from sky to seed

After dark in a (former) sundown town

This isn’t the same sign that stood on the edge of Seneca, Missouri, but it echoes a sentiment that persisted publicly in the city until 1968.

When Jon and I set out for the tractor pull in Seneca, Missouri, I was already writing the post for this blog entry in my head.  I’d never been to a tractor pull before, but it’s a living part of the cultural legacy of the Ozarks.  Jon even participated in them when he was a kid.  I imagined a cozy small-town gathering not unlike something from the small town of my youth, I imagined greasy cheeseburgers and sitting in the bed of a pick-up, cheering on souped-up John Deere tractors.

We’d had a beautiful day together, Jon and me.  Kayaked fifteen miles of Indian Creek, which is flanked on both sides by bluffs draped in ivy and columbine, and the arching branches of walnuts and oaks make green tunnels to pass under.  Trout as fat as my arms flickered past my paddle.  We laughed, a lot.  I felt grateful for my life.  I felt incredibly lucky.

We made it back to shore just after sundown, went home to shower, and headed over to Seneca for the tractor pull.  I’d never been that way before.  We took the highway that cut through the family farm where he and three earlier generations were raised, and then the road dipped into rolling hills and spilled us into Seneca.  I could tell as soon as houses started to appear that it would have the kind of charm I love in a small town.  The main business district had maintained its original storefronts.  There were no chains, no Walmarts.  The lovely old houses, screened porched and pillared, stood dignified under the trees.

“It’s so beautiful!” I cried.

“You’ve never been here before?” Jon asked.  And then, “No, I guess you wouldn’t.”

“Why?”

“It’s a rough old town,” he said slowly.  “Not the kind of place you might want to come.”  And then he explained that during his childhood, there’d been a sign at the city limits that read:

“Nigger Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Back In Seneca, Missouri.”

It’s not there anymore, but the instant Jon told me that, the town didn’t seem so charming and sweet to me.  The phrase thumped in my mind as we pulled into the field hosting the tractor pull.  I tried not to dwell on the all too obvious fact that I was the only non-white there.  I felt both grateful and resentful of the fact that I should feel grateful to have worn the standard country uniform of a t-shirt and jeans.  Arguably, I’d done everything I could to “fit in” with everyone else.  But it still seemed that I could feel sideways glances from people as we passed, and conversation fell away as Jon and I took a seat in the bleachers.

“Nigger Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Back In Seneca, Missouri” kept going through my head.  I wondered how many people right there at the tractor pull, aside from Jon, could remember that sign.  Wondered how many people, if any, still supported its sentiments.

Participating in race discussions makes me uncomfortable because I don’t fit the racial stereotypes of people who traditionally engage in those talks.  Born in the Philippines, adopted by whites, and given American citizenship thanks to my cool new American parents.  I hit the good fortune jackpot, and I’m grateful.  I went started and ended my K-12 education with all the same kids in a class of less than 100.  I went to Northwestern, and then I went to Oregon State, and then I got my Masters at Minnesota.  To be honest, racist hits to my ego have been pretty minimal during the course of my life.  I was the “victim” of a few “yellow fever” guys in college, and I remember the occasional douchebag in high school asking me (the one token minority in the entire school) if my Asian vagina was slanted, but the fact that I excelled in school and participated in all the ordinary teenage things kept me at bay.

The only one person to make constant references to my race was my very best friend.  From preschool through college, she made a point to remind me of my Asian hair and Asian skin and encouraged me to revert back to a traditional Asian diet and introduced and referred to me as her Asian friend.  We’re not friends anymore.

I lump up my share of racist bullying with the general bullying that most kids endure, I think.  There were plenty of other kids who were teased for being fat or stupid or ugly or poor.  I’m not equating that with racism, but hurt is hurt, and I think my peers and I all felt it equally at one point or another.

But I do notice racism in Missouri, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Neosho, where Jon and I live, was once the seat of the confederacy.

Old news, dead news, that’s what I should be saying.  And most of the time, I can operate on that level.  I think that people are generally good, and generally open-minded. Most of the people I meet on a daily basis are very kind or, at least, neutrally kind.  The rest are grouches, but every town has its share of curmudgeons.

But I’ve also heard people complaining about the increasing number of blacks and Mexicans moving in.  There’s a yellow wild flower with a black center commonly called “nigger toe” here.  The convenience store near my post office flies the rebel flag at their main entrance.  People have complained that our local farmer’s market has too many immigrants.  Perfectly nice strangers have told me that I’m really pretty (aw, thanks) and exotic-looking (thank you) and they love my “Chinky eyes” (thank you?) and want to know where I’m from (um, Oregon?).

This is the result of a lot aspects of culture and history that I don’t feel like explaining.  It’s part ignorance and part (mis)education and part lack of exposure.  I have compassion for that.  I get it.  This is the Ozarks and that’s part of the package.  It just happens to be a little more convenient if you’re white.  There are plenty of places around the world where it’s not convenient to be white.  So I get it.

But I do live here, and I’m not white.

So how do you respond to these comments?  What are you supposed to say?  You can’t get up on your soapbox every day.  That’s too exhausting.

Instead I do what I’ve always done, which is to be what I am, hoping that it’s enough to simply show that race and skin do not define me.  That what makes me different from them has less to do with pigment and everything to do with the standard varieties of uniqueness (hobbies, interests, education) typical to every individual person.

It would be easier to wear a public sign that simply describes my attributes: “Good cook! Avid reader! Writer and photographer! Dog-lover! Lives with and loves Jon W!”  On the best of days, I like to believe that those attributes shine clear without the need for a sign.

But that night at the tractor pull, I couldn’t help but feel that the only sign anyone could see on me said this: “Brown!”

Seneca, Missouri is a beautiful town, and tractor pulls are fun, but I don’t know that I’ll be going back to either any time soon.

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