Assimilation’s Shadow

The Personal is Political, Post 3

sharon hope fabriz
6 min readFeb 16, 2023
Source: UNESCO

In the middle of my second-grade year, after eighteen months in
Jackson, Daddy announced around the kitchen table that he received
another transfer. I shot a glance at Momma and my belly went squishy. What about school? I wondered. I loved my teacher, who put me in the blue bird reading group, two levels up from the lowly canaries. I liked the fancy Baptist church we attended with its giant steeple and carpeted sanctuary. My little sister’s Sunday School teacher was the daughter of Ross Barnett, the governor of the State.

The move to Clarksdale would take us a hundred-fifty miles north. “I hear it’s flat as a pool table,” Daddy told us. We would depart at the beginning of winter vacation for Coahoma County.

The Mississippi River formed the county’s western border, and the delta created there had been fed and flattened before the time of Jesus. In 1830, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek removed the Chickasaw and Choctaw from the rich farmland of northern Mississippi. Shortly after, cotton production proliferated, and by 1860, Mississippi produced more cotton than any other state. Cotton didn’t pick itself. Coahoma County’s 1860 census reported a population of 1,521 Whites and 5,085 enslaved people, numbers accentuating the free labor underpinning its profitable agricultural economy.

Nearly 150 years later, USDA census data (2017) reported 348 total farm producers in the county, 314 White and 34 Black. In a county where Blacks made up 77% of the population, eighty-nine percent were White-owned farms.

With the advent of Reconstruction, sharecropping kept the Black community chained to the economics of White power. The culture
of oppression inspired art born of injustice. A genre of music fertilized by
enslavement and a spiritual relationship with suffering emerged. Clarksdale, the Coahoma County Seat, earned its label, the Birthplace of the Blues.

newspaper clipping / personal collection

To encourage a productive social life in Clarksdale, my parents involved me in a Brownie troop as soon as they settled us in our new house. New faces surrounded me on all sides. I wore the same paper-bag-brown uniform as the rest of the troop, but differences would define me as an outsider as soon as I opened my mouth. I arrived at my first meeting with the established troop speaking my parent’s Minnesota version of English, with its round Scandinavian sounds.

The diphthongs of my youthful speech spun the girls into a frenzy. The
loosening of adult supervision transformed their public Southern charm to
a riot of chants and taunts. “Say AH! Say AH!” the girls squealed while bobbing up and down on their tiptoes, ground squirrels all. What they wanted was for me to speak a pronoun: the first person singular. As soon as I figured that out, I complied.

IY_EE,” I shouted in two syllables, wide-eyed, hoping the louder I was, the
less they would taunt me.

That just egged them on. “Now say HAH! Say HAH!” One of the cute ones
was tugging at my sash.

HIY_EE,” I replied, compliant but shrinking.

“Say it again! Again!” they squawked like magpies.

Within weeks if not days, I was saying AH with the best of them, and
Y’ALL, too, for that matter. And what Ah adopted, Ah learned to love. Mah
accent and all the Mississippi-speak that came with it rooted in me. To this
day, I don’t feel fully myself unless I can loosen my jaw for deltified vowels
and airy yowls. I have suffered the bias against Southern drawls, tagged
as ignorant, unsophisticated, and untrustworthy. But, damn it all to hell, my accent is a tickle of treasure that has settled into these here bones.

My parents never did adopt a twang. Momma just couldn’t make her
Swedish tongue do what Southern-speak required and continued to bring
what others accepted as an undefinable sophistication to town. Daddy
migrated into the idiomatic territory required to have common conversation with the menfolk: howdy, ya hear, sure ‘nuff, and I reckon, to reel off a few. I wonder how much of his assimilation was like mine, born of a need to belong.

One word that was never allowed in our home, but was common in the
Magnolia State, was a hateful variation of the word Negro. I don’t remember exactly how the rule first arrived, but I imagine that Daddy wrote the word on a piece of paper, called me over to his desk, pointed, asked me to silently read what he had written, took my hand, squeezed it, and said in the commanding tone that invoked unadulterated attention, You may never, ever say this word. It’s a dirty word that you may never write or speak. I would have nodded, obedient and glad to have received such clear instructions. I liked knowing exactly what I should and shouldn’t do.

When that word erupted on the playground or in heated conversations,
I never failed to announce the order I had been given: My daddy doesn’t let me say that word. As I matured, I understood the harmful intentions of the word for myself and didn’t need to fall back on my father’s command, but as a child Daddy doesn’t let me was a fail-safe version of what my peers called being a chicken and I called being a good girl.

I was grateful for his counsel but wish Daddy would have given me the
history lesson to explain why such a word existed in the first place. He was
full of general declarations: because I said so. I wish I had known to ask him
to be more specific, but instead I mirrored him with general compliance.
Other agents had crosses burned in their front yards by the KKK, and Daddy, I learned later, had been spit on and cursed at more than once for being a federal agent. Was he distancing me from the specifics for my own good? Had it never occurred to him to explain to me what all the trouble was about? Or have I blocked out any childhood contact I had with the truth?

My days were full of the goodness of neighborhood friends and kind teachers and blocks and blocks of quiet streets where crime was an absent character. Daddy didn’t speak of his work except for the occasional far- fetched dinner time stories he told as morality tales. His cases were mostly confidential, so his work life became confidential, too. He kept quiet about the related violence. During those years, the crucifixion of Jesus was the bloodiest act I encountered and that, I learned, had a happy ending. My blinders were secure. I didn’t even know to feel for them. Until I did.

My childhood as a transplant to Mississippi’s world of Whiteness was
fashioned by Southern charm, a trick of the eye. The Magnolia State seduced me, uninformed child that I was, into loving its segregated church socials, segregated movie theaters, segregated restaurants, segregated Halloween carnivals, segregated bowling alleys, its segregated Girl Scout troops, segregated libraries, and its segregated schools. The South was all ruffles, blue jeans, and sweet tea, and kept its confederate secrets to itself. My ignorance kept me indifferent, and the church kept me busy. Years later, I learned that I lived alongside injustice, untouched, advantaged, and duped by it.

1970 Mississippi Delta landscape by Mavis Wilkins, a near neighbor, and purchased by my mother for $30.

Read The Personal is Political series, Post 1 and Post 2 for the fuller context of this story.