I think about place a lot. I write about it a lot. I studied it a bit in my sociology grad program. Specifically the idea of the third place, or a place that people find comfort and connection that is not home or work. See, we know that humans are really attached to their environment, it’s a very particular need. And it is one of those things that is so subject to socio-economic class, it’s so ultimately out of our control from the get-go and that conflict between the importance and utter lack of control is fascinating.
We don’t get to pick what or where we are born into. And yet it is so critical in how we develop as people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the only thing, but it’s big. Place impacts how we acclimate to climate, what we are exposed to politically, culturally and socially, what sports teams we root for. Would I be a Seahawks fan if I hadn’t moved to Seattle? Highly unlikely. And sometimes this can be a cause of real pain.
I was brought up in a rural community in the middle of Missouri. It was small, pretty white, agricultural, conservative. My parents were liberal artists (though my dad would balk at that term–he’d say craftsperson) from St. Louis. They raised me in a very liberal home, made diversity (race, culture and otherwise) a priority to teach. My hometown’s second religion was football, high school and college. My parents could give two shits about the MU Tigers or how the team fared.
I acclimated. I grew up a pretty well-adjusted kid. I didn’t cause too much trouble (read: I didn’t get pregnant or thrown in rehab before I was of age. Or ever, actually.). I am an arguably well-adjusted adult. But I would say that the conflict between how my parents raised me and how my town raised me was challenging at best. As a result, I both have warm, comforting memories of my hometown and often a visceral negative reaction to it.
When my dad got diagnosed with cancer, I’d just moved back to the area from the West Coast to help out. He’d been through a round of radiation, a round of chemo, two surgeries and was on his second round of chemo when I dragged my mom out for the evening for a drink. We went to a historic hotel in town and had a glass of wine. We knew almost everyone in the bar. My boss from the video store AND the copy shop I worked at in high school were both there. And they remembered me, more than ten years (and several pounds and hairstyles) later. I was overwhelmed by the kind words, and that was just one night.
A few years ago, my dad’s best friend passed away. It was tragic and unexpected. It wrecked my parents, but my dad especially. Just finally recovered from a brutal illness, everyone worried the news of Marty’s death would quite literally take him out at the knees. The way the community took care of each other, like family–it chokes me up a little even now.
And I remember going to a party in high school at an older kid’s house. It was a drunken pool party. Country music blaring, lots of booze. Probably not a lot of clothes (I don’t remember). This kid was a pretty good kid–football player, honor roll, you know the type. Posted to the fence was a sign scrawled: “No drugs, no whores, no niggers.” Everyone thought it was hilarious.
At thirty-five I have made peace with the fact that those memories can exist in the same place and not necessarily be entirely contradictory. I’m getting more comfortable with the dichotomy and the fact that it isn’t resolvable. It just is. But damn, it is hard. And it doesn’t get easier the older I get and the more I see the consequences of both sides of those memories.
I just read this incredible article about St. Louis written by a successful black man who grew up there. He has written extensively about Ferguson and it’s impact on the national stage, but has been less inclined to write about his own experience growing up there. I totally understand.
Ultimately, I think McKissack writes really honestly and vulnerably (which is arguably more challenging) about place and our human connection to place. His depiction of St. Louis is incredibly visual and I can picture this kid running around Union Market or listening to his folks talk about the Cards football (yes, football) team. And I can imagine what it would be like to hear your parents crying about a neighbor kid getting soaked in urine by a bunch of white rednecks (this really broke my heart).
I don’t necessarily think this is a grand political statement–he isn’t saying anything groundbreaking here or anything we haven’t heard a hundred times from various pundits, writers, protesters, etc. I put myself in this guy’s shoes–a successful, black writer from St. Louis, MO. Everyone’s asking you to write about Ferguson and what’s happening with race relations around the country. And so you write your story…I can only imagine this might be one of the hardest things for him to write.
Please read it. It’s important writing, it’s real and authentic. It’s important in the context of the racial issues permeating urban centers across the country. But it’s also echoes so many of our own experiences–and isn’t that what makes writing and art so incredibly important? Because it strikes a chord and links us.