Lessons From Black and Chinese Relations in the Deep South
Baldwin Lee, ‘Mississippi Triangle,’ and the limits of upward mobility
By Imani Perry
Mississippi Triangle is a 1983 documentary about the Black, white, and Chinese communities in the Mississippi Delta region, which I rewatched the other day, prompted by a message from a friend. It is one of a plethora of works in film and art that show, contrary to popular perception, that the South has never had just two racial groups.
In the same year that Mississippi Triangle was released, Lee, a Chinese American professor of photography at the University of Tennessee, set off on a trip across 2,000 miles of the American South. MIT- and Yale-educated, he settled in Knoxville and became the first director of the photography program at UT. He was already recognized as a gifted artist. And he has been a celebrated professor for decades. During that trip that began nearly 40 years ago, he took up what might seem to be unexpected subjects: Black folks, and particularly poor Black folks. Casey Gerald, a brilliant Black southern writer who published an essay about Lee last year (it will be included in the book Baldwin Lee, coming from Hunters Point Press this fall), has noted that this is not voyeuristic work. Rather, its intimacy proves that he earned the trust of his subjects. I agree.