A REVIEW OF
Catfish Dream: Ed Scott’s Fight for his Family Farm and Racial Justice in the Mississippi Delta
The University of Georgia Press
“Catfish Dream” Essential and Hopeful Reading
By Ellis Purdie
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
In our divisive times, we must recall those moments when the worst of the American experiment was overcome. Though prejudice in America remains, it has not had the final say in every situation.
Too often it takes years, but right can triumph over wrong. In “Catfish Dream,” Julian Rankin delivers one such story, covering the life of Ed Scott Jr. and his struggle to farm in the face of systemic racism in the Mississippi Delta.
Scott and the black community, in nearly every facet of their existence, were burdened by the obstacle of white supremacy, even into the post-civil rights era. The author focuses particularly on how blacks were held back in their attempt to create businesses in which whites held monopoly. Thus, the book is a fine source for understanding how racism endures even when laws are abolished or changed on paper.
The book begs the question of how someone manages to make a life for themselves when their context has always been against them. Scott proves inspiring for his unparalleled work ethic and refusal to quit.
For every period in Scott’s life, barriers were set up to keep him and his community from the success whites enjoyed. As a boy, Scott is thrown into an educational system bereft of adequate funding. In the military, he and his commanding officers are denied the same treatment as white soldiers. As a farmer, he is forbidden success.
However, Scott uses these opportunities to stand up to authority, finding leverage in peaceful resistance from the moral high ground. Rankin’s coverage of Scott’s life, from childhood to war and beyond, is accessible and often thrilling.
Some of the book’s most powerful moments come when Scott’s previous experiences transfer in a later fight for justice and equality. When finished fighting for both democracy and his own civil rights in Europe, Scott brings the battle back home. The dangers of World War II amply prepare Scott for situations such as the march against hate in Selma, Alabama.
In one of the most powerful sections of “Catfish Dream,” Scott takes his skills as a quartermaster to those putting their bodies on the line in Selma. When the marchers get hungry, Scott serves them with food by driving a truck of water and sandwiches, feeding as many as possible from his truck bed.
In such passages, food and Scott’s cause intersect beautifully, reminding us of the goodness and hope that exists even in our darkest days. They drive home the truth that food and the human spirit work together, a truth Scott embodies in every page of Rankin’s work.
“Catfish Dream” centers around Scott’s becoming the first nonwhite operator of a catfish plant in America. As a black man, Scott was treated differently than whites in his attempt to establish a livelihood. White fear of Scott’s success leads to a full-scale assault on his ambitions.
When whites drive Scott out of rice farming, he goes into catfish. This decision brings about its own problems, however, when white agribusiness calls in Scott’s loans, taking away his entire operation. Rankin reveals how this move is based strictly on race, as white farmers also in debt continue in their work.
Rankin keeps the narrative moving in prose that reaches the heights of excellent creative nonfiction: a must when covering the ground of history, politics, and biography all at once.
“Catfish Dream” leaves the reader wishing they had known Scott. Fortunately, Scott’s words and person are rendered with clarity and charm in this fine book. As Rankin proclaims, “…he didn’t live by the expectations of others. . . .He spoke truth to power.” We would do well follow him.
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Ellis Purdie is a graduate of The Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi. He lives with his family in Marshall, Texas.