DIXIE LAND, April 20, 2022 By Jill Collen Jefferson
The sun stung my neck, and my green barrettes slapped me in the face and thudded together like
muffled wind chimes every time I bent over. I grabbed the bucket and dumped blueberries from
my sweaty shirttail covered in purplish-blue splotches.
“May-ree. May-ree, what time is it?”
“Jill, nah how many times you gon’ ask me dat?”
I been waitin’ for yo’ ass. A mosquito floated, yo-yoing on an invisible string, bouncing up and
down until its wispy legs perched and squatted on the back fat right above Mary’s armpit.
“Jill, if you hit me one more damn time—”
I doubled over, clawing my leg. The bastard had gotten me too. I’d been outside for hours,
scratching blisters while picking berries with Mary and my grandmother, Mow, for Judge
Charles Pickering—one of the most powerful politicians in Mississippi history.
When we finished, I guzzled cool water from the hose and sat on a bucket under the carport,
waiting for Aubrey—Judge Pickering’s granddaughter and my best friend. I waited and waited
until the trees looked like shadows against the sky, and it was time to go home.
Earlier that day, I’d watched the judge call Mow over to him. “Corine!” It jarred me that he’d
called her that—this woman who threatened to whip me if I dared skip “ma’am.” But she
I turned and walked away because I didn’t want to get yelled at for being in grown folks’
Then, Mow called me over and said I wasn’t to go inside Judge Pickering’s house anymore
unless I was with her or Mary or cleaning. Her lips were bunched up, and her eyes looked like
they did when she was threatening to whip me for playing in church. But even then, Mow was
I have seen old men slumped, snoring in chairs, their mouths agape, laugh—eyes shut—at the
sound of Mow’s voice as if she had inhabited their dreams. “Ha haaah! Co-rene, youse a mess,
But this...this felt different.
So, I’d stayed outside all day under the dirty diaper-like aroma of the house’s Cyprus paneling. It
hit me in the face every time a visitor stirred up the air, walking past me into the house.
On any other day, Aubrey and I would be on the back porch, zigzagging between its tall rocking
chairs, which bowed in the wind like square dancers. Then we’d dash out to the dock, halt just
before the final plank, drop on all fours, and peek between the cracks to watch the crawfish
scamper in the shallows. But not today.
Riding home in the backseat of Mary’s car, I pinched the squishy yellow cushioning between the
tears in her cloth seats.
“Where is Aubrey?” I asked.
“At a horse competition.”
Over seasons and years, that cushioning began to mushroom out. The top grew bedraggled with
pieces strewn about the floorboard, but the conversation stayed the same.
“Will you take me to play with her?”
“No, she’s at a horse camp.”
I started to feel kept out of something. Like I was a thing to be kept from. My best friend was
gone without a trace.
I started wetting the bed, smoking pens like pretend cigarettes, and licking my fingers
compulsively—a habit which led my mother to call me a “big fat nasty cat.” Then, I started
showering to the point of rubbing my skin raw because I felt like I was inherently dirtier as me. I
showered most during spring.
Spring in south Mississippi smelled like shit. Pure unadulterated shit. My father and other
farmers would sling manure over their pastures, and the odor would waft through the window
screens and saturate our clothes. At school, you could smell the difference between the farmers’
kids and the ones whose parents worked at factories.
One Sunday, we’d come from Domino’s in our 1982 Chevy disco van, and the smell of garlic
had mingled with the manure to create a suffocating stench. My father had parked in Sandersville
on a small patch of grass, surrounded by a cow pasture that we called “the flying field” when I
flung open the bright blue side door, gasping dramatically.
My brother Casey jumped out and readied his remote-controlled Ag Wagon for takeoff. The
propellers blended into a haze as the crop duster’s tiny engine buzzed and swayed like a bumble
bee taking flight, climbing and dipping, veering over grass tops, a hair-width close to— “POW!”
A sun-bleached 1950's Chevy sedan had backfired as it pulled in alongside our van. Its paint was
speckled with rust. The only thing on her that had survived time was a teensy confederate flag
stringed to the antenna. An old man in a ’70's-era powder-blue suit stepped out and squinted at
the sky. Casey’s plane did a loop-de-loop, and the man came walking, his neck craned. I tracked
his gaze. A buzzard had started a dog fight with my brother’s plane. It circled and lowered,
circled and lowered, closed in, closed in, and swoop! Smack dab into the plane, and they clung,
swirled, barreled toward the ground. Casey’s thumbs jerked the toggles in frenzy, and in
excitement, I turned to the old man.
Someone snatched me from behind, and in whispers so close they tickled, “That right there is
Sam Bowers. He’s over the Klan. He kills Black folks. Stay away from him.”
But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d never seen somebody who’d killed somebody before.
The Imperial Wizard during the height of the civil rights movement, Bowers had ordered
Klansmen to shoot, beat, or burn alive at least 10 people, including voting rights activist Vernon
Dahmer and the three civil rights workers of Freedom Summer.
My father made me stand still beside him while the old man with his pluming white temples
strolled around. I glared at the grass. Why was my father restricting me instead of telling him to
move along? I felt betrayed. Unprotected—like my father didn’t have my back. Like I was being
punished for something that wasn’t my fault. And it felt familiar. It felt like it felt when Mow
told me I couldn’t go into Judge Pickering’s house anymore. It felt like it felt all those times
they’d said Aubrey was somewhere doing something with horses.
I saw Bowers one time after that. A year later. He was on TV, getting arrested for Vernon
Dahmer’s 1966 assassination. Judge Pickering, Aubrey’s grandfather, had testified against him.
Over the years, the skin of my thoughts had shed the judge, but seeing him in the news jogged
Mow had died, and Mary had retired. So, I got up the courage to push for answers. I went to
Mary’s white clapboard house and sat down beside her bed. I told her what I remembered from
the day when Judge Pickering had talked to Mow, and I asked her if she knew what had
“You had got too close to Aubrey.”
“Did Aubrey think I got too close to her?”
“Well, I don’t believe that was Aubrey’s decision. ...Jill, you have to know about these white
folks. Some of ‘em like that. They didn’t want they children associating with Black people.”
I didn’t say it, but I resented her at that moment for knowing the truth but continuing to take me
with her for years to clean the homes of the family who had decided that I was not enough.
I wanted to ask her why she’d lied to me about Aubrey being at horse competitions all those
times I was missing her. I wanted to tell her that she’d protected racism under the guise of
protecting my feelings, and all she’d done is hurt me even more. But I didn’t say any of that
because I didn’t want to hurt her. So, I rubbed lotion on her legs and changed the subject along
with her socks so that I could forget about feeling discarded.
But the trigger was never too far.
Three years later, when a big pearl Lincoln pulled into my parents’ driveway, I knew who it was.
As I approached the window, an arm extended a bucket of KFC. It was September 2020. My
father had just died, and seeing the judge made me feel six all over again. I couldn’t shake it. So,
a few days later, I phoned and asked if he’d speak with me. He agreed.
When I told my mother I was going to confront him, she said, “You know, Jill, it could have been
something you said back then. You say things sometimes that you don’t even know you say.”
I glared, feeling betrayed. She was blaming me instead of being pissed at him. “You assume
racism can be provoked by the victim; that a child could cause an adult to be racist toward her,” I
Growing up Black in the South, you often accumulate a set of assumptions, but you don’t even
realize half of them. Realizing that she had not realized this one made me wonder which ones I
The next day, I pulled into Judge Pickering’s driveway and walked toward the side door, past the
place where I’d waited for Aubrey thirty years earlier, and the closer I got, the more I smelled it.
Inside, I followed Judge Pickering to a room lined with stuffed deer heads, sat on a small couch
with red flowers, and held a pen to keep from pinching the cushions.
There were unspoken rules of southern society that I knew and that I knew he knew. No matter
what, I’d sit politely and speak in even tones. I would be confrontational without being
adversarial. He’d sit and talk with me through almost anything, short of blasphemy or insulting
his family. Anything less would shame one or both of us and, by extension, our families. So,
tradition set the tone before either of us said a word.
“Corine started working for me around 1968.” Hearing him call her that reminded of the day
when she’d answered.
He expounded on the “absent” Black father, the lazy Black worker, the welfare queen, and his
testimony against Bowers. He counted his good deeds to Black people on his fingers, and his
“heart went out” to so many people, I wondered how he was still alive.
While he was on an upswing, I asked about what happened with Aubrey. He interrupted before I
could finish. He had no recollection, he said. He got up and strode toward the kitchen.
“You’re not running away, are you?” I called out.
I heard low talking in the other room. It hushed to whispers. He returned a few minutes later, but
his recollection hadn’t. He stuttered and stopped, exhaling. He claimed he’d probably put me out
of the house because he was busy.
“Now what are you going to do with this material? I perceive from your questions and what we
discussed that [you’re] not going to put me in a bad light because I told you, you couldn’t come
His phone rang. He had to go. His wife unlocked the front door for me, and I walked through it
for the first time.
Days later, a weird number popped up on my phone.
It was him. He wanted to meet again. I showed up late on purpose, hoping he wouldn’t have
enough time. Inside, he motioned for me to sit and plopped down in front of me. But he didn’t
stay there long. Moments later, feeling insulted, he stood up, stared down at me, and raised his
voice. “You’re questioning my integrity.” He had broken the rules. This was him in a corner. He
was afraid I’d tell my story.
I felt disappointed. This wasn’t what I wanted. I’d wanted him to admit what he’d done and
apologize. I wanted him to see how absurd it was to have kept someone from me like I was a
monster. But instead, he was worried about his image. I left.
In the months since, I’ve wondered why I went in the first place. Even if he had apologized, was
forgiving him what I wanted? For so long I’d held a grudge against him, but I’d never admitted it
out loud because I knew I’d be told I was being dramatic, or I’d be shamed for not being a good
enough Christian to let it go. Either way, it smothered any chance of processing the trauma.
To me, a Black woman in a state with knacks for racism and misogyny, forgiveness meant if
someone did something, you let it slide. After my father would cut me down, forgiveness was
what my mother preached so that he wouldn’t have to apologize. It was a loophole for some to
escape accountability, to not even have to think about what they’d done, not facing it themselves
and certainly not facing you. So, what I wanted from Pickering wasn’t for him to plead for
forgiveness. I wanted him to have to face me. He’d given speeches in recent years, painting
himself as a civil rights advocate. I wanted him to have to eat those words.
Another part of me wanted to flaunt what I had become as the last blow to the pedestal he’d
mounted in my mind. My upbringing had been one of not believing what was right in front of
me. Once, when we were cleaning one of their houses, there was a dirty diaper lying half open
on the kitchen counter. I had literally seen his family’s grime and dirty habits but still believed
they were better because they were white. I had to make sure that belief was dead.
But my visit with the judge also triggered memories of feeling unprotected. Conversations with
my mother have dwindled. Some days, I glare at the grass like I did at the flying field. In one
perspective, my family were accommodationists who didn’t fight for me. In another, they were
Black farmers and domestics trying to avoid getting crushed by the system of rural poverty,
which men like Pickering exploited. They were victims of the same system that had stunted me.
But still, I’ve wondered why no one ever said, “Hey, this is a child.” Why they kept associating
with him. Why they left a five-year-old to deal with the trauma—trauma that led her to become a
civil and human rights attorney who hunts murderers like Bowers, has OCD, and wades through
hip-high weeds at old crime scenes, swatting mosquitos and searching for answers so that others
I walked from Judge Pickering’s carport toward where she stood on a porch just a few yards
from where the blueberry bushes had been. My belly fluttered. She called out, “Hey, Jill!”
Seeing her, I remembered for a moment what the world was like before color meant color. I
smiled. Her little face was the same. Her expressions just showed more experiences now. “Hey,