Mississippi Native: Louisa Whitfield-Smith
"Mississippi has made me driven and awake, with my sleeves rolled up, deeply rooted in my faith, and with an enduring love of a great hang and doing absolutely nothing on a Sunday."
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 librarian, reader extraordinaire, and community advocate Louisa Whitfield-Smith.
Where are you from?
Jackson, Mississippi. My mom’s family has been in Mississippi for six generations. My dad’s folk are out of North Carolina, and I lived in Raleigh, NC for the first eight years of my life. While those first years gave me a lifelong passion for eastern Carolina BBQ, day trips to the mountains and beach, and great public education, Mississippi is undeniably my home.
Why did you leave Mississippi? Where did you go?
First and repeatedly, I left for my education. First to Appalachia, then to outside Philadelphia for undergrad at a Quaker school, then a community development apprenticeship in Kensington, and finally Baton Rouge for my Masters in Library and Information Science (what can I say—I love a capital city in the South). In between these times, I would come home to work, be a caregiver and help manage our family farm in rural Hinds county.
When I was in grad school at LSU, my dean set up a meeting with the legendary, former head of the Mississippi Library Commission, Sharman Smith. Smith sat me down and mapped out the next almost decade of my career. Giving me the “Go Forth” sermon, she told me to get experience in urban, suburban and small town best practices libraries, and to bring that knowledge home. So, I did—mostly on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro, home of the third best BBQ in the nation behind Eastern North Carolina and the Backyard BBQ Invitational.
Every seven years or so, I take a sabbatical, usually to travel. When I was 27, I circumnavigated the globe. When I was 34, I made two figure eights of the U.S., visiting 43 states and more than three hundred friends and family members.
Why did you return to Mississippi?
I was always pointed home after my education and apprenticeships. I am fortunate that I got here sooner than planned in late 2018 instead of mid-2020.
Home is the sound of the Murrah High School marching band practicing. It’s bragging about the Boom. Home is everyone’s “The Time They Met Eudora Welty” story.
Was the Mississippi you returned to the same one you had left?
It was, joyfully. As I said, I’ve always been blessed to come home for three to six month jags between schooling and start dates for what’s next—maybe a total of two and a half years over a 17 year period. I kept a home here as well as our farm, and frequently came home to see my beloved sister Carolina and other loved ones. The gifts I carried with me throughout the U.S. and world, the gifts of Mississippi, were still here when I got back—community; a DIY, roll up your sleeves for good and for awesome attitude; deep culture; that lush green that feels so much like spring here. Downtown Jackson was noticeably more thriving though when I moved back full time, and Jackson State University’s football games are definitely better, too.
What does “home” mean to you? How does Mississippi fit into that definition?
Home is roots. Home is a strong sense of purpose. Breath. A screen porch. Home is running into the parents of your middle school bully in the grocery store and they ask how you are. Home is running into people to this day who ask how they know me because I look so much like my mom, Johnnie-Marie, who died 20 years ago. Home is Millsaps. Home is Belhaven. Home is living in a house that was on my uncle’s paper route in the 1950s. Home is me missing Peaches every damn day of the year. Still. Forever.
Home is swimming in lakes and rivers, even when I know I shouldn’t. Home is the Gulf. Home is counting deer on the Trace coming back from Windsor Ruins with your best friend. Home is the corner of Kickapoo & Pinehaven. Home is Frank Pollard’s desk chair in my study. Home is the Crossroads Film Festival, the Backyard BBQ Invitational, Jubilee Jam. Martin’s back when Robert Arender booked. Offbeat. The Living Room. Home is the sound of the Murrah High School marching band practicing. It’s bragging about the Boom. Home is everyone’s “The Time They Met Eudora Welty” story.
Home is bragging about Mississippi writers with your full chest. Home is a Frank Melton life-size cutout and the time Kirk Fordice got a DUI, but also William Winters. Home is James Meredith in his New Miss hat. Home is a veggie plate. Preferably from Peaches, which I am absolutely going to mention twice because that is how much I miss that place. Home is being proud of the people you came up with, both those who stayed and those who left, all of whom carry Mississippi with them.
Because that’s the key with cultivating community in Mississippi, you have to show up.
How have you cultivated community in Mississippi? Who are the people who have made you feel rooted here?
Above all, my family roots me here. My sister Carolina, a longtime piano teacher and mentor here in Jackson; my mom Johnnie-Marie, a chemistry professor at Millsaps who ran summer institutes for STEM education for teachers and K-12 students; my grandma Lucy and my grandpa Ben Whitfield. My extended Whitfield family. My mom’s students, too. 17 years after her death, my mom’s beloved friend and former student Nazek hosted us in Texas to celebrate my mom’s 75th birthday. Whenever Nazek reaches out because Mom is on her mind, I know it’s going to be a gift.
My sister met her husband Philip when we were all volunteering with Crossroads Film Festival in our twenties, and that found family is still a huge part of our life almost 20 years later. Our old pub quiz team. I met one of my best friends at 121 and another at Musiquarium.
Because that’s the key with cultivating community in Mississippi, you have to show up.
Jackson is a city of golden ages. The gift and the trick is to know when you’re in one. Some of the names cut across the golden ages I have seen in this city: Ezra Brown, Nina Parikh, Andy Hilton, Thabi Moyo, and DJ Young Venom. We’re also a city and state of organizers, past and present: Natt Offiah, Wendy Shenefelt, Dorothy Triplett, Jed Oppenheim, the Perkins, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers.
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?
Someone in college presumed that I’d never met a Black person before because I was from Mississippi, the Blackest state in the nation, where I graduated from a high school that was more than 70% Black.
Both of my longest relationships ended because I saw a future in Mississippi, and they did not. I know that I might face that choice once again sometime in my life. I can’t speak for my future self, only my current.
How has living in Mississippi affected your identity and your life’s path?
Mississippi has made me driven and awake, with my sleeves rolled up, deeply rooted in my faith, and with an enduring love of a great hang and doing absolutely nothing on a Sunday. Or really much of the summer, to be honest. I don’t think I would be nearly as community or justice-minded if I had come up somewhere else. Though with my mom being my mom, who knows.
What is something that you’ve learned about Mississippi only by living here? In what ways has Mississippi lived up to your expectations?
How green we are. That lush, lush green of Mississippi after a rain. How heavily forested we are. Mississippi has a rich legacy of activism, something that continues to live up to my expectations to this day.
Do you still think about moving away someday? Does a sense of duty keep you rooted here? Do you have a “tipping point”?
Both of my longest relationships ended because I saw a future in Mississippi, and they did not. I know that I might face that choice once again sometime in my life. I can’t speak for my future self, only my current. There’s a banner from the Smith-Robertson Museum of Victoria Adams I keep saved in my favorites on my phone. On it, she says “I am choosing to stay here and fight for the opportunity to live in Mississippi as well as I can anywhere else.” Victoria Adams did so much good for civil rights and Mississippi, and the same year she was invited to the U.S. Congress alongside Fannie Lou Hamer, she moved to Thailand.
What do you wish the rest of the country understood about Mississippi?
Do you have a favorite Mississippi writer, artist or musician who you think everyone needs to know about?
So many! Jesmyn Ward is the best living writer in the world, and Buddy Nordan will always have my heart. And our children’s and YA literature past and present is so stacked with all-timers such as Angie Thomas, Mildred D. Taylor, Gilbert Ford and Natalie C. Parker. But of all of these and more (Tennessee! Donna! Richard! Anne! Linda Williams Jackson! Claudia Gray!), easily my favorite is Jimmy Cajoleas. His books and stories were made to be read aloud. Wisehearted, painterly, with such a strong sense of voice and place. Particular favorites of mine are Gussy (for my fellow Charles Portis and True Grit fans); The Good Demon (in a small Southern town full of secrets, a teen girl’s demon is exorcized & she fights to get them back because the demon was her only friend); The Rambling (deep in the swamp, Buddy Pennington must win a Parsnit, a mysterious card game of storytelling, chance & magic, tournament to save his family); and his story “Tongues” (painfully honest & vulnerable, the best story I’ve ever read about youth group).
The gifts I carried with me throughout the U.S. and world, the gifts of Mississippi, were still here when I got back—community; a DIY, roll up your sleeves for good and for awesome attitude; deep culture; that lush green that feels so much like spring here.
If you had 1 billion dollars to invest in Mississippi, how would you spend your money?
First, I would build a book manufacturing plant and green paper mill along the I-220 corridor in West Jackson. The last two years have really highlighted the weakness of the physical book supply chain for American presses, most of which had shifted printing overseas. Book manufacturing has great paying jobs, the kind you can raise a family on and be proud of doing. West Jackson has easy access to interstate, rail, and water shipping, and Mississippi has a plentiful supply of affordable pine stumpage. I’d love to help my fellow tree farmers get a better price for their pine, too.
Next, I’d help the City of Jackson renovate the former Jackson Main Library into the new downtown centerpiece library for Jackson-Hinds, partnering with the libraries for institutions of higher education in Jackson. The Main Library has such a rich history as the home of the Tougaloo Nine sit-ins and a great location. I’d raze the Eudora Welty library and turn that land into an outdoor park and parking with great wifi access for the library and Two Museums to share.
Finally, I’d hire a lobbyist to push for improved library funding at the state level. Current Mississippi state law caps the millage local libraries (which provide books, databases, job training, free high speed internet, continuing education, programming for all ages, meeting spaces, reference, maker-spaces, and small business support) can request at 3 mills for cities. That’s less than half of what Greater Belhaven is asking for security and signs at entrances to the neighborhood.
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.)
Marshall’s Music and Book Store on Farish Street is the oldest, continually owned and operated Black bookstore in America. Jone Primm, the fifth owner and third generation, is a joy with a sharp mind, a strong sense of humor and an even stronger sense of justice. She can order any book you can think of and ships both nationally and internationally.
I love, love, love Magnolia Sunset Markets, a pop-up market usually at twilight full of great makers such as Fauna Foodworks, Ms. T’s Sweets and Treats, Lofton & Co, Urthly Kreations, Bread & Batter Baked Goods, Renciz Sweetz and Treatz, The Flamingo, Offbeat, Thee Black Card and Adrienne Domnick.
If you haven’t been to Offbeat Jackson’s new downtown location, please do. Vinyl, comics, art, Venom being a curmudgeon while also a force for deep good in our community and a great hang. I can’t recommend it enough.
I love Sunflower Oven in Belhaven Heights. Their business model, their grains, their commitment to sourdough. Whether eating bagels and lox, a grain bowl or their chocolate rye cookie, I am always happy to be at Sunflower Oven.
Finally, Chef Enrika Williams is my favorite chef in the nation. I dream about her deeply rooted, visionary food, and will show up whenever or wherever she pops up. Add that to what I’d spend a billion dollars on—bankrolling whatever Chef Enrika wants to do next.
Farmer, librarian’s librarian and proud Murrah grad, Louisa Whitfield-Smith circumnavigated the globe when she was 27. When she was 34, she drove more than 50,000 miles around the U.S., visiting 43 states and more than 300 friends and family. Her first word was “book.” She loves Mississippi, her family, comics, good longform journalism, hiking, swimming in lakes and rivers, S. R. Ranganathan, baking, tabletop gaming, middle grade fiction, all things epistolary, mixtapes, and trashy movies, preferably featuring a ragtag team working against all odds on one last job.
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