The South begins in the Missouri Bootheel. Sloping hills cease at Benton and for the rest of Southeast Missouri, all seventy-five miles more, the land is Arkansas-flat. The land and the girls are fertile here. Pregnant preteens walk to the Dollar General along budding fields of soybeans, sweet corn, field corn, milo, and cotton. I learned how to identify the different crops—field corn is taller than sweet corn; milo is planted in the black fields where the wheat fields were burned off; rice is the little green sprout close to the ground like grass. Gravel roads, dusty ditches, and an occasional crop of houses and shops cut the farmland. I was a collegiate summer missionary this past summer, hired by the Missouri Baptist Convention to work in this particular association in the southernmost part of Missouri. I lived the summer in Hayti—not Haiti the Caribbean Island, but rather Hayti, the town seventeen miles from the Arkansas border, the town that calls itself the “Heart of the Heartland.”
Hayti is a poor, white farming community. Its dust extends to an adjoining town called Hayti Heights or “the Heights.” Up until five years ago, the Heights was a part of Hayti, but the whites on the east side of town got upset because the cops who they paid for were always on the west side of town. The west side eventually got to be its own town of 250 inhabitants, with its own black police officers, government housing, Food Mart, water tower, and church.
My mission’s supervisor and just about every other white person I met warned me never to go through the Heights after dark and never to speed through the Heights. Drive at or under the 35-mile-per-hour limit. All you wanted to do is get through the Heights fast, but the law—the law enforced—prevents this. The first time my supervisor and I passed through, sure enough, a black officer, tablet and pen in hand, was ticketing an old white farmer by the Food Mart.
If you keep driving west about twelve miles past the Heights’ Food Mart, you reach Kennett. With 8,000 residents and a Super Wal-Mart, it is the population center of the area. I drove to Kennett one afternoon to have my tires rotated. I drove around town until I finally spotted a “name brand” car shop—one that said “Pennzoil Quick Lube and Tire Center” as opposed to “Greer’s Repair” or “Jimmy’s Brake Center.” I didn’t know Greer or Jimmy, but I did know what Pennzoil was. The owner of the shop chatted with me inside the air-conditioned waiting room as I watched through the window as his son began removing my tires in the garage.
“Where you from?” he asked, scratching his dirty blonde hair with his greasy hand.
“Cape Girardeau, but I’m living in Hayti this summer as a Missouri Baptist summer missionary,” I explained, wondering why his twelve-year-old son was fixing my tire and not him.
“Hayti’s a rough little town.” I had heard this before.
“Yep,” I said, “it sure is.”
“And the Heights . . .” he trailed off, looking at me with that “you know” look. “I’m sure you know not to speed through the Heights,” he said.
“Oh yeah, I know.” I flipped the pages of some hot-rod magazine.
“One time I was in such a hurry. I was runnin’ late. Had to get to Caruthersville for a little League game I was takin’ my son and some of the other players and some of them were little black boys. Well, we got pulled over in the Heights going forty. I almost got a ticket until the officer saw the little black boys in the backseat. That’s the only way you can get out of a ticket in the Heights.” I wanted my car to be finished.
On the west side of Hayti and the eastern border of the Heights stands a church, white-painted, wooden, and barn-looking. The windows are covered with whitewashed plywood, and “Israel of God” is scribbled in first-grade penmanship on the front of the church. I imagined the raspy harmonics rising from the white paneling on Sundays as God’s chosen people sang of Zion, while the drug-condemned housing and slow-handshaking drug pushers at the Food Mart did not go away, and the twelve-year-old girls too heavy with babies to walk sent their brothers on bikes to the Dollar store in Hayti. Cold, uniform buildings in the midst of a dusty Bootheel desert . . . hardly a promised land.
One day I drove by on my way to teach children Bible stories in Kennett. Outside the Israel of God, a middle-aged black man on the edge of the highway waved wildly a posterboard that said: I’M A SOUL-WINNING PREACHERMAN. The whites ignored him as they made their way to Kennett Super Wal-Mart.
I’ve heard a lady say that she doesn’t understand why blacks get so uptight about what they’re called. “Like my daddy always said, ‘We don’t call chiggers “chegros”.'” I’ve seen how the whites and blacks who have both come to use their food stamps at the store pass each other like ghosts, as impersonal as the metal carts they push. Eyes never meet and words are never exchanged. I’ve seen the school south of Kennett that used to be for the black kids up until integration. As part of my summer missionary experience, a middle-aged, Southern-talking lady from one of the area churches gave me a tour of the region.
“That,” she said, slowing the car and pointing out her window, “is where I went to school. And that little brick building behind my school, that’s where the black kids went to school until I was in third grade, and they segregated them.” I think she meant to say “integrated them,” but I didn’t want to correct her. The way she mentioned the black school, the way her voice dipped at the words “until I was in third grade” made me think that she thought the black kids should still go to that brick den with no air conditioning.
The next day I drove to Kennett to teach more Bible classes. The soul-winning preacher man waved his sign outside the Israel of God, the drug dealers shook slow hands at the Food Mart, and the white folk drove a cool 35-mile-per-hour by—trying not to stare. I couldn’t not stare. I wanted to know why they call this row of street lamps the Heights.
© Lynn Casteel Harper