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Slim Smith: Happy Birthday, Mississippi

 

Slim Smith

 

 

On this date 200 years ago, Mississippi was admitted as the 20th state in the union with the state capital set in Natchez, David Holmes serving as our first governor and the state motto: "The State Whose Name You're Always Going To Get Wrong On Your Spelling Test." 

 

For a while, Columbus had mixed feeling about being in Mississippi. There was some debate about whether the city was in Mississippi or Alabama and, based on the multitude of Alabama Crimson Tide decals on the pickups you see around town, I'm not sure the issue is settled to everyone's satisfaction. 

 

But in this column, I am not concerned with Alabama, which was not even considered worthy of statehood until a full two years after Mississippi joined the club. 

 

It's all about Mississippi. 

 

During the past two centuries, much has changed in Mississippi -- and some hasn't changed much or at all. 

 

The history of our state is well-documented, of course. It has been alternately awful and sublime, predictable and erratic. That's what our history tells us. Yet the historic people, places and events don't tell the full story of Mississippi anymore than a person's credit report will tell you whether he prefers sausage or bacon for breakfast. 

 

History doesn't tell us who we are. 

 

So who is this Mississippi that is blowing out those 200 candles today? 

 

Mississippi is the crazy uncle you've kept locked up in the attic only to discover he's been up there all these years creating some sort of masterpiece. 

 

Any attempt to list all of the great artists, writers, singers, athletes and entertainers the state has produced is a fool's errand. 

 

First, the list would be long as the West Point phone book. Second, even the most diligent effort to compile that list would result in an embarrassing omission, not some fringe artist or one-hit wonder, either. No, it would be someone who's known all the way to France. 

 

Finally, even if such list could be confined to print, it would be a depressing thing to read. We're a small, sparsely populated state. You would take one look at that list and think, "Dang. I'm probably the only person in the whole state who hasn't amounted to much of anything." 

 

Suffice to say, we are a wildly creative people, the artistic equivalent of kudzu. 

 

Mississippi is also known as the most charitable and most religious state, according to those who keep track of such things. We are also the least educated, least healthy, least affluent state. 

 

In fact, the only thing Mississippi is not -- and likely has never been -- is 25th, at least not since Arkansas became a state, if you follow me. On any list, Mississippi is either at the top or the bottom. Mississippi either hits the jackpot or blows the rent money. 

 

Mississippi is always the guy standing at the crossroads, not at all sure which way he should go or if he'll go at all. Maybe he'll just stay there and open a barbecue joint. 

 

Mississippi is all those things, and more. We are, I think, the most human of all the states, possessing all the wonderful and maddening inconsistencies, eccentricities and confusing qualities that define the human condition. Faulkner grasped this long ago, writing, "To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi." 

 

Good luck with that. 

 

Mississippi is unpredictable, which also makes it fascinating. 

 

If the states were all in college, Mississippi would be in its third year of community college working on its fourth major. Then it would go out and invent something breathtaking. 

 

Mississippi is 200 years old today, yet we get the feeling we still aren't sure what it's going to be when it grows up. 

 

Whatever it is, it will be interesting, maybe even a masterpiece. 

 

Happy Birthday, Mississippi. Now, get back in the attic. 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

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