If I had to describe Clarksdale, Mississippi in one word, it would be “warmth.” Not just literally, although it is certainly warm here. The kind of thick, wholesome warmth that engulfs you and sinks into your bones. After nine months in Michigan, I welcome the feeling. I am thawing out.
But Clarksdale is warm in other, more important ways as well. The people who live here are warm. They are welcoming. They are genuinely interested in why we are here.
On first glance, downtown Clarksdale seems quiet. Vacant. While I wasn’t surprised by this on Sunday evening when we arrived, on Monday afternoon the streets were still fairly empty (where was everybody?). In fairness, there doesn’t seem to be much going on downtown. The bones of a town exist here but many of the storefronts are empty/look abandoned (still with broken furniture and torn down wall decorations inside as if they were left in a hurry or have been defiled since the store closed), which may be why there aren’t many people walking around.
And yet… I am struck by the feeling that this town has potential. Downtown Clarksdale is begging for someone to notice it. While there is an obvious need for revitalization, the people I have met this week who call Clarksdale home are some of the friendliest, most open and inviting people I have ever met. A local artist gave Tory and me a tour of her makeshift studio, set up between hanging tarps in a musty building that used to be a JC Penny. She also gave us a history of the area, including the fun fact that the large stone building across the street was used in the movie The Help as The Jackson Journal (and the lettering from the movie is still on the door!). A local musician playing music from his shop waved us in to listen and chat. A man working at the canoe rental shop offered us a tour of the building, and showed us the canoes they make and told us about the programs they run for children in the community. A radiologist, grabbing lunch, introduced himself to our group and asked about our research. We later saw him when we toured the Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center and again (multiple times) at exercise classes at a community center in town. These are just a few of the people we have met. Each one has embraced our presence and showed genuine interest in our group. They have welcomed us into their businesses and volunteered personal stories in a way people rarely do. Even when talking with the business owners, I never felt like they were trying to sell me something. We were just chatting. It was comfortable and welcoming. Particularly being from the Boston area, where everyone is in a hurry and often rude, this was incredibly refreshing and felt rare. Precious.
There is something about Clarksdale that has sparked my curiosity. Obviously there is a lot of history here. Among other things, Clarksdale is famous for the Devil’s Crossroads, where legend has it musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the blues. But it is not Clarksdale’s history that is captivating me. Clarksdale has a…quality. It hooks you. Some combination of warm people and unassuming character. It has twisted its way into my heart. This is not the first time I have felt captivated by a place. But it is the first time I can’t figure out why.