June was for fleeing north. In a move to distance from the heat, sickness, and constriction in New Orleans, I headed for the crickets.
My parents’ farm is nestled in the countryside just outside a town with a university. It’s an oasis, as far as Ozark towns go. Post office. Not one but three grocery stores. You can get good coffee here, and even craft beer. Good reasons as any to come back to the cradle.
Virus precautions and grad school work had me farm-bound for weeks, but a backroads experience was long overdue. Backroading, that classic hick experience, is best honed during teenage years but really should never reach an expiration. I think the last time I’d really made an effort was in my mid twenties, days before my wedding. I took a map (never unfolded), killed my phone, and pushed the accelerator to nowhere. Hours later, when I pulled back into the drive, the simmering irritation of my betrothed and future in-laws was all the justification required. D’être perdue, je ressens beaucoup de bien-être. Getting lost on any sortie does the soul good.
So with my kids at my ex’s and and a new Brandi Carlile-heavy playlist queued, I hit the gravel.
I expected the initial thrill of leaving the farm in a different direction, dust-coating the car like a Jordan almond. I anticipated that stomach twinge when you don’t know if a road is dead-ending or becoming the driveway of a territorial farmer with anger issues. The world after all is both the same and vastly different (the pessimist in me wants to say that the only difference is that the intervening years have allowed that farmer to expand his arsenal). Along the way I upcapped my a7ii and took a few shots myself: empty roads, bullet-holed stop signs, the occasional American flag. No surprises.
Maybe it was fear or fatigue – I’m still weary, even in recharge mode – but I probably didn’t venture more than fifteen miles out. And it wasn’t long until I found myself at the spot we used to call LowWater. It’s a high school hangout, a place where the road crosses the Little Dry Fork river and there’s a reliable heap of bottles and cans.
I parked by the side, leaving enough space so that if anyone came down into the valley they could pass over the small concrete bridge. The bluffs there are pretty, overgrown with vegetation and impassible (unless you want to doctor chigger and tick bites for a few weeks). The river is small, and I realized I was probably just two or three miles downstream from my parents’ farm. Really, it’s the same water I look into every evening. The graffiti on the lips of the “bridge” could have been lifted from my childhood – the same barely illegible pastels and litany of Troy+Becky4Evers. But then there was the road itself, where the gravel becomes cement for the length of the narrow river. It was hard to notice at first, but the closer one got, the more undeniable the message.
The hate was dripped onto the pocked cement in ugly, barely legible scrawl. It was bland, the absence of a color. They hadn’t a tool, or had used a tool so crude that it was evident in every clumsily connected word and line. A tub of primer and a stick. Is that all one needs to poison?
In my outrage I slung my camera across my shoulder, marched up to the scrawl. Damnatio memoriae, I thought, throwing my shadow across the hate in an effort to eclipse it. Trying to art it out.
Don’t ask what it said, Reader. You already know.
That night I sat with my discomfort, wondering if I should delete the images from my flashcard. Sometimes documentation feels wrong, the whole “look-see” of us gawking at hate, even across history, feels perilous. I remembered other times when I failed to document ugliness. That fateful September in NYC, for instance. All my fellow art students took shot after shot after shot after shot of our world crumbling, glutting us with images I couldn’t look at for a decade. The next year, again, I couldn’t pick up the camera in the face of another tragedy. On Myrtle Avenue I watched as the NYPD shot an unarmed black man in the back. He was across the street from me, and fell so quietly that I can still hear the small pops of three bullets. That time I ran into my apartment, just twenty meters away, and hid until the police came knocking, asking for witnesses. I haltingly answered as best I could, but I already felt the futility of my observations. True to my Ozarks upbringing, I trusted no one, and felt that anything I saw was but a piece of gravel in an ever-flowing river.
Even when the blood pumps hard with outrage, when anger feels like its own emergency, we know the impotence of quick action. Shouting begats shouting, and reasoning with closed ears is only an exercise in madness. Often it leads to more retaliatory measures. If you think that shaming the parent hitting the child in the cinema parking lot will have positive consequences, you disregard simple cause and effect. Turn that righteous back of yours for a second only to confirm that the rage and shame flow immediately downhill into the child.
What to do when we love our homes, even with their decrepit barns and outdated biases? When we love our neighbors with their embarrassing yardsigns? We hold them to our hearts, and then march for justice when we return to our cities. But some hatreds we cannot abide on our native soil. We are beyond the time of passivity and silence, and have been for awhile. A change isn’t gonna come. For good or bad, a change is upon us.
Only 1/40th of the people in my home county are African-American – and that’s more than the rest of the region. There’s a slightly higher percentage of asians, though I can only remember 1 Korean girl in my high school class, and 1 Taiwanese boy in the grade above me. But whatever the numbers, the backroads belong to everyone as much as they belong to no one.
A few days after I saw the hand of hillbilly hate, brilliant teal lettering appeared atop the scrawl. There are no true corrections in this world – we’ll have to wait on that – but sometimes there are chips in the edifice of wrongs. I guess hillbillies and kids will now drink their beers over the mixed message of their lives. Both things will exist on that concrete together until someone excavates the whole mess, which won’t be happening any time soon.