Tag Archives: Mississippi

Oprah: Inside the Lives of America’s Poor

17 Aug

*I saw myself on Oprah yesterday. Well, I saw the self that I try to forget about, the part of me that I hide and pretend never existed even though I don’t think I can ever forget it did. I saw the part of me that few people even know about, the part of me that most people are somewhat shocked to hear about when I do actually tell them. It is the part of me that I am more likely to share with total strangers than with those people whom I consider friends or even acquaintances.

When I left home to go to college, I started over. I made a new life for myself, a life that most would consider “normal,” middle-class. But the fact of the matter is that I grew up poor, always on the brink of and most of the time below the national poverty line, below the Mississippi poverty line. There were times that I didn’t know it because my mom worked so hard to give her children a “normal” life, but there were also times when I knew the reality of it all too well. Times when I was afraid of what might happen to my family, when I worried about where we would live or how we would pay for things. I knew what it felt like to get free lunch at school and to have a classmate see my mom use food stamps in the grocery line, to wear clothes that did not originally belong to me, hand-me-downs from older peers, and to be pointed out as different, as not good enough, as a poor kid, to be called “white trash” by classmates.

I saw myself on Oprah yesterday, but I also saw other children who have worse lives than I ever did, even at the lowest point. I also saw my mom, a single mom who worked three or four jobs, who deprived herself to give to her children, who knew that there were others worse off and didn’t hesitate to help them. Some people looked down on her and judged her, but I know she did the best that she could with what she was given. My mom sacrificed herself to give her children what they needed to break the cycle and live a better life. I know I had it better than so many other kids, but I had it worse than almost all of the kids that I knew.

For many years, I have lived with both shame and guilt. Shame because at a young age I was taught that I wasn’t good enough, that other people were better than me. Shame because our society associates poverty with some sort of moral or mental decay, or just plain laziness. Shame because our society believes that people live like that because they want to or because they deserve it. I feel guilt because sometimes I buy into that erroneous belief. Guilt because I hide a part of myself that has shaped me into the person that I am now. Guilt because I sometimes pretend to be someone that I am not. I also feel guilt for wanting more and for having more for my life. Guilt for moving ahead while others are left behind. Guilt because I sometimes feel like I don’t deserve the life that I have now because I lived the life that I did then.

What makes me special? What makes me different from other children who are caught in the cycle and can’t get out of it? I know I’m not that different. I was blessed with an extended family that helped out when we needed it without seeing us as a “charity case.” I was blessed with school teachers and church leaders who helped give me the skills and the confidence and the hope that I needed in order to break the cycle. I was different, I am different, because I had hope, because I believed that I could rise above it even though everything in my life told me I couldn’t.

I don’t want to hide myself, or parts of myself, anymore. I don’t want to feel shame or guilt anymore. I just want to be. And I want to give others that same hope that is so desperately needed and so rarely seen inside the lives of America’s poor.

*This post was originally published on March 23, 2006 to my old Xanga blog. I am re-posting it here to continue the discussion over on Living Oprah.

** On another note, I would love to be able to import that blog to this one, but I have no idea how. Does anyone know how to do that?

Back Where I Come From … You Don’t Have to Worry About Getting Stuck on the Side of the Road

28 Jul

Back where I come from, the small town of Eupora, MS (population: 2,300), you don’t have to worry about getting stuck on the side of the road. (Yes, I said road. There is really only one street in Eupora, and that is Main Street). If you get a flat tire or are in a car accident or run off into a ditch, someone you know or who knows your mama will stop to help you (or to call your mama) before you even have time to get out your cell phone and call a tow truck. By my estimates (and this is hardly mathematical), for every ten people that pass by (if that many people would actually pass by you in that small amount of time), you probably know at least half of them. Of the rest, at least half know who you are because they know your mama and them. And the others are probably some strangers who don’t live there. Here’s story to illustrate my point:

On one particular foggy evening during my Freshman year of college, my boyfriend at the time (DP*), my BFF (Kimmie), my closeted at the time gay BFF (JD), and I were headed back to Starkville in my champagne-colored Altima after a Sunday night service at the First Baptist Church. Thick fog made it nearly impossible for DP to see the road ahead, and I failed to remind him of the big, giant curve you have to navigate before you get to the bypass. As a result, DP drove straight through the curve, bounced off the “stop ahead” sign, and landed us completely unharmed into the ditch.

This was back when only the “cool kids” had cell phones, and Kimmie was the only one cool enough to fit in that category. After getting out of the car and laughing for a bit at how funny we thought the situation was, we called my mom. She wrangled up one of my little brothers, a pickup truck, and some car towing apparatus and headed over to bail us out. Meanwhile, we just hung out on the side of the road and waited for the assistance. Within about 10 or 15 minutes and after only one phone call, mind you, my mom, my sister, all three of my brothers, my dad, my uncle, my mammaw and pappaw, two ex-boyfriends, and a couple of random folks who saw my car and knew it belonged to one of those Hitt kids had all converged on the scene.

My car was probably halfway out of the ditch before an office of the law arrived. This is largely due to the fact that no one thought to call for that kind of assistance. Why get the authorities involved when you can handle a situation yourself? Needless to say, when my car landed in the ditch, and we had assessed that everyone was uninjured, I was able to laugh it off. I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to get my car out of the ditch or how I was going to get back home or whether or not anyone would stop to help. I lived in a small town. I had community. I had people. I had no worries.

Now that I’ve moved to a somewhat larger city, basically Nashville, TN, I do have worries. I don’t have that kind of community any more. I have friends. I know people, but it’s not a large number, and they are spread out over the greater Nashville area. Of the 2.300 or so people in Eupora, (10,000 in the whole county) I probably knew more than half of them, and half of the rest most likely knew my mom and them. That’s more than a thousand folks that would fall into the “not a stranger” category. Now, in a metropolitan area of roughly 1.6 million people, I know less than 100, maybe even less than 50. And only a couple of those know my mom and them.

I love my new home. It’s a great city, and the opportunities available to me here are vast, especially when compared to what is available to me back home. Though I loved growing up there, I don’t think I could ever go back. But I do wish I could bring that community, that sense of place, of belonging, to where I am now. Sometimes, without it I feel a little more lost, a little more alone, and a little more afraid of what would happen if I found myself stuck in a situation where I needed to rely on people, on neighbors, on friends, on a community that doesn’t really exist for me here.

Does anyone else ever feel that way? Is it a sign of our changing culture? Of the shift from the community to the individual? Is it time for Americans to start becoming part of communities again?

*Names have been altered to protect the innocent and/or guilty.

Related: My Hometown, Y’all

Three Things I Don’t Miss about Living in Mississippi

21 Jul
  1. Mosquitoes

  2. Humidity

  3. Allergies

Stupid War!

25 May

Tonight, in my tiny hometown of Eupora, MS, there was a candlelight vigil for a fallen Marine. It was held at the local high school football field. And since this is a place where everybody knows everybody, I’m sure most of the town was in attendance. The marine, Corporal Justin Cooper, was killed in combat in Afghanistan last week. His body arrived home yesterday in a flag-draped casket accompanied by fellow Marines.

Justin was 22 years old. Before this tour in Afghanistan, he had already served two tours in Iraq … at 22 years old. Part of the reason this hits so close to home for me is that my youngest brother is also a soldier. He is in the Army National Guard and has already served one tour in Iraq. He and Justin are the same age. They walked across the field together at graduation, received their high school diplomas on the same night.

After graduation, Justin attended one semester of community college before joining the Marines. My brother, who had already joined the Guard, enjoyed only a few days of summer vacation before heading off to boot camp. From there, he was immediately sent to his AIT training. And after a few days of being home again, he was called to report for training camp, as he was to leave for Iraq in a little over a month. He was only 19 when he was called up for his first tour of duty.

He is on alert to be called to active service even now and will most likely return to Iraq within the next year. Every time I hear of a military death overseas, I think of my brother. I hope that he never gets that call to return to Iraq or Afghanistan, or possibly Iran before this whole thing is finally over. This latest tragedy makes the reality of war all the more real. My thoughts are with Justin’s family, with the people of my hometown.

It’s a close knit community. A tragedy that befalls one family affects all of us. Eupora is a small, Mississippi town with little opportunity. Many residents once found work in several factories that littered the town. Factories that are now gone, replaced by cheaper labor overseas. The unemployment rate is high, and so are the suicide and poverty rates. Many of the boys here become soldiers simply because there is nothing else for them to do. They all feel a sense of pride in making something of themselves, in serving our country, in protecting our freedoms. They all have seen things that would scar many of us for life. They all have families who worry about their safety when they are away and who grieve deeply when they never make it back.

Justin’s body will be laid to rest tomorrow afternoon, Memorial Day, a day set aside to commemorate U.S. men and women who have given their lives in military service to our country. So tomorrow, Memorial Day 2008, please take a few moments to pray for our service men and women and their families. Take a few moments to think about the freedoms that these kids (most of them are just kids) give their lives to protect. Take a few moments to think about what you were doing at 22, and then think about these kids who are spending their youth fighting unpopular wars, leaving behind family and friends, never sure if they will see them again in this life.

Related: Fallen Marine heroic, selfless

My Hometown, Y’all

10 Mar

It really does exist. Here’s proof. Check it out:

When twins Stephanie Stewart and Holly Hawkins graduated from college in Texas, they took a road trip to Virginia in search of the perfect small town to call home. Along the way, they found Eupora. Or better yet, Eupora—a small town located midway between Starkville and Winona—found them.

“After college we decided that we wanted to work for an architectural firm in a small town, so that we would have the opportunity to make a difference,” says Stephanie. “We interviewed with many firms on our trip and just fell in love with Eupora and Belinda Stewart Architects. Belinda drove us around the area pointing out old log cabins, barns, and historic houses, while telling stories about the area. We wanted to be part of those stories.”

Eupora began its story in 1889 as a railroad town. Originally known as Early Grove, it was given its new name by railroad engineers in honor of Eupora Eudy, a local woman who opened her home to the engineers who worked on the rails. Today, with a population of 2,300, it is the largest town in Webster County. Although the town’s story is one of economic ups and downs, as more people discover the quaint town’s charms, new and exciting chapters are being written. (read more … )