Saturday 24 August 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Despair trumps hope in these economic badlands of the Mississippi delta'

'There are those for whom the American Dream remains as elusive as the butterflies who flit around the delta lands' (stock image)
'There are those for whom the American Dream remains as elusive as the butterflies who flit around the delta lands' (stock image)

Gerard O'Regan

The teenage girl moved slowly forward to buy a bottle of Coke - a nondescript act in a nondescript bus station in Mississippi.

Then suddenly it emerged all was not as it seemed. Her right ankle was 'tagged'. Somewhere out there in the great unknown, a US immigration overseer was tracking her movements.

This was the bus depot in Jackson, capital of arguably the most intriguing state in America. Mississippi is a place of inexplicable contrasts.

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It has spawned some of the world's most original talents in music and literature. But it has also been steeped in racial hatred, and continues to have pockets of poverty, among the most endemic in any developed country.

The musicality of Mississippi is fused with the blues, gospel, jazz and country. Elvis Presley is indeed its most famous son. William Faulkner is but one in a galaxy of authors who have made this a special place in the pantheon of great writing.

Such considerations were hardly of interest to the teenager from Honduras. She and her family had more immediate matters of concern.

A variation of modern mobile phone technology allowed the authorities to monitor their whereabouts.

Two suitcases and a few carrier bags were the outward worldly possessions of these new arrivals. Yet they did not seem the most poverty-stricken among those seated in the depot.

As the waiting passengers boarded the bus heading north to Memphis - just over the border in Tennessee - a sullen despair was in the air.

Those travelling were mostly African Americans, plus a couple of down-at-heel white people. With a few exceptions, all looked defeated by the unyielding daily struggle of trying just to get by.

The Hondurans sat somewhat huddled at the back of the bus as it made its way through the flat fertile plains that make up the Mississippi Delta.

One by one, place names were left behind. Belzoni, Indianola, Greenville, Cleveland, Clarksdale, Tunica. There have lived generations of black Americans in a cycle of endless poverty.

There are hardly any jobs, housing is sub-standard, too many schools are under-performing and strapped for cash. There is no proper public transport system.

Improved healthcare is desperately needed. But the state governor has refused to implement the Obama plan, which would improve cover for those most in need. He says he does not want people becoming over-dependent on the state. Meanwhile, figures show deprivation among younger children is among the highest in any developed society.

Slavery once dominated all economic activity in these parts; most black families in the delta trace their roots back to this time. There have been many advances over the decades, but all that has gone before casts a long shadow.

The surrounding landscape, though fresh and glowing from seasonal ploughing, seemed to echo the hauntings of the past.

Discrimination, segregation, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan are seeped in the memory. The civil rights movement, which prompted so many battles for black empowerment, was born here.

It was late evening when the bus finally reached its Memphis destination. The Honduran family faded into the looming darkness. Did they realise they were now in one of the most dangerous cities in the US? Would it be here they would make their base?

The city's Beale Street downtown area is justifiably classed as the home of the blues. Its music tradition is also rooted in the generations. But visitors are quietly warned to avoid the danger that lurks in some of the suburbs.

In recent years, Memphis has had one of the highest murder rates in the US, and drug-fuelled crime is a stalking menace for many.

The trail from Central America to this metropolis is but another immigrant journey for those chasing what they believe is the essence of the United States - a chance to start all over again. One way or another, tough times lie ahead for the tagged teen. But who can say what the future holds?

Meanwhile, there are those for whom the American Dream remains as elusive as the butterflies who flit around the delta lands. They carry little hope and much heartache.

Irish Independent

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