Mississippi Native: Linda Williams Jackson
"My writing became more authentic and descriptive when I came home. Living in Mississippi has given me more of a sense of purpose for writing about Mississippi."
What does it mean to call Mississippi home? Why do people choose to leave or live in this weird, wonderful, and sometimes infuriating place? Today we hear from former database administrator and adjunct professor turned award-winning author Linda Williams Jackson.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Rosedale, a little town on the Mississippi River. Rosedale is the city where blues legend Robert Johnson, at the crossroads of Highways 1 and 8, allegedly sold his soul to the devil. The city of Clarksdale also makes this claim, believing that Johnson sold his soul where Highways 49 and 61 intersect. Either way, I don’t doubt that the devil has made many visits to the Mississippi Delta—then and now—to make deals with people in exchange for their souls. (Just kidding.)
Why did you leave Mississippi? Where did you go?
First, I left Mississippi and moved to Alabama as a college student because I fell in love with a young man from Alabama, married him, then moved to Alabama and transferred from Mississippi State University to the University of Alabama. After my husband and I graduated from the U of A, we moved to Kansas City, Missouri to work for Hallmark Cards in the Information Technology Department. We couldn’t wait to leave the “racist South” only to be encountered with racism the first day on the job at Hallmark Cards. Someone had anonymously placed racist notes on the desks of Black employees in the I.T. department in response to Hallmark’s promoting Black computer programmers to managers. Maybe my husband and I didn’t move far enough away from the South. Or maybe we were just too naïve to realize that racism could cross state lines the same way we could.
Why did you return to Mississippi?
I returned to Mississippi because I was homesick. I missed my family—my mom and my sisters, my aunt and uncle, my cousins… I missed the mild winters. It snowed every week in Kansas City during winter, and I hated it.
I prefer the warmth of the Southern sun even if I don’t prefer the ignorance sometimes associated with the Southern pride.
Was the Mississippi you returned to the same one you had left?
I returned to a different part of Mississippi, so in that sense, no. I came from the Delta, but when I moved back, I moved to the northern-most part of the state. I also moved back during the same year (2000) that Mississippians were voting on whether to change the state flag. It was…interesting…to come back at a time when so many people were waving Confederate flags. It seems I have a knack for moving at just the right time.
By the way, the people of Mississippi voted to keep their current flag in 2000—a flag that had the Confederate flag imbedded in it. The flag was finally changed in 2020.
What does “home” mean to you? How does Mississippi fit into that definition?
Home for me is family, food, and fun times (with fried catfish, of course). Whether I’m at home with the family I built—meaning my husband and kids—or with the family I was born into—my siblings and nieces and nephews and cousins, when we’re gathered around food and having a good time, I’m home.
But home can also be friction, feuds, and frustration. And I have felt all three with my built-family and with my born-family.
How does Mississippi fit into that definition? I couldn’t have the food and fun times with my born-family as often as I have had I not moved back to Mississippi. And everybody knows that Mississippi has great food, and places packed with fun times. But Mississippi is also known for its friction, feuds, and frustrations.
Most people take Mississippi to be a bad place. Mississippi isn’t a bad place. Mississippi is a misunderstood place. It has a tainted history that continues to haunt it, much like America as a whole. Yet Mississippi, like America—for me—is home.
How have you cultivated community in Mississippi? Who are the people who have made you feel rooted here?
Since I moved back to a different part of the state than where I grew up, I cultivated community through my church and through the schools that my children attended. I have also cultivated community with Mississippi writers, librarians, and booksellers. All of these entities have made me feel “at home” even though I am in a different part of the state than where most of my family lives.
Also, time has rooted me here. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Mississippi, and I have been back in Mississippi, now, for nearly 23 years. 45 years out of 57 is a long time to spend in one place. 45 years is more than enough time to feel “rooted.”
What’s the weirdest question or assumption you’ve encountered about Mississippi (or about you as a Mississippian) by someone who’s never been here?
I was at an airport in Florida, and a Black guy was checking my I.D. He looked up at me and said, “Mississippi, huh?”
I nodded and said, “Yep. Born and raised.”
The guy gave me the strangest look and said, “And you still live there?”
I just laughed and said, “Yep.” But what I was thinking was, “Wasn’t Florida part of the Confederacy, too?”
I hear this kind of talk all the time from Black people in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama. They just can’t believe Black people would choose to live in Mississippi. Huh?!?!
The whole time I’m thinking, But you live in a state known for racism too.
How has living in Mississippi affected your identity and your life’s path?
I began writing while I lived in Kansas City, Missouri. The setting of my first manuscript was, of course, Mississippi. The story faltered until I moved back to Mississippi.
My writing became more authentic and descriptive (especially the dialect) when I came home. Living in Mississippi has given me more of a sense of purpose for writing about Mississippi.
What is something that you’ve learned about Mississippi only by living here? In what ways has Mississippi lived up to your expectations?
Mississippi is a friendly place. I know people might find that hard to believe. But it’s true. Having been born and raised here, I don’t know whether I have ever had expectations of the state. Mississippi, to me, is like being wrapped in my favorite blanket on a cold winter day. Mississippi, to me, is like enjoying a cup of coffee just because. Mississippi, to me, is like laughing out loud at a funny TV show. Perhaps other people would say the same things about their states, which goes to show that Mississippi is just like any other state in these Not-Always-So-United States of America.
Do you still think about moving away someday? Does a sense of duty keep you rooted here? Do you have a “tipping point”?
I thought about moving away a few years ago. I wanted to move to the Washington, D.C./Virginia area. But I only wanted to live there about five years then return to Mississippi. I still might move to another state someday (if my husband is willing) before I’m too old to consider moving. There is no sense of duty that keeps me rooted here. I simply like it here.
What do you wish the rest of the country understood about Mississippi?
I really wish people would realize that Black people live prosperously and happily in Mississippi, so stop questioning why we live here. Stop asking, “How can you live there?”
We live here the same way Black people live in any other state. Much blood was shed to make this possible. Many lives were lost. I don’t take any of that for granted, which is why I write the stories highlighting the struggles of our past. Looking back is important. It reminds us to appreciate our present.
Do you have a favorite Mississippi writer, artist, or musician who you think everyone needs to know about?
I do not have one favorite writer, artist, or musician, but I would like to give a shoutout to some my favorite writers who either live in Mississippi currently or who were raised here and now live in other states: Picture book authors Sarah C. Campbell and Sarah Frances Hardy, who currently reside in Mississippi. Middle grade authors Augusta Scattergood, Corabel Shofner, and Jo Watson Hackl, who all have Mississippi roots but now live outside the state. And nonfiction author Virginia McGee Butler, whose book Becoming Ezra Jack Keats was just released, is also a Mississippi native and current resident. These fantastic writers don’t get mentioned nearly as much as they should, so I’m mentioning them now. Go buy their books!
If you had one billion dollars to invest in Mississippi, how would you spend your money?
If someone gave me one billion dollars to invest in Mississippi, I would totally revamp my hometown of Rosedale. I would not only build houses, open businesses, and invest heavily in education, but I would also provide mental health services and life-coaching services in order to improve the overall well being of the town’s citizens. Rosedale is a lovely place, and I am proud to have grown up there. But the town, like so many small towns, is fading away. I would love to see it revamped and revitalized.
There are folks in Rosedale who are already doing the work (Friends of Rosedale). My fictional billion dollars would speed up their efforts.
What or who do you want to shamelessly promote? (It can absolutely be a project you’re working on, or something you are involved in.)
I can promote myself, you say? Well then, everyone, please buy my books Midnight Without a Moon, A Sky Full of Stars, and The Lucky Ones! Support living authors. The dead ones don’t need it. They’ve already been fed.
Linda Williams Jackson is the author of Midnight Without a Moon, which was an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book, a Jane Addams Honor Book for Peace and Social Justice, and a Washington Post Summer Book Club Selection. Her second book, A Sky Full of Stars, received a Malka Penn Honor for an outstanding children’s book addressing human rights issues and was a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year. Her most recent book, The Lucky Ones, was honored by Common Sense Media with a Common Sense Selection Seal, which honors the best new books for families and teens and recognizes and champions entertaining, high-quality books that have enriching, relatable stories and/or positive messages and role models. The Lucky Ones was inspired by Robert Kennedy’s 1967 Poverty Tour of the Mississippi Delta and is loosely based on the author’s own family’s experiences. Southern born and Southern bred, Linda Williams Jackson—mother of three and wife of one—still calls Mississippi home.
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Lovely interview, Linda. I was born next door in Louisiana. My parents made the decision to move to California when I was a baby. But my roots are very deep in Louisiana and it has provided the setting for several of my stories. I think my parents made the right decision at the time.
But, for me, the golden California sun has lost its glow and I dream about moving back to the South. But, as you said, home is where family and food (gumbo, thank you) are.
I don't question your staying in Mississippi. We bloom where we are planted. (BTW, I think I learned how to spell Mississippi before I learned how to spell California because because MS was such a fun word to spell.)
Thanks for sharing your story and your beautiful books.
Great interview - I’m a big fan of Linda and her writing!