Natchez, Now and Then
By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Micaela Cianci and Will Widmer
Richard Grant’s newest book offers an entertaining and profound look at Natchez and her culture of unexpected contradictions.
His name was Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima. If not for author and travel writer Richard Grant, the name of this West African prince might have slipped further away, joining the thousands of slave names lost over time and disparate geographies. But in his new book, “The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi,” Grant tells Ibrahima’s life story as a slave while sharing his own colorful experience deciphering Natchez’ complex culture and history.
Grant knows a thing or two about being an observer and outsider. His New York Times bestseller, “Dispatches from Pluto,” captured his personal experience moving from bustling New York City to the rural Delta landscape of Pluto, Miss. His raw, yet humorous, portrayal of Mississippi living set the stage for this latest book due out this month by Simon & Schuster. Although the project has been three years in the making, the book ironically mirrors the current national conversation about race.
His first visit to Natchez sparked an insatiable curiosity. At that time, Grant and his wife had moved from Pluto to Jackson, Miss., where his wife had accepted a position at Millsaps College.
“My friend Chef Regina Charboneau invited me to Stanton Hall, and after spending time there, I wondered more about Natchez. I knew nothing about Natchez other than it had old homes and was on the river,” says Grant. “There was so much to discover about this unique forgotten culture that doesn’t quite fit into Mississippi.”
When Grant decided to write about Natchez, he called a friend and asked his opinion about noteworthy stories or characters.
“He told me this incredible story about a West African prince who was enslaved and eventually ended up in Natchez,” Grant remembers.
And it is through the story of Abd al Rahman Ibrahima that Grant attempts to explore the race question, both past and present.
“Slavery is the biggest issue, and the present-day generation in Natchez is directly traceable to slavery,” he says. “Race in the South is way more complicated than people know. What’s taking place now in the mainstream media has been taking place in Natchez for a long time. Many of the black and white families are long connected in Natchez.”
Grant, who came to the U.S. in the 1980s and spent five years as a nomad with no address, has spent his career deciphering places through deep exploration. Born in Malaysia, Grant spent his early years in Kuwait and Britain but is now a U.S. citizen. He clearly remembers his first impression of race in America.
“I remember particularly how segregated the cities were; they were glaringly black and white. I do think the issue of race is different in the North and South. Southern racism is more honest.” Like many new arrivals to Mississippi, he soon became aware of just how much he didn’t know, or misunderstood, about race. He grew to love Mississippi for its genuine nature.
“I don’t like when the rest of the country uses Mississippi as a scapegoat,” he says. “There is something still mysterious about the state and something elusive. I guess that’s why it’s had such a tradition of great writers.”
While spending time mingling in Natchez society, Grant succeeds in capturing Natchez’ eccentricities, especially the garden clubs.
“I find Southern women formidable and I also find it difficult to say no to them,” he says with a laugh. The book, however, isn’t all tea parties and debutantes; rather, it’s an earnest rendering of all the stark realities like miscegenation, power, wealth, and poverty. Grant makes light of many characters in the book, but takes his role as observer seriously.
“All I’ve got to work with is an outsider’s viewpoint. My job is to hold up an ornate mirror to reflect a place as accurately as possible — and to be kind. We’ll never know this place as well as a native.”
Although Grant, his wife, and daughter now live in Arizona as of January 2020, his connection to Mississippi remains strong.
“We were very happy in the old house in Pluto,” he says. “I felt a sense of freedom and that I could do what I wanted. We had such good friends, vivid memories, and knew local families.” Anyone who has read “Dispatches from Pluto” knows Grant introduced the state to many friends from all over the world. “We had three-day parties and people came from all over the globe.”
While he enjoys the lifestyle out West, he misses the Southern hospitality. “It absolutely exists. I can’t say enough about it.”
And after all his time in Mississippi, how does he feel about the state? He feels his work is just getting started. “I’d love to write more about Mississippi. I love the place, warts and all.”