BY: B. Keith Plunkett | UCF Staff @Keithplunkett
A few weekends ago I sat in a dimly lit cinder block building in Bentonia Mississippi that I knew well and reminisced with an old family friend named Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
Duck is world renowned as the aficionado of a style of blues guitar simply known as the “Bentonia Blues”. Passed down to him from Jack Owens and others, it is a haunting hill country sound that unlike most other blues strains hasn’t been changed much by outside influences. The sounds that come from Duck’s renditions of classic blues tunes are as near to the original sounds as any type of roots music you will hear anywhere in the world. They exist in a vacuum of space and time. Listening to him play is the equivalent of arriving at the same dusty doorstep of the building in the 1950’s when the previous generations of the Holmes family ran the place, the Blue Front Cafe.
Duck is known the world over. But you would never know it by sitting down and having a conversation with him. This is a man who has toured the world, opened for big time acts such as Johnny Winter, has played with music legends and been idolized by the likes of Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and a host of musicians across the globe. This is a man who has sat at the feet of blues greats Skip James, Sonny Boy Williamson, “Son” Thomas, and of course the aforementioned Jack Owens, whose picture adorns the wall of this little concrete shack.
But Duck doesn’t care to talk about that with me. What he wants to discuss is my grandfather, Roy Plunkett, my father Al and my uncles Bill and Rickey. He wants to talk about the many times he went to work with the Plunkett’s out in the fields and how my Papaw Roy was a hard-worker and a “good man” who “didn’t see no colors”. The more I tried to coax stories of European tours and bumping elbows with rock idols from him, the further Duck delved into memory of the fields where he many times worked alongside my family.
Duck has a laid back personality. His way of dismissing the excitable is by simply going about the business of being himself. He sits on the front porch of the Blue Front and talks and entertains tourists from across the globe with the same matter-of-fact demeanor that unapologetically says “this is who I am and where I come from”. There is a certain amount of pride to it, although not in a sense of self-importance. Duck is big on carrying on tradition.
Looking back, I think he was trying to teach me a lesson as he kept steering the conversation back to family and back to our shared experiences in Bentonia and in the fields. He was showing me without really overtly preaching, what really matters is where you come from. The place and time in history which he has occupied is what created “Duck” Holmes. His lesson on this day is that it’s what created me, too. It’s what created all of us.
I was born in 1970, the same year Duck took over the Blue Front Cafe. Over the years as a young man, I began many a summers day packed in the back of a pickup truck with local workers like Duck trying to make ends meet, who wanted to take what they knew and what they had been given and do with it what they could by the sweat of their own effort.
I ended many a summers day dropping off those same folks in the same location. The cotton gin located right behind the Blue Front was a constant destination throughout cotton-picking time at the end of the season, and the Blue Front was often a hive of activity.
My Mama worked at the bank across the street, friends and family lived up the street along the railroad tracks; the feed and farm store, the grocery and the clothing store were all right there on Railroad Avenue within easy walking distance and as a kid I bounded in and out of them all without a worry. Store owners would take the time to ask me about my family, talk about what I had been up to, and then send me on my way often with a sucker or a piece of candy in hand.
These are many of the things Duck and I talked about and remembered, together.
Duck talked about how he had been helping my Uncle Bill Plunkett a few years ago in his campaign for Yazoo County Supervisor, an office my grandfather had also held, when Uncle Bill began having heart problems and soon, somewhat suddenly, passed away. Duck remembered the devastation on my family and the community when my Uncle Rickey drowned in an accident at Wolf Lake in 1975. He remembered how my Papaw had died as the result of a vehicle accident after a late night fox hunt in the mid-90’s.
Duck’s brow would furrow and he would stare at the floor as he talked about all these things as if they had just happened a few months ago. It was a conversation I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Fast forward now three weeks.
A mentally unstable young man in South Carolina, easily susceptible to a message of hatred and violence, and apparently without any parental supervision to help steer him in a different direction or get him the help he needed, walked into an African American church in Charleston and gunned down 9 people because of the color of their skin.
Within hours pictures surfaced of the young man waving a Confederate Battle Flag. President Obama’s lack of compassion for the dead in an attempt to use the tragic incident as a political means to reboot a discussion about gun control is quickly overshadowed when former presidential candidate Mitt Romney– with an equal lack of compassion for the dead–calls for the Confederate Battle Flag to be removed from flying at the state capitol in South Carolina. The outrage mob on Twitter and in the media picks up on the comments to begin focusing on Mississippi’s official state flag and the “need” to change it, too.
9 people are dead in South Carolina and their families and community are devastated. The remainder of a young mans life is ruined by the lack of a social network that could have and should have intervened. And all we can talk about now is a damn flag?
What the hell happened to our society that causes us to search for blame in an object, and ignore the real causes of social degradation?
I don’t know what Duck thinks about that flag. I’ll probably never ask. Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s all that important in light of the fact that we have more people on welfare than ever before, a government power structure that continues to gain power at the expense of the people and a group of so-called “leaders” that don’t know the meaning of the term “leadership”.
What I believe is that until people can sit down and remember together our shared experience, as Duck and I did that day, that no change of a symbol or a street name or any attempts to blank out the truth of history will make one bit of difference to correct what is wrong with society. In fact, it only perpetuates the myth that history can be rewritten and ignored. We do that to the detriment of our future–all of us.
We cannot change what happened in years past, but we can learn from it and change next year and the year after. Those who can’t take their experiences nor their time nor their place and honor it through action that puts the health of society and our people first will be easily manipulated by symbols and symbolic gestures that are meaningless when it comes to facing shared challenges.
The problem doesn’t lie in the facade we paint, the problem lies in the hearts of each of us. We can’t create new packaging and expect the underlying issues to disappear into the wind.
Fortunately, if we have the courage to take our individual little pieces of knowledge, our own places in time and history, and join it together with others experience, then that is where the solutions can be found.
That starts with losing our newfound national pastime of constantly being offended and making politically selfish points out of every human tragedy.
The state flag isn’t the problem. Forgetting our humanity is.
Keith Plunkett is the Policy and Communications Director for the United Conservatives Fund. He has worked on communications and policy issues with a range of public officials from aldermen to Congressmen, and a variety of businesses, government agencies and non-profits. He serves or has served as a board member of several non-profit, civic and political organizations. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Keithplunkett