There's a restaurant in Greenwood (NOT Lusco's) that, for many blacks, was the primary symbol of segregation during the movement. It's still open today and is one of only a handful of sit down restaurants that even offers lunch in Greenwood. Nevertheless, most Greenwood blacks have never eaten there.
During the making of Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story, Raymond De Felitta and I interviewed a woman named Marie Tribitt, a childhood friend of Booker's. Marie told us the story of a man who was most likely mentally disabled. He had a job cleaning floors at this whites' only establishment in Greenwood decades ago. According to Marie, one day the man was mopping the floor and he accidentally touched a white woman's foot with his mop. The woman became very angry. Later that day, the man was shot dead.
Many of my white friends from Greenwood have been angered by this story and the fact that it was included in the film at all. They've never heard it and don't believe that something like that could ever have happened in their town. I was on the fence about it until Thursday night.
I just got back from Greenwood where I screened Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story, at MVSU, the local state university there. A black man stood up and recalled the challenges he'd faced while living in Greenwood when segregation was upheld by the police. He told a story of something that happened when he was nine years old. A black man was in this same restaurant and he was mopping the floor. He spilled a little water on the foot of a white woman, who then became irate. Someone tried to calm her down, tell her that it was an accident, that he meant no harm, and that it was just a little water. She could not be soothed. Later that night the man with the mop was murdered.
Sometimes I think there are two Mississippis. Otherwise, half the people talking to me must be liars. I'm not a god, I have no magic, I cannot discern a lie from the truth when the story is older than I am. Sometimes people argue that if there is no record, then there was no crime. However, the Greenwood library is filled with white history and almost completely void of black history. Finding public photos of Greenwood blacks from the 1950s and earlier doing anything other than hanging from a tree is almost impossible. If there is no record of them, then were there no blacks in Greenwood at all?
Sadly, the police rarely investigated the murders of poor black men in Greenwood unless pressured to do so by outside forces. The idea that this man lost his life in such a way, for such a simple mistake seems absurd to many whites in Greenwood and completely plausible to many blacks.
What does that tell us? Beyond this story, what does that say? Blacks remember, with a clarity that cannot be compromised, that there was a time when their lives were worthless to the white people in their community. Whites remember their parents feeling trapped and not knowing how to navigate in the segregated society that a strong few wanted to keep in place. Whose version of Mississippi shall prevail? Whose truth is the Truth?
I tend to think that both are true, depending on which side of the river you grew up on. If I say this murder didn't happen because I cannot prove it, then that means that countless black murders that were never investigated also didn't happen. If I say I believe it because two sources recall it, then I am following fanatics who want to exacerbate the problems of the past to justify the troubles of today.
I am not a judge. I am a woman in search of the stories that shaped the world my grandfather lived in. If blacks believed that stories like this were true, whether or not they were true, can we use that to help us understand how and why they lived in constant fear? Can we move the ball forward by admitting that even if it's hard to believe this one story, that surely, somewhere in Mississippi there are true stories like this that never made it out of the grave?
I am caught between whites and blacks in the town of my ancestors. Both hold me up as a spokesperson for their side. I am not a referee who will determine whose story is true. I'm more interested in why people believe in and want to tell their stories at all. I am a collector of memories.
Adichie says that "Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity."
My only hope is that people will keep talking, keep remembering, keep listening, and that they will keep moving the ball forward.