* * *
I was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. I like to tell people that I was brought up between two worlds. I spent my weekdays in Jackson, the “urban” South, surrounded by family, school, and neighborhood friends. Then, like many other children who grew up in “the city,” on the weekends, I went “home,” to the place where my mother was from, where my grandmother Mamie lived—the country. Because my aunt ran the Crossroads Store—an “old country store” by day, café by noon, and juke joint by night—the Crossroads that I knew as a young girl was the Crossroads of stories, storytelling, and the blues.
Friday nights were for winding down from the workweek. My aunt would always take the party back to her house, where fried catfish was sustenance; Johnny Taylor provided the soundtrack; and working-class Black men with gold teeth and gators put on the show. What ended on Friday night would continue the next. Saturdays at the Crossroads smelled like perfume, whiskey, and chicken wings, like Black folks living as free as they could in the country South. People came and went, dipped out of pots of pig’s feet, filled to-go plates with neckbones, drank Crown Royal, and laughed loud until the sun set. And when the night sky was dark and blue, it was always the lightning bugs and Latimore, Marvin Gaye under the moonlight.
Sundays were reserved for the real grown folks—the elders—whose blues aesthetic shown through in the stories they told, after church, over plates of purple-hull peas and eggplant and porkchops, about “making do.” Indeed, while the blues is about Black folks reckoning with pain, oppression, and dispossession, and finding ways to make that reckoning livable and pleasurable, making do, or “makeshifting,” is, too.
My interviews examine how makeshifting includes Black women’s logical, material, and temporary responses to discrimination, oppression, racism, or lack. Makeshifting requires patching and piecing, and also requires Black women to view objects as multifunctional; that is, objects meant for one domain will almost always overlap with or be utilized for another. It is time-consuming—an arduous, laborious process that requires Black women, especially, to imagine, conceptualize, and create, again and again. But it is also provisional, meaning that though it provides temporary remediation to forces of injustice and constraint, it can never permanently erase them.
Since makeshifting is provisional, it is also cyclical—a process that requires Black people to constantly develop and imagine material strategies, methods, and tools to overcome structures of inequality in America, generation after generation. Black elders at the Crossroads passed stories around the table like they passed the offering plate between pews, and while they often reminisced about the days of working in fields and in kitchens, the consistent stories were always the ones about how “we took this and made that,” how “we made a way out of no way,” how “we survived,” how “we made do.” These stories about makeshifting are less visible to and present in the archival record. Because makeshifting was simply a way of navigating daily life and was not seen as anything to “celebrate” or preserve, stories about it were rarely collected or recorded, but they were most central to the lived experiences of rural Black folks. These stories also cast new light on unexplored aspects of daily life in the rural, Black South, and I noticed that it was the making, the makeshifting, and the material that served as quiet ways for rural Black women, especially, to reclaim a measure of control over their lives despite the economic conditions of sharecropping and the social conditions of Jim Crow.2
The consistent stories were always the ones about how “we took this and made that,” how “we made a way out of no way,” how “we survived,” how “we made do.”
I wanted to know more about the creative and material worlds of the Black women who worked as sharecroppers and domestics at the Crossroads during Jim Crow, so I created an oral history project to address the ways in which Black southern women have represented—in material form—their social, cultural, and historical experiences. In this contemporary moment, where Black people are constantly having to “shapeshift,” render themselves visible (“Black lives matter”), and construct alternate ways and aesthetics of being, I wanted to both examine and understand the creative strategies the Black women who lived in a place I’ve known all of my life employed to reclaim Black life in America, past and present. How would the women at the Crossroads describe those everyday spaces of meaning-making that they enlivened and invented during Jim Crow, now? What was the potential for the Black women at the Crossroads to inform and transform contemporary theory through their memories of life in the Jim Crow South? What tools had these women used to move through the world, and what could I learn from them? I found that they used material objects—for instance, repurposed Prince Albert tobacco tins as hair rollers, flour sacks as dresses, and Sears Roebuck catalogs as wallpaper—and engaged in makeshifting, to organize the logics of culture and community, to reimagine their circumstances, and to resist in the face of poverty and racial, class, and gender discrimination during the early twentieth century.3