Mississippi Humanities Council celebrates 50th Anniversary with Jesmyn Ward in her journey

Jesmyn Ward

By Chris Young,

Contributing Writer,

Jesmyn Ward

Well over a hundred people gathered at Galloway Church, 305 North Congress Street in Jackson, at 7 p.m. Thursday night to celebrate MHC’s Golden Anniversary. The evening began with a welcome from Galloway senior pastor, Reverend Gary Stockett, comments from Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council. He said, “We are in the midst of a year-long series of programs, putting on the theme Reflecting Mississippi. The idea is that we want to explore the diverse stories of our state and understand how narratives have or have not reflected who we are and where we’ve been.” 

He then went on to introduce the keynote speaker, Jesmyn Ward by saying “there is no contemporary writer or scholar who has thought more deeply or expressed in a more beautiful and profound way the contradictions of Mississippi.”

Through her novels, non-fiction and essays, Ward has given voice to the characters and communities that have often been excluded or overlooked. In fact, she has helped reflect a more accurate and indeed a more complicated Mississippi. 

Stuart Rockoff, Exec. Director of Mississippi Humanities Council

Ward arrived at the podium to thundering and prolonged applause and a standing ovation. She was born in Berkeley, California but has called DeLisle, Mississippi home since age 3. She earned her BA in English and MA in media studies and communication from Stanford University, and Master of fine arts from the University of Michigan. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She has authored six books to date, two winning National Book Awards, and Men We Reaped being named by New York Magazine as one of the Best Books of the Century.

For many years, Ward, who lost her husband to COVID in 2020, has been included in the roster of Mississippi’s elite writers, alongside the likes of Eudora Welty, Richard Wright and William Faulkner. Her titles include: Salvage The Bones (2012), The Fire This Time (2016), Men We Reaped (2017), Sing Unburied Sing (2017), Where The Line Bleeds (2018), and Navigate Your Stars (2020).

For nearly forty minutes she shared her truth through her personal story. It was a detailed journey of her recognition of the “bad faith stories” (narratives) of others toward her, toward black people and toward poor people onward to the realization and deep acceptance of her own truthful and accurate narrative – a narrative of dignity and worth.

She gave examples of bad faith stories in this country, “stories that smooth genocide to glossy manifest destiny, that rate slavery as an opportunity for salvation and civilization, that twists misogyny and homophobia to natural order, that repurpose transphobia to God’s will.” 

Ebony Lumumba (L) in a one on one conversation with Jesmyn Ward (R).

Bringing audience members to tears on several occasions, she told of the discrimination and oppression manifested in her own family simply because they were black and poor. About her own brother’s death at the hands of a white drunk-driver who was never held accountable, she said “Instead of being charged with killing my brother, the man was charged only with fleeing the scene of an accident, and in that the world said this – you, all of you, are worth nothing.”

A prevailing theme was the incessant labeling, automatically by virtue of race; not smart, not able, worth less, shouldn’t be seen or heard, or have agency. “The stories I was hearing told me that I did not deserve to take up space in life or on the page,” she said. 

She has certainly found her voice that resisted what the world told her. “It came slowly, snippets at a time. The world’s narrative was loud, relentless – it told me again and again that I was worth less and that everyone I loved was worth less, that we brought all of our misery on ourselves, that we deserved it – and I believed it until I was 24 years old,” she said. 

Now, through every novel, every essay, every short story, she is telling the world new stories about who she is, and who her people are, and what they are capable of. Her narratives reckon with the narratives that the world tells – and they resist. The final words of her presentation were simply ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing,’ the title of her fourth book.

After her presentation, MHC board member Dr. Ebony Lumumba and wife of City of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, joined Ward on stage for a one on one conversation. Lumumba is an associate professor and Department chair of English, Modern Foreign Languages & Speech at Jackson State University.

Ward stayed afterwards to sign books in the lobby.

Beginning as the Mississippi Committee for the Humanities, MHC came into being with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. MHC’s website www.mshumanities.org, indicates that it was founded amidst the turmoil of federally imposed integration. Perhaps more important than the funding was the MHC’s ability to offer a state-level legitimacy for such discussions and to serve as an impartial broker among differing points of view.

Their list of program offerings has expanded through the years, and currently includes: a speaker’s bureau, a family reading program, prison education, Ideas on Tap – panel discussions in the community that interact with audience members to exchange opinions on relevant topics, a Museum on Main Street program, and annual Humanities Achievement Awards.

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