“Return to the Arkansas Delta”
Article written by Charles Bowden
with photographs and captions by Eugene Richards
National Geographic, November 2012, pp. 124-139
“The delta west of the Mississippi River was once a place where sharecroppers lived in segregation and poverty yet forged a vibrant community. Industrial farming has erased their culture, leaving behind endless sky and few people. Eugene Richards documented their world four decades ago. Now he returns to where his pictures began.”
—Introduction to “Return to the Arkansas Delta”
by Charles Bowden
As indicated by the title and the opening quotation above, this post is a sort of a review of an article on the Arkansas Delta that appeared in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic.
I learned about this article through a phone call from my friend Ed Roling, the Christian Education Director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa where Mari and I were members for twenty years back in the past. Through the years Ed and I have remained close friends though he is from Iowa and I am from Arkansas, specifically the Arkansas Delta.
Ed called to tell me about the article on the Arkansas Delta because I have talked and written on my blog about the Delta so much over the years that he has become intrigued by that faraway and almost foreign land that Mari and I love so much even though we have been “exiled” from it for thirty-five years.
On the phone Ed was excited to have discovered the article with its numerous photos and captions from the present and from forty years ago. Together the copy and the photos and captions recall the return of Eugene Richards, a New England Yankee, who left his native Boston to work in the Arkansas Delta during the civil rights era of the 1960s and ’70s.
In fact, Ed was so excited about the article that he offered to bring it to us in Sapulpa, about a thirty-minute drive from his home in West Tulsa. Since our church, the First United Methodist of Sapulpa, was having its annual fish fry that evening, we agreed to meet Ed at the church at six o’clock. After standing in line for an hour to get our fried catfish and potatoes, cole slaw, cornbread, beans, and iced tea, we sat and ate together. Afterward we returned to our house where we continued to talk about the article and the Arkansas Delta—a subject about which none of us ever seems to tire.
That shared interest in our disappearing homeland is one reason that I have already asked Ed (a former Roman Catholic priest) to preach my funeral in Sapulpa and, if possible, to accompany Mari and my family “down home” to the Delta to preside over my burial in “consecrated soil.”
Meanwhile before that final return to the land of my ancestors, Ed is eager for us to make one more “sentimental journey” together to the Delta so Mari and I can serve as personal guides in his introductory tour of the “Holy Land,” though we tell him the Delta he will see is not the same Delta we grew up with in the 1940s to ’60s or even the same Delta we were forced to leave in 1977.
Mari and I feel flattered by Ed’s request to serve as his guides to the Delta. Despite the intervening years, we still feel somewhat competent to do so since at one time or another in our past we lived in each of the three sections of the Arkansas Delta, what I term: (1) the Lower Delta (that section below the Arkansas River and above the Louisiana line, the lower boundary of the Arkansas Delta); (2) the Middle Delta (the section immediately above the Arkansas River up to Interstate 40 that runs from Little Rock to Memphis, the western and eastern limits of the Arkansas Delta); and (3) the Upper Delta (that section from Interstate 40 northward to the Missouri line, the northern boundary of the Arkansas Delta). Each of these sections is somewhat different from the other two as we learned while growing up in our hometown of McGehee in the Lower Delta, beginning our married life teaching high school and elementary school in Holly Grove in the Middle Delta, and finally teaching at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro in the Upper Delta in our young adulthood.
The one disappointment we experienced in reading and discussing the National Geographic article with Ed was that the only map of the Arkansas Delta in the article is basically of the Middle Delta, which does not show or label any of the towns and cities in the Lower Delta (such as Pine Bluff, Dumas, McGehee, Arkansas City, Dermott, Lake Village, Eudora, etc. that we knew so well) or the northernmost parts of the Upper Delta (like Blytheville, Walnut Ridge, Trumann, and particularly Jonesboro where Southern writer John Grisham was born and the locale of Grisham’s popular novel and movie titled A Painted House).
However, the article and map do show and label the major rivers (the St. Francis, the White, the Arkansas, the Mississippi) and many of the towns and cities in and near the Middle Delta (Augusta, Cotton Plant, Marvell, Marianna, Elaine, Helena-West Helena, etc.) with interesting observations about them and what transpired in them in the past and the changes in them in the present. The dozen or more photos and captions (old and new) and the copy also describe what Richards and his fellow civil rights workers encountered and experienced in their first visit in the 1960s and ’70s contrasted with what he encountered and experienced in his recent return visit.
Naturally, after reading the article that Ed brought us, I wanted to share it with those on my blog list and began to wonder how I could do so. Although I had planned to publish a follow-up to last week’s post about humorous self-quotes with a post about humorous quotes from others, I began to see that the best way to share the theme of the article with all those on my blog list was to make up a new post, a sort of review of the article, in hopes that it will pique the interest of those who have not yet heard of it or read it.
As such, I have lifted out some of the more descriptive quotations from that article to share with you. I hope this peek into the world that Mari and I knew so well from our youth and young adulthood will strike a similar cord with you whether you have ever lived or even visited this fascinating land that we still call home.
I do so by offering some of the more insightful quotations from that article that reflect the message about our beloved but blighted and benighted homeland and what has happened to it over the years of our fifty-year marriage and particularly our thirty-five year “Oklahomian Exile.” Much of what is expressed in these select quotations expresses the underlying theme of my entire blog: what has happened to the Arkansas Delta in our prolonged involuntary absence so that now, as much as we love it and miss it, we “can’t go home again.”
I sincerely hope these quotations will inspire you to purchase that issue of the National Geographic and read the entire article and view the photos and captions for yourself. Perhaps it will speak to you as it did to us. And perhaps if you too are from the Arkansas Delta you will do as we did and purchase extra copies to pass down to our children and grandchildren so they will know something of where we are from and thus who we are.
Note that the italics in the select quotations were added by me for emphasis. My comments are set in brackets.
Select Quotes from “Return to the Arkansas Delta”
“Beyond the plowed ground are the remains of a sharecropper’s shack that has been made irrelevant by the mechanical revolution of the past 70 years.” [See later quote on the disappearance of sharecropper shacks from the Delta.]
“The photographer is a white man who had come from Boston to the small town of Augusta during the civil rights era of the late sixties, and he now believes it was the most important time of his life.” [So do I!]
“Memory comes and goes here in the delta, mainly goes.” [I disagree. In the Arkansas Delta as in the South as a whole, memory, like the fertile Mississippi River silt on which it rests, runs deep and lasts forever! See the following quotes.]
“The place still beckons, captures the heart, and persists like the blues songs that grew out of the pain and the rough-edged Saturday nights.”
“The delta is the soul of the South, a place . . . always . . . shrowded in its past . . . “
“Now it is a vast agricultural machine that has swept clean the land, [a land] that seems to hardly need people or towns.” [I used to say that the Delta was a huge rural ghetto that needed to be "urban-renewalized" with a bulldozer! Now that is precisely what is happening, and I am filled with regret and remorse because there is nothing anyone can do to stop it or reverse it!]
“[But] the lands remains, the place of the great river and the phantom chords of American memory.” [See the earlier quote on memory and the Delta.]
“[In the Delta] the past can be forgotten but not erased.” [So true!]
“By 1970 the sharecropping world was already disappearing, and the landscape of today—huge fields, giant machines, battered towns, few people—beginning to emerge.” [After being away from the Delta for years, Mari and I were living in our hometown of McGehee in the mid-70s and saw already the changing Delta and the disappearance of its former way of life.]
“But for Richards . . . his time in Arkansas is still the burning core of his life. . . . [And of my life!] Now, 40 years later, the sharecropper life that he documented has slipped away.” [And so have I, and so has my beloved homeland!]
“There used to be hundreds of them [sharecropper shacks], painted white and raised up on concrete blocks. Now there’s not so much as a floorboard or a nail to mark where they were. It’s as if the Mississippi had overflowed and swept them all away.” [I know the feeling! During my thirty-five years of “Oklahomian Exile” on each of my “semi-annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” I watched as my beloved and sorely missed homeland washed away and disappeared!]
“It’s hard to document the disappearance of a way of life, to capture the delta that once was and isn’t today. . . . [which is what I am trying to do in my blog!] “
“Whatever the South is, it stays with you, and whatever the delta is, it beats as the heart inside the South.” [This final quote is reminiscent of a similar one from Southern writer Pat Conroy in his book Beach Music: “Mark my words. You’ll be back soon. The South’s got a lot of wrong with it. But it’s permanent press and it doesn’t wear out.” Neither does the Arkansas Delta! It stays with me and within me night and day! As I say, “Muddy Mississippi River water leaves a stain on the soul that is virtually impossible to get out—assuming any fool would try!”]
Note: Additional information, remembrances, and quotes about the Arkansas Delta can be viewed by visiting the following posts on my blog:
“My Bucket List Trip II: The Arkansas Delta”
“Yo Recuerdo (I Remember)”
“Bayou Bartholomew: Two Book Reviews”
“A Gathering at the River”
“Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton: Part I”
“Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton: Part II”
“Additional Quotes about the Delta”
“Days Gone By “ (A trip through the Arkansas Delta in the year 2000)
“Born in the Delta” (A review of a book by a Delta author from our county)
“During Wind and Rain” (A review of another Delta book by the same author)