I come from a long line of poor, uneducated, racist, violent, white trash. I come from a city by a river. Fort Smith was as stagnant and stale as the brown water of the Arkansas river that ran through the city. The same water that comes and swallows the city. I can see the dark streets at night, Garrison Ave, full of seedy small bars, and old empty warehouses. The plethora of chain restaurants and retail stores, churches, and banks. The hanging gallows that still stand, like a trophy, downtown. Our claim to fame. Let’s never forget the dark and dramatic history of the city that helped move Native Americans onto their small cages in Oklahoma, from their homelands.

The stifling lack of creativity and life. It is a place where the powers that be hold onto the past, and conservative ways of life that benefit white Christian men. It was a place where I couldn’t catch my breath. Where I couldn’t get ahead. Where my soul wasn’t fed. The dark and twisted history of the south, with racism, intolerance, and slavery looming like a dark cloud. The history of relying on slavery and the plantation economy. The dark history of my lineage. The pain and struggle that comes from an impoverished populace. There came a point where it was so thick, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I could feel it all; the history, the reality. So I changed. Myself, my view. Everything. I changed the river that I live next to.

Hanging gallows - Exodus Forth Smith
Hanging gallows. Fort Smith Arkansas

Exodus

I didn’t run away, per se, I ran towards something. But, I will still tell you, that I escaped. I was born and raised in Arkansas, for the first 31 years of my 33-year long life. Well, aside from a 3 month period in 2007, when I put all my belongings in a storage unit, gave up my apartment, and took some epic small vacations, which included Jamaica, St. George island off the coast of Florida, Tennessee, music festivals, and Atlanta, GA with my sister. I suffer from a chronic case of wanderlust. But I moved back. It just wasn’t my path to move away, not just yet. Arkansas and I still had some unfinished business.

I was born to a young, scared, and broken 19-year old mother, who was regularly beaten and threatened by a man a few years older. He was secretive and explosive, with tics and obsessive tendencies. He liked to put guns in people’s faces, and sell drugs, and ultimately spent 4 different prison terms. I remember seeing him threaten her and yell at her. I remember being terrified of him. I remember visiting him in a dark Arkansas prison in Cummins, Arkansas.

Cummins Unit

“Guards on horseback still watch inmates toil in the fields, harvesting rice, cotton, and corn from the rich, flat Delta land. Little seems to have changed at the Cummins Unit prison, which turns 100 years old in 2002.” This article from Melissa Nelson of the Associated Press goes on, “Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, said prisoner oversight and awareness of human rights abuses have improved drastically in the state system, which now houses 12,300 inmates. Since 1970, she has said, “there have been leaps forward.” Back then, survival depended on inner strength and the ability to keep up with work demands on the prison farm.

Cummins Unit Prison - Exodus

For those who couldn’t do the work, the punishment was harsh. “They would make you lie down on your stomach and whip you with a bull hide. I got whipped the first day I was on the hoe squad,” “Lucille Smith spent her first years of incarceration in a converted chicken coop–back when men and women were held in separate areas on the Cummins prison farm. “When we first pulled up, we thought it was a joke. It looked like an old, run-down farmhouse with a fence around it that was waist-high,” said Smith, the longest-serving female inmate in the state prison system.” (Arkansas Prison Still Shacked to Dark Past, Melissa Nelson, The Los Angeles Times, Jan 6, 2002)

Bad cycles, bad behaviors, failing behaviors.

I remember very clearly my own OCD tendencies manifesting, as my anxiety, fear, and unstable patterns took root. It was debilitating. This is the recipe for passing on bad cycles, bad behaviors, failing behaviors. Social services, welfare, and foster care?? All a part of my early childhood. Failing at school, going hungry, needing new clothes badly. Family members threatening to kill others with their shotguns in the home. Family members who openly do methamphetamine at family holiday gatherings. From a study published in 2014, Arkansas is, of course, among the top 10 states with the most meth arrests, and stats tie meth usage to nearly 70% of property crimes. Nearly 10% of Arkansas residents reported using the drug in the past month, according to a government study conducted. (Arkansas Among Top 10 States with Most Meth Arrests, Kate Jordan, Mar 5, 2014, uatrav.com)

Chickens running around inside old farmhouses. Rats and rabbits and unholy numbers of cats running around in small spaces. Old bitter women with dementia and incontinence setting in, no one caring enough, or having the slightest idea of how to tell them that they were slowly getting crazier and shitting themselves openly. Only boiled, canned foods, fried cheap cuts of meat, and packaged sugary junk. If there was any food in the house. Dirt poor. On welfare, yet still voting conservative republican, because that’s what good poor southern fold think they are supposed to be doing. Even though, rationally, it clearly doesn’t make any sense.

We moved at least 15  times during my childhood until I left my home at age 15. Screaming at each other, constantly calling names. I blame the culture in a big way. Women aren’t often valued in the south. I have known many girls and women in my life, good “God fearin’” women, who believe it is their “Godly duty” to stand behind their man. Literally. Figuratively. Where are the feminists?? It was still legal up until fairly recently to beat one’s wife with a stick in Arkansas. An oppressed feminine means an off-balance masculine. Then add the oppressive patriarchal fundamental Christianity. Add the stress of living in poverty. This is the culture you end up with. 

There are general truths of what living in Arkansas means.

It means poverty. It means conservative and oppressive politics and religion. It means Tyson chicken and Walmart. It means guns, guns, meth, addiction, domestic violence, guns, meth, opiate addiction…did I mention guns?? According to several different studies, it has the highest gun ownership in the U.S.,  behind Alaska. According to a study published in the New York Times in 2015, Montana, Alaska, and Arkansas have the highest rates for police homicide by gun violence. (States with High Gun Ownership See More Officers Killed, Nicholas Bakalar, The New York Times, Aug 13, 2015) It means often not finishing high school and rarely attaining a bachelor’s degree. It is ranked 44th for percentage of residents who attain a high school diploma and 48th out of 50 for attaining a bachelor’s degree.

It means being one of the poorest states with the least amount of opportunity in the U.S. It means modern pop-country and modern Christian music blasting from giant gas-guzzling SUV’s or enormous trucks with bumper stickers that say “Romney for President” or “These colors don’t run,” or “If you don’t stand behind my guns you can gladly stand in front of them.” It means too often having a story that mirrors my own. And it isn’t fair to have to be born fighting like hell to just to have a sliver of a chance.

It means hearing racial slurs regularly. Keep in mind, this is the state in which former President Dwight Eisenhower had to intervene to assist in getting 9 African American students to be able to just attend a high school in Little Rock in 1957 after schools were desegregated by law. This is also the state that has a billboard standing paid for by the KKK, in the city of Harrison, AR ( http://wgntv.com/2015/01/03/new-kkk-billboard-in-arkansas-causes-stir-says-its-not-racist/)

According to an article from the Washington Post from 2012, “Arkansas has never elected an African-American to the governorship, a state constitutional office or Congress. In 2013, the state will finally have its first black speaker of the house in the legislature. In the impoverished Delta area, mostly black students attend public schools. White students attend private schools. No one addresses this issue. It’s just the way it has been done for years.

Funeral homes are still segregated in large areas of the South. Blacks are buried by black-owned funeral homes, whites by white-owned ones. The Ku Klux Klan’s The Knights Party calls Harrison, Ark., home. On Labor Day weekend, the National Klan Congress will hold a leadership conference in Harrison. People will deny it, but racism runs deep in Arkansas.

In 2008, white people I have known my entire life confessed to me that they would not vote for Obama because of his race. They won’t go on record. They will say otherwise in public. But in a comfortable environment over iced tea when they forget I’m a reporter, they will say this in rural Arkansas – and much of this state would be considered the country.”

In Arkansas, Racism Cuts Against Obama, Suzi Parker May 25, 2012

It means living next door to people who fear and hate those of the Muslim faith, and believe all hype. Today, 45 states and D.C have laws against hate crimes, only Arkansas, Wyoming, South Carolina, Georgia, and Indiana do not. We see where their priorities lay. It means Fox news. It means Rush Limbaugh.

It means often hearing that gays go to hell. It means violence against women and children at an alarming rate. In 2012, it was ranked 17th in the nation for female deaths caused by domestic male violence. Number 6 in the U.S. where domestic violence occurs most often.

It should mean a mass departure

It means an even larger gender pay gap between men and women than in less impoverished states. 1/3 of all Arkansans are obese, 1/4 of all adults are smokers. It is ranked 43rd in the U.S. for those who exercise regularly. It is also one of the few states with legislation for banning abortion if Roe V. Wade is ever overturned.

Every woman who came before me was abused or oppressed, and in turn, mean, cold, and unsupportive of their children, physically abusive to their children as well. We spent most of our childhood being raised by our grandparents. When we did spend time with our young mother and stepfather, it was too often being carted around with them to hospitals and doctor’s offices, so they could fake illness and injury and get yet another prescription for narcotic opiates, to fuel their addiction. Addiction, which is extremely common in Arkansas, and absolutely ruins people’s lives. “Mom, I do not want to go to the emergency room with you guys again, its 4 am, and I am in 5th grade, and I have school tomorrow.”

Why am I not like my ancestors, my elders?

I was cut from a different cloth, without the same texture or feel. Without the same soulful esoteric origins. My soul was born of the wind. I am large and powerful. I can alter the karma of my lineage. But the first step was to leave. It was to be able to say, this isn’t what I want, and I am willing to work to make the change in my life of what I do want.

I hope, that when I say or type these lines, that the people receiving it don’t just see me as the child of broken white trash or sick criminals, because I am a child of the earth, the sand, the sky.  I am on a journey that has no beginning and no end, and I am laying my roots everywhere, constantly. Yet, we will always be tied to our origin story. The power of spoken word and storytelling will wipe clean the sins of my ancestors. If we keep telling these stories, perhaps the dark cloud over Arkansas can too, one day, pass over.

Heather Day-Melgar

Sometimes I can see my ancestors in my face. My mouth, my eyes…I can see my mother in my face often…when she was young and beautiful and had the world in front of her before she ruined her life and body with opiates. Little pieces of other people….my genetic mashup. Since they cannot and will not carry themselves forward, with beautiful stories, and a legacy, I will do it for them.

Now I live next to a different river.

Portland Oregon

Yes, I come from a long line of poor white trash, but now after my exodus, I live next to a different river. It moves swiftly and carries with it hope, optimism, the youthful energy of a younger society, a brave place that doesn’t carry the weight of plantation slavery and violent intolerance with it. Where it is commonplace to see same-sex couples walking hand in hand in public, no fear of being stared down or the victim of a hate crime. Where the people aren’t voting Republican just because of that candidate’s good “Godly values.” Where marijuana is legal because it is just a plant, an herb. Where art is the way of life and chasing one’s dreams is supported.

It is the least religious metro area in the United States. Feminism, do it yourself, sex-positive kink scene,. Wonderful public transportation. No, Oregon is not perfect, but it has never and will never have some of the struggles that my former home endures. I feel the lightness of its optimism and future. I live in a place where my car will never again be vandalized because of my peace and justice promoting bumper stickers. I will never have to see my children go to a school where the “rebels” are their mascot, and a racist song called Dixie is the school song.

Escape or not

I do have hope for Arkansas, only because I have hope in our future generations, I do, but it’s hard to.  It’s incredibly difficult, after seeing how other, more progressive area lives and function, to have a lot of positive feelings for the southern U.S. I have hope in the beautiful people that I know and love. I have hope in the spirit of the Ozarks, the lineage of the medicine women, the midwives, the storytellers.

Amazing musicians and artists. The grassroots organizers. The ones fighting the good fight. But those are the few. Some will always stay, despite the mainstream culture they don’t belong to and try to make a change. I applaud you. You have a different path than my own. Neither one is better or worse than the other. But I was much too large for the confines of Fort Smith, AR. This place opened my family with open arms like it had been waiting for me to get here.

I don’t have all the answers. I am not even looking for that. This is my proclamation. This is my new chapter. This is my soul exodus.

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