Jimmy Cunningham Jr., a native of Pine Bluff and current resident of Nashville, is a grant-writer, voiceover artist, author, community program consultant and executive director of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees respectively from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Grambling State University. Over a three-decade span, Cunningham has been involved in programs at the national and state levels largely focused on the social and cultural development of inner city youth. He has also been heavily involved in research regarding African American history in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. His latest project involves helping to develop a cultural corridor between Pine Bluff and Clarksdale, Miss., in order to increase cultural heritage tourism.
1. What is the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance?
The Alliance is a nonprofit organization with a primary goal of developing increased tourism in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta regions along U.S. Highways 65 and 82.
2. What inspired you to begin this project?
After writing two books on Pine Bluff and the Southeast Arkansas Delta, I realized that there was a profound wealth of under-appreciated history related to the music, the arts, and the bayous of the region. I had seen other regions in the nation take cultural/geological assets and successfully brand themselves with a powerful narrative that was appealing to tourists. The historically largest cities in the Delta—Pine Bluff and Greenville, Mississippi—both have enormous cultural assets, which are under appreciated and largely unknown outside the region. Linking these two cities together in a cultural corridor, along with neighboring communities, seemed like the most logical thing to do to maximize their narratives.
3. How do stories value or de-value a community and what is their role in strengthening a sense of place?
When an area like the Delta is constantly characterized through media and other sources as a place with a declining population, a shrinking tax base, poverty, unemployment and a host of other social ills, it makes potential investors from outside the community leery about committing resources for development. Concurrently, residents who see little social and economic change in the region often embrace the negative narrative and become cynical about the possibility of change. However, when a community is introduced to a narrative related to new assets or new ways of utilizing old assets, the effect can re-frame perceptions of possibility in residents. This can happen in a number of ways, such as uncovering novel historical information about a place, employing a new process for harvesting food staples, or the discovery of some previously unknown alloy. When communities find new ways to relay the value of their sense of place, their social adhesion and civic pride grow.
4. What are some of the biggest challenges for Delta communities and what are the Delta’s greatest assets?
One might think that the biggest challenges in the Delta are related to a myriad of social factors connected to poverty, race, health, education and a limited tax base. However, I think one of the most significant challenges is that many former Delta residents with great ideas and energy have had to move to other parts of the country to make a living. The absence of a proliferation of new ideas, new approaches, and out-of-the-box paradigms has crippled the region's advancement. However, the Delta is made of people who are tougher than nails. I think they are some of the most resilient people in the nation I have ever seen. They have weathered floods, racial violence, economic uncertainty, health challenges and a variety of other forces that would have left some communities devastated and paralyzed. Nonetheless, they are survivors who never give up.
5. What are three things you can recommend to a community wanting to cultivate a dynamic music scene?
Music is a reflection of the values and the sensibilities of a community. To cultivate a dynamic music scene, one must have a keen awareness of residents' music interests and the connection of those interests to local sensibilities. Further, a dynamic music scene requires defined spaces, which aesthetically fit the nature of the highlighted genres. Finally, a dynamic music scene is almost always staffed by club owners, bartenders, waiters/waitresses, and other employees who consciously create a sense of community and comradery in the borders of each establishment.