Lessons From Black and Chinese Relations in the Deep South

Written by
Imani Perry
June 13, 2022

Baldwin Lee, ‘Mississippi Triangle,’ and the limits of upward mobility

Mississippi Triangle is a 1983 documentary about the Black, white, and Chinese communities in the Mississippi Delta region, which I rewatched the other day, prompted by a message from a friend. It is one of a plethora of works in film and art that show, contrary to popular perception, that the South has never had just two racial groups.

The documentary had three directors, one from each of the abovementioned groups: Christine Choy, Allan Siegel, and Worth Long, each with their own crew. Two members of Long’s team, Charles Burnett and Arthur Jafa, went on to have illustrious careers as filmmakers. But to the contemporary eye, Mississippi Triangle is a humble, if artful, production. The narrative arc is fuzzy, and so is the footage. But still it resonates. It begins with a Black man singing “Amazing Grace,” then pans through the Delta landscape, piney woods and shotgun houses. The story is told through voices heavy with the distinctive vowels of the Deep South. A clear assertion is made: Chattel slavery and cotton production are the foundation of this place. Chinese people came as workers—some on the railroad, others in the fields—yet ultimately became situated in local economies as grocers. One white woman comments that the Chinese always seemed to hold themselves apart from white people. Unita Blackwell, then the mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi—a Black woman who was once a sex worker and a plantation worker, and then an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—says, in contrast, that the Chinese people were kinder than white folks. And there was no confusion about who they were: They spoke Chinese, and they were Mississippians.

The lesson of the documentary is crystallized in the story of Martha Lum, the child plaintiff in Gong Lum v. Rice, a case decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1927. The Lum children had been attending white schools in Mississippi, but in a wave of renewed anti-Chinese sentiment fueled by the 1924 Immigration Act (which banned all immigration from Asia), they were expelled and told they must attend the schools for African American children. They fought back, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court sided with Mississippi, declaring that excluding Chinese children from white schools was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Lum family was told that their children could either attend Black schools or create their own Chinese school. Anywhere was fine, as long as it wasn’t white space.

I teach Gong Lum v. Rice in my class on race in American legal history. It was a “Jim Crow” case that affirmed the exclusion of all nonwhite people, and not just Black people, from white spaces. But its particulars are important, too. And this is what Mississippi Triangle shows. It was not the case that Chinese Mississippians occupied the same social location as Black people. But as nonwhite people they were subject to the whims of a white-supremacist order. Theirs was an intermediate status.

Chinese American commentators in the film describe the injustice of Jim Crow, and how they were ultimately beneficiaries of the civil-rights movement. When desegregation came, their fortunes changed in school and business. And yet, they also describe being hesitant to get too close to Black people. Teenager Linda Wing explains how even though she grew up with Black people, her family doesn’t want her to date Black boys. Her speech pattern, interestingly, is not only southern, but it is Black and southern, and she says she has nothing against Black folks; she grew up with Black folks. But her reality is that she “don’t have nobody to be with.” The color line of the society, and her family’s insistence that she not become immersed in the Black community, leaves her lonely.

More melancholy still is the voice of elderly Arlene Hen, the daughter of a Black mother and Chinese father. She describes in harrowing detail the debt bondage of the sharecropping system, how akin it is to slavery. Viewers are reminded that, by 1983, the laws have changed, but the economy, not so much. Workers in catfish plants, like those on cotton plantations, aren’t even scraping by. And they are overwhelmingly Black. They are too poor to patronize the Chinese-owned groceries, which in turn suffer.

Young Chinese Mississippians are described as departing for big cities. An interracial relationship between two groups that was forged during Jim Crow has fallen apart. In the Mississippi of 1983, Arlene Hen’s story is juxtaposed with that of other Chinese families whose children have attended white schools and who have created Chinese American religious communities. She tells her story to her granddaughters, Black girls with monolid eyes and heavy dark hair, and notes that because she is biracial, mixed with Black, she cannot be buried in the Chinese cemetery.

Racism is not just a matter of animus. It is produced by stratification. It is made by a social architecture of history, human relationships, laws, and the economy. It would be easy to watch this documentary and naively wonder: Why are Chinese Mississippians discriminating against Black people, when they themselves are discriminated against? The documentary’s useful revelation is that when people are stratified, those who are neither at the top nor the bottom work mightily to preserve their position in the middle. The architecture is designed that way.

Those of us who are not middle-to-upper-class and white, yet are also not quite at the bottom due to our class, ethnicity, or education are—in the vulnerability of our status and the marketability of our privileges—incentivized to sustain hierarchies. Among African Americans like me, that can show up in the form of anti-immigrant politics, xenophobia, and classism. For others, it can rather easily manifest as prejudice against African Americans, particularly African Americans who have been poor for generations. As one of the Chinese American commentators in the film notes, Black people are so stigmatized, it feels imperative to maintain a distance from them.

Years ago, I coined a term about how, at a personal level, we might reject these inclinations: critical exceptionalism. I used it to describe the way we might use our “not quite at the bottom” social locations to expose injustice. Or, as I’ve said in another way, “be critical at the site of our own privilege.” And that brings me to something else I’ve been thinking about: the work of photographer Baldwin Lee. It exemplifies critical exceptionalism and so much more.

In the same year that Mississippi Triangle was released, Lee, a Chinese American professor of photography at the University of Tennessee, set off on a trip across 2,000 miles of the American South. MIT- and Yale-educated, he settled in Knoxville and became the first director of the photography program at UT. He was already recognized as a gifted artist. And he has been a celebrated professor for decades. During that trip that began nearly 40 years ago, he took up what might seem to be unexpected subjects: Black folks, and particularly poor Black folks. Casey Gerald, a brilliant Black southern writer who published an essay about Lee last year (it will be included in the book Baldwin Lee, coming from Hunters Point Press this fall), has noted that this is not voyeuristic work. Rather, its intimacy proves that he earned the trust of his subjects. I agree.

Walker Evans was one of Lee’s teachers. Like Evans, Lee has a sensitive eye for both poverty and dignity. But Lee’s southern exposure wasn’t overwhelmingly white, as it was in Evans’s classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Quite the contrary, Lee is a witness to those at the bottom of U.S. stratification, and their refusal to swallow that status. In one image, little girls are outfitted in their Sunday best while standing on the porch of a dilapidated shotgun house in a rural Mississippi community that has no sewage system. Pristinely dressed, tenderly cared-for children live where sewage runs in the open. That is a South I know. Lee’s subjects, often children, pose, aware of their own elegance or grace or beauty.

The work is political, because it exposes the violence of poverty inherited from the plantation-economy past. But it is most of all attentiveness to the composure of his subjects that is echoed masterfully in the composition of his shots. A lean Georgia woman with what in another context might be called a patrician slouch gingerly carries a bouquet of collard greens. She looks delicate, but her thickly veined hands are clearly strong. In Mrs. Fulton’s kitchen in Natchez, Mississippi, everything in the room is in a state of disrepair but the cornflake boxes covered with faces: a little white boy in a Robin Hood costume, a Black woman, an Asian woman in a cheongsam, and a Latino baseball player are arranged, quilt-like, on a table. It looks to me like some kind of cultural-bricolage wallpaper.

We are a motley assortment of people in the United States. Our relations are not tidy, not in their beauty, nor in their disastrous disaffection and cruelty. It matters for us to witness today the daily violence experienced by Asian Americans, the horrific persistence of anti-Black racism, the dispossession of Indigenous people, the indecency of immigration and detention policies, and so on. We should celebrate our capacity to find love and common ground across difference, and feel shame when we step on the necks of those at the bottom while taking a shine to those at the top. And importantly, we shouldn’t be so sanguine in thinking that greater diversity in any place, or the “browning of America,” as some call it, means that we will treat people fairly. We’ve been trained in the exact opposite way. The work of witnessing might make us better, or at least more honest.