Our stories welcome in Natchez

Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 23, 2014

One needs only to slowly cross the bridge from Vidalia to see the beginnings of the city on the bluff that has captivated travelers and writers for generations.

I recall my first visit to Natchez. I had heard about it as a child from my great-aunt who was born in that region of the country. Her mother was a Bingham whose roots were planted in Natchez and small communities up the road a piece. I really didn’t know what to expect.

Very seldom do stories do justice to the place we imagine. This time the stories were true. I was taken with what I call ancient topography as well as the Mississippi River. It wasn’t rushing anywhere. It seemed not to move — Old Man River, just idling away time. I had not seen the grand homes that I would later encounter and was already smitten.

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Finally across the bridge, the narrow streets reminiscent of a bygone era beckoned us to follow and we did. My eyes were filled with wonder as I slowly made my way into a world that seemed to have jumped off the pages of the Antebellum South. Grand homes still remained — some keeping watch on the river while others opened their doors to the many brick and cobblestone streets that we would eventually see. I was filled with a bittersweet sense of history as I clearly understood the racial and social divide that had existed in this city that once welcomed steamboats and visitors from abroad.

And after so many night stories told us children in the Mississippi Delta by Mama Ponk, my great-aunt, I was finally in the city that her imagination had kept alive. I had grown up in her home and with the passing of time, I had become a writer — writing stories about the Delta people I knew. It was those stories that secured my invitation to Natchez.

I was elated to be invited almost 20 years ago and even more excited to discover a myriad of others had been invited as well. We all had our stories — our memories and imagination. Great conversations were had and equally great friendships were formed. For that is the nature of the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration — using our stories to build our lives.

With great anticipation, I look forward to the 2014 celebration (Feb. 20-23), to rekindle my feelings for this historic city and this great venue for literature and the cinema. As always, our stories will bring us together as we once again gather to celebrate our human journey.

On this 25th year, I find the theme to be most fitting: “60 Years and Counting: The Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.”

We will all bring our stories, and we will be better for having done so.

Great American voices from around the country will once again gather in Natchez — leaving the busyness of the 21st century just west of the Vidalia Bridge for a few days, while we soak up dreams, passion and aspiration of those with whom we will meet.

At 11 a.m. Feb. 21, I will share my story seven years in the making, my new book: “The Invitation.”

At the turn of the century, I received and unexpected invitation to supper in Allendale, S.C., from a Southern white matriarch whom I thought to be a retired school teacher. She was much more. Our paths crossed over a period of five years causing me to grapple with what I call the lingering lessons of race and place.

However, during those five years, I have come to understand that Miss Camille’s invitation was not just to me — the son of the help — but to America. My book is your invitation to join us in the Low Country of South Carolina.

On the 23rd, we will leave, but not before packing into our collective consciousness the heart-felt stories of others — voices that speak of our shortcomings and voices that speak of our continuing maturity. As we leave this magical city on the bluff, the mighty Mississippi remains not rushing, but always going somewhere.


Clifton L. Taulbert is president of The Freemount Corporation/Building Community Institute.