Urban and Rural America Are Connected by Economic Refugees Like Me

Urban and Rural America Are Connected by Economic Refugees Like Me

Urban and Rural America Are Connected by Economic Refugees Like Me

I watched election 2016 from Brooklyn, but I grew up a black girl in a small town.


In the aftermath of this election, there has been a flurry of finger-pointing and hand-wringing by progressive folks trying to make sense of the result. One common narrative is that “we” urban liberals in blue enclaves live in a bubble and have no idea what “they,” the struggling working class of Middle America, are facing. It’s the idea of the Big Sort. America is getting increasingly divided as we self-segregate into ideologically polarized regions. You could easily place me in the urban, coastal, progressive bucket. I am one of the millions of small-town kids from the middle of the country who have settled on a coastal blue island. I live in New York and my career has taken me through three bastions of liberalism: academia, labor unions, and nonprofits. I’m an ardent Black Lives Matter activist. My story doesn’t fit neatly into this of idea of “we” and “they,” however, and it challenges a narrative that can cause us to write off communities that can be organized.

I grew up in Tamms, a tiny Illinois town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Front Street, the old main drag, now has just one tiny post office amid a cluster of buildings that have been abandoned for decades. The per capita income is $10,333. My stepfather moved us there from a Washington, DC, suburb in 1993 after military downsizing forced him to leave. With a new family and small parting stipend from the US Army, he was looking for a family-friendly place where he could stretch a dollar. Both he and my mom had roots in Illinois. He had fond memories of spending childhood summers in his grandparents’ quaint rural town. Days there were spent ripping and running with cousins through the countryside and nights lying awake and listening to the sounds of train whistles and cicadas—a welcome escape from the harshness of his home in inner-city Chicago in the 1960s.

When we moved there, though, the town was already years into decline. A civil-rights uprising in 1967 and the ensuing white flight from the county seat of Cairo accelerated an economic descent that began with railroads replacing the river industries in the 1930s. Tomes could be written about Cairo—a Midwestern town that is actually further south than Richmond, Virginia—its violent civil-rights history and ensuing decline. But I grew up in nearby Tamms. We arrived at a particularly difficult time. Most of the region was underwater, having been recently battered by the Great Flood of 1993. My stepdad eventually found work at a Procter & Gamble factory assembling diapers and mom found work successively at the local laundromat, as a home care worker, and as a teacher’s aide. We went from the working poor to the middle class.

The new hope for the town’s economic turnaround in my youth came from President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. Hoping to get some of the funding from the bill’s heavy investment in prisons, Tamms entered a bid to be the site of a new maximum-security prison. “Home of the First Super Max” was added to “A Good Place to Live” on the sign that welcomed people into Tamms. Residents were promised jobs, state funding, and an increased flow of people coming in and out for work. When the bid came through, not one local person was trained or hired and the town’s residents saw no revenue. Just an increase in their utility bills. The prison was off the highway so there was no need for workers to stop in the town and most prisoners held there had long been abandoned by their families and got no visitors. An extended campaign in Chicago against human-rights violations and death-penalty executions at the supermax shut the prison down in 2013.

Growing up in Tamms, I wanted nothing more than to leave. In 2000, I went away to college in Champaign, Illinois, followed by graduate school in San Diego, and finally settled in Brooklyn. If you’d asked me back in the spring of this year, I might have agreed with the idea that people self-segregate into cultural and political identities by geography. I believed that until my mom fell ill and I had to go home for the first time in five years.

I got a call at 2 am from my brother. My mom had to be rushed to the emergency room; he’d found her on the floor catatonic. I needed to go home. I fell back into my old home-going routine, preparing myself to walk that fine line between hometown hero and class turncoat. I practiced saying yes ma’am, no sir, and God bless you. I made extra effort to stop cursing. I was careful to pick out clothes that were nice but not too flashy. I’d need an outfit for church but my judgment of what was appropriate was long gone. My routine could easily support an argument for the Big Sort.

Once at home, I learned her prognosis wasn’t good. If she survived, she might face brain damage and severe physical impairment. She might need home care. My brain raced. She didn’t have great health insurance. I couldn’t put her on mine. I realized I might need to go home often. I might even need to move home. I wondered where I would find work. I wondered where I would live. There wasn’t room in the house and there were no properties for rent.

My mother was in a medically induced coma for first few days but her prognosis started looking better. It turned out to be meningitis and that with heavy doses of antibiotics she’d recover. To keep occupied between visiting hours, I looked through my Facebook friends list to see whom I could reconnect with. Classmate after classmate had left just like me—first for school then even further afield to find work: Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Miami.

When I talk about “my hometown,” I’m actually referring to a collection of about eight small towns with populations under 1,000 that all went to the same school: Tamms, Olive Branch, Elco, Hodges Park, Sandusky, Unity, and Thebes. Most of these town are pretty racially homogenous, Tamms being the only one that really had both black and white residents. I filtered my Facebook friends by my high school to see what my old classmates were up to. It was pretty clear to see from my newsfeed who was able to make a life here and who had to leave.

The farmers’ sons and daughters stayed; so did children of local shop owners. Though there are plenty of struggling white folks (some parts of the movie Winter’s Bone look familiar to me), the local economy runs in kinship networks and folks look out for their own. The kids who became our local elected officials were all white. They shared idyllic photos of their family in cornfields and daughters in local beauty pageants. The black girls were largely all far from home now, posting about trying to get back for a birthday or church event but noting they probably wouldn’t be able to because they couldnt get the time off of work. The black boys—the ones who were alive and not in jail—were mostly still back home, talking about trying to stay on their grind and turn their situation around.

I got off of Facebook and decided to walk through the town with my little brother. I asked him: Are the streets emptier than when we were kids? Are there more abandoned houses than I remember? It seems like there are folks struggling with addiction, has the meth problem gotten bad? The local park is pretty empty for a weekend, where are the kids? He told me that they’ve cut back on a lot of youth programming at our church because their aren’t many kids there any more—folks my age mostly having moved away and not added a new generation to the congregation.

I don’t think people in cities understand how bleak rural poverty can be. One difference between the urban poverty I see in my gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood and what I experienced back home is that kids regularly see people who are richer than them. It might invoke in them anger or insecurity, but they can see people living the lives they dream of. In rural America, it can be hard to imagine anything different than what you grow up with. The lack of hope hangs like a cloud over the town. “I just need to get away from here” is a refrain I grew up with and still regularly see on my news feeds. I always knew I’d need to leave home to build a life for myself. I didn’t question it.

Walking through my hometown, it was clear. Though we may adopt the worldviews of our new homes, we aren’t moving to cities and coasts because we are bohemians looking for like-minded people or better cultural fit. We move to cities because that’s where jobs are—where we can build lives and support our families from afar. We are economic refugees, fleeing the bleakness of our birthplaces brought by years of economic policies and practices that have devastated our communities. I followed a path that millions of people of all ethnicities have tread for almost a century, following the opportunities promised on the radio, in the movies, on TV, and now online. Leaving in our wake shrinking towns populated with only children and the elderly—an entire generation vanished. Making blue counties bluer and red counties redder.

I remembered how painful that geographic, economic, and cultural transition was for me. Only seeing my family one time per year because that was how often as I could afford could get home. Arriving at college with the $100 my parents gave me (the last bit of financial assistance I ever got from them). How that $100 wasn’t enough to cover even one of my books. Feeling out of place both with the black kids from Chicago and the white kids from downstate.

I remember the shame and stigma I encountered for being from rural America. I learned terms like “backwater,” “flyover state,” and “bumblefuck”. Eventually, I started saying them too to distance myself from my supposedly backward origins. I worked to shake the stigma by becoming more cosmopolitan. I started to travel and I learned other languages, but the shame is still there. I feel it when I hear a grad-school friend doing a postdoc in some small town talk about it like it’s hell on earth. Or when I get a backhanded compliments like “I can’t believe you’re from a small town, you seem so sophisticated.” I know I’m not the only one either. A fellow union organizer from a small town near mine immediately took me under her wing when I came on staff. I’ve found a kinship with small-town kids in big cities. I find joy in comparing graduation sizes and trading stories of our small towns’ quirks—like the fact that hunting season was an excused absence at my school—as our city friends listen in, bewildered.

But the greatest pain is how I grew apart from my family. I remember the guilt I felt at my brother’s graduation when it hit me that I missed his whole childhood. He was 7 when I left, and I’d only been home a handful of times after moving away to college. I joke now that it took me longer to get home from graduate school in San Diego than it took me to get to China. I would fly to Chicago because I couldn’t afford to rent a car to drive down from St. Louis and there was no public transportation to Tamms. I’d need to crash on a friend’s couch because I usually missed the train down south. I’d take the six-hour train ride to Carbondale and wait overnight there for my mom to pick me up. The ride up from Tamms was 40 miles on a dark highway with no streetlights. There were deer, and my mom couldn’t risk hitting one and losing her transportation.

After a while, I just stopped going back. Conversations became strained. I grew closer to folks really different from the ones I grew up with—atheists and immigrants and queer folks. I learned the world wasn’t just black and white. That there were even many types of black folks from something called the African diaspora. And some of these folks became my new family—united by proximity and ideals, instead of blood.

My mother, thankfully, made a full recovery after weeks in the hospital; however, the fear evoked by going back home and by Mom’s illness stayed with me. I faced the realization that my home in New York was as much the result of economic forces as of personal choice, and that, however much I wanted to be close to my mom, an entire economic system stands between us.

My story of being at once black and a woman who made the journey from rural to urban, conservative-leaning to left-leaning, and working class to middle class gives me a unique perspective on this historical moment. I feel like I have work to do. To fight back against the idea that the rural working class and the urban progressive are mutually exclusive sets and that both are white and male. To help folks in cities understand the reality of my folks back home. To share stories with family of how their fates are connected to those of my immigrant and Muslim chosen family here. To find ways to fight the despair and hopelessness in both places and build bonds between the disaffected in Tamms and the hopeless on my block in Bed-Stuy who’ve both been abandoned by our political and economic systems.

One of my coworkers often says that in our advocacy work, we center people of color not as a feel-good or moral thing to do but because we arrive at fundamentally different solutions to our social problems when we do. When we ascribe the story of dying towns and lack of opportunity only to the white working class, it confuses the problem. To think that progressives in cities are only out-of-touch liberal elites will lead us to the wrong solutions.

I’m less interested in reaching and changing the minds of Trump voters. When I look at my old classmates who voted for him, they aren’t the folks suffering in my community. They are folks who have some version of the American dream: They have stable jobs, own homes, and take yearly vacations. They see the people in my town, both black and white, who are truly struggling as takers, abusing the system and living off the middle class’s taxes. When nearly 46 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote, Hillary winning the popular vote and Trump winning with fewer votes than Romney when he lost, I think we’re better served focusing our attention elsewhere.

It’s important to remember that Trump didn’t win people earning less than $50,000 a year, most of whom voted for Hillary. But I can’t really claim that Hillary won the poor and working class. Many of the 46 percent of folks who didn’t vote in this election are people like those in my hometown. There are people all across this country who don’t vote at all because because they rightfully don’t see how it will make a difference in their lives. I want to reach folks like my brother who desperately want to work but have no real options. I want to reach the folks who have dreams—to be an artist, a musician, a judge, an entrepreneur—that seem unachievable because there are no models and no pathways.

I’m not sure what the next steps are, but I know they will require addressing the lack of opportunity in communities like the one I came from. I call on the small-town kids in big cities across the country to join me in figuring this out. It won’t be easy. There were real economic and personal barriers to getting home, and we have challenges like media deserts and Facebook algorithms that prevent us from sharing our realities from afar. Still, we must try reconnect with and advocate for our hometowns in whatever ways we can. The time is now.

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