I came to Jackson via London and Chicago. I grew up in Britain, I moved to Chicago for graduate school to study anthropology at the University of Chicago. Since my teenage years, I have been interested in the US South. One of my advisors lives in New Orleans and she directed me to look at Birmingham and Jackson. When I came across the ambitious plans of Mayor Lumumba, I decided Jackson was the place to begin my project. That’s not where I ended my time, though.
In early June, I arrived in Jackson and had problems early on with my Airbnb accommodation. The host was strange. He left used q-tips strewn across the floor. He lied about the location of his property. I had to sleep in a bed whose sheets had not been changed since the last guest… In short, it was an accommodation from hell but I have to begrudgingly admire his audacity when he then pressured me to leave a 5-star review. In a panic and short of money, I relocated to the cheapest hotel I could find. I won’t name names, but it was notorious amongst locals for being a seedy place. Married men frequently used it as an escape to bring their mistresses. There seemed to be a lot of drug activity and one woman was even mugged outside her room late at night.
Despite these problems, the staff were all friendly and welcoming. I befriended a couple of them and enjoyed hanging out with them in the evenings. But after one month there, I discovered I had bedbugs. If that has never happened to you, it’s a nightmare situation. You are covered in small painful bites. You have to seal off all your clothes in bin bags and launder everything. You have to throw away your suitcase. And all the while you are haunted by the paranoia that you will have missed a single bug and the entire species will soon return with a vengeance.
It was the team at The Lighthouse | Black Girls Projects who told me I had bedbugs. That was a Monday. The previous Thursday, I had been in Shaw, just outside of Indianola in the Delta, attending a conference on food insecurity, which is presently rife in Mississippi. There were so many incredible people and organizations there, showcasing the compassion and ingenuity of local people to contribute to the construction of a more inclusive, just community. It was there I met Jelisa Harvey and Joecephus Martin, who work for The Lighthouse. Joecephus told me to meet him on Monday. The weekend passed, and too early for my liking on Monday morning, he picked me up from my hotel.
I went to their new offices on W. Capitol Street. The office is a beautiful place they’re busy regenerating and transforming into an epicenter for change. I met the team and there aren’t enough superlatives to convey the warmth and friendliness of their welcome. You quickly feel like you’re old friends or part of the family.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the founder of The Lighthouse | Black Girls Projects, Natalie Collier, and we spoke for over an hour about how the organization engages Black girls from their teenage years through college graduation. Natalie told me about the vision, the experiences she had that inspired and informed her path, and exactly how The Lighthouse is going about its work in Jackson. Natalie is one of the most eloquent, insightful and caring people I have ever met. In just one hour of conversation, she shifted my perspective and deepened my understanding.
Later that day the team took me for lunch at a soul food restaurant, Bully’s. I have never felt such an immediate sense of belonging somewhere. The food was great and after lunch they broke the news that the bites all over my feet and legs weren’t mosquitoes, like I’d thought, but bedbugs. That’s bad enough when you’re at home with family, but alone in a city thousands of miles from home, it’s pretty terrifying.
Every single member of the team was unwavering in their support. They helped me put together a plan. They arranged alternative accommodation for me. Helped me move my stuff from the old hotel to the new. Took me for dinner. Took me shopping for new clothes and a new suitcase. Then we took my infested clothes to a professional cleaner.
I came to Jackson to learn about urban life, its challenges and possibilities. A couple of days spent with everybody from The Lighthouse team taught me more about community than in my previous 25 years on this planet. Their generosity is astounding. And they conduct their essential work with grace and humour. It has been a privilege to meet The Lighthouse team and hear about their work. I want to be a friend of theirs and of the organization for life.
I am already excited to return to Jackson next summer to document their role in the grassroots activism taking place all over the city, to realize an alternative of what Mississippi and America could be.
But more important than helping to tell these stories is to be of service in any way I can.
If you haven’t already, you have to come and meet the team, discover their mission. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll leave transformed and committed to joining them.