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Mitchell: What Should Santa Put in Mississippi’s Stocking?

If Mississippi had a stocking, what should Santa put in it?

Jobs, yes. That’s obvious. More jobs, good jobs that pay a living wage. That would help more individuals, more families get on their economic feet. We could use another automobile plant or three; perhaps another Ingalls.

Otherwise? Bass Pro Shop gift card? Vacation to Hawaii? How about this: A better self-image?

Folks who travel know the reaction we get when we tell people where we’re from. “Oh,” followed by an unspoken, “I’m so sorry.”

To the outside world we’re last or first, a place to be scorned or pitied.

We’re last in literacy, last in wealth, last (or nearly last) in public education spending and achievement. We’re even last in the amount of welfare benefits a destitute person receives.
We’re first in hypertension and heart disease and obesity. Until recently we were first in the proportion of the citizens serving prison time.

We’re last in the number of physicians per resident; one-in-four students don’t finish high school. For many consecutive years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has identified Mississippi as the worst possible place to be a child.

Even the climate doesn’t like us. In 2014, 20 people were killed by storms — the same number as in all of California and twice as many as Texas.

But for most who actually live here, the picture is very different.

Even if tornado and hurricane seasons can be awesome, most of the time the weather is pretty good — cool falls, mild winters, moderate springs and summers, well, summers that make us grateful for air conditioning.

Speaking of natural things, there’s no prettier place than the Mississippi Delta at sunrise or the Mississippi Gulf Coast at sunset. The water supply is ample. No droughts, rare flooding. The air is unpolluted. Forests are plentiful, as is wildlife. Southern food and southern music are the best anywhere.

There’s space. In Jackson, the largest city, the population density is 1,570 people per square mile. It’s 12,500 in Chicago. Statewide, the density is 25 people per square mile, compared to 158 in Tennessee, 107 in Louisana, 95 in Alabama and 57 in Arkansas.

As for the people, Mississippi consistently finishes at the top of the generosity index. People here may not have much, but they share it with anyone in need. Anyone whose car has left them stranded knows a Bubba in a pickup will usually roll up within minutes.

Good example? In his book about the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, former Gov. Haley Barbour tells about an incident when his wife, Marsha, and other volunteers were unloading blankets, towels, diapers, food and such for a family on an inland rural road. As they worked, they were politely stopped and told about another family down the road a bit. This family had nothing for days and no idea what the next days would bring, but was mindful of others, perhaps with greater need. “That speaks volumes about Mississippi,” Barbour said.

And it does.

In blunt terms, Mississippi must be OK because there’s no fence around it. Yes, there’s a big river on one side, but if life here is as miserable as many think, wouldn’t we all have left by now? Turned out the lights?

The truth is that this state doesn’t have a lock on all things mean or horrible or all things bright and wonderful. We’re a loser when it comes to statistics, but a winner on many other fronts.

Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help wrote, “Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother, too.”

In a way, that spells out a workable strategy. Mississippians may not — and, in fact, do not — enjoy or appreciate the scorn or ridicule the state receives from others. It’s not their place to judge us. But it is our place. It’s our place to judge who we are and to define our own aspirations.

We’re not really beaten until we give up on ourselves.

Any self-help book will tell you that in order for an individual to succeed, the individual must first believe in himself or herself. That probably applies to states, too.

What can Santa bring Mississippi? A self-image grounded in our own experience, not statistics, and the collective will to do better. We might stop beating each other up, too.

Merry Christmas.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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