By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I lived in Abuja for many years before relocating to the United States, but it was only during my last summer vacation in Nigeria that it struck me that a major street in the highbrow Maitama District of Abuja is named after Mississippi, the southern US state that became globally notorious for its murderous negrophobia in the 1950s and the 1960s.
Although Mississippi has always been steeped in deep-seated anti-black racism from almost its founding (it was the second state to secede from the United States in the 1860s on account of slavery) it was the brutal, cold-blooded murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 by two negrophobic white brutes that first brought the plight of black people in that state to the forefront of global consciousness. Till’s offense was that he jokingly made a pass at a white woman! The murderers were caught but an all-white jury found them not guilty.
In the same 1955, two African American activists, identified as Lamar Smith and Reverend George Lee, were cruelly slaughtered by white racists because they campaigned to get black people the right to vote.
And in 1964, Mississippi made headlines again when one African-American activist and two white American campaigners of civil rights for black Americans were murdered because they dared to investigate the willful burning of a black church. The murderers were never brought to justice.
The latest was the June 26, 2011 murder of a 49-year-old African-American man by two white teens who first said "Let's go f**k with some niggers" and “White Power” before running over the man with a truck. The man didn’t do anything to them. They just randomly picked on him and murdered him for fun. After the man was crushed to death, one of the murderers bragged: "I ran that nigger over!" Unfortunately for them, all this was captured on security cameras.
Because of these and many more anti-black racist incidents too numerous to mention here, Mississippi has a terrible reputation as the graveyard for black people in America. It is also, by almost every index, America’s most backward state. It is America’s least educated, most racist, most obese, etc. state. As you can imagine, it’s the butt of jokes and the object of snide remarks here.
I recall that years ago when I told one of my liberal white American friends that I wanted to apply to a Mississippi university for my Ph.D., he looked me straight in the face and said, “Are you out of your mind? Mississippi is America’s most racist state and, as a foreign-born black man, that place would be hell for you, I tell ya.”
I have read about Mississippi since my undergraduate days in Nigeria and always thought it was an inhospitable place for a black person, but I didn’t believe my friend. I told him he was being overdramatic and that he was stereotyping an entire state on account of the misdeeds of a few people. As a media scholar and one who embodies identities that are often the object of vicious attacks and inaccurate stereotypes, I am always leery of any blanket condemnation of a people.
When in May this year a friend of mine invited me and my daughter to attend her sister’s graduation at the Mississippi State University, I accepted her invitation with an open mind. But I couldn’t help thinking that I was going to some horrible place.
I had travelled through Mississippi before, but I had never visited it for an extended period. Now I would have an opportunity to relate with some Mississippians outside the mediation of a predominantly northern media formation, snotty white liberals, and hypersensitive American blacks—or so I thought.
Unfortunately, my experiences in Starkville, Mississippi, (the city where Mississippi State University is located) worked to give comfort to the stereotype of a racist, negrophobic, unkind Mississippi. First, everyone in the town, especially African Americans, appeared to be depressed. The ambience of the city itself inspired languor and sadness. (That was the effect that Jackson, Mississippi’s capital city, had on me when I drove through it in 2005). And I didn’t see blacks and whites mixing as freely as I see them do in the places I’ve lived and visited here.
I had my first taste of “Mississippian racism” when an elderly white woman that I and another Nigerian met in the hotel elevator asked us if we were janitors, that is, people employed to clean the building. She had no reason to ask us that. She probably just wanted to denigrate us. Or perhaps she didn’t think, as black people, we deserved to lodge in a hotel as expensive as the hotel we were in. But I didn’t get angry.
“No, ma’am, we are not janitors,” I said. “We are guests.” She felt ashamed and started apologizing profusely. She said she mistook us for janitors because we were holding keys--car keys! I didn’t know what to make of that. But I didn’t judge the whole people of the city on account of one old lady.
Then when we drove to the venue of the graduation ceremony, we discovered that a campus traffic cop stood by the closest entrance to the hall where the graduation was taking place. He allowed some vehicles to pass through the entrance and disallowed others. It turned out that every car he disallowed had black drivers and passengers in them. He never disallowed any white driver who asked to go through the entrance. When I told my friend, she stopped to observe and realized that my observation was accurate. She was so enraged that she wanted to confront the man. I talked her out of it.
In sum, my experience in Starkville wasn’t pleasant. University towns are often some of the most liberal and welcoming towns in America. So I said to myself: if race relation is this strained in a college town, how would it be in the rural areas that are notorious for xenophobia? Well, I am still careful not to judge an entire state on account of my experience in one city. In any case, some of the nicest people I have met here trace their origins to Mississippi.
However, when I went to Nigeria this summer and discovered that one of the most conspicuous streets in Abuja is named after Mississippi, I couldn’t help wondering: “why Mississippi street in Abuja”? I became even more curious when I discovered that no other street in Abuja is named after an American state. What is special about Mississippi?
Have we run out of names to give streets in Abuja? Even if we have, what connection does Mississippi, a state that has a history and present of oppressing black people, have with Nigeria, the most populous black nation on earth? Somebody, help me!