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214 Last (Un)fair Deal Going Down Blues Tourism and Racial Politics in Clarksdale, Mississippi kathryn radishofski Above all, cultural meanings are not only “in the head.” They organize and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real, practical effects . . . [including] mark[ing] out and maintain[ing] identity within and difference between groups. Stuart Hall, Representation Since the 1970s, residents of the Mississippi Delta have developed events, monuments, and accommodations catering to travelers in search of regional blues experiences.1 In Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Delta’s crown jewel of blues history destinations, the past decade and a half welded tourism investments into a photogenic downtown infrastructure, where restaurants, hotels, night‑ clubs, and music and art retailers vie to service touristic cravings for the city’s early twentieth-­ century musical heritage. Alan Lomax described Coahoma County, where Clarksdale lies, as “one of the capitals of the blues,” and indeed, the city has been home to some of the genre’s most venerated musicians.2 W. C. Handy, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton, Son House, Bukka White, Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf all either lived in Clarksdale at some point or played music in its juke joints regularly. The lives and mu‑ sic of these African American musicians—and the contemporary black Delta musicians believed to be carrying on their legacy—constitute the central at‑ traction for the city’s predominantly white blues tourism audience.3 As a critical component of meaning making in place-­based identity, narra‑ tives developed for tourists can contribute to the defining of local residents through a commodification of their culture and history in consistent and highly visible forms. In Clarksdale, where African Americans constitute more than three-­ quarters of the population, blues tourism’s burgeoning appeal as a monetary palliative for the depressed Delta economy has precipitated the intertwining of this demographic’s musical heritage with the region’s, and the blues tourism and racial politics 215 city’s, public face.4 This has afforded Mississippi the opportunity to launch a public relations campaign that combats the state’s popular image as a bastion of racial intolerance and conflict with claims that its participating communi‑ ties are experiencing enhanced interracial harmony through an embrace of regional blues culture.5 The Delta’s blues tourism industry thus represents a high stakes cultural arena useful for divining responses to contemporary ra‑ cial identities in the region, appropriation of these identities, and desires to shape them. With these considerations in mind, this case study deploys an interdisciplinary approach, bringing national and global discourses on race, heritage tourism, representation, and music to bear on the activities of the largely white cadre of civic leaders and entrepreneurs helming the blues tour‑ ism industry in Clarksdale. My aim here is to illuminate the processes through which these leaders shape racial representations and ideologies that both un‑ dermine and underwrite social, civic, and economic agendas in the region. The primacy of race to this research environment has informed my inter‑ est in giving it precedence in the following analysis. Certainly race has always been, and remains, of crucial significance to the social experiences of African Americans in the Delta and beyond. In addition to the atrocities and inheri‑ tances associated with legal enslavement, as in many southern states, white Mississippians deployed Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, convict leasing, prison labor, tenant farming, and lynching in the postbellum era to secure the social and economic supremacy of whites.6 The grim state of the Delta’s contem‑ porary economy reflects lingering racial inequity between whites and blacks in Mississippi. While Clarksdale has retained a sizable black majority since the 1930s, as of 2007, African Americans owned only a third of the city’s busi‑ nesses.7 A 2010 study also revealed that, at 18 percent, the unemployment rate for blacks in Mississippi is well above the national average for African Ameri‑ cans, while white unemployment in Mississippi rated lower than the national average for that racial demographic and, at 6.4 percent, far lower than that of the state’s African American population.8 Moreover, in 2008, almost half of black Mississippians lived in poverty, while only 15.7 percent of their white counterparts suffered the same fate.9 In the Delta’s blues tourism industry, these historical and contemporary contexts intersect with blues mythologies fortified by essentialized racial au‑ thenticity constructs, implicating it as a sociocultural domain with disparate parameters of involvement for whites and blacks.10 Yet, while...


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