Can You Go Home Again? by E. LeMay Lathan

I’ve always heard “you can never go home again.” Up until now, I assumed it meant changes would make your old home unrecognizable. That’s what I thought until I recently made my own pilgrimage back home to Jackson, Mississippi.

My five brothers and I made a surprise visit to my parents’ new retirement home in Florence, Alabama. The surprise family reunion was fantastic. My Dad enjoyed our company and my Mom cooked and cooked and cooked (and we ate as usual). A great time was had by all.

That is, until my Mom and I made the trip back to Jackson, where I was born and grew up.

Five hours painfully drained from my life on the drive from Florence to Jackson as I saw the devastation and poverty that still exists there. I drove my Mom through Jackson as if I’d never left. All the old haunts were still there, but places that were falling down and out of business 23 years ago were in the same condition. Almost nothing had changed! What little had changed had changed for the worse. Houses and duplexes were boarded up and abandoned while buildings were burned out and left to rot. Stores I shopped at when I was small were still there, but the names were changed. The pieced-together house where I was born and raised was still there. It had been painted and shutters were added, but it was the same rickety duplex.

We lived in poverty and dire straits in Jackson. Things haven’t changed there. We could be in 1966 again, with me only ten years old and playing in the streets. The only change to this part of town was that it may now be worse.

I’d never been able to comprehend the devastating effects of poverty until I saw my old hometown. It totally destroyed the memories and dreams of my childhood. Was this the same place where I grew up? Had I played in these streets and gone to these stores and schools? Had I remembered it differently because those were my memories and, until my teenage years, I had nothing to compare it to? It never seemed as dirty and trash-infested as I remembered. We were poor then, but poor never meant dirty and trashy.

My old neighborhood is within walking distance of the state capitol building. You can walk to the governor’s mansion in 15 minutes. I can’t imagine this area not being sited for redevelopment, or at least a clean-up. It seems totally forgotten, as if the people there don’t exist.

How can this cycle of poverty be broken? For one thing, there are very few examples of black success to show kids. And most success stories are far away and not looking to come to Jackson anytime soon.

We drove by houses with people cooling off on their porches with trash littering their streets and sidewalks. This was Wednesday at mid-morning. Young brothers in their early to late twenties were in a hurry to be nowhere fast. It’s hard to get those scenes out of my head – to remember these people caught in this web of poverty. Do they know nothing else? I knew nothing else at the time. That was my reason for being there. Since I was being reared by my great-grandmother at the time, I had no choice. I assume these young men still have the chance and opportunity to seek employment elsewhere and get away from the poverty and the lifestyle to which they unfortunately seem accustomed.

I think back to the path I was headed down before I left that area. As young kids, my friends and I talked about the adults and how they lived and how we’d never live that way. We planned to move on and do something with our lives. But I guess the messages never reached this generation because they are still caught in the same lifestyle I grew up with in the 1960s.

I wanted to pack up as many people as I could and drive them away from there. I wanted to show them there was something else in the world for them. I wanted to give them a sense of self-esteem and self-worth and make them want to strive for something. I wanted to tell them about the opportunities in the world, and show them the progress of blacks around the country. I wanted to make them want to become something.

Now, as I drive around my current hometown of Vancouver, Washingon, I see the many opportunity programs to point kids towards success. But I still see these opportunities being wasted. If the young brothers trapped in Jackson, Mississippi had access to them, would their lives be any different? Is that the real devastation for that area? Had I never left there, would that have been my destiny as well? I think the statement “you can never go home” is very true. To me, it now makes perfect sense.

(E. LeMay Lathan is a member of Project 21 and author of the book The Black Man’s Guide to Working in a White Man’s World. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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