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Stretching capacity in the fertile Mississippi lands

The SHINE: Jackson youth team, with David Bickham, far right, May 2016

The SHINE: Jackson youth team, with David Bickham, far right, May 2016

The time has come AGAIN for the young people to lead the adults, as Ella Baker prophesied and the young people of Ferguson and Birmingham have demonstrated. It will not be a rejection of the old but an elaboration, an inexorability of the affirmative. There is a broad difference between refuting a stereotype, which the young men of The SHINE: Jackson did this spring, and being who you are, which the young men did as well, all weekend, in a SHINE: Jackson event hosted and supported by the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation.

For me it is the latter world of creative optimism that stirs my soul, imagination, hope, resilience and emancipation.  It is this world – of technology, innovation, storytelling, breakthrough ideas, an ethos of brotherhood and not just manhood, the rejection of terror and xenophobia, the building of the land and each other and the restoration of the our cities – in which a new worship of one love, a free personality will reside. This is the world of the educated.

As a 46-year-old Mississippian residing in Atlanta, I am intimately involved in Story for All and The SHINE. I felt at home following the leadership of young men, whose vision relieves the ambivalent sense of oneness and exile I have with my state. Oneness and exile collaborate often in my heart in a space between where we are and where we can and should be. There is a constant heart murmur pricked by the “should be.“

As usual, the young men are about 30 years ahead of adults, or at least me. I recall the elders of my community in Baertown telling me that I was gifted and ahead of my time when I was a boy, and while that made me feel special and singular, being visionary is a compulsion of the young. I have to run all the time to catch up with them and the goal is not always what is revealed or explored but the actualization of what is hidden, intrinsic and marvelous. Not always the cry but the ache, not always the laughter but the grin. How do we then facilitate that sense of wonder and love linked to the young mens’ sense of vision, and both communal and individual identity and power?

In this dynamic I see a new freedom, a new Renaissance, and a new worldview untainted by what other’s perceive. Adults tend to truncate these young people’s imagination and talent based on our own limitations. Sometimes, we punish talent and inquiry. I saw the storytelling method knit hearts together as it began to build capacity and uncork the skills and competencies that the young men brought to the weekend training. I hope that their camaraderie persists. I hope we modify our methods and infrastructure to catch up with their capacity to stretch and mine their abilities.  By doing so, we would stretch our own capacity. They will innovate the method and innovate us. In their presence we cannot stay impure for long. As one young man described it, the innovation needs to be “Country Smart” – a synthesis of the rural and urban, the low tech and the high tech, the intergenerational.

That same magic weekend, I visited the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola with Angela Zusman, founding director of Story for All and The SHINE, and Kimberly Merchant of MS Center for Justice, to discuss the museum’s supporting the interruption of the school to prison pipeline in Sunflower County. Mr. Robert Terrell, Director of Operations, recalled the preparations of Mr. King’s funeral guided by Mr. King’s singing “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and shared his family’s stories like a griot. He spoke to his family’s journey, and that my mentor, Dr. Edgar Smith. I thought of so many who had to leave the Delta, the many who want to leave, and those who return or never left. The talent in the Delta is stunning. Listening to Mr. Terrell in that sacred site where fire shut up in my bones, I could hardly stand it. Mr. King, my first great love, and my recently passed beloved aunt, Melvyner Garrette Mason, were all there in their splendor. Oddly, the great King of Blues did not strike me as a bluesman as much as a spiritual and artistic oracle trying to plow us through the fertile Mississippi land, which now holds his body in its hand.

David Bickham, Kim Merchant with the MS Center for Justice and Robert Terrell the Director of Operations at the BB King Museum

David Bickham, Kim Merchant with the MS Center for Justice and Robert Terrell the Director of Operations at the BB King Museum

What is it in a state that so richly makes talent but does not make homes? Love and death, youth and ancestry, justice and injustice, mercy and barbarism, falling in and falling out, fineness and poverty, love and lovemaking, exodus and dust, blues comedy and gospel tragedy, art and catastrophe, talent mourned and talent elevated, and young men of color and colored men…I hope that the Indianola and Jackson SHINE projects form a spear in the hands of this able generation to pierce our hearts with the affirmative, with beauty for which we long but do not yet have the courage to be free, and with new technologies and techniques that they invent to heal, revolutionize  and interpret the times.



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