On M.B. Mayfield and "Otherwise" (MSFolklife, 2021)
In January of 2021 I got an email asking if I'd be interested in working on an oral history collection with a community group in Ecru, Mississippi. The collection would focus on the life and art of a little known folk artist from the small town in North central Mississippi. The artist was M.B. Mayfield. The story was that Mayfield had audited art classes at the University of Mississippi for a year and half spanning 1949 and 1950, thirteen years before the first Black Student, James Meredith, formally enrolled at the university.
They had me at "art." I incorporated the oral history collection into an oral history course that, as possibility would have it, I was teaching that spring semester. Over the next several months, my students and I talked with the friends and family members of M.B. Mayfield, and combed the archives for any materials providing insight on his life.
About two months after we began working on the Mayfield collection, I had the opportunity to write about Mayfield's life for a publication in his home state—Mississippi Folklife (an outlet that I've written for previously).
Here's an excerpt from the essay:
There was from Ecru a Black man making art by himself in a broom closet at the University of Mississippi because there was not a single classroom on campus where he was welcome to be a student. 1 The Black man was M.B. Mayfield. The time was 1949. The story is a long one, because a story about a Black son of Black sharecroppers spending two years listening in on art classes at a segregated, all-white university in Mississippi must be long. This version is shorter though, and it begins not with a person, place, or thing, but with an idea: otherwise.
In common parlance, “otherwise“ means something like "in circumstances different from those present.” It is often used to introduce a contingent possibility, a possibility that depends on something else. If Thing A doesn’t happen, then Possibility B will become so.
Or: A, otherwise B.
In Blackpentecostal Breath, Religious and African American Studies scholar Ashon Crawley positions “otherwise” as something more. It references “alternative modes, alternative strategies, and alternative ways of life (that) already exist.” In this formulation, the presence of an alternative possibility does not depend on anything else. It is on its own. It comes first, even as it is threatened and denied by systems of power and domination (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia). Here, Possibility B already is, and it is both regardless and in spite of Thing A’s denial of it.
Or: otherwise B; in the face A.
Crawley’s otherwise does not ask or suppose. It allows. Like M.B. Mayfield.