Book cover

My wonderful, wonderful mother died on November 30, 2013, after a long battle with leukemia. One of the things I miss the most is her voice, which was melodious and cheerful. I had purchased a recordable book a year before her death, but I kept putting off having her read it. In my mind I always thought “Maybe she’ll feel better tomorrow.” That never came and I will kick myself the rest of my days.  Steel tells a similar story about the loss of her paternal grandmother in 1994. She has, however, found a way to fill the void in her heart and mind by photographing and recording women of her grandmother’s generation in her adopted state of Mississippi. She calls these women Delta Jewels.

Steele, a transplanted northerner from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is now an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi–Ole Miss. (Ross Barnett is turning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken at Boston Market!) She has been a photographer since she was fifteen–she did not take any photos of her grandmother–and when she worked for the Dallas Morning News, Steele shared a Pulitzer Prize for picture editing during the paper’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She conceived of the project, which was in part crowd funded by Indiegogo, to honor her late grandmother. Steele had another motive, too. "I get so tired of seeing poor Black folks' photos [that reiterate] every stereotype," she says. "We're all unwed mothers, uneducated. I get so tired seeing those stories. As a Black woman, we are more than that. And I wanted to do something to honor the women because women hold it down. [I wanted to] honor the women down in the Delta and [show that] they're the backbone for civil rights; they're the backbone for raising strong men and strong, beautiful, intelligent women. I wanted to know what their stories were."

Steele spent almost a year driving back and forth from Oxford throughout the Delta to take photographs and record testimony. Bill Luckett, the white mayor of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and several black southern pastors helped her connect with the more than fifty grandmothers–her Delta Jewels.

Although I never knew my maternal grandmother, Florence Jones Grandy (Big Momma), who died before I was born, and I barely knew my paternal grandmother, Bertha Dillard Howard, who died more than twenty years ago, Iknow these women. They are like my mother, who was the matriarch of the Grandy family and a grandmother and, great-grandmother of eight, and had great-great grand nieces and nephews when she died at the age of 82. Delta Jewels are saved, sanctified, Holy-Ghost filled women who are anchored to a loving God and lively churches where they usher, teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, minister to the bereaved at funeral services, and serve as prayer warriors. Some of them had hard lives and suffered great losses. These women are sometimes harsh but always loving when correcting wayward youth. Delta Jewels know violence and drug addiction and they will come out of retirement to rear grandchildren, nieces and nephews who are the innocent victims of it. Some of them have been in the church all their lives; others found God later in life. They wear stylish hats when they attend church, and coyly demure when they are complimented.  And boy can they cook!

Steele’s Jewels, for the most part, grew up hard during Jim Crow.  Their parents and grandparents were sharecroppers, and many of them followed in those footsteps. Amidst the poverty, violence, virulent racism and soul-crushing prejudice of Jim Crow, these Delta Jewels persevered, because as my Grandmother Howard would say, “Chile, you just got to press on. Press your way through.” Their families rise up and call them blessed, and they are the righteous whose souls are in the hands of God.

Delta Jewels made me weep for the grandmothers I never had, and for the dear mother I lost. I think I hear her voice.