When an abusive husband called her a “dumb ass,” she drove to a nearby college and took and passed the Mensa test. That’s Jane: intrepid, confident, irrepressible.
About a decade ago, I’d guess, Jane Robbins Kerr, 84, was passing through town with a friend, another photographer, William Anderson, a pleasant, but taciturn black man, an academic who looked the part, pipe and all. They both lived in Atlanta and were on their way to the Delta to make pictures. They had stopped here to see an old love of Jane’s.
Jane grew up in Jackson, and while her mother made a futile attempt to guide her toward north Jackson society, it wasn’t to be. “I spoke up too much,” Jane said.
After graduating from The W, where she majored in math and minored in chemistry (“Straight As in math,” Jane said. “I just loved Dr. Gossnickle.”), Jane worked for Humble Oil in Texas, before becoming a flight attendant for Delta. This was back in the day when stewardesses could not marry and were weighed each month. After four years with Delta, she married a lawyer with the Justice Department.
They settled in a suburb of Atlanta. Jane sold real estate while she raised their two girls. An aunt left Jane a sizeable inheritance and in 1993 she took a trip around the world.
The travel did two things: She began photographing with a passion and her perspective on and appreciation for Mississippi began to change.
“After I traveled the world, I could come back to Mississippi and look at it. I was allergic for a while.”
For four or five years, Jane passed through town regularly on her photo excursions. She would call and we would go for coffee or meet Beth and me for dinner at Broussard’s. She talks about her photography with the enthusiasm of a teenager in love. Same for her native state, especially the Delta.
On a foray to the Delta, Jane and a well-known New York photographer of Hungarian descent, attended a McCain family reunion at Teoc near Greenwood. Arizona Sen. John McCain’s great-great grandfather owned a plantation there along with 52 slaves. After emancipation, the slaves took the McCain name and the two families — white McCains and black McCains — have a joint reunion. The New York photographer complained to Jane that she was not getting the access that Jane was, folks at the reunion were not as cooperative.
“Sylvia, they do not do ‘different’ over here,” she told her friend. “You have to know how to dance when you go to Mississippi, how to dance with the people.”
Last week Jane shared an email from the archivist at Delta State who had unearthed a passage from Jane’s journals, (she writes and paints, too) which are archived at DSU. The archivist lifted a passage that was incorporated into a recent musical performance at the school celebrating Mississippi’s bicentennial.
Here’s an edited version:
My most favorite spots in the world are Tibet, New Mexico and Mississippi — and by Mississippi, I mean the Delta with its never-ending space — I love space in a place.
I go back to Mississippi for “home” — even though my real “home” is long gone. Just the seeing and doing – I need those things — I need to be from somewhere — not just rootless. I speak this language, get the nuance, relish the simplicity of Mississippi.
Plain is better than fancy – everywhere else, the fancier it is, the better people like it. Not in Mississippi, not my Delta. Here the understated, the unsaid, is the language of choice. …
I rode for miles on a Saturday though nothingness — funny, growing up I never went to the Delta, and its only now that I am learning a bit about its vastness … flatness … that never-ending, enduring haziness.
After 50 years away, I don’t claim to be from Georgia — I just live there, not ‘from’ there. I wonder if this has to do with getting old — this being “from” somewhere … you know, “she was from there …” or “she grew up in so and so …” or “her family lived down the corner, around the bend and on …” Those sound like obituary words to me.
I think I may have always been that girl who knew early on that she didn’t fit the mold of expectation, where my skin was too tight. But now I’m back, to my roots, full circle and I feel the fit, my skin expanding and fitting again — you can go home again. Mississippi has its drawbacks but we love our state, no matter what state we live in at the moment, be it a state of denial or a state of bliss.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.