For a long time, the river was a childhood dream, and a promise of adventure all the more attractive because it was dangerous. At the age of 30 in the mid-1980s, Eddy L. Harris climbed into a borrowed canoe with some camping gear and provisions to descend the Mississippi. A 3,780 kilometer journey on a river that crosses the United States from North to South, from Minnesota to New Orleans: “From where there are no blacks to where we are still not liked very much”, sums up old Robert, a former tap dancer and faithful friend, the only one to approve of the project.
It took courage, unconsciousness and a solid confidence in humanity to embark on this crazy epic, born from a desire to test one’s limits and to live in accordance with one’s youthful ideals. With, in the background, a reflection on racism on the part of a man for whom being black is only a small part of what constitutes him. “But suddenly, being black, and tall, took on a whole new meaning. Being tall, because of the long trip ahead of me, sitting cross-legged in a canoe. To be black because of my perceptions and those of which I would be the object ”, writes Eddy L. Harris. Very quickly, we perceive that the goal is not so much the surpassing of oneself, the physical test as a will to know oneself and to go to meet the other in America of the neglected. and rednecks, the declassified whites of the countryside.
Many times the writer will be tempted to give up
It is at Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi, where Robinovich, another faithful friend, accompanies her, that the journey begins on a peaceful late autumn day. With a small tent for shelter, bad oilskins, and canvas sneakers that catch water with every stroke of the paddle, Eddy L. Harris is unprepared for inclement weather and danger: a bear drawn to food. , wild dogs that he will kill at close range, obese hunters having fun shooting at anything that moves. Over the days, he will feel lonely and hungry, eat lots of canned beans and tasty catfish, learn to pluck and gut ducks offered by a hunter. Many times he will be tempted to give up, negotiating with his conscience to allow himself a night in a hotel or a few kilometers in a pick-up. In Saint-Louis, the city where he grew up, tipping point towards the old South with a slave past, he will ignore a diffuse fear to continue his journey.
We know the importance of nature and wildlife in American literature. Quoting Walden or life in the woods, of Thoreau, Hemingway and Mark Twain, whose hometown he visits, Eddy L. Harris follows this tradition and emancipates himself from it to find his voice. It is also, and above all, the object of this fluvial odyssey: after seven years spent trying in vain to become a writer, he finds, by confronting an unknown territory, a style, a language, a singular literary genre to the crossroads of autobiography, essay and travelogue. Along the river and through memory, we follow a book being written that alternates moments of introspection and chance encounters: Emily, a guardian angel with a logger’s grip, Don, a boatman, and his two sailors, the ghosts of the Amerindians who left their names in the places bordering the Mississippi.
In 2017, Eddy L. Harris returned to the trail of his feat for a documentary. Thirty years after its first publication in the United States, where it has become a classic, Mississippi Solo appears for the first time in France, thanks to Liana Levi. “Other than the race question, there is nothing more American than Mississippi, nothing that seems more immutable. (…) Like racism, Mississippi has been with us from the very beginning. The two will undoubtedly also accompany us until the very end ”, notes the author in the afterword written in January 2020. A powerful and universal book that carries the myths of America and makes you want to take off.