Purple Flowers in America
By Matthew Mitchell
Illustrated by Peter Hopkins
Hinds County, Mississippi
As Mississippi sinks into me, the highway swallows up the trash-covered outskirts of Jackson, the heart of the state. I-80 is built high like a lonely giant, guarding the ancient ghost town with neon signs scattered above empty buildings available for lease. The first thing I see is a two-story scrapyard with hollowed-out Chevys tied down to the roofs buried beneath them. I’ve never seen a junkyard before, my partner, Alexia, whispers next to me —her body squirming against the pleather bus seat.
The roads near downtown Jackson are eroded and covered in potholes—I’ve deduced this from the amount of time the charter bus has hugged the earth and subsequently jolted up, throwing everyone around like the inner mechanisms of a pinball machine. Downtown is empty and every structure is built so low you can see clouds of smoke above the trees five miles down the highway. Every parking lot has "NO TRESPASSING" or "NO PARKING AFTER 2 AM" posted at each end. Constant threats of an eventual tow lurk behind the bus as we coast down the narrowing street and take a sharp right turn where our one night dream escape awaits.
The Hilton is a four-star palace with only seven floors, gold-colored walls, and purple flowers on every table in the lobby. I lie in my bed under ivory-white sheets as rough as sandpaper, scrolling through my phone. The dim light from the bathroom creeps out into the makeshift foyer where the ironing board is. I stare at the light, thinking of my grandmother—who used to tell me that purple flowers were royal and fit for prophets protecting peace—and picturing the walks we’d take through her backyard, meandering around her creek. Stepping over shards of glass buried beneath the soil, we’d follow a path carved-out of the trees through wild rose and poison oak that coated the ankle-high embankment all the way to a field of grass. A golden meadow where the blue sky crawled down onto the Ohio horizon at dusk always awaited us.
I get up from my bed, nauseous from a dinner of vitamins and beef jerky, climb over my roommate sleeping in a hotel-issued lazyboy, and peek through the navy blue drapes. I see the light pollution hovering over downtown Jackson and the train track built on a bridge down the street. Stopped right over the piece of bridge overlooking the rest of downtown, a group of three red train cars sit idly. The valet, a white man constantly cracking a smile covered in braces, told me they run all night long, but "ain’t got nothin’ in ‘em" in a southern drawl as authentic as the “all-American family-owned” sign on the front window of a barbecue-joint-convenience-store-one-stop on the edge of town. It’s quiet, and the two Mississippi state flags I can make out in the distance are still. While I’m looking out onto the promise of the city, a young, unarmed black father is being murdered by Sacramento police officers in his grandmother’s backyard. His name is Stephon Clark.
In the early hours of the morning, the city is beginning to wake up. Lights turn on in buildings scattered throughout this corner of Jackson. A gust of wind blows the hair out of my face and ripples against Alexia’s green skirt. The valets are scurrying to help us with our luggage, but we take care of it ourselves. Our bus driver takes us out of downtown toward the northern suburbs, hitting every red light on the way as we near the middle of Jackson. Just a few hours prior, two-thousand miles away, medical personnel finished cleaning up Clark’s limp body. On his grandmother’s back patio, blood stains the slab of concrete where he once roamed alive. The crimson sticks to grout of the brick; shards of glass from a shattered phone screen rest in the thin thickets of grass nearby.
A Confederate Army reliquary stands tall near the capitol building, towering over us, preserving itself from becoming a lost cause. It’s a memorial built atop the same soil where slaves roamed. What I am experiencing in the first hours of my trip through the Deep South is the way racism is presented behind different masks. The way that Mississippi has tried to make amends is by way of taking all Confederate flags out of the downtown area. The only ones still standing are in the upper-right-hand corner of the state flag that is littered throughout the suburbs and capitol grounds. A kid sitting behind me is clicking his tongue about the Confederate flag in epithets that slither in-between the music notes playing through my earbuds and I’m looking at this giant beast of cloth, trying to wrap my brain around its attempt to camouflage itself as an intricate working part of the system.
The drive to Medgar Evers’ house is long and damp. We pass by boarded-up churches with holes in the front doors. There’s a woman carrying a child, in a sling across her chest, down the street. Kids are waiting at a bus stop. The Evers house resides in a neighborhood just outside of Jackson, where all of the businesses are transplants: churches in old laundromats, a tire shop in a supermarket building painted blue, and a movie rental place in an old McDonalds. Near Woodrow Wilson Avenue is Freedom Corner, a monolith honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers resting near the road. It’s chipped along the sides—brick receding into the earth—with graffiti on the back. We approach Evers’ neighborhood and it’s filled with boarded-up houses. I’m a long way from home, and the family of Stephon Clark is being notified of his murder.
In the early morning, near midnight, on June 12th, 1963, Medgar Evers was returning home to his wife and children when a bullet ripped through his back and pierced the lining of his heart. Bloody and faltering, he fell in-front of his front door, thirty-feet away from where he was shot. This would become the place where his wife would soon find him. Evers became the first black man ever admitted to an all-white hospital in Mississippi. He died an hour later.
Wooden black numbers on a house panel arranged in the order of "2-3-3-2" stare me down as the bus parks outside the sea-foam green house. The little divot in the driveway where Evers was shot is still there. It’s a ranch house with clapboard siding. The front even has a little brick layout under the front wall window. The grass is unkempt, but tiny white flowers are scattered across the lawn. Little shrubs protect the window by the front door and a welcome mat, brown and worn, is in the carport where Evers’ body once rested bled near midnight. Underneath the historical marker off the driveway is a bouquet of pansies—fit for a prophet protecting the peace. We’re standing ten feet away from Evers’ home, a hollow body memorialized for centuries to come, and I’m left wondering if Stephon Clark’s grandmother’s house will receive the same recognition one day. Her house, beige with a cross-gabled roof and black fencing around it, was swarmed by police in the early morning of March 18th.
As I’m walking along the street off Evers’ front yard, I notice a rusted, blue GMC pickup in the neighbor’s driveway. It’s nearly eight in the morning and a black man is standing on his porch watching my every move. The neighbors take a lot of pride in the Evers’ house, though no one lives in it anymore. Among the houses surrounding it, I’ve counted five with roofs caved in; three with an entire wall punched out. The garden fixtures are messy in every yard and one house even has ivy growing along the side, clutching a window. The poverty and social injustice Evers fought to fix appears to still be in full swing here. Evers, an accidental martyr, was shot with only a stack of NAACP shirts in his hands and when I look at his driveway, it feels like I can see them strewn along the concrete. The Sacramento Police Department claims that Clark had some sort of tool in his hands when he was shot. Later today, as we’re leaving for the Mt. Zion church in Mississippi, the police confirm that Clark only had a white iPhone in his possession. The distance between the West Coast and the Deep South is a landmine of gunshots and suddenly, the blackened parts of Ever’s driveway look a little more red this morning. He was a father of three; Clark a father of two.
Cuyahoga County, Ohio
At the March For Our Lives gathering in Cleveland a week later, I’m surrounded by thousands of Ohioans with flimsy cardboard signs covered in permanent marker and paint—all jonesing for a revolution. Less than a week ago, protests swirled around Sacramento. Locals even blocked off a major highway. There is a slight warmth from the sun radiating beyond the clouds above Public Square. A gleam of light against a backdrop of buildings surrounds the crowd. I come from a state where men in trucks yell at black kids on sidewalks; the state where Tamir Rice was shot down by police officers for carrying a toy gun on the West Side; the state where a young girl brought a scoped assault rifle onto Kent State’s campus for graduation pictures and received a guest spot on a Fox News broadcast instead of public condemnation from right-wingers; I come from a state that is a chink in the chain.
Cleveland is a majority-black city, but most of those surrounding me at this event are white. I’ve learned that members of the black community are taught to protect their families at all costs, whether that is by self-defense or giving their children the knowledge to know what it means to be a body that will always be feared more than whatever weapon they could possibly hold in their hands—even if that weapon is a white iPhone. On the heels of Stephon Clark’s death, there is an uproar in the nation—though, it is a silent one in the Midwest. I think of Medgar Evers’ clapboard ranch house and the pavement he almost died on. He spent the last months of his life speaking out against the injustice and perpetual violence that had been continuously inflicted on the black community. In an hour of solidarity in Public Square, only one of the nine speakers mentions the deep chronology of gun violence against Black Americans that rests firm in the architecture of our country. The speaker is a black artist from the East Side.
Just six days after standing in-front of Evers’ house and carrying a fleeting hope that no person in America would fall victim to the same violence, I realize it’s happening every day. I didn’t learn about Clark’s death until four days after he was shot down twenty times in his grandmother’s backyard. I say his name: Stephon Clark; father of two; human being; gunned down by cops in the darkness of Sacramento; black. I think back to the historical marker outside Evers’ house that carries an epitaph with the promise of living carved into the stone. I think about how it has taken the deaths of nearly-twenty white teenagers to provoke a march through the streets of a city where a young, black child was gunned down by two men as pale as the man responsible for opening fire on students at a high school in Florida. Any Midwestern naiveness I carried was erased by the indentation in the cleft separating Evers’ driveway and his carport.
Matthew Mitchell is a Midwestern writer pursuing a BFA degree in creative writing at Hiram College. His work has been published in Lunch Ticket and is forthcoming to Clockhouse, Mantra Review, and The Oakland Arts Review. When he’s not writing, he’s either running a vegetarian kitchen in Ohio or watching Twin Peaks.