By Rachel Long
Mississippi’s past and present is vibrantly covered by the written word. Natives such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and John Grisham authored books that became films and Broadway productions, while in the process, giving Mississippi a prominent literary name.
In the same way, Ralph Eubanks captures the days gone by of Mississippi’s racially-charged past and how the state’s history directly affected his childhood and continues to do so throughout his life.
Born and raised in Mount Olive, Mississippi, Eubanks lived an almost normal childhood. Surrounded by a loving family, both parents having good jobs, living in a comfortable house, Eubanks’ youth would almost seem ideal, except that he was an African American growing up in the 60s in the Deep South.
In the year Eubanks was born, 1957, there was a widely believed idea, coined by the governor that any child born that year would not see the school systems integrated, let alone the state. Eubanks parents took every effort to protect their children from the horrors of African American life in Mississippi.
Eubanks states in his book “Ever is a Long Time,” “Through my parent’s sleight of hand, as well as their professional status, my early childhood was left largely unscathed by the chaotic series of events that served as the setting of my childhood.”
Literature began its impact on Eubanks at the young age of 12 when he read “The Reivers,” by William Faulkner.
“I was probably too young to read but I read it anyway,” Eubanks said.
The book impacted him in a way that might not have propelled his love for literature but left an indefinite mark on him. He says looking past the mature content depicted, the book gave him an appreciation for words and allowed him moments of escape.
After “The Reiver’s,” Eubanks love of literature only grew. During his time at the University of Mississippi, Eubanks focused his studies and endeavors in English and literature, graduating with a degree in psychology and English. While in school, Eubanks sunk himself into his literature classes, but never dreamed that one day he would return to teach the same.
Eubanks professional career with words began in the world of editing.
“The constant struggle was how to do something I love, like writing, and still make money,” he said.
After completing his master’s at the University of Michigan, Eubanks worked as a copy editor for the American Geophysical Union. Over the years he continued to move up in the world of publishing and from 1995-2013 he served as the director of publishing at the Library of Congress.
While spending most of his professional career helping other writers become more proficient and skilled, Eubanks began working on his own project, focusing on his life in Mississippi.
Eubanks published his memoir, “Ever is a Long Time” in 2003. This book looks into Mississippi’s real and dark past and focuses on Eubanks childhood. The memoir unveils Eubanks struggle of finding out how the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission chose his parents to be spied on and the people who were impacted along the way. The book combines history that directly affected Eubanks with the written word.
Long before “Ever is a Long Time” came into the picture, after graduating from the University of Mississippi, Eubanks told himself he would never come back to Mississippi. For many years he kept his promise, however, a few years ago he returned to Mississippi as a professor for the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi. He teaches literature and southern studies classes within the Honors College while also writing articles for various platforms and working on personal projects.
Eubanks said he believes the opportunity to come back to Mississippi—having been away for a lengthy period—allows him to have fresh eyes on the state and use his personal experiences to teach students about literature.
Eubanks is known for encouraging students who are from Mississippi to leave and experience what the rest of the country and world have to offer, and then return and make an impact on the state, or at least come back with a wider view of the world.
Eubanks also specifically chooses works to teach on that push his students outside of their comfort zone. This upcoming spring semester, Eubanks is teaching a new literature class that will focus on the Civil Rights era. With the belief that literature is directly affected by the culture and the time that it is written, he says, “Civil Rights literature gives a voice to those who did not have one. We should be mindful that those works written during that time are not viewed lightly.”
Although Mississippi did not always treat Eubanks justly, he said he does look back on his childhood with fondness and believes that his love of literature could only have been developed in him while growing up in Mississippi.
He writes in his book, “Mississippi, the land and its history, inhabits and haunts me; its music and rhythms, both the joyful and the melancholy, have followed me my entire life, even when I tried to run away from them. I would never escape because being a Mississippian is the source of my strength. It lies at the core of my identity.”
Eubanks says he sees the strides being made to rightly remember Mississippi’s history but believes there is still much more work to do. His love for literature and vivid memory of Mississippi’s past helped to mold him into the publisher, professor and writer he is today.