by Paul Wolf
Like every good Southern “meat-and-two” lunch, a good story needs the right elements to make it appetizing.
In this case, struggle, suspense – victory.
“Catfish Dream: Ed Scott’s Fight for his Family’s Farm and Racial Justice in the Mississippi Delta” (University of Georgia Press) has just that – with an extra helping to boot.
The non-fiction book, written over a five-year span by Fondrenite Julian Rankin, is a product of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Series “Studies in Culture, People and Place” and centers around the experiences, family and struggles of Ed Scott, Jr.
Born in 1922, Scott was a prolific farmer in the Mississippi Delta and the first-ever nonwhite owner and operator of a catfish plant in the nation.
Rankin officially launched the book July 12 at Square Books in Oxford.
“The Southern Foodways Alliance is at Ole Miss and I grew up in the bookshelves of Square Books,” he says of the chosen launch location.
Rankin first connected with the Scott family in 2013. Ed Scott’s daughter, Willena Scott-White, the family historian and champion of the narrative, wanted her father’s story to be told.
“We didn’t know at that point – she mentioned a book, a documentary maybe,” the author says of the evolution of the project.
Rankin visited Scott (who passed away in 2015) “every weekend for six months,” interviewing him, his family and his attorney, as well as people who worked at Scott’s plant.
The story is what Rankin called “so epic,” one that resonated with his own Delta upbringing.
“The Delta is this strange place. Mississippi is a strange place. So many dark chapters of American history reside (here) and we’re still negotiating those today. (Scott’s) story spanned this important moment about ownership. It was a story waiting to be told.”
The first time author (a frequent contributor to this publication and others around the state), says a 300,000 word first draft emerged from five years’ worth of interviewing with Scott and his family. Much of it was fleshed out during the first-ever Southern Foodway Rivendell Writer’s Colony residency at The University of the South in Suwanee, Georgia, which Rankin received in 2013.
A complete rewrite, “mostly from muscle memory,” is the book that resulted.
“I learned to craft a story from these sprawling oral histories, aligning Scott’s story of farming fields – endless fields – up and down rows, hitting roadblocks and how to attack them,” Rankin explains. “It’s so much about persistence. He taught me how to write a book without knowing it.”
Scott’s family was part of a class action lawsuit in 1997, one that lead to a 2012 settlement in which Scott’s family received more than enough to buy back the family land taken from them thirty years before. Today, his family is in their fifth season of harvest and looking to open a museum to keep alive the story of black Delta farmers.
“The intergenerational way stories flow down is important to contemporary Mississippi,” Rankin says. “We have our own challenges and can bring those lessons forward to the modern stage.”
By day, Rankin is director of the Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE) at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.
Writing “Catfish Dream” has been an “interesting intersection,” he says, with that of his full-time role.
“At CAPE, we use art to have a conversation about identity and equity, to spotlight voices. The SFA, in many ways, utilizes similar methods, using food to explore race and class. It all ties in so well and strengthens my belief that everyone has a story. The stranger-than-fiction aspect of the world, of Mississippi, is what keeps me going. Stories here are so compelling, even when the people telling them don’t think they are.”
Upcoming Jackson book events for Catfish Dream include:
History is Lunch • July 18 • noon • Two Mississippi Museums
Signing and reading • August 9 • 5 p.m. • Lemuria Books
Mississippi Book Festival reading and signing, Delta Panel • August 18