Mississippi: Clawing to the Top | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Mississippi: Clawing to the Top

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Donna Ladd

Donna Ladd wrote the following editor's note for the Starkville Free Press the day before Mississippi State beat Auburn University to become the No. 1 football team in the country. It is republished in the JFP this week in honor of State's continued fight to stay at the top of the college football polls—and just in time for the JFP annual Best of Jackson contest; the ballot is on page 32 and at bestofjackson.com.

As we've all been riding high in recent weeks over the Mississippi State football team's meteoric rise on the media radar, we've all seen those tweets. You know, the anti-Mississippi ones that we all know go deeper than football rivalries. For instance: "Auburn's job is to get those two schools in that sh*tty state of Mississippi off their high horse."

That was only the next in many trash-Mississippi barbs (often about our very real obesity, poverty and race history), but it suddenly helped crystallize my feelings over being from and living in the state that gives all the others a scapegoat—a way to feel superior to something or, in this case, an entire state.

We all know Mississippians are pretty much all sensitive about being the country's punching bag, even as our state's residents have done or voted to allow some really stinky stuff (like keeping the old state flag, to name just one). I can't tell you how many times I've edited defensive cliches like "In Mississippi, we even wear shoes" out of perfectly well-written pieces on various subjects. Coming from this state with our history, much of which is barely past, we can assume that many outsiders are looking down at us, if we're not careful. And not a small number are.

Look at that tweet again. I actually thought the "sh*tty state" part was funny—just typical athletic trash talk—but when I thought about it in conjunction with yanking us off our "high horse," it went to a different place in my head. I've learned over the years—growing up in Mississippi, then leaving for 18 years and bopping around "smart" America, then returning to start a group of publications starting with this one—that a particularly pernicious group of folks out there want us to fail.

It is often people who aren't doing a whole lot better job than we are, or have done, at stuff like race relations and diversity but who like to pretend they are. They like to point to Mississippi to excuse their own failings and prove that at least they're better than we are.

We're sitting at an interesting juncture here in Mississippi. Working from Jackson now for 12 years to provide a progressive voice and forum for so many Mississippians who have long felt silenced, too often to the point of leaving and taking their energy and brilliance with them, I've watched our state start to find its legs in so many ways. We've begun to build up confidence, stamina, networks and determination to continue this state's evolution into a place where its smart residents can't imagine leaving, at least not for long.

We Mississippians do keep surprising people, whether it's with Republicans and Democrats joining together to repeatedly defeat the horrendous Personhood effort, or by our towns that keep standing up against homophobic forces while quoting back to them Bible verses that are more about "do unto your neighbor" than about how someone is going to hell.

We are steadily peeling back the layers of hate and distrust that have kept our state's residents divided and conquered for too long. We're replacing them with hope and courage to stand up and claim our rightful piece of the puzzle that is Mississippi. It's ours, and we've decided to stay and fight for it, to build rather than tear down, to focus on our positives and use them to solve our negatives.

When Mississippians start doing this together thing, we quickly find that the culture around us starts changing. We suddenly believe we've got this, we can solve problems, we're as good as anyone else and, by damn, we can even win stuff—hearts and minds, respect, awards and maybe even a national championship or a Heisman. I find this is true for natives and even transplants, especially those from nearby states that suffer from similar collective inferiority neuroses, even if slightly less debilitating as Mississippi's.

It doesn't hurt when a smart person, say a Dan Mullen, shows up in our state without that familiar bigotry toward our residents, looks at the kind-of ragtag group of talented-but-ignored players he can manage to assemble, sees potential greatness and then rolls up his sleeves and sets out to change their perceptions and all the rest of ours'. Mullen talks about changing the culture at Mississippi State to one that believes in winning.

That's how perpetual top-10 teams are built: They believe they should win, and so they often do. They don't believe they will win "if ..."; they know they can win "despite" setbacks. The same goes for people. Why do the work it takes to be brilliant if you don't actually think you can be?

I don't know what is going to transpire for State, or Ole Miss, going forward, but it's been amazing to see Mississippi teams that collectively believe in their own potential. They are surrounded by many Mississippians who are ready to shred the stereotypes and bigotry that are directed toward us, even if it's due to our own collective actions or omissions. We are ready, overall, to change our culture, and we are ready to have greatness come to us, on our own turf, rather than always have to take our smarts and strength and go looking for it somewhere else.

Many of us now want to control our own destinies, rather than be told to settle for inferiority here, or to get out. A major way to do that is to own who we are. I don't know about you, but our whipping-post-for-the-world role also makes me want it. It gives me my personal strength and my fire to work twice as hard to prove that I'm at least as good as the next guy, or state. My partner Todd (an Aggie!) likes to point to the proverbial baseball bat that Mississippians can pull out when we think we've been wronged. We may not agree on everything, but Mississippians of all races and backgrounds suddenly stand together when you start trying to belittle us off our high horse. Yes, we have used that instinct for some bad things over the years, but increasingly I see it turned to the positive.

It is our younger residents—like Mayor Parker Wiseman up in Starkville who doesn't hide his progressive beliefs to run for, or stay in, office—who are going to change Mississippi by staying, working, believing, fighting, and rejecting the culture and trapped mindsets of the past. We are steadily climbing up on a high horse, and I believe we will stay there for a long time.

This is our state, world, and we're ready to win.

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