In her 111 years on the planet, Mamie (Lang Kirkland) was never preoccupied with her cellphone or thinking about what she should do next. She started every day with coffee, ended every evening with ice cream, and lived fully inside each of the moments she experienced. It’s that kind of presence that Mamie’s son, Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, attributes to his mother’s elephant-like memory that helped her remember the good, the bad and the ugly things about life.
“I’ve lived through 20 presidents. I thought Hoover was the worst, but that man with the funny hair,” Mamie says in the opening scene of the film, 100 Years from Mississippi, as an image of Donald Trump appears on the screen. “(He) takes the cake.” Mamie says she’s lived through good things, beautiful things and ugly ones, including the race riots and lynchings from 1915.
Mamie married when she was 15, birthed nine children (a few of whom died of childhood illnesses) and lost her husband when he was 55 years old. She lived her life with the gravity of that traumatic history in her cellular memory, along with an acute awareness of the losses she endured. Tarabu Betserai Kirkland says his mom was too busy living in the present to get weighed down by her past. Nevertheless, she never forgot any of it and never stopped bringing it up.
In 2015, when Kirkland stumbled upon a headline from Jacksonville, MS about the very lynching his mother had talked about throughout her life, he saw a pathway to 100 Years from Mississippi. “I set my laptop in front of my mom and showed her the headline from 1915 that said a lynching was to take place the next day. My mom looked at it and she said ‘that’s him,’” Kirkland recalls. “That made all the hairs on my back stand up. That digital confirmation of my mom’s story was the inciting incident that propelled me into action.”
In the 2021 film, Kirkland juxtaposes playful details of Mamie’s day-to-day life, including her handwriting her Avon orders as she asserts firmly that she has no intention of learning how to use a computer, and memories of her past, like her romance with her husband who died five decades earlier, with the traumatic history of racial terrorism that Mamie lived through. But whenever the word Mississippi came up, Mamie shut down.
“She would say Mississippi shouldn’t even be on a map,” Kirkland recalls. Nevertheless, at the tender age of 107, Mamie travels back in time and place to confront the history she left behind. In the spirit of sidestepping a spoiler and leaving room for readers to see the film, I’ll just say that Mamie stood a little taller and prouder as a result of looking that traumatic history she left behind straight in the eye.
The history that Mamie lived through and remembered all the way up until her death at the age of 111, makes some people uncomfortable. How could it not? Some have attached the name critical race theory to the study and analysis of Mamie’s lived history and started movements for it to be banned. When writing about diversity, equity, inclusion or siting the lived experiences of persons of color along with the perspectives of white allies and the theoretical framework of sociologists, I can always count on at least one letter to the editor discounting the story, calling it imbalanced, and making the case that there should be someone from the “other side.”
Is there a diametrically other side of history? Or when people suggest that, do they really mean that they’d prefer not to listen to the narratives or exclude the perspectives of those whose recollection is less flowery? A version of history that is sanitized and falls short of acknowledging the totality of it–including the parts in which ancestors caused harm, trauma and terror to ancestors while putting into place a system that privileges some and oppresses others isn’t a side. At best, it’s a slice or partially true version, and just as we teach our children, a partial truth is not much different than a lie. For Mamie, there wasn’t an other side of the story of living through a period of racial terrroism and lynchings.
This is why Mamie’s son, Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, had to tell his mom’s story. “Telling this story is an act of resistance,” Kirkland says. When asked if the high number of police involved killings amounts to modern day lynchings, Kirkland didn’t hisitate. “I think it does.”
When Kirkland stopped in the Bay Area, a place where he started his journey of storytelling as a form of resistance as a radio reporter in the 1970s, both he and his film left a mark on hearts and minds.
Latoya Williams was among those at the Berkeley premier of Kirkland’s 100 Years from Mississippi. Williams is an assistant principal at Montera Middle School in Oakland and says that just the title of the film was enough to draw her in. “I said wow. It rang so many bells with stories that my father would tell me about Mississippi and our own ancestral work,” Williams says. “My interest really piqued, and I knew that there was going to be a gem hidden inside of this theater.” Williams says her intuition was spot on. The movie didn’t just meet her expectations; it surpassed them and illuminated parallels that she sees in the population she serves and with whom she lives.
“I was moved to tears from the minute I saw his mother on the opening screen–knowing that within that body lived so many stories. It’s such a blessing that (Tarabu) was able to go on this journey alongside Mamie as she told her story, so that she could release that story and not have to take it with her (when she transitioned) to her spirit world.” In terms of progress and setback, Williams says there’s still a lot of work to be done. “The sad truth is that we’re still seeing issues that Mamie experienced as a child. Now we call it gentrification. We call it rezoning within our schools. There are lots of ways that we reinvent these atrocious practices and cause harm to our communities. You have to wonder if that cycle will ever break, and when will you realize that these practices continue to create generational harm.”
On the issue of police brutality, Williams says it’s mind boggling to see how pervasive it is among officers of all racial backgrounds. “During my father’s day and age, it was a very white and black dichotomy, and now it is so systemic that you can just look at the color of the uniform (blue). The uniform represents one unified color that is terrorizing communities.”
Still the story revitalized Williams’ sense of hope. “There are other brilliant minds coming up, and they’re fighting back much younger. I’m witnessing that alongside young people as an educator.” Williams co-founded the group Black Girls Brilliance to empower and celebrate young black women, after being inspired by her findings in her doctoral program. “Black girls spoke about being hyper visible but invisible at the same time,” Williams says. “(Kirkland’s) work was able to give a lot of visibility to that little girl that was scared and the little Black girl that evolved into a woman who could share with the world the love that she had.”
Lewis Jordan says everything he heard about 100 Years from Mississippi made him want to see it, even if the film left him speechless. “At the end of the film, I had to just sit there for a moment (and think about what I’d seen),” Jordan says. “It all worked together. There was a person and a story, and a person who lived long enough to tell the story and kept her clarity until 111. I mean, c’mon. That’s amazing.”
One of the last things Mamie did before she transitioned to her spirit world was seeing her son’s film. “My mom absolutely loved the film,” Kirkland says. “She wanted to make sure I got the story right.” The sentiment of those who’ve seen and been moved by 100 Years From Mississippi is that Mamie is looking down at us, enjoying her coffee and ice cream, reminding us all to live in the present, know our history. “Don’t get weighed down by it,” the bold and bright Mamie who starred in her son’s film, would likely say. “But never forget it.”