It won’t be long

When we’ll be leaving here

I tried to make sure I knew the words. I couldn’t sing; the least I could do was know. 

It won’t be long

We’ll be going home

Grandma made sure I knew. I grew up running behind her, watching every move she made. Early in the morning, we watched The Price is Right and her “stories”; and she watched me do how she said: say yes ma’am, wash your face, and tighten up your belt. Late in the evening, we watched Grandpa watch John Wayne and other things he named based on whose they were. 

On Sundays, I watched church from beside Grandma behind the mourner’s bench. That’s where she taught me how to listen and hold my Bible. That’s where she made sure I knew the words to all the songs. She nodded at me when I did. 

Count the years as months 

Count the months as weeks

Count the weeks as days

I asked questions when I didn’t. 

What’s the difference between soon and very soon? Why would somebody leave here to go home? What do you do when you don’t know? 

“You believe.” That was always her answer, always like that, even when she picked different words. 

Brian Foster pictured with his grandmother.

My grandmother was born in Lee County, Mississippi nine years after Fannie Lou Hamer was born on the other side of the state, the same year Richard Wright left the South for the other part of the country. Believing without knowing—faith—helped all of them survive this place. It was by faith that Hamer stayed and organized in a Mississippi that wanted her dead. It was with faith that Wright left to write about a nation that was just like Mississippi. It is because of my grandmother’s faith that I am here, working at a university I could have barely attended if I was her son. White folks might have set bombs and started riots had I tried.

Mississippi is strange like that, especially for Black folks like us. It takes belief to stay, belief to go, and some type of belief to come back, which is hard because you will probably have to believe without knowing; which is impossible because what you don’t know is if you will survive.

Any day now

My grandmother was born in 1927. Like nearly 2 million other Black folks in the South, her parents were sharecroppers. Like Fannie Lou Hamer by the time she was old enough. Like Richard Wright’s father. Like Richard Wright’s mother, my grandmother let me read her newspapers at the kitchen table beside her, often eating something I had cooked how she taught me. Sausage patties in a cast iron skillet with grease that hurt when it popped. 

The year Grandma was born, the Mississippi River flooded the Delta, leaving hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers like Fannie Lou Hamer’s family displaced; and Richard Wright a train ride away reading and writing about it all. That was the same year the U.S. Supreme Court passed a decision that affirmed the right of state institutions like hospitals to sterilize people without their consent. The next year, Mississippi passed its own sterilization law; and in 1961, under the authority of this law, doctors at the North Sunflower County Hospital performed a hysterectomy on Fannie Lou Hamer, preventing her from being able to have children. Hamer didn’t consent or know.

It was also in 1961 when Richard Wright died after having been gone from Mississippi ever since he was the same age I was when I came back after I first left. Freedom Summer was in 1961; it was about getting Black Mississippians registered to vote. The Clarksdale Christmas boycott was in 1961; it was about getting Black Mississippians opportunities to work. A Freedom Ride stopped in Jackson in 1961; it was about getting Black Mississippians the right to be in public. James Meredith applied for admission to the place where I work in 1961; it was about more than being the “first black” student to enroll. My grandmother turned 34 in 1961; that was three years older than I am now.

Since 2016, I have worked as Assistant Professor of Sociology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. I started the job when I was 27, the same year I started writing a book about Black folks living in Mississippi with the blues; I was the same age then that Fannie Lou Hamer had been when the U.S. Supreme Court passed the Brown decision, which was summarily ignored by white elected officials across the state for a decade. That year Richard Wright published two books, one that I know well and another that I’ve never read, both probably better than any I’ll ever write.

My grandma never read that book Richard Wright wrote — or any book that wasn’t the Bible or about saying the right words in church — and she never met Fannie Lou Hamer. But their lives were entangled, like all of ours. That’s how it is in places like this for folks like us; no coincidences just the vibes of Black life folding over top and through each other, making love and tangled knots with two things that have always been. The first is that, what was promised never was. Mississippi was granted statehood in 1817. The 1820 Census says that there were more than 75,000 Mississippians then. Of them, about 45% were Black. Of those who were Black, 99% were enslaved. It never was.

It never was a time when what Freedom Summer was about was true. Today, political scientists describe Mississippi as the hardest state for folks to vote in. There is no early voting or online registration. There are felony voting restrictions that wipe away 16% of the Black electorate; and that big number is, itself, a legacy of something that never was in Mississippi, a humane approach to governance. 

It never was a time when what the Clarksdale Christmas boycott was about was true. Today, the state’s unemployment numbers and lowest-paying employment options are highest where its Black residents are most, places like Clarksdale. It never was a time when what the Freedom Rides were about was true. Look anywhere in Mississippi, and you will find a highway, investigation, lawsuit, monument, oral history, prison, private academy, or public settlement that shows how difficult it is for Black Mississippians to be in Mississippi.

It never was a time when I felt like the people in charge of the place where I work would ever know. They couldn’t know what Fannie Lou Hamer believed, or what Richard Wright saw. They couldn’t know what their first Black student said about why he applied, or what the Black students today feel about all the reminders of when he couldn’t. They couldn’t know what Black women faculty and staff—who have been and remain the university’s architects and most essential workers—have been saying for years and years, stuff that at least some folks have only recently found cause to believe. Any day now. They couldn’t know. 

Those who know don’t say.

Yet, that is what the folks in charge of the place where I work do best. They say. A year before I came back, a former University of Mississippi student pleaded guilty for his role in placing a noose on a statute of James Meredith. There were many things that happened in the aftermath. The more time that passes, the more it seems that most of it was just saying. In my first year in my current position, I interviewed the two black women who led the movement to remove the Mississippi state flag, which at the time bore a Confederate battle emblem, from campus. They shared stories of verbal assaults, death threats, paralyzing anxiety and fear, and being followed home on more than one occasion. There were many things that happened in the aftermath. The more time that passes, the more it seems that most of it was just saying. Last year, another group of university students posed with guns beside a bullet-riddled sign marking the murder of Emmett Till, which happened the same year my grandmother’s son turned four. There was a lot that happened in the aftermath, including a panel discussion that I moderated. The more time that passes, the more it seems that most of it was just saying. We couldn’t know.

And when you don’t know, it’s easy to say things about a truth that just never was. The University of Mississippi was established in 1848. The 1850 Census says that there were about 600,000 Mississippians then. Of them, about half were Black. Of those who were Black, 99% were enslaved. Of those who were enslaved, at least 55 were held by the people in charge of the University of Mississippi, the place where I work. It just never was.

A well-intentioned truth laid over an untouched lie is still a lie.

To keep laying good intentions and empty words on unrepaired damage is to still not know. And they don’t even. 

Yet, we have always believed. That is the second thing that has always been for Black Mississippians: faith. 

In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer was part of an eleven-person delegation, organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, that visited the west African nation of Guinea. In an interview the next year, Hamer reflected on two types of comments she heard while she was away. Some folks wished she had gone sooner. Others wanted her to not come back at all. She knew what she was to do the whole time. “It is our right to stay (in Mississippi),” she said in the interview, “and we will stay.”

“I dreamed of going,” wrote Richard Wright in Black Boy. Leaving Mississippi symbolized possibility for Wright. Leaving meant being able to see and believe what he had not been allowed to learn or know his whole life. It meant realizing a dream that “the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle.” It meant learning how violent not knowing can be, how Chicago was as much Mississippi as they both are the nation that made them. Wright wouldn’t say it like this, but that was faith too, leaving one place that won’t let you be for another. 

Lyvelle and Hosea Foster.

Grandma never left. For days, we watched Grandpa lie in a hospital bed without talking. She sat beside him listening every minute. That was 2004, when I was 15, the same age Fannie Lou Hamer was when she couldn’t go to school for working in the fields that Wright took that train through to get away from. I don’t remember many details from the Friday Grandpa died, except that Grandma sat on his right side, her yellow hand cuffing his black arm by his swollen right wrist, her not knowing but doing how she taught me: believing still.

The doctor kept not knowing how to say Grandpa’s name. I always said it was because the doctor could read but couldn’t listen. It was quiet when they did whatever they do when life support isn’t enough. Everybody sat waiting on it to happen. I sat doing what I had been doing my whole life: watching every move Grandma made. She raised his arm and let it fall. It was too heavy. She did it again. It did it again. The last time was the last time.

We’ll be going home

The last Census says that there are about 3 million Mississippians. Of them, 1 million are Black. Among them are the legacies of Fannie Lou Hamer who stayed as long as she could, Richard Wright who left as soon he did, and my grandma. Those of us who remain stand where they stood; and those of us who have not been robbed of the choice to choose will have to decide and believe how they did: without knowing.

That is the hard part.

If Grandma was here, I would ask her like I used to. “What do you do when you don’t know?” And she would tell me like she told me. “You believe.” And I would ask her like I never did. How do you hold belief and your breath at the same time? 

That is the impossible part. 

In order to survive, we must believe that the thing that is killing us won’t, all while not knowing if we’ll live long enough to see what Grandma saw on all them Sundays on the pew behind the front row, when she used to make sure I knew the words.

We’ll be leaving here

When it’s time, I hope I will.

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Dr. Brian Foster is a writer and storyteller from Mississippi. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and currently works as Assistant Professor of Sociology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. His book "I Don't Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life" (University of North Carolina Press) tells the story of blues development and Black community life in the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. Brian also serves as co-editor of the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity and Director of the Mississippi Hill Country Oral History Collective. His public writing has appeared in local, regional, and national outlets, including Oxford Magazine, Mississippi Folklife, Bitter Southerner, Gravy, CNN, and The Washington Post.