BAR Book Forum: B. Brian Foster’s “I Don’t Like the Blues”
What happens if we really pay attention to what black folks in the rural South are saying and doing in their everyday lives?
“Black folks are hopeful and optimistic, but they are also frustrated, skeptical, and exhausted.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is B. Brian Foster. Foster is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. His book is I Don't Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
B. Brian Foster: Fannie Lou Hamer said one time: “Mississippi is not actually Mississippi’s problem. Mississippi is America’s problem.”
Justin “Big K.R.I.T.” Scott said another time: “You ain’t sell out a show until you sell out one in Mississippi.”
Malcolm X said another time: “As far as I am concerned, Mississippi is anywhere South of the Canadian border.”
And though I don’t like to talk about Faulkner too much, he said something similar another time: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
What Hamer, Krit, X, and, yes, Faulkner were saying is simple: Mississippi is not an artifact that is only valuable for what it might say about the past. It’s not an inconsequential part of the national story. It is not something to be dismissed or discarded. Rather, understanding Mississippi is fundamental to understanding the nation. The same for changing the nation. The same for building better social movements. The same for making good art and good food. The same for telling moving stories. The same for learning radical love. Until we listen to Mississippi—and do it honestly and fully—we won't know how.
“Mississippi is not an artifact that is only valuable for what it might say about the past.”
You won’t be able to read I Don't like the Blues without listening to Mississippi. They are one in the same. As such, I think the book can teach the reader quite a lot. Early on in the book, I give some instructions on how to “listen” honestly and fully. I spend the rest of the time outlining the lessons that listening will bring. Chapter 1 is about regional development, demographic change, and inequality. Chapter 2 is about racial attitudes, racialized emotions, and racial identity. Chapter 3 is about place. And chapter 4 is about speculation. I don’t take readers through these chapters as much as I allow the voices of the black Mississippians to lead them.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
That there is no activist or organizing work that is too “small” or localized. Small does not mean not impactful. Local does not mean limited. They mean the opposite. It is through sustained “small” efforts that we achieve change at the greatest scale. “Even a small lighter can burn a bridge.”
I've been told that one of the strengths of the book is the scope and detail of the data—the dialogue, the scenes, the depictions of black Mississippians. I believe that it is this detailed ethnographic reporting and writing that allows the book to tell a bigger story about race, inequality, hope, despair, and the South. Small things make big things.
Activists and community organizers are doing the same sort of thing. They are on the ground, in communities, from one house to the next, from one church to the next, from one person to the next. These individual actions allow the work of activists and organizers to lead and add to bigger conversations.
On a more practical level, the book provides insight on some of the everyday concerns that black Mississippians have. These perspectives can inform the work that activists and organizers engage in moving forward.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I love this question. There are two things:
(1) I hope readers will un-learn monolithic ideas about blackness and black people. In particular, so many narratives about black folks seem obsessed with hopefulness, optimism, progress, and other affirmative and forward-looking orientations. My book says there’s more. Black folks are hopeful and optimistic, yes. But they are also frustrated, skeptical, and exhausted. Black people engage in placemaking practices, but they “unmake” places too. I think we lose theoretical and practical insight when we rush to narratives of hope and progress.
(2) The second idea that I hope readers will un-learn involves what they know and how they think about the rural South. Whether in public commentary, popular culture, or academic discourse, the rural South is often framed as a changing same, a place that is “stuck in the past,” or “behind the times.” I Don't Like the Blues says, no, there are people living in the rural South today, and they are striving to make a life right now. In that way, narratives that frame the South as a dying or fading thing are dangerous, as they erase the lived experiences, concerns, and aspirations of an entire people. I Don't Like the Blues also says, but actually the South is changing. As I write in the book:
“Clarksdale’s post–civil rights story is one of change, just like other new South places. Just like Charlotte, just like Texas, just like the ‘City Too Busy to Hate,’ but different. While the common New South story emphasizes growth, opportunity, diversity, and dynamism, Clarksdale’s story emphasizes other things. Clarksdale’s labor market is shrinking. The economic prospects of its residents are dimming. The town’s social institutions are doing the best that they can, which for folks like Mrs. Irene has just not been enough. All of that is change. All of that is ‘new,’ just not new the regular way.”
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
In a lot of ways, this book is the follow up to the paradigm-shifting Development Arrested by the late Clyde Woods. Woods was a geographer who wrote eloquently and critically about race and development in the Mississippi Delta. One of the enduring contributions of Development Arrested is Woods' conceptualization of the “blues epistemology,” what he defines as the distinct perspective, belief system, and set of organizational practices that black southerners developed as the nation transitioned from slavery to Reconstruction, and from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. My work further develops the blues epistemology idea—by pairing Woods’ theory work with the voices and stories of people on the ground. Put differently, where Woods told us what the blues epistemology is, I Don't Like the Blues is (hopefully) showing what the blues epistemology sounds and looks like in the everyday lives of black southerners.
“My work pairs Woods’ theory with the voices and stories of people on the ground.”
Zandria Robinson's fingerprints are also all over this work. I've worked with her since I was an undergraduate in 2010, and I've been following her work—especially her books This Ain't Chicago and Chocolate Cities—ever since. Zandria trained me to be an ethnographer and gave me the tools to think about region/the South not just as a geographic designation but also as an analytic category and tool.
There are so many others: Leroi Jones, especially for Blues People; Kevin Quashie for theorizing “quiet” in The Sovereignty of Quiet; Tressie McMillan Cottom for her writing and theory building in Thick; and of course Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
My book presupposes a question that, it seems, is radical: what happens if we really pay attention to what black folks in the rural South are saying and doing in their everyday lives. My answer: we can learn about race/racism, place, stratification/inequality, development, community resilience, and so much more. We can laugh, cry, and be moved to action. We can remember and be reminded. We can hope and grow frustrated. I think a word where black folks from rural Mississippi are heard, and their perspectives valued, is new and radical and needed.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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