Arkansas Pillow

There are those who seem to have boundless confidence in the greatness of their home states. Such people usually come from Texas or California. The unhesitating state pride strikes me as unearned in one of those cases, but I’m too polite to get specific.

I come from Arkansas, which inspires more complicated feelings, especially in those of us who moved away. It’s the kind of place you love with caveats and a chip on the shoulder.

The latter develops as a result of the state’s reputation—or lack of one. Arkansas ranks up there with Delaware and Greenland when it comes to destinations about which most outsiders know virtually nothing. I lost count long ago of how many times I’ve been asked where, exactly, Arkansas is. (Next to Kansas, maybe? No.)

The rest of the country’s inattention breeds, among we Arkansas folk, resentment and paranoid theories, such as my mom’s belief that the meteorologists on the Weather Channel flat-out refuse to talk about Arkansas, even when a storm system is clearly headed that way on the digital map behind the guy giving the forecast. To be fair, it’s possible that he doesn’t know where the state is, either.

Actually, I shouldn’t say that non-Arkansans know nothing about the state. Some know precisely one thing. Here are the possibilities for the one thing they may know:

  1. Bill Clinton is from there.
  2. Little Rock is the capital.
  3. Walmart is based there.

That’s two problematic entities sandwiching a 4th-grade geography quiz answer—none of them exactly conversational gold, but hey, at least the statements are all true.

Non-Arkansans who deploy one of the three facts usually try to remain neutral, but not always. Back when I lived in Chicago, I was playing the game Catch Phrase at some party when a teammate unfamiliar with my background tried to get us to say the word “Arkansas” by giving us these clues:

“Hick state! Bill Clinton is from it!”

Which brings us to our reputation for redneckery—the only aspect of Arkansas’s P.R. profile that rivals the state’s perceived inconsequentiality in the minds of outsiders. As often as it prompts blank stares, my point of origin is likely to elicit expressions of sympathy or ribbing on the subjects of banjo strumming and cousin humping.

These jokes are rude, unimaginative, and classist. But I can see where they come from. Compared with other places in the U.S., Arkansas ranks near the bottom in studies measuring health care (#49 out of 50 states), education (#42), economic conditions (#43), infrastructure (#47), and dental hygiene (#51 out of 50—I kid you not).

What’s more, Arkansas deserves nothing but scorn for its vile history of slavery and racial bigotry—the state’s one, disgraceful cameo in textbooks concerns attempts by white supremacists (in mobs as well as elected office) to block nine black children from integrating a high school. I am happy to join you in deriding Arkansan racists, homophobes, Christian fundamentalists, and gun nuts. While we’re at it, let’s also make fun of the fertile Duggars of Tontitown or anyone who uses “might could” in a sentence.

When I grew up in the northwest corner of the state in the 1980s and ‘90s, my family was under the sway of an oppressively—and, it seemed to me, obsessively—antigay Southern Baptist caliphate. Being a boy with secret crushes on other boys was about as fun in that milieu as you’re probably imagining.

But there are other things I can’t forget. My mother’s coconut cream pie. My Granny Jewel’s garden with the irises that “come up volunteer,” whatever that means. The gently rolling, extravagantly green foothills of the Ozarks. The seeds-on-rocky-ground cultural efforts of piano instructors, community theater directors, English teachers, and other assorted Marian-the-Librarian types. The back roads that are pitch-black at midnight, save for the passing high beams—searchlights, really—of cars driven around with no purpose by teenagers waiting for something to happen.

Not to mention those boys I had crushes on. If there’s one moment that sums me up, it has to be the one where I’m lying, age 10, next to tall, lispy Jonathan R. on that huge, death-trap trampoline in our backyard while my frightened heart pounds amid the summer heat and humidity and buzzing bugs.

What I’m saying is that Arkansas formed me even as it scarred me. In other words, it’s home.

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