I grew up thinking I lived in the worst state in the country. I wasn't alone: I was surrounded by people with a collective inferiority complex—especially the ones who protested the most about what other people think of us, and how it doesn't matter.
If it didn't matter, they wouldn't talk about it so much.
Of course, over the years, and as I was running as hard as I could away from Mississippi—I left the day after I graduated from State, never-ever coming back to live—I grew to realize that the real problem wasn't what other people thought of Mississippians; they only reflect what we think of ourselves. That is, if we think we're the worst, we will be.
It's proven out. On so many indexes, our state is the worst, or damn close to it: obesity, poverty and educational expenditures, to name three biggies. And even when we're No. 1, it can really suck. We just found out that our infant mortality is going up. Another horrifying reason to hang our heads in shame—or, if we have energy, to flee the state, looking for all the "best" out there waiting for us. Right?
It is very simple, folks: If we want to be the best, we have to be the best. We cannot settle for less—whether it comes in the form of stupid politicians treating us like racists, or under-funded education bills, or poorly reported lapdog media, or crime sensationalism designed to make us feel hopeless.
When I came on home in 2001, I was still searching for the best. Ironically, all those winding roads had led right here, to the big city of my youth—the city that used to twinkle from a distance when I was traveling the dirt roads of Neshoba County and trying to keep myself from hating my state, and thus myself, too much. As I grew up, though, Jackson did not beckon to me. My future was out yonder somewhere, I thought—in a place where I could live among the "best." The best writers, the best readers, the best thinkers, the best artists, the best conversationalists.
I had been taught all my life that this state wasn't the "best." Mississippi was a place that, if you didn't conform, you high-tailed it out as soon as you could. If you were smart and creative, you looked for opportunities elsewhere.
The Jackson Free Press grew out of a passion to change that practice, that bad habit, of running our best and brightest off. A number of native Mississippians, and a few non-natives, converged on the same postage stamp at the same time, and decided that our Mississippi would no longer be flyover country where people told us to "just leave" if we didn't agree. Our Mississippi, we knew, produced the best—whether athletes or writers or artists or thinkers. They just too often gave up and left.
Or, if they stayed behind, too many didn't speak up often enough about our "best" potential. Too many settled for second-best, or even last place. Too many supported media that treat Mississippians as if we're stupid, while taking our ad dollars. Too many assumed that "conventional wisdom" (or "conventional stupidity," as I call it) about Mississippians and the way we vote, and the way we think, would never change. Too many did not demand the kinds of hard work and challenges in the workplace that our "brains" find elsewhere—in places where their stars shine because they are challenged to be the "best."
As soon as we launched our first issue in 2002, we decided that our first "Best of Jackson" issue wouldn't be far behind. That first year, people didn't exactly know what that meant. Jackson? The best?
In a beleaguered state, and an even-more-beleaguered city, the "best" message was welcome, we discovered. Mississippians know our potential deep in our hearts, even if others too seldom expect it from us. That message permeates this newspaper and our stories; it permeates our work culture here at the JFP.
We don't train interns and writers and artists and account executives to work just hard enough to get a paper out every week. We promote a culture of excellence because we want our state's kids to go out and change the world, to head newsrooms, to win awards, to blog for The New York Times—then come on back home and bring what they learned.
As we celebrate our fifth—fifth!—Best of Jackson issue, I challenge everyone reading this to believe, and to teach, that Mississippi is the best, and that our people can lead at whatever we choose to do. Best is not easy, though; standards of mediocrity are not acceptable—whether in newsrooms, political office or in any workplace. And this is about more than lip service. We do our young people (and our older ones) no favor when we encourage them simply to look for quick cash, or work the least they can manage to, rather than push and support them in a drive for excellence and skills that rival those in any state in the country.
Mississippians must, together, build a culture of excellence. If you are a young person in high school or college, find yourself a mentor—someone who believes you are capable of greatness and works you (and with you) like a dog so that you get to realize your potential and your dreams. And if you are older or are already in the work force, get your eyes off the damn clock hands and get absorbed in your work and your creations. If your work doesn't absorb you, or make the world a better place, go get new skills, and then get (or create) a job where your best will shine through. Then find someone to mentor and pass it forward.
The "best" work hard, and we play hard, and we give back to our community. We're talking about people like Camp Best, and Al Stamps, and Deuce McAllister, and Jeff Good, and Misha Wilson, and Jason Marlow, and the McDades, and eZra Brown, and Daniel Johnson, and Jude Muse, and other locals who live the "best" message every day. They know it's not easy. It's not supposed to be easy.
We must also demand that those influencing public policy give their best. Whether it's economic development, crime prevention, flood control, or building our "creative class," we cannot settle for half-assed efforts to sell us a bill of goods that won't work. "Best" happens when we do it right the first time around.
Jackson, we salute you. Together, we are becoming a city that is demanding, and saluting, the best of ourselves and those around us.
Nothing less will do.
Join the JFP for our Best of Jackson 2007 party at 8 p.m. at Mardi Gras this Sunday.
Excellent call to responsibility, duty, faith and triumph. I belive we can be the best and put our shameful past to rest. I long for a day when we can claim our greatness personally and collectively and not have to say but... as I have to do with the likes of William Faulkner and many more. When we erase the "but" or other more or equally telling side, we won't have cause or reason to be so easily offended or inclined to hate others who point out our shameful past.
- Ray Carter
And I should add that once we let the past in deed be the past we will then be on the right footing or going in the right direction. I'm willing to move on if everybody else is willing to do so too. And I think moving on has to include getting that ugly symbol (the flag) off our state buildings and out of our courtrooms and other public places for others and us to see.
- Ray Carter
Agreed. When we truly expect the best of ourselves, we will bring that symbol of hatred down. Until then, it was serve as a beacon of the work yet to be done.