Arkansas. The state where I was born. The place of my ancestors, family reunions, family weddings and celebrations and a place where those who have left come back to as their final resting place.
I had come on this journey this year 2019 in the month of June to commemorate my mother’s burial grave in the Rowland family burial plot at Batts Chapel Cemetery in the little town of Huttig in southern Arkansas. My mother left southern Arkansas to attend Philander Smith College, a small Historically Black Methodist-run college in the capital city of Little Rock. After graduating, starting her teaching career, married and had me and my brother, my parents decided they would make the trek which came to be called the “Great Migration” when thousands of African Americans moved from the south to the North, the Midwest, East and Western states.
My family left Arkansas in 1953 when my brother was just two months old and I was two years old. As much as my mother acclimated to California and made a life for herself, she was ever a southern girl at heart and always wanted to be buried where she and her family still have ties. The ‘old place’ where my grandparents raised their family is still standing on heir property and elder members of our family are receiving compensation for the lumber the beautiful pine and oak trees produce.
As we drove, two carloads of us, from Little Rock to Union County, about a 2 ½ hour drive, there was no denying the lush beauty of the natural forest of majestic pines towering along the highway. We drove past numerous small towns with small populations and being in the Bible belt there were churches prominent along the way. I became nostalgic watching the scenery before me. There were some majestic brick homes, some large and mansion-like and then a few miles down there were modest wood houses, some cabins, some well-kept, and others quite worn and some shanty houses.
I reminisced about our summers driving to Arkansas while growing up. We would leave mid-June, as soon as school ended for the summer and make the 2-3 days road trip, going south on Highway 40 towards the dessert in Barstow, to Arizona, then New Mexico and to that long expanse of Texas. I can still hear the melodious tune of Glen Campbell singing “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” We traveled the cities he sang about. It seemed we would never get out of Texas. Once we hit Texarkana, we knew we were close and in another three or four hours we would arrive in Little Rock to Uncle Raymond’s house.
As kids, the three of us felt like we were on an adventure, playing car games and guessing how much longer we had to go before we would get to a rest stop or a city where we would spend the night. When I was elementary school age, I had no idea that while we kids were laughing, complaining and just being kids, that we were oblivious to my parents’ angst at driving down south. It wasn’t until 1963 when I was 12 years old that I realized that it was not all fun and games for them, traveling back down south to their birthplace.
That summer of 1963 while driving in Texas heading towards Dallas in our brand-new Buick, we were accosted by a big raggedy jalopy truck that pulled up next to us. The people looked like something out of the Beverly Hillbillies. Shirts off, scruffy looking clothes, hair billowing as they leaned out their raggedy car looking at us. The next thing I knew they were jeering and laughing and pointing at us.
“Why are they pointing at us?” my brother, Skipper, said.
“You guys look straight ahead and don’t look over there. I mean it. Look straight ahead”. My father frowned and drove steadily, looking straight ahead.
We did as he said. We drove a few miles and soon left those strange looking folks behind. A few hours later we arrived in Dallas and was looking for lodging for the night. I remember driving around for hours looking for a motel where we would be welcomed. My brother kept saying “We just passed by a motel. Why didn’t we stop there?” he inquired looking confused. By then, I was catching on. I saw the signs in the windows, WHITES ONLY. We finally found a roach-infested hotel in the “Colored” part of town, but we ended up sleeping in the car, all five of us.
It did not take me long after for me to realize that my parents had been shielding us from the racism we would encounter in the south. I honestly did not remember prior to 1963 when we journeyed south how I managed not to figure out that the place where we loved to go in the summers was segregated and that our navigation there in the south was limited. As it turns out before 1963 my family made use of rest stops and basically drove almost straight through to make it to Little Rock.
Now, it was a damp, humid early afternoon after one of series of storms that had hit the Southwestern states in the previous weeks of late spring into June. It was a group of about 20 family members attending the grave site services while we battled mosquitoes buzzing around us as we made plans for dinner later in the day. Leaving Huttig some of us decided to visit an Uncle who lived closer to town several miles from the highway. As my daughter drove our rental car the sun was slowly setting. Over to the right as we entered the tiny community of Elsenham, up high on a flag post hung a Confederate flag.
“Yep, you are always reminded where you are. We are in the south.” I shook my head. This is the Arkansas I know.
As someone who was born in Arkansas and raised in California yet influenced by southern-born and bred parents, the south is embedded in me in many ways. In much of the foods I eat, in the people who I associate with, and the traditions in which I was raised.
“Southern girls don’t call boys.” “A southern lady wouldn’t chew gum in public.” “You don’t wear white shoes before Easter and after Labor Day.” I heard these and other admonitions time and time again. My sister, almost four years younger than I, would retort when told these things, would roll her eyes and say, “Well it’s a good thing I’m not a southern girl since I was born right here in Oakland.”
Fast forward, a little over a week after leaving southern Arkansas, I traveled to Northwest Arkansas, known as the Ozarks for a writing residency. I was excited to go to a writing retreat in my home state and proud that I would be attending a residency in the south. So much of my writing, both fiction and nonfiction centers around the south as a setting, with characters who embody southern ways, mores and traditions.
I had informed by two of my cousins, both Arkansas-born, that my destination of Eureka Springs was one of the most liberal, progressive areas of the state. Nestled in the hilly Ozarks about an hour or so drive from the Northwest Airport in Fayetteville, I did some research and made plans for my trip.
My friends right here in the Bay Area particularly members of my writing collective, while happy for my achievement of acquiring a residency, had some reservations about me going up to the Ozarks. They equated the area with the Appalachians and the stereotypes that come with it. It was in the south, it is mostly rural with hills and parts of barren land. They made jokes with references to the movie, Deliverance recalling the men in the movie on an adventure trip exploring the great outdoors in the Georgia wilderness and encountering the madness of wild mountain men. They also teased me about alerting my loved ones my every move in case I get caught up in a Get Out moment referring to the 2017 Jordan Peele movement where Black people are under mind control in a remote town. It was funny, but not funny. I was aware I should be cognizant of my surroundings as a Black woman traveling alone to a rural southern town.
I have traveled to other southern states most often to cities with large populations and whether I traveled alone or with companions felt somewhat safe. As a woman who was southern born but raised in California I still at times was naïve and caught by surprise. Like that time about 15 years ago, when I attended a literary conference in Savannah, Georgia and while walking with some ladies to breakfast a few blocks from our hotel came upon a gift shop that bore a Confederate flag. I stopped dead in my tracks and pointed at the flag. My companions, all from southern states stopped and looked at me as if to say, “Haven’t you seen a Confederate flag before.” We laughed about it later about what a picture that presented, me standing with my mouth open pointing at the flag and they, looking at me equally bewildered at my response. I thought then, okay the south is nice to visit but I will never get used to seeing something like a Confederate flag on a regular basis.
I arrived at the Northwest Airport in Fayetteville about a week after my family trip and my first acquaintance was my driver from the airport to the Writers Colony. Eric was a middle-aged man with a graying blonde hair and a friendly manner. In our conversation I learned he had been there since the early 90s from Colorado. His father had been living there and it was an opportunity for him to move to a place that he could purchase land “on the cheap” and just enough rural to suit his tastes.
It became a source of discovery for me that very few people I met in Eureka Springs were from there, a very few were born there. I met residents who had been there 30 or 40 years. A tour guide on the tour I took, was a rarity in that he was a was a sixth generation Eureka Springs resident. This same guy said he knew a lady that came there about 10 years ago and after a few days, purchased land to build a house. I was beginning to see a trend here. What was it about Eureka Springs that drew so many outsiders?
It is a small town built on ghosts and shops that are a throwback to the 1900s. Cobblestone streets in the downtown area by the trolley station gave me a little of Dodge City from the television series, Gunsmoke. Tourism is a great part of the town of less than 3,000 population.
I used the city cab service one day and was told by the driver that he and others came to Eureka Springs in the late 1960s and 1970s to “change the town, change the pulse of the town.” He, himself was from Oregon. He had lived for a while in the San Francisco Bay Area and had followed others who migrated to Eureka Springs. There was land and opportunities aplenty and this was a place to be. So, the hippies came in the 1960s and 1970s to challenge the status quo. Others came from all over the States and beyond.
It seems the verdict is out if the “newcomers" truly changed the status quo. I met a few of the activists and those from the artist communities at the community reading held at the Writing Colony. I was delighted to meet a man who taught in the late 60s at the college I used to work at in Oakland and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley He was a vision of the older hippies one still sees in Berkeley around the University of California, home of the Free Speech Movement. His writing was a showcase of modern-day radicalism and a throwback to another time. I also met a family of writers, the gentleman taught high school English in Eureka Springs and his wife, also a teacher was herself a performance poet, who sang and performed her poetry. Their daughter, new to teaching is a slam poet. Slam Poetry in the Ozarks? In Eureka Springs. That blew me away. This young woman told me she had recently started curating monthly poet slams in local night clubs or taverns. She also said she curated poetry nights in Bentonville and Fayetteville and travels to Little Rock for slam poetry events.
That same night I met a middle-aged woman who read an erotica-type piece who is active in local activism. The man from Berkeley said she “kicks ass with her protests.”
The people there for the most part seem to be content with their lives and the spaces they occupy in this city. I don’t know how far their social activism goes and I do not know their politics. I can only surmise about a few I had the opportunity of which to speak and who were forthright about their feelings.
What I do know is that Arkansas, though it has vacillated between Democratic and Republican governors in the last 20 years, like most of the south is at present a red state. What I had come to realize, is that though I had long lumped the south into one monolith, I must admit that the social climate can be different from one region to another. There are big cities, small towns, and rural communities. On the surface Little Rock is progressive with its downtown shops and marketplace. My mother’s hometown in the most southern part of the state bordering Louisiana is small and provincial where there are still segregated proms.
Eureka Springs is unique even aside from Fayetteville and Bentonville, the bigger cities. It is an isolated enclave of contrasts. I came to Eureka because I believe I deserved to be there, and was able to embrace a piece of difference from the South I have always known.