Writer, journalist, and Radcliffe fellow W. Ralph Eubanks spoke about the cultural heritage and history of the Mississippi Delta at an online lecture hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Tuesday evening.
Eubanks entitled his talk — this year’s Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities — “Why the Mississippi Delta Matters.”
“Despite its seemingly low status, the Mississippi Delta holds a curiously complicated, yet monumental place in the culture of the American South, as well as American culture more broadly,” Eubanks said.
Eubanks’ work focuses on race and identity in the South. He is writing a book focusing on the people of the Delta during his fellowship.
Eubanks said contemporary poverty in Mississippi has resulted from a history marred by racism and inequality.
“It is important to know the size and scale of the problems faced in the lives of poor people and adults, both historically and today,” Eubanks said. “By seeing systemic racism as a myth, we are obscuring the reality of racism’s impact, not only on the Delta but on the rest of the country.”
According to Eubanks, the Delta had the highest number of enslaved people and sharecroppers, which translated into high unemployment rates in the state, even a century later.
“To change our way of seeing, we must also understand the ways public policy has institutionalized poverty in this country and numbed us from seeing it,” Eubanks said. “We must understand the ways the Delta was shaped by economic, political, and emotional forces that are American at their core.”
Eubanks said the Mississippi Delta is noteworthy both for its turbulent past and its cultural significance.
“One moment, the Delta is a place gleaming like a national guitar, and another, it is a torrid landscape — mercilessly obsessed with race and cotton, yet gripped by a volatile mix of poverty and oppression,” Eubanks said.
“The Delta, both in reality and in popular culture, has proven to be a place that is difficult to shake from one's consciousness,” he added.
Eubanks disclosed the motivation behind his work, noting he is driven to shed light on the Mississippi Delta because he wants others to appreciate it like he does.
“The Delta is a place that matters to me, and I want it to matter to more people,” he said.