Haunted by the Past
Dockery Farms in Cleveland, Mississippi, the perceived "birthplace of the blues."
Haunted by the Past
Nisha Pahuja speaks with students at Delta State University.

Haunted by the Past

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Hovering above Jackson on what feels like a submarine with wings. Didn’t sleep a wink on my last night here. Instead, I drifted in and out of a Netflix-induced fog.  Kevin Spacey’s machinations merged with my jet lag and the faces, voices, and impressions of Mississippi.

The screenings and panels were great, especially when the walls came down and people spoke from deep within. It was amazing to witness that and to be part of it. At one screening, a middle-aged white woman whom I assumed to be completely liberated confessed that for years she has been torn by what she wants for herself and what men and her society have told her she needs to be. At that moment I could have been at a screening in Punjab. But instead, I was in one of the most democratic and “free” countries in the world talking to an educated woman who ran two businesses and that morning had finally worked up enough nerve to go out and buy herself a truck without the help of a man. 

There were other such moments—the two young African American men who said that the most beautiful women in their eyes were women who carried themselves with confidence. But these same two men felt no pride in their roots and felt like they had no strong or positive identity. I know they needed to express that and I hope that in expressing it, they let something go.

I know that we impacted a lot of people but what’s equally important is the impact they had on us. People remind us of many things—the value of our work, the importance of dialogue and stories but perhaps more than anything else, the strength and fragility that play out beneath all our surfaces.

For me, it wasn’t just the people of Mississippi who made me feel that, but the very place itself. I’ve never been anywhere that feels as haunted as at the crossroads of tense—past, present, and future. I feel it still. It’s not that there wasn’t a lot of laughter, there was, and a lot of good and bad singing, (mostly bad) but I leave here wishing there were magic words that could wash away some of the nightmare that history has left behind.

If I come back to this place, and I really want to, it will be to interview Tommy, my 64-year-old cab driver and a former Vietnam vet. Not sure why he started talking to me this morning but he did. He told me about the tunnels, about having to kill anyone who used those tunnels to get ammunition to the Viet Cong, including children. “24 months and 6 days. I didn’t know how many I killed but I knew I had to get out. See, I started to like the killing.”

I asked him if he thought about those days and he told me not a day went by that he didn’t think about those tunnels. There was one specific face he couldn’t get out of his head—a little girl whose head he blew off. Her face came to him every night.  

Everywhere in Mississippi I felt the ghosts—wandering the land, haunting dreams.