A Year in Mississippi

I spent the past year traveling to Mississippi every couple of weeks to visit Cioffi. We would be cooking as I’d inhale Mississippi’s muddy humidity after a summer rain. We once canoed a river in pursuit of an alligator and abandoned treasures. We on two occasions handpicked fresh okra from stocks that were taller than me and smelled sunflowers whose faces were larger than mine. Cioffi taught me about harvesting fresh vegetables from the edible garden she built by hand by the train tracks in West Jackson and how to encourage children in the community to choose greens over candy. She took me to the home of an old intellectual horticulturalist who later gifted me a pair of old Nigerian ago-go bells. We have been interviewed by Mississippi blog MS Happening (mshappening.net) about our decision to attend the Oxford Film Festival last winter. We have stumbled upon Yazoo City’s abandoned downtown strip where eerie music played through speakers tied to lampposts, a run-down jewelry shop’s windows were just clear enough for us to peer into and a dilapidated amphitheater opened its arms up to us.

It was a year of learning about who exactly lives in Jackson, Mississippi, what gives them joy, what are they doing and what we can learn from them. Cioffi once took me to the home of George and Alice Porter, an elderly couple who had created a huge garden in the back of their warm home, full of intricacies such as a green house, a bottle tree and a beehive. We would go to New Hope Baptist Church on Sundays, and listen to Pastor Jerry Young teach us about faith, passion, community, fearlessness and spirituality through music. He would bring tears to my eyes in a way that bent my mind and influenced my determination to live large, wise, lovingly, beautifully. We would obsess over the church madames who wore the most amazing outfits: colors like bright purple or yellow, with Dr. Seuss-like hats.

I told Cioffi once that I wanted to drum in Mississippi. I wanted to contribute to this state musically. She said, I know where to go. We drove out to Canton where there was an abandoned pagoda, built upon a swamp. It was an observing dock for birds. It existed beside an active shooting range. I brought a pair of bongos to the pagoda and as I listened to the repetitive and intersecting sounds of gunshots and birds squawking, gunshots and birds squawking, I began to play drums. Cioffi filmed it. See the resulting video in the timeline section below.

This year, Cioffi received a lot of press and support for the influential community work she was doing. The Clarion-Ledger, The Jackson Free Press and Georgetown University Alumni Online all covered the work she has done with FoodCorps installing urban gardens and teaching about healthy eating. MPB, The Sun Herald, The Bolivar Commercial and The Student Printz have all featured subSIPPI, the documentary film she is currently working on. See full articles in the timeline section below.

On my most recent trip in late July, I visited MorningBell Records & Recording Studios (morningbellrecords.com) – one of Jackson’s newest record shops/ recording studios (the other one was Bama Records – which was a record shop that also functioned as a barber shop!). Morningbell is run by Sara and Drew McKercher, a wife and husband couple who are also in a band called Ice for Eagles together. I bought many treasures there (Percussion Goes Dixieland, Herb Albert, Special K, Jimmy Witherspoon, Jackson Southernaires Gospel…) and also decided that I wanted to write a feature about Jackon’s female drummers for Tom Tom Magazine, the NYC-based magazine about female drummers to which I contribute regularly (tomtommag.com). If approved by the editor, the story will be coming soon.

On that trip, Cioffi also took me to Mississippi Public Broadcasting, where she was working on a video project for a series called Mississippi Roads. The series traces stories around the country and so Cioffi had traveled to Clarksdale the week before to cover the history behind The Riverside Hotel, a hotel that used to house many Blues singers such as Ike Turner, Bessie Smith and members of Muddy Waters as they passed through town. She wanted to find an old newspaper that covered the death of Bessie Smith, so we went to the Mississippi State Dept of Archives and searched for a copy of the Clarion-Ledger from September 27th, 1937 that would have covered her death. We found it but there was no picture. That said, we spent hours loading different newspapers into the outdated microfilm readers that their library offered, studying 1930s writing styles, fashion trends, pre-WWII updates and descriptions of social outings and balls. It was one of the best afternoons of my life.

Cioffi is currently working on one of her most illustrious projects to date – subSIPPI: An Exploratory Documentary about Mississippi Subcultures (subsippi.com). During the months of August, September and October 2012 she will be traveling with a team of filmmakers around the state to study, capture and tell the stories of subcultures in Mississippi that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The idea is to provide a voice to those that might not have the resources or the audience to tell their stories. The mission is to provide an honest portrayal of how varied Mississippi life and culture actually is, contrary to what the rest of the U.S. and perhaps the world currently think. I cannot wait for this film to be made. Donate at subsippi.com.

My Mississippi education was powerful and emotional. I analyzed, felt, discussed, touched and learned through Cioffi’s vision that year. I wonder where she will take me next.

A Timeline of the Year (July 2011-July 2012):

First trip to Mississippi (Yazoo City, July 24th, 2011):


Teaching at Raines Elementary School (Jackson, October 20th, 2011):


Mississippi “Personhood” Amendment Fails (Statewide, November 4th, 2011):

Fortunately, a state-wide attempt to define life as the first point of conception fails as voters vote “No” on Amendment 26. 

CNN Coverage

HuffPost Coverage


“All You Can Hear is Passion”: New Hope Baptist Church, Sermon by Dr. Jerry Young (Pastor) (Jackson, November 13th, 2011):



Georgetown Alumni Online covers Lauren Cioffi’s food sustainability, education and gardening leadership (Jackson, January 6th, 2012)


George and Alice Porter’s Garden (Jackson, February 10th, 2012):


In Jackson you can afford to live in beautiful houses like this one (Jackson, February 10th, 2012):


Oxford Film Fest – Interview at 1:50 (Oxford, February 11th, 2012):


Swamp. Drums. Birds. Guns. (Canton, February 12th, 2012):


Thinking and Canoeing on Crystal Lake (Jackson, March 3rd, 2012):


An Interview with Gloria’s Kitchen by Lauren Cioffi (Jackson, April 2012):



Figment Art Festival (Jackson, April 28th, 2012):


“Jangly Pearl”: A Summer Jam (Emily Southerton & Kiran Gandhi) (Jackson, April 30th, 2012):



“Countretto Grown”: Clarion-Ledger covers FoodCorps member Lauren Cioffi’s Urban Garden (Jackson, May 11th, 2012):


“Night of Uh-Thousand Potatoes” (Created by Alex Sliger, FoodCorps Member): How many different ways can you cook a potato? (Jackson, July 28th, 2012):


Mississippi Public Broadcasting (Jackson, July 30th, 2012):


subSIPPI is interviewed on MPB: Listen here (Jackson, July 31st, 2012):


And Tom Tom Magazine covered the drummers I met during my many trips there:


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2 thoughts on “A Year in Mississippi

  1. How wonderful to have u shape, encourage, surprise, explore and live this MS narrative with me.

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