Many of us feel conflicted about the places where we grew up. For me, I grapple with this question: How do I go on loving a place with a troubled racial past?
The bright-green tobacco plants of Southern Kentucky soar like towers and block out the sun in high summer. At least that’s how I remember them when I was a scrawny kid walking the crop rows on my grandfather’s farm outside my hometown of Bowling Green, Ky.
The nectar on the plants’ broad, fragrant leaves stuck to my moist skin as I passed by, adding insult to the injury of those hazy, hot and humid afternoons.
At some point during summer, they’d sprout dazzling pinkish blossoms at the top. I learned as an adult that tobacco flowers make for a gorgeous addition to luxury fragrances.
To us, they were merely a nuisance standing in the way of this cash crop’s development. We hacked them off with hatchets and thought nothing of them.
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My mother’s father put his grown children and their children to work tending that crop, paying us a farm-hand’s wage of about $3.50 an hour for our labor.
You see, you didn’t hang out on my grandad’s farm, or sleep in his house, without offering something, usually your labor, in return.
I’m going back home — physically — this Christmas. But the truth is that I brought home with me — in spirit — when I settled here in 1995.
The place that molded me then shapes me now.
I have no interest in owning a farm but I hold those memories of earning money in the fields, and of my grandparents’ push for self-determination, close to my heart.
I have no interest in steeping myself in the moral codes of the Baptist church the way I did when I was a kid, but I keep Big Mama’s Bible, given to her by loved ones 50 years ago and passed down to me when I was 8, because it connects me to the moral support of the faith community that surrounded her and that she nurtured right back.
My sense of righteousness wasn’t born in this liberal city’s echo chambers. It was born in those welcoming Southern pews, in the hot tobacco field of a grandparent who owned land in a region that did its best to keep black people from controlling anything, at the side of my elders as I listened to their stories, in my childhood-era bedroom where I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” for the first time.
Kentucky is simply “Red State America” to many of you. It is that to me too, but more important, it’s home. It harbors my family and my heritage, the same heritage, I should point out, that prompts some folks there to go around waving Confederate flags as if the South had won the Civil War.
I’ve often gone to battle emotionally and intellectually with all of that, but it has also meant being in conflict with an essential part of myself.
How do I go on loving a place with a troubled racial past, a place where my people were often kept from being everything they wanted to be?
If I had the answer, I wouldn’t have felt a certain heaviness as I crossed the Barren River into town on previous visits.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand about my life in Seattle, though: It was because the people in my community endured so many generations of struggle and denial there that I carry a deep curiosity and empathy for members of my adoptive community who have struggled and been denied here.
Seattle, like the West Coast generally, represents a special place in the American story. Yes, many of us migrated here for job opportunities and natural beauty, but this city’s allure isn’t all about business and pretty vistas.
We were a sanctuary city decades before that word was coined and politicized. Like me, a lot of you came here not just to realize career ambitions but to realize yourselves, far from the places that made you and, perhaps, constricted you. Far from poor and conflict-weary countries. Far from social conventions that keep you from loving who you choose to love. Far from regions, like mine in the South, that claim to honor their troubled past while too often cloaking themselves in benign myths about it.
The people who raised me were not necessarily the marching kind. I don’t fault them for that. When you have bills that haven’t been paid and kids you don’t want going hungry, you may not think you can afford to wait until “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” as Martin Luther King Jr phrased it.
In the case of my parents and the whole community that brought me up in Bowling Green, I wonder whether they felt the need to hold up picket signs to tell the world that they were valuable, that their community was viable.
After all, they could show the world — me. And all of the other African-American kids I grew up around who went off to pursue big things. And all of the kids who stayed right there at home to keep the spirit of family and community intact.
Though they must have been inspired by the great civil-rights leader, my parents never spoke to me about King’s dreams.
They wanted me to indulge my own.
“You can do anything you want in life if you put your mind to it,” my dad always told me.
I still feel weighed down by the prospect of revisiting the harsher historical realities and conventions of Bowling Green.
But I’ve chosen to seek peace with all of that, by accepting that I am not the enemy of where I came from, but rather the fulfillment of the hopes of the people who dared to send me into the world.
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