Southern State of Mind

I was raised in a small southern town you’ve probably never heard of called Gray Court, South Carolina. Because of this, I expected that I would be familiar with Cleveland, another small southern town about 600 miles away. Since arriving two weeks ago, some of my expectations have been confirmed while others have been shattered.

On the drive down Highway 82, I was startled when the landscape began to flatten and the horizon stretched further into the distance. We had finally made it to the open and flat terrain of the Mississippi Delta. The farmland on either side of the road was as vast as any ocean. Although the landscape was foreign, the beauty of rural life felt familiar. I did not know it at the time, but the geography of the region would not be the last thing in the Delta to impress me.

There is a spirit of community here that is remarkable. My classmates and I have only been here for two weeks and Cleveland has shown us a hospitality that is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. That is not to say we have not received our fair share of suspicion since arriving, but it is to note that after being asked, “What brings you to Cleveland?”, locals always follow up by welcoming us to town, asking us how our stay has been so far, and making a point to engage with us. Southern hospitality is beautiful because at its core, it is a display of one human engaging with another human in a dignifying way- regardless of how well the people know one another. The Mississippi Delta has this spirit of hospitality in spades.  

As the summer goes on, I will keep looking for moments that surprise and educate me because I believe there there is a lot be learned here. Y’all have something special here in the Delta and I’m honored that I get to experience it. 

Trey Walk
Greenville, South Carolina
Duke University Class of 2019

"What Brings You to Cleveland?"

When you were in school, did you ever have to walk into a class late on the very first day? There are probably some out there that either have no idea what that’s like or just don’t care. But we’ll get back to you later. It’s a new class with new classmates, and to make it interesting, let’s say it’s a new school – you don’t know anyone and no one knows you. You open the door slowly, hoping it doesn’t squeak too loud so maybe you can sneak in without anyone noticing. But, of course, they do. They all do. You find yourself face to face with a crowd of strangers, all peering at you. The room falls silent as students and teacher alike eye the bumbling specimen that has so rudely interrupted the class. For a second, no one says anything; however, the sea of suspicious faces silently let you know that you are absolutely in the wrong place. Who are you? You must be lost. It’s only the first day and you’re late? You must not understand how we do things here.  And then the teacher resumes, you find a seat as close to the back of the room as possible, and pretend it never happened.

 

That’s what it’s like to come to Cleveland as a young group of three Indian, two black, and four white college kids -- not to mention that one of us is British on top of it. So it makes sense that in Cleveland, Mississippi, where only 0.46% of the population is two or more races, such a diverse group automatically becomes the elephant in the room. But it’s not in a classroom, or even a school -- it’s everywhere. It’s at No Way Jose, it’s at Walmart, it’s at the farmers’ market, and most of all thus far, it’s especially at Po’ Monkey’s. We’ve walked into restaurants and watched full tables halt their conversation just to gawk at our confusing group. But not everyone stares; some ask us what brought us to Cleveland or if we’re from TFA, in which case we either sigh and stumble over a patchwork explanation of the Robertson Scholar Leadership program from Godknowswhere, North Carolina, or we smile and politely lie. It’s just easier that way. How do we explain to a Cleveland native that a wealthy philanthropist has paid for you and eight other college freshmen to soul search and bask in our altruism, only to return to our lives in eight short weeks? Some of us may never even return to Cleveland. Don’t get me wrong, we’re working hard day in and day out – three of us at the Freedom Project, two of us at St. Gabriel’s, two of us at different arts camps in the area, and two of us at the Delta Center. But there’s no denying that we’re disrupting the true local culture with our foreign presence.  It’s true. We aren’t from around here, and we won’t even be here long enough to adapt it.

 

So it makes sense to stare. I would stare too.

 

Kyra Exterovich-Rubin,
Madison, Wisconsin
UNC Chapel Hill 2019

 

  2016 Robertson Scholars

2016 Robertson Scholars