Growing up in Arkansas had many challenges and barriers; it also had many positive life experiences and lessons. I grew up in the small town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a town that has the unique distinction of being in two geographical areas of Arkansas. The Arkansas Delta and the West Gulf Coastal Plain both influence the culture and way of life I was accustomed to living in the South. 1985 was a year of many changes and socioeconomic stimuli; I never knew growing up just how poor and deep into poverty we lived. My mother did her best to make sure I never realized what was going on around me wasn’t the norm and that I would one day transcend poverty.
Neither of my grandparents could read or write and it wasn’t till I was in the second grade and I had a homework assignment, I couldn’t pronounce a certain word “procurement” and I asked my grandmother if she could help me. My grandmother’s response to this was to tell me a little bit of history of our people in America. The fact that my grandmother who couldn’t read nor write and could illustrate and paint a picture of poverty, slavery and other issues and raise 8 children to be able to read and write blew my mind at the time. This was the first of many experiences that motivated me to be the best reader and writer I could possibly be. My mother and I suffered a great deal in my early years from domestic violence and moments of extreme poverty and homelessness, but her love for me was undying and motivated her to strive for better. Those same properties she had were instilled in me and helped to shape the young man I have become today with my own children and relationship.
Music was always around me, music was my escape besides writing. Music truly became a part of my life when my mother met my stepfather, whom I consider my father. He’s a hard working man as well as a fabulous musician. He would play many tunes on the guitar and I’d do my best to try to emulate and copy him. My grandmother was another person who had a huge influence on my life with music. She was a heavy music listener and the blues was her outlet in many ways. It became my outlet as well, I would write my own lyrics, spend hours listening to different forms of music and generally go about my day feeling certain ways because the music enhanced or influenced my mood. One of the things “” as we affectionately called our grandmother always told me is never get to quitting because the situation told you to do so, keep on going because God will show you the way. This amazing woman with little formal education always had a wise word to say and a kind heart to share. Delta river blues, I say blues because blues literally saved my life. As a child I would try to teach my grandmother how to read and write, in my child mind I was doing something amazing and when she wrote her name for me it was then and always will be one of the biggest highlights of my life.
Growing up in poverty didn’t hamper me, it did nothing but encourage me and build within me a drive to succeed. I’ll never use it as an excuse to act a certain way. My contribution to the American Mosaic isn’t telling the world that I am a southern, black male who made it out of the grips of poverty. My contribution is teaching my children the same thing my grandmother and mom taught me, our history, where we came from and where we can go. Because the sky isn’t the limit if you’re willing to break through. Delta River Blues, sing it with me, The Thrill might be gone, but the passion and words of wisdom remain just as music remains within me.
Tony L. Jefferson, Jr. 2013