Healing hearts and mending minds through spoken art
by Riley Manning
Photography by Joe Worthem
The City of Tupelo is somewhat of a gem in Northeast Mississippi. As the birthplace of Elvis Presley and boasting a just-right size of about 40,000 residents, it is home to a popular shopping mall and an arena hosting everything from rock shows to college hockey games. You might hear residents of Tupelo mention the “Tupelo Spirit,” a vibe of hominess and good will prevalent among its populace and those who visit.
Now, there’s a grassroots movement gathering steam in Tupelo to advance racial reconciliation through dialogue and spoken word storytelling, led by artist and New Orleans native Asia Rainey.
Last summer, the Tupelo Spirit was tested with the death of Antwun “Ronnie” Shumpert, an unarmed black man shot and killed by a white policeman in Tupelo. Shumpert’s death briefly drew the national spotlight to Tupelo.
Rainey, just a few months on the ground in Tupelo, said her initial instinct as a spoken word artist was to speak out, but instead she decided to listen. The weeks following Shumpert’s death revealed a town grieving over the death of one of its own and grappling with old Southern wounds.
“The Tupelo Spirit is a very real thing. It’s what drew me here. It’s friendly and open and sweet,” Rainey said, “But some of the conversation gets lost when everyone just wants to keep the peace. Politeness can get in the way of authentic conversation.”
Rainey works with Tupelo’s Link Centre after a 10-year stint with New Orleans’ People’s Institute, particularly with the institute’s Open Doors project. Open Doors is made up of a core of multi-racial trainers who conduct formalized workshops aimed at undoing racism. After serving as artist-in-residency with the Link Centre in Tupelo, Rainey took the Link Centre board’s offer to join them and conduct the workshop series.
“What I saw was room to start an authentic community dialogue about race and racism and get creative about creating that platform in a place that isn’t accustomed to publicly doing that and see where it goes,” she said. “The first phase started in January.”
The first workshop’s mission was to clarify terms and interrogate the language we use around discussing race.
“We throw a lot of terms around – ‘race,’ ‘racism,’ ‘discrimination,’ 'bias,’—not necessarily making a distinction between them. So you and I could be having a conversation about 'racism' and be talking about two different things.”
The second workshop delved further into the difference between bias, discrimination and prejudice and connected those ideas to how individuals think and act. The third workshop moves into defining racism itself as a systemic issue. The fourth, the most difficult, Rainey said, refocuses on the individual, and how they internalize these factors and manifest them in their workplaces and neighborhoods.
“It’s hard for people to come to grips with where their head is and to admit their thinking,” she said, “But we did it. And it was great. We’re not going to erase racism this month, but the goal is to start the conversation.”
There are two more conversations to be had: one led by ages 16 to 25, the other led by the over 25 demographic. This is to draw a generational juxtaposition and understanding of how the conversation is moving forward, and for the younger generation, why this problem is still here.
“That’s one of the biggest questions I get from teenagers—‘Why are we still talking about this? Why do we still have to address things like slavery?’” she said. “At the last conversation, we put all of that on the table and said, ‘Ok, what are we going to do about it? How do we change our behavior from our own personal workspace to a larger, systemic change?’”
Rainey has received backing from the Mississippi Humanity Council to move forward to phase two, an effort to take the conversation to a more public sphere.
“Not everyone will feel comfortable with coming to the table. Some people might think they don’t want or need to be there, but even if people are disconnected from it for one reason or another, it still affects them,” she said. “Whether it’s privilege, bias, anger, even the way you see yourself, no matter what race you are, race has affected you.”
Rainey said she will employ humanities scholars to conduct research in the form of one-on-one interviews, culminating in an artistic piece to push the conversation publicly. The biggest challenge for a small town like Tupelo will be moving outside of its own bubble and understanding its part in the context of the national conversation about race. Rainey has conducted monthly open mic events called Sessions, where attendees tell their own stories
A gap in the conversation Rainey sees is the lack of a spoken word community – drastically different from her hometown, where there are open venues for the art form every night of the week. It struck her as odd.
Whether a Southerner considers himself or herself an artist or not, storytelling is in the Southerner’s blood. Rainey helped jump start Tupelo’s Story Porch events, monthly open mic events at the Link Centre where attendees volunteer to tell stories around a theme.
“When I teach spoken word, I ask, ‘How many of you think you’re story tellers?’ They always say ‘No’ and I tell them they’re lying. We’re colorful with our descriptions, our rhythm, the way we make a horrible story funny or vice versa. That’s what we naturally do.”
Spoken word events are also the building blocks of what Rainey calls a “creative economy.” They allow artists to meet other artists, as well as other folks in the community. As this connection grows, it potentially leads to further events and engagements, perhaps festivals, and suddenly, artists have tools at their disposal to advance their art, and vice versa.
Furthermore, spoken word communities allow its participants to realize they’re not alone in their experiences, from growing up to dealing with mental health or any other issue imaginable.
“The coolest thing I see is, say, an elderly white woman and a young black man connect because he says, ‘Hey, you remind me of my grandmother.’ No matter the topic, you always come away with a common thread you didn’t know was there.”