Know Your Delta Roots
By Kara Martinez Bachman
We all have roots. As we become adults, we may sometimes move away from the places where we were born, but don’t be fooled — our roots will still always be there, lurking beneath the surface of our hometowns. Wherever we were reared, a part of us no doubt remains. Likewise, a part of that place’s culture comes along with us when we move away, whether we like it or not.
For parents who want to encourage their kids to embrace the Delta once they become adults — to settle in, invest in, and love the area of their birth — it’s useful to educate youngsters about things that make the region special. How can a child know why the Delta MATTERS, if he or she is never taught about what makes it unique? Many of the best and brightest often leave the communities of the south, heading out of state to find educations elsewhere, instead of considering staying and perhaps attending a school such as Delta State, in Cleveland, or Mississippi Delta Community College, in Moorhead.
“Knowing where you came from helps shape where you are going,” explained Shelley Ritter, Executive Director of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. “Knowing and understanding the successes and pitfalls of others helps you make informed decisions. It can also help you understand where and why you are where you are.”
Ritter outlined exactly how this kind of education works.
“Teaching young people to respect their hometown roots could lead to all kinds of great things,” she said. “For instance, knowing how a crumbling building shaped history could lead to preserving that space, and turning it into a learning opportunity. This knowledge could also deepen the understanding of why tourists come to your town. Cultural heritage tourism can be built on a community’s appreciation and preservation of its heritage. These are renewable resources and, if managed correctly, can generate revenue for communities, which can lead to revitalization.”
It’s words such as “revitalization” that are important, especially in a region that is stronger in culture and heart than it has been in big investment. Yeah, high-profile people such as Clarksdale’s Morgan Freeman invest in their hometowns, but it takes more than a few individuals for a place to really thrive. For any city or region it takes teamwork, based in shared roots and commitment to community.
Although there are many ways to teach kids about the Delta — including resources such as the B.B. King Museum, or by just following the Mississippi Blues Trail — Ritter feels the Museum she directs is special in this regard.
“The Delta Blues Museum is not focused on one artist or industry,” she said. “We tell the stories of the men and women who created and shaped blues music, some who left the region and achieved national and international fame, and others who are keeping the blues alive right in town now. These local musicians also tour all over the world, but choose to stay in Clarksdale.”
Ritter makes it clear: The Delta region is special.
“This music, the Delta blues, continues to impact, influence and shape the music we hear today,” Ritter said. “For instance, Muddy Waters’ song, ‘Catfish Blues/Rolling Stone’ named a magazine and a band. The Black Keys, Jack White, Ben Harper and others are still listening to his songs.”
The museum encourages pride in local culture by making available lesson plans and teaching tools for classrooms and parents.
Another way to dig deep into your roots is to explore with your child the local branches of your family tree. Get started by consulting online family tree websites such as Familysearch.org or Ancestry.com. It would make a great summer project to select a few ancestors from your tree who were born and died in the Delta region. Make it a project to learn about a few family members. Where did they live? What jobs did they do? What was the world like when they were alive? Consult local libraries for old public records. Research online together. Perhaps drive by the location of where these ancestors once lived. Perhaps visit their graves in a local cemetery.
There are many ways to show your child that we are part of a network that stretches back in time, and that the stories of our hometowns can matter more than we may at first realize.
Author, editor and writer Kara Martinez Bachman loves her visits to the Delta, and enjoyed the dozen years she lived in Mississippi. Her hometown roots, though–and heart–are both still planted firmly in New Orleans.