By Terrence Johnson
I grew up in a small town that almost everyone could pronounce, but no one could truly spell. It was one of those towns where you had to be a native of the area to know where it was.
Shuqualak, Mississippi has no traffic lights, a couple of stop signs, a close grocery store, bank, a school, and two barbershops. But, it is definitely an amazing place for several reasons.
I loved growing up in a place where the people all knew each other and greeted each other like family. You could go to someone’s cookout, and for the most part, they would let you partake if they knew your dad, mom, or grandparents. And if you were lucky, you’d find a new cousin that you nothing about.
It was raw and real. It was shared. It was communal. But, Shuqualak was very similar to many small, rural towns in Mississippi. Shuqualak was and is stifled for several reasons.
When I was younger, I always blamed the citizens for the town’s condition. I naturally assumed like most people that everyone who wasn’t successful was lazy and uneducated. I was ignorant and condescending. I could only see the environment, and those who I thought chose to remain in that environment.
Since I believed they chose to be there, it was difficult for me to empathize. I knew I did not want that for myself. I wanted to change the lives of my family members. I chose to chase education as fast and hard as possible.
I transferred schools. I performed well. I worked hard and educated myself. Now, I am senior at the University of Mississippi. From my collegiate background, I learned that many of the harsh and inconceivable environments within Mississippi and other states trickle down from a system that is systematically inequitable.
I understood the difficulties of success that my parents told me of when I was growing up. I now understood how the world can be a cruel and unfair place to people for no obvious reason other than selfishness and lack of understanding.
I knew that the only people who could change the things that seemed to make so many of us lay awake at night had to come from millennials like myself. So, I jumped at the privilege to take a Mississippi Capitol Press Reporting class offered by university.
The two-week class allows students to travel to the state capital to report on legislature, interview public officials, and see how people are changing the game. I wanted to be in an environment where there is success,and benefit for all people within the state. People like those in Shuqualak – my people.
The building was beautiful. It has tall pillars and portraits with beautiful light fixtures. There are even paintings of the state’s romanticized past. Nevertheless, I took in every site of walking around the capitol.
I took breaths for those who don’t know what the capitol building looks like. I took pictures for those who are always wondering. I asked questions for those who never knew how. I wrote words, words that were supposed to change our state, for those who have been constantly and consistently waiting to see change.
While I understood that one needs decorum in the capitol, I also knew that I had to be critical. Personally, I haven’t noticed much change within my town or my county. I know that the people are always making the most of their experience.
Of course, I am aware that the current state of our home is not solely the fault of our public officials and leaders. We, as people, have to hold ourselves accountable for our environment and our outcomes also.
I just question what is the best method for achieving the most positive and beneficial result for the majority. The easy answers are jobs, education, and healthcare. How do we carry those things out and create them where education in places like Shuqualak is at the forefront?
How do we provide jobs and that will provide meaningful support to people? How do we give intentional healthcare for the general well being of people. I am not sure of the answers.
I want those people who treated me like family to have the proper tools to sustain and educate themselves. I want a capitol that I can truly believe in to make proper change happen based on what is equitable and correct. I want my state to prosper.
Personally, I believe it starts in small towns with no grocery stores and closed schools. It starts at home.
Terrence Johnson, 22, is a UM journalism major. After graduating from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus, Johnson came to Oxford to pursue a life-changing experience. He is part of University of Mississippi Gospel, an orientation leader, and is part of APEX Leadership. Johnson is passionate about helping others be their best selves. He enjoys opportunities that require interacting with people and that offer relationship building and community engagement. In his free time, Terrence enjoys seeing and performing in the arts. He has been singing since he was 4, and he currently sings with the University Men’s Chorus as a Tenor II. In all of his work, Johnson “tells underdog stories with civility and respect.”