The Water In Which You Swim

The South is who I am. I will visit other places, but every Southerner wants to get home and reconnect. That’s why I stay.

Integration is definitely working. I look back on my childhood in the fifties, going to schools that were segregated, and then I see my daughter, who’s nine, going to a school with not only black children but children from Chinese and Lebanese backgrounds. Our hope is always in our children. Our hope also lies in our educational institutions. In the South a few people and a very few dollars can do a great deal. Our problems can be resolved if we put our minds and hearts toward that end. Racism has been the Achilles’ heel of the South. And, really, of the Western world, but especially of the South. Only to the degree that we come to terms with racism and racial discrimination, in both blatant and subtle forms, do we truly move our region and nation forward. White and black coalition is our hope for the future.

You and I both spent years in the North. How would you respond to Northern intellectuals who still deplore and disparage the American South? And if this Clinton-Gore administration proves to be a failure, or less than a success, will this reflect adversely on the South?

There’s always going to be this national stereotype of the South. We’re not unlike what Ireland is to England. Some people will always expect the worst, and if they see it, they’ll feel vindicated in their prejudice. Those who do not believe the South can rise above whatever problems they associate with it may in some ways be right. Certainly race has been, and always will be, with us, and corruption will be found in every administration. It’s the nature of the beast. What we have to do is look to the great dream, the Jeffersonian dream, of a democracy. Whether this is achieved in the fullest degree or in small degree is less important than that the dream be kept alive and aspired to. It’s that effort that’s more important.

Let’s discuss that American phenomenon Bill Ferris himself. What was it like growing up in Vicksburg from an old family, as we say in the South, with all of the town’s Civil War resonances?

It was a mixed blessing. It gave me something to rebel against, as I saw it. I felt I had to escape in order to appreciate my own world. As Mr. Warren said, I had to get out of the water to appreciate it. I had the luxury of growing up on a farm—southeast of Vicksburg, just off the Natchez Trace—with a grandfather who was a great storyteller, and we would milk cows together every morning. And in a community with closely knit black and white families. As my grandmother, who was born in Yazoo City, and lived to be 101, used to say to me, blood is thicker than water. The spirits of those people I knew as a child live with me: my father and grandmother, the teachers I had. I went to a little three-room schoolhouse where each teacher taught two grades. That was the best education I ever received. I was the only child in the whole school whose parents had ever been to college. I realized I was different. The teacher once said to our class, “How many of you children are going to college?” No one raised a hand. I didn’t raise mine, because I didn’t want to be different. She pointed to me and said, “You’ll go to college. Your parents will see to it that you go to college.” And I said, “I ain’t goin’ to no college … I ain’t goin’ to no college.” I wanted to speak and act and be like my friends. That world of rural Mississippi, which was very rural in those days, is something I always carry with me.

What eventually made you decide to get a Ph.D. in folklore?

I had unknowingly been moving that way for a long time. In high school and later in college I began recording and photographing blues singers and religious services in an old church on our farm that had been erected during slavery. Those were the roots of realities that I saw as disappearing. I found myself in graduate school in English while on a fellowship at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in 1966, and was frustrated because increasingly I realized there was no way in the field of English literature to study folktales and music, which I loved so dearly. Purely by accident one morning over breakfast I was complaining about this with a medievalist literary scholar, and he said, “Well, you should study folklore.” I didn’t realize there were programs that allowed you to do that. He said, yes, there were. I ended up at the University of Pennsylvania and did my Ph.D. in folklore there, focusing on the blues and the traditions that I’d been working with since high school.

You mention you began photographing your world in high school. Do you see any significant developments in Southern photography?