Nineteen years ago this month, I moved to Arkansas. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time–I thought I was visiting for a couple of months while my boyfriend and I figured out our next move. If you had told me there wasn’t going to be a next move for at least the next two decades, I probably would’ve been on the next plane back to Mexico, or Canada–really, anywhere but here.
When we moved our bags out of his parent’s spare room, and into a Little Rock apartment with a one-year lease, it was still a temporary layover. During one of many late night gatherings there, an older guest (younger than I am now), asked how I was liking Arkansas, and I, being an ugly Canadian abroad, answered her honestly.
She made that sad-eyed smile that Southern women are so very good at. “Well, I’m from here, and I love it, so that makes me sad. I hope we’ll change your mind.”
Doubtful, I thought, pitying her for having obviously not seen anything of the world.
Five years later, sitting in a tourist-filled cafe on the coast of Maine, that exchange came back to mind, when a big sun-burned man in Bermuda shorts ambled over and asked where I was from.
“Canada, but I live in Arkansas now.”
He wrinkled his red nose, threw back his head, and brayed. “WHY?”
I think that was the first time I ever used the word Yankee with a modifier in front of it. I wanted to kick his ass.
Both those conversations have come back to me today, as the “religious freedom” legislation that was passed by our state legislature makes headlines around the world, and people wonder WHY anyone would want to live in a place like Arkansas.
I’m from here now, and I love this place. It makes me so damn sad and angry.
Since that day in Maine, I’ve been on a mission to change people’s minds about our state. I’ve happily used any influence and platform I have to shine light on the natural beauty of our land, the fascinating and talented people who live here, and the diversity of voices and values that isn’t reflected by headline news. That task has gotten a lot easier in recent years. When people ask where I’m from, the response is almost always positive and curious: “I’ve heard cool things about Little Rock,” or “It looks beautiful there.”
It is. There’s just some ugly things happening right now. As misbegotten as this particular bill is, it’s not even the craziest thing to come out of the current legislature. I’m afraid you’re going to see a lot of negative headlines coming out of Arkansas over the next few years, that will make you ask, WHY? And though it’s gotten a whole lot harder, I’ll still be on a mission to show you the Arkansas I love, and I’ll still be itching to kick the ass of anyone who writes it off as backwards place. Right after I kick the asses of all the people who are giving them ample reason to think so.
Update: As I wrap this up, it’s been announced that Governor Hutchinson has asked for HB1228 to be amended before he will sign it into law.