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The 2021 cohort of the Youth Reporting Institute turned on their mics for our summer of storytelling! Listen to the authentic voices and diverse stories they captured over the summer.

Fireworks And Four-Wheelers: Finding Freedom And Culture In Mississippi

William Townsend - WUNC Studios
Allison Swaim
for WUNC
Youth Reporter William Townsend, records his final narration at WUNC studios in Durham, NC.

For WUNC’s 2021 Youth Reporting Institute, students were tasked with telling stories that amplify their communities. William Townsend, from southeast Raleigh, North Carolina, decided to uncover what freedom looks like at his family home in Scobey, Mississippi.

This summer, I took a trip down to Mississippi to see my family.

Every time I am down there, I feel free. The rumble of a four wheeler engine, fireworks popping and loud bugs in the summer night bring to life a Southern experience I’m not used to.

When people think of states like Mississippi and other parts of the deep south — they immediately think racism, confederate flags, and that being Black is all about struggle, not freedom. I mean, I thought it too, despite what’s on display in my own family.

William Townsend rides a four wheeler with his cousin, Joshua Gardner.
William Townsend
William Townsend rides a four wheeler with his cousin, Joshua Gardner.

My Aunt Sumay has owned this farm in Scobey, Mississippi for 40 years, and she feels most free when she is outside.

"I like getting my food out of the ground that I put in, you know. The Lord bless me to have," she says. "I like preparing food and seeing people enjoy."

When you're on the farm, even food and eating is a whole new experience. You can literally walk outside, get something off a bush and cook it and eat it that same day.

I get excited when my Aunt Sumay cooks. I love eating her food. I go down there just for those perfect BBQ ribs.

“Well, I just cook. I'm not this fancy cooker. You know, I just cook what I grew up on — my country cooking," she says. "Peas, greens and turkey. Even pork meat, I cook that. But I don't cook it the fancy way.”

My Aunt Sumay grew up on her parent’s land in a time when Black families didn’t own their own farms.

”You know, here in Mississippi, a lot of people have to rent their place. Well, with us, the Lord blessed my father to be able to... we didn't have fancy nothing," she says. "But we were able to be on our own. When we were young, they went to their field and they did go help the neighbors. It was neighbors helping neighbors back then and they did it with no charges.”

My cousin Tarius lives on the farm. He remembers when I first came down, calling me "anxious and a little nervous."

Aunt Sumay poses with family in front of her farm.
William Townsend
Aunt Sumay poses with family in front of her farm.

I was scared, at first, to ride a horse. But I found another mode of transportation I was more comfortable with: the four-wheeler. My cousins say it was the only thing I wasn’t afraid of. They also say I was a "speed demon" and I was going the fastest the whole time.

My Aunt Sumay says: “We have always had our freedom, even though things happen.”

And now, I see her point.

Popping fireworks, riding like the wind and laughing with my folks on our own land.

It makes me question: What about my life in Raleigh feels as free as this?

2021 WUNC Youth Reporter William Townsend

William Townsend is a rising senior at Southeast Raleigh High School and former freshman class president.
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