded more emotional attention.
It began among the Memphis legends including the Blues Hall of Fame; Sun Studio where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis got their starts; and Staxsoul studio whose recording stars included Otis Redding and the late Aretha Franklin.
One of the must locations was the National Civil Rights Museum in the old Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr was shot by a sniper in 1968. Twenty-four exhibits tell the story of the assassination and the civil rights campaign by black Americans from the late 1940s. Across the road, a room gave the sniper’s view from where the shot was fired.
From Memphis, we hit the Blues Trail — Highway 61 — and found one treat after another sprinkled in a landscape as flat as a green mill pond. Hour after hour, there was massive field after field of crops … a production system made by human suffering and tended by machines from the moment they were cheaper than human labour.
First stop was the Blues Museum at Tunica, Mississippi — my first experience of cotton and how it was picked. It was a small place, lonely in a compelling way, full of interesting facts and artefacts. A few miles on was Clarksdale, one of the great sites for the blues. The town offered the impressive Delta Blues Museum, actor Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club, and a host of other significant sites.
Next on the route was the centre dedicated to B. B. King, one of America’s most prolific musicians. King threads all through blues and Delta history but the B. B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi, helped put the man and the music into perspective for me. Music genius, humanitarian, human with two failed marriages and 15 children … a life to be valued and remembered. He was buried on the museum site.
New Orleans rose like the 21stcentury after the agricultural fields of the Delta as we headed to the city’s historic French Quarter where a friend had recommended an exceptional place to stay.
Sometimes doing the tourist things can be fun … in New Orleans that included the over-crowded, over-heated Preservation Hall for jazz, and a friendly liquid sledgehammer of a drink in the Hard Rock cafe.
But the most telling of the places visited was not a music site. It was the Whitney Plantation — much featured by media outlets from BBC World News to the New Yorker — which tells a rounded story of slavery as it was lived.
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Stephanie, our guide, discussed the plantation way of life and conditions, the economics, the rituals and beliefs, and the frightful brutality. Emotion and determination to impart understanding powered her voice as we forgot the heat and humidity and absorbed the evidence of brutal repression of slaves by the rich and powerful living yards away in luxury.
Almost all those on my tour were people of colour. Among the rapt attention and “I was there” group photos and selfies, some looked fascinated, some shocked and one or two seemed to be bouncing off the harsh realities of their ancestors’ lives.
National Geographic judged it “the plantation every American should visit”, and it seemed that way to me — though I would add: “Every British and European citizen too.”
The visit set me up for the last and most appallingly dramatic visit — the lynching memorial, and an associated museum, at Montgomery, Alabama.
Photos by John Keeble
John Keeble is British-born photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He “retired” after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 11 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues. He has had wide coverage for his articles and photographs since moving to Cuenca in February 2016.