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In January of this year, sitting in my home in Nairobi, two continents removed from the Deep South, the smell of the Delta came rushing back to me. From Oxford town square, to the cotton of Greenwood and the sounds of Honey Boy Edwards washed down by a Lazy Magnolia brew, to the scent of Spooney Kenter's tangy barbeque, I was reminded of the beauty of the Delta, and my time there—how its people grow to be famous but in the way ghosts are—heavy with mystery, unable to pin down.
If you Google my name (a thing I am no longer ashamed to admit I do infrequently), Spooney Kenter's face, along with mine, is one of the images that pops up.
We are standing in Baptist Town, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in Greenwood, Mississippi, a mic in my hand, which I lean towards Spooney. His black cap sits backwards on his head as I ask him for the recipe to his secret barbecue sauce. Somewhere off camera, Spooney's smoker wafts puffs of white smoke into the air. And beyond that sits a table with a checkered blue cloth and plastic chairs arranged around it, an invitation to sit and feast upon the Delta's richness.
The Deep South had always been a mythical place to me. As an immigrant child sequestered in a Midwestern state, my image of the South was clouded by humid summers and beautiful Black bodies in towns much like Zora Neale Hurston's fictional Eatonville.
In the hallways of my imagination, the rich literary history of William Faulkner and Alice Walker ran around with Robert Johnson's and Muddy Waters's blues. Southern culture and Black pride sat next to each other in church pews while the darker side of the Deep South's history lingered not far off. The one colored by lunch counter sit-ins, beatings and lynchings, and, against that, the stately plantation mansions that still sit in its recesses as beautiful, macabre reminders.
The Delta region remains economically poor, with some of the highest poverty levels in the country. Leflore County, where Greenwood sits, has one of the lowest incomes countrywide. According to U.S. Census Bureau Statistics, approximately 40 percent of Greenwood's residents live in poverty: its population is more than two-thirds Black.
I got my first taste of the region in 2014 at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, participating in an oral history workshop on the Delta's food histories. In the weeks before the workshop, I was filled with expectation, dulled by the knowing that for people like me—African, Black—the South was a place where the wounds of our ancestors grazed openly. The Deep South would change me.
Tracing the lush green lawns and shaded walkways of the Ole Miss campus, I felt haunted. Lying in my assigned dormitory room, my every muscle and tissue seemed viscerally aware that people like me had never been intended for this place. That it had taken not just bitterly contested laws, but also the armed forces of this greatly complicated nation before bodies and minds like mine could enter these walls. Desegregation had not been given but fought for.
It was from this vantage point that we traveled an hour and a half west to Greenwood, where I met Spooney. His secret barbecue sauce transpired out of a broken heart as he sat staring at an empty wall in his living room in Kansas City. Against economic odds, he brought his heart and recipe back to his home in Baptist Town, a tiny speck, a place where it seemed as if time had stopped to take a rest and waited too long.
Struck by the starkest poverty I had ever witnessed in this country, I stood in its narrow streets, the tarmac long chipped away, crumbling houses every which way I looked, and felt my heart begin to ache. Through the decades, the people of Baptist Town had been left on the wayside of opportunity in one of the most prosperous nations in the world.
It was at Hoover's Grocery and Laundry, the neighborhood grocer and our second fieldwork stop in Baptist Town, where I met Sylvester Hoover, a man with my uncle's kind, watery eyes. I haven't seen my uncle in years and felt drawn to Sylvester as our group gathered in his tiny store.
Mary Hoover stood proud and animated next to her husband, curling newspaper clippings from the movie "The Help" taped to the wall behind her. One of the reasons Greenwood had been chosen as the main location for the film was in large part because not much had changed since the 1960s, the time period in which Kathryn Stockett's book of the same title is set— a bitter indictment on the lack of progress in the town. When filming began, Mary was not only cast as an extra, but also catered meals for the cast and crew.
"When 'The Help' came here, that really helped us. And peoples don't really look down on Baptist Town. They kind of look at it and say it lookin' different, than looking down, looking at it…the history of it. So it really kind of helped us a little bit, you know."
She beamed as she talked of the meals she prepared for the cast and crew, who spent weeks living in Greenwood. Much like her upbringing, everything Mary made for "The Help" came from the earth. I think that was some of the source of her pride—her own hands in her own soil.
"They didn't want anything from the box, they wanted everything from the ground. So I gave them everything from the ground," she tells us. "I had planted a garden in my backyard… I had tomatoes, I had okras, I had greens, collard greens, turnip greens, and I went to the farmer's market and got this ground potatoes, white potatoes, sweet potatoes. I cooked all that for them, I did."
Aside from Hoover's Grocery, Sylvester also runs the Back in the Day Museum, a living memory to the yesteryears of Baptist Town. Situated in a busy two-room house a few doors down, the Museum holds memorabilia from a time that seems far off for some, but is only a recent memory for the residents of Baptist Town.
Inside, you will find oversized sacks much like the ones each of the Hoovers remembers carrying to the fields back when Greenwood was the "Cotton Capital of the World". There are the dusty dolls that young girls like Mrs. Hoover would have played with as children, and the cast irons their mothers would have used to press their clothes for church. Leaning against the wall are more recent framed posters of the Delta Legends Blues Tours that Sylvester gives to any music-hungry wanderer who comes by.
The Hoovers' daughter, Christine, who had sat in the corner watching the curious group so interested in her parents, told me, "They've been married for 38 years, but every night they talk as if they've never met. Like they've never known each other." A river of tears threatened to break free as I thought of the resiliency of Black love in the midst of hardship.
I thought of Sylvester telling us of sleeping six to a bed and growing up poor without knowing they were poor in this place he calls home and has never left. My mind mulled over what Sylvester had said as we stood on the small porch of the museum.
"Things have changed but they haven't."
We were talking of poverty and racism in that quietly understood way that Black folks can. Underneath Sylvester's words sat the tale of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the Black Chicago teen who arrived to visit his cousins in Money, Mississippi one hot summer and never returned. His mutilated body would be discovered in the Tallahatchie River not far from where Sylvester and I now stood.
We left Greenwood early that afternoon. Taking a different route out of the city to visit two more sites, we crossed the Tallahatchie River, which had kept the secret of Till's murder in the days after his kidnapping. It is like so many rivers that crisscross cities all across America: pretty, clean, serene, not remarkable.
But something heavy rests upon you when you stand in front of the remains of Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, where Emmett Till encountered Carolyn Bryant, the woman whose accusations would lead to his kidnapping and murder on August 28, 1955. The now-dilapidated store has been boarded up, ivy creeping up its side wall—a shinier, modern replica to be built soon. It is like staring at a replica of a plantation house built just to honor the deaths of slaves at the plantation-owner's hands; grotesque, cold and tone-deaf.
Bryant's Grocery sits on County Road 518, a small little ways down from the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church where legendary Blues musician Robert Johnson was allegedly buried (there is still some dispute). Robert Johnson played the Blues guitar so well that folks believe he traded his soul to the devil in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. He had been a frequent visitor to Baptist Town in his heyday. The town itself was a safe haven for artists and musicians escaping the cotton fields. They found refuge and an audience at the local juke joints.
"This is a big part of the history, heritage and culture, and people want to come see where Robert Johnson lived and how the peoples lived here in the Mississippi Delta…Blues just bring people together," Sylvester told us.
Equal parts myth and music, equal parts labor and love—the Delta is a place where you come to listen, a place you come to remember. Greenwood and the Delta have been many things to different people over the decades: bluesman's escape, Big Cotton's crown jewel, burial ground, home. Many of the folks who live here feel they cannot leave.
With the Delta's days of luster seemingly gone—or unachieved, depending on which way you look at it—men like Sylvester Hoover roam its living memory, keeping alive the mystique of the Deep South. Passing on its stories to a new generation of travelers.
Leaning into conversation that hot summer afternoon, I asked Sylvester, "Why do you stay?" leaving unsaid, "When there is so much more of this country in which you can make yourself."
But I guess this is what makes the Delta difficult to forget: the complexity of its lived experiences. He answered me with a pained matter-of-factness.
"I want the world to know about this place."