I remember the South. I remember driving along the dirt-stained highways of Mississippi. I remember the brown signs and how everything looked drab and old, as though the entire state had been frozen in time. I remember idling down the long, dirt road to my Grandma’s house, spicy red sausages sizzling on the stove, a chocolate cake baked from scratch on the kitchen table. I remember going into town and stopping at the general store that sold Faygo sodas and stage planks. I remember the way my grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins talked, with a syrupy drawl that was almost incomprehensible.
I remember stopping at a gas station, maybe in Yazoo City or someplace nearby, and realizing that my parents and I were the only black people there. I had a sneaking suspicion that we weren’t wanted, that if we’d planned to spend the night there or move there, that life would be difficult. I couldn’t figure out why—at this point, I’d had very little experience with racism, and I didn’t know much about Mississippi’s history regarding civil rights. But I had a gut feeling about that gas station, that town, that state, that region.
I held onto these notions about the South throughout my life, even when my family moved to Navarre, a beachside town in northwestern Florida. Despite the tropical locale, this part of Florida was just a thirty-minute drive from the Alabama state line and was just as Southern as Mississippi, just with palm trees and a view of the Gulf of Mexico.
I still held onto those notions when my husband was promoted to a new position that required us to leave New York City for Bentonville, Arkansas.
I knew nothing about Arkansas, aside from the fact that Little Rock was the capital, and the state was part of the Deep South, a staunchly conservative region of the country. At the time of my move, I reached out to one of my cousins who lived in Fayetteville, a liberal college town about 30 minutes from Bentonville. I told him about my impending move, and he stressed that Fayetteville was the best place for a gay, interracial couple to live. As proof of the area’s liberalism, he sent me links to voting results from the 2016 presidential election. He also shared that his experience in Arkansas had been great, but he couldn’t guarantee my experience would be as great if I moved to a different area.
I romanticized Fayetteville, positioning it as a liberal safe haven that would ease the transition from the northeast to the South. But once we arrived to search for a house, we quickly realized that Fayetteville was just too far away from my husband’s office. Instead, we settled in a relatively new subdivision on a quiet country road in Bentonville.
There are cow pastures just outside the entrance, and there’s an open field with bales of hay behind our house. Our neighbors are all extremely friendly, save for one nosy and somewhat hostile woman who outright asked if we were together, broaching the topic of homosexuality as if it were still taboo.
At restaurants and in stores, I can see people looking at me, at us. It’s not a look of disgust or anger. I think it’s bewilderment or genuine curiosity. We are two gay men, one black and one Mexican, who have a city air about us. We talk fast, move quickly and efficiently, make reservations at local restaurants even though they’re never crowded, and we make our grocery lists in iPhone notes. We’re different. Northwest Arkansas is a predominantly white area with a rather large Indian community and a black community that’s miniscule at best. When they look at us, I know they’re assessing, but I think about Mississippi, and I wonder if this is what life would have been like if I’d ended up there.
At a recent Janet Jackson concert, the show opened with an intense montage that denounced white supremacy and police brutality against unarmed black people. As I stood there in a mostly white crowd at the Wal-Mart AMP, I couldn’t help looking around to see people’s responses. I wondered if I’d catch anyone wincing, leaving in anger, or espousing Trumpisms. But people cheered and clapped. Then they danced. We all partied under one roof to Ms. Jackson’s greatest hits.
I felt this same unity at an art exhibit titled Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of the Black Power, which took place at the Crystal Bridges Art Museum. I felt it again at a screening of Man Made, a feature documentary about trans bodybuilders, during the Bentonville Film Festival. And at a showing of Sorry to Bother You. And on a weekend trip to Eureka Springs, a historic hippie paradise an hour north of Bentonville.
Because of social media, because of the news, because of these politically charged times, I built up an expectation of the South that included confrontation, racism, homophobia, and bigotry. I wanted Arkansas to be great, but I remembered that gas station in Mississippi.
Thankfully, and surprisingly, my experience has only been pleasant. People have welcomed us with open arms. Though I see New York as one of the greatest cities on Earth, people here in Bentonville has been kinder and warmer in these last four months than anyone I encountered during my eleven years in Manhattan.
It’s not to say that Arkansas is some underrated Southern paradise for progressive liberals. Just last year, this state went all the way to the Supreme court in an effort to keep same-sex parents’ names off birth certificates. They lost. A local tattoo shop owner, a gay man, was physically assaulted in Bentonville in June. And the state is currently enforcing a law that could force two of its three abortion clinics to close. By no means is Arkansas’ track record a clean one.
But it’s also not the intolerant, racist cesspool I expected it to be. I think my experience shows that my fear was stoked in unfounded beliefs, in assumptions that became truth when they went unchallenged, in fearmongering courtesy of the evening news and my Facebook feed. By actually spending time on the ground, I’ve gained a whole new perspective—living in the South as a black, gay man isn’t all bad.
When I think about other black, gay people living in the South, in states or counties that are far more conservative, I encourage them to find the good. I’m fortunate—I’m in the most liberal section of a conservative state, and this move is ultimately temporary (two to three years at most). But even for those people who are in more conservative quarters, I encourage you to look for the good, look for the culture, look for the people who are just as kind as you are. Pay attention to your actual experience and not the one projected to you. It’s so easy to hold onto a misconception without ever learning the facts. Arkansas deserves a chance from me, and I’m willing to give it.
Lately, when I think about Mississippi, I remember syrupy drawls and chocolate cake and red sausages. But my memory of that Yazoo City gas station isn’t so clear.