Editorial Rita Howell 7/15/2014

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Panola go-between makes connections from D.C. to Delta

I almost deleted the email.

“Inquiry from Smithsonian Magazine,” the subject line read.

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If I can’t immediately determine that the message is relevant to Panola County, I usually delete.

The message was from an editor who was trying to track down a young woman who’d been interviewed by their reporter and photographed some months previously at a blues festival in the Delta. 

The editor found a connection to The Panolian on an internet search. It seems we had published a photo of the same young woman in 2010.

The name Shu’Quita Drake did not ring a bell with me.

But the 2010 archives photo did.

I’d taken a picture of Shu’Quita and her sister ShuRissa at a memorial service at Batesville Junior High School on July 18, 2010. The service honored their father, Sgt. David Holmes of Batesville, who was killed June 26, 2010 in Afghanistan. The final portion of that service was held outside on the sweltering school parking lot, where a National Guard colonel presented Shu’Quita and ShuRissa with flags folded into tight triangles showing only white stars on blue. That was the photo I snapped.

Then the service was finished with a piercing 21-gun salute.

I had not thought of Shu’Quita personally in the intervening years, but I have thought of David, the latest, and, I pray, the last Panola soldier to die in a war.

Then last month came the Smithsonian Magazine inquiry.

“I’m wondering if you might be able to help a fellow journalist,” wrote Debra Rosenberg. “I’m an editor at Smithsonian Magazine and we are working on a big travel story about the American South. Our reporter, Paul Theroux, spoke with a young woman named Shu’Quita Drake Holmes. The phone number that he had for her no longer works and we have been unable to find or locate her. I notice that you wrote about the Holmes family in 2010 when her father died.”

Debra needed to check facts on some details from the interview and have Shu’Quita sign a photo release. 

Could I help them find her? 

I remembered that David’s children did not live here. But his parents and other family members still live here. I called his cousin, my friend Josie Mathis, who gave me cell phone numbers for David’s mom Betty and sister Stephanie. Maybe they could help me get in touch with Shu’Quita. 

Betty didn’t have a number, but Stephanie told me Shu’Quita, now age 18, lives in Greenville and she would message her on Facebook and ask her to call me at The Panolian.

Now, it’s a pretty convoluted story by this point, but it gets even more so.

I’m trying to get in touch with a young woman I’ve never met to explain to her that an editor in Washington, D.C. needs to talk to her about an interview that occurred last fall, and get permission to publish a photo she’s never seen, of Shu’Quita holding her month-old son.

Would Shu’Quita even call me, based on her Aunt Stephanie’s confusing Facebook message?

She did.

But I was at lunch.

Didn’t get the memo.

Days pass.

Debra emails to see if I’ve made progress.

She’s up against a deadline for publication of the July edition and if she can’t find Shu’Quita, the photo can’t go in.

And it’s not just any photo.

It was taken by world-famous photographer Steve McCurry, whose iconic picture,  “Afghan Girl,” published on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1985, has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Debra sent me the image.

I was struck by the similarities between McCurry’s Afghan and Mississippi girls.

They are facing the same way, in head-and-shoulders shots. The Afghan girl wears a head scarf that’s draped gently around the side of her face. Shu’Quita’s hair is cropped short, but she wears red braided extensions that fall along the left side of her face in the same way.

The Afghan girl’s haunting green eyes express anger toward the photographer, but Shu’Quita is more like Mona Lisa. Her eyes reflect calmness, and her slight smile seems to give permission to McCurry to preserve this image of a beautiful Mississippi African-American woman clutching her tiny son.

I am consumed with the objective of seeing that Shu’Quita’s photo is published in the Smithsonian Magazine.

I call Stephanie, who tells me that Shu’Quita did indeed call me, but I was out.

Stephanie graciously gets Shu’Quita’s phone number for me.

I call her. She answers.

Then I try to explain the whole thing. Smithsonian Magazine. Washington, D.C. Photo taken in Hollandale at Blues Festival. She confirms that the picture was made.

What is the baby’s name?

“D’Vontae Knight.”

Now comes the tricky part.

Shu’Quita was 17 when the photo was made. She turned 18 in June, but Debra still needed Shu’Quita’s mother to sign a document giving permission for the photo to be published.

I’m in Batesville. They’re in Greenville. Editor’s in D.C.

Debra emailed me the release form. I emailed it to Shu’Quita. The plan was for her go to her grandmother’s, where there is a printer, print out the form, get mom to sign it, take a photo of the signed document on her phone, send that photo to my cellphone, and I will forward it to Debra.

I realize that I am the middleman in all of this, and I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but somehow I can’t extract myself.

I wait all one Saturday morning for my phone to signal that the photo of the signed document has arrived. I carry the iPhone around in my pocket as I run the vacuum so I won’t miss the call.

It vibrates.

They can’t get Grandma’s printer to function. (Sounds like my printer.) They will go to the library later.

I transmit this vital information to Debra’s cellphone. She is unresponsive.

I wonder at myself, why I am so caught up in this. It’s not my job. Debra is probably at a wedding or something on a Saturday in June, not concerned in the least that Shu’Quita’s grandmother’s computer printer will not work. What if they don’t get this thing accomplished by Debra’s deadline? 

Somewhere in all the text conversations with Shu’Quita, I explained about Steve McCurry being the photographer of the famous Afghan girl picture.

Seconds after I hit “send” with that message, it struck me.

Shu’Quita’s dad was killed in Afghanistan. Maybe she will reject this whole thing. 

What if that beautiful photo is not published?

But it was.

Thirty emails, seven phone calls, 17 text messages later, there is it, page 106, July-August edition.