This post evolved from a simple comparison of my geographical past. It grew to encompass parts of me and as such, is very personal. If you will pardon my generalizations and laziness toward exact writing, you might find something interesting.
I didn’t come to Springdale until the early 70s. My dad dragged our recently reconstituted family up here for the promise of a steady job, away from the geography which took the blame for so much of my dad’s heartache. His time in prison in Indiana and his involvement in the death of one of my cousins (unrelated to prison) had broken him of some of his desperate need to remain in his hometown. My dad had a brother here, my Uncle Buck, as well as a few cousins. Our move was prior to the miracle of the interstate reaching its tentacles up to Northwest Arkansas, so all trips to NWA were long, winding escapades. It seemed like we drove for days to reach the mountains of Springdale. I didn’t understand what a ‘hillbilly’ was. All I knew were the fields of Monroe County and the places my grandma and grandpa called home. Being with my dad was the last thing on my wish list.
Years take on a different meaning when I stop to consider that soon enough I will be exactly halfway between 1970 and 2070. Springdale and I both have changed immeasurably since I was young. The area of the Delta from which I came has continued a generally languid, shuffled march toward annihilation while NWA has become a beacon for commerce and lifestyle. It was sheer luck that my dad’s terrible fortune planted my feet here. And while the Delta was once the powerhouse of agriculture but found no clear footing to advance, Springdale and surrounding areas used agriculture as a springboard from which to dive into a diversified future. So many of us here live in houses situated on plots once adorned with grapes, apples, strawberries and all manner of other foods.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that the interstate running through Brinkley wasn’t always there, a fact which should have been immediately obvious. In Brinkley’s case, though, the interstate seems to have provided a convenient escape for the younger generation, as they ventured out and realized that the state had more to offer in other places. In Arkansas’ early history, roads were intensely local, often built to connect small town agricultural markets. For the affluent parts of the state, the interstate gave people and commerce alike the way to merge interests. While lifelong residents of Brinkley might wish to disagree, it is obvious that good roads shone a beacon toward better opportunities in other parts of the state. Brinkley could have been one of the jewels of this state, given its location. Even as I sometimes forget that I once loved the flatlands there, I will admit to its austere beauty.
I also forget that many parts of my early life are inexplicably entwined with those people who I deeply loved and those who were violent caricatures of real people. Geography mixes in my head and sometimes paints an unfair picture of those places, simply because the people walking across my stage were broken people. As we all do, I carry pieces of these broken people in my head, as such slivers are difficult to excise. I can hold the image of standing near a rice field near Brinkley, up to my ankles in mud, laughing; I can also imagine walking alongside a pungent Tontitown grape vine in August, my fingers cleverly stealing unwashed grapes and eating them like candies. I’m not sure which place or memory is more valid, but I do know that being surrounded by people with love in their hearts can make any geography welcoming, while immersion in the minds of lesser people will reduce the world’s brilliance regardless of where one’s feet might be. It’s how City View might have been a place of low resort for many, and a welcome mat for others.
Because of the reduced crucible I survived as a kid, on the one hand, there was so much about this town which remained unknown to me. My life was incredibly small. I could sense that it was an interesting place, though. My family moved over twenty times by the time I had reached adulthood. So many places around Springdale became familiar to me. In many ways, I feel as if this was advantageous to me, giving me a different perspective than someone who was lucky enough to remain fairly rooted in the same place growing up. In my family’s case, our ongoing moves concealed the array of abuse and violence camouflaged inside each respective new residence.
When I was in 2nd grade, I remember asking Mom what it was like attending school with black children in Monroe County. She looked at me like I had been hit with a shovel and said, “I didn’t. We were segregated.” (It was probably a lucky thing for them, though.) I wondered why Springdale was segregated, too, given that there were no black kids in class with me. How was I supposed to know that there were so few minorities living here? I was so naive. Even trying to understand that one of schoolyard buddies Danny was actually from Chile was beyond my comprehension. That’s how reduced my life was without education. Had I been born 100 years ago and remained in Monroe County, I could easily see myself in the role of unapologetic racist. My family would have raised me to believe that it was a certainty.
It’s funny now, my ignorance. In my early youth, I had never heard the word “segregated” except as a muttered curse. For most of the whites in the Delta, segregation was a word equated with government distrust. When I started learning history, it astonished me that there was such a short jump between our Civil War and WWII.
My dad took us back to Brinkley for my 3rd-grade year, to attempt to run a gas station in the no-man’s land on Highway 49 outside of Brinkley. While my home life was a slow-moving mess, school was fascinating. Just as I got acclimated to flat lands again, Dad’s failed business drove us back to Northwest Arkansas.
I remember my Uncle ___ saying that he was jealous of my dad, Bobby Dean because Springdale didn’t have ‘the plague’ of so many blacks. Other family members said the same and I only share this memory reluctantly. Perhaps it’s not wise or fair to generalize about my recollections of prejudice. On the other hand, they are my stories and as a sage once reminded us, perhaps people would behave more appropriately if they knew an observant writer was living amongst them. Truth be told, racism took a back seat when contrasted to the casual violence of my dad. I had a couple of god-fearing aunts and uncles who remind me that we should never be surprised by the sheer hatred some racists harbor in their hearts. One of the prevailing lessons they taught me was that religion could easily be twisted to justify and condone all manner of hate, all the while sitting behind a pearly-white smile and opened Bible. When I was young, I endured many a comment from them regarding my views on homosexuality, race, and language. When I grew up and realized that they were simply unadorned racists, their arguments dried up. The revisionists in life will insist they were great people and in many ways, they were the product of their times; in another way, though, they deliberately refused to change their minds, even as they paid pretense to the societal demands that they keep their boring and unimaginative racism mostly closeted.
Even though so much became second-hand to me, Springdale itself began to break away from its parochial roots; languages and color slowly entered and once inside sufficiently, kicked the door in and changed the fundamental nature of everything here. Even as I learned the town’s geography, it was already changing rapidly around me. In 1970, Springdale’s population was around 17,000. In 2015, it was on the high end of 77,000. (My hometown lost 1/2 of its population in the same time period, by comparison.) No road escaped the necessity of bulging outside of its small borders, and many signs became incomprehensible to the earlier residents. I was lucky enough to be present during many fits and tirades from Springdale residents insisting that hating the presence of another language wasn’t a sign of prejudice. They seem ignorant to almost everyone now, but the angry spew of their spittle was a sight to behold back in the day.
Springdale was akin to a debutante sent away to school in some exotic location; upon her return, she was unrecognizable as the same person. But almost everyone could look upon her and admire the changes. It’s almost impossible to turn back once someone or somewhere has caught a glimpse of the vastness of the world.
I’ve heard many people refer to Springdale as once being a Sundown Town. I don’t remember seeing such signage. On the other hand, I didn’t need to. My family provided all the exclusionary language anyone would ever need. Their distrust for minorities was amplified by our move to a white community. As strange as it is, I remember when my mom started working for Southwestern Bell (AT&T) in Fayetteville as an operator. She often came home, angrily ranting about blacks in her workplace. It was the same language she used in Monroe County except now she had a home base to retreat to, one which seemed to encourage her racism. Mom was an angry person most of her life, so the language was a symptom of her defect more than any commentary on her surroundings. Both my mom and dad fled back to Monroe County in the late 80s, after a long succession of disappointments.
Before I forget to mention it, my mom’s last job was as a custodian for Brinkley schools. The person who treated her the most kindly there was one of the black teachers there, proving that truth is stranger than fiction. Like so many racists, Mom’s racism tended to intensely situational. She couldn’t understand why I, as a white person, would ever stoop so low as to learn another language, much less love its differences. Her life was reduced by her prejudices.
The differences between the racism of Springdale and Brinkley were striking. It wasn’t until I was much older I surmised that Springdale didn’t need to be overtly racist. The whiteness of the faces walking the streets communicated a clear message as to the population. Springdale was a town waiting to be changed both monumentally and one person at a time, whether it saw the tidal wave approaching or not. It confused me how two places in the same state could be so markedly different, yet both have residents generally fixated on differences based on skin color. I’m generalizing of course, but I know that you understand the distinction I’m drawing. Most of Springdale’s residents weren’t prejudiced, of course, just unsure as to how to accommodate the changes to their towns. Racism tends to discolor a disproportionate number of people around it, giving it a larger circle than reality warrants. This circle of influence sometimes gives the wrong impression of tolerance toward prejudice and many of those practicing it become adept at hiding under its umbrella.
It’s strange to me that both Springdale and Brinkley had so much to build upon. Frankly, Brinkley had the advantage when I was young, and if a few visionaries had the temerity to act upon it, it would be flourishing now. Instead, Northwest Arkansas seized these opportunities.
Against the backdrop of economy and money, Springdale acquired deep populations of Latinos, Marshallese, and other minorities. Most of us who were paying attention and curious were amazed at the changes brought to us by different cultures. Since I’m naturally curious, I loved the overlap of cultures and couldn’t wait for it to become entrenched. Others, though, peered at it through narrowly-turned blinds, wondering if the small town they grew up in was gone forever. Thankfully, the answer was ‘yes.’ Change brought a greater viability to our town. The overlaps of other culture became so large that in many cases people felt conflicted about which culture was their primary one. That is the ‘melting’ we claim to honor as a country. The melting works much better when it is in both directions, with those who were here first welcoming the inevitable changes brought by new faces.
The same didn’t happen for Brinkley, despite it attempting a few rebrandings. The remaining base shifted out from under when it lost its Wal-Mart. People continued to flee, even if meant they’d be exposed to a greater variety of cultures elsewhere. For those who left, many have an idealized memory of what it once was. The truth, though, is that it was never really that place. People voted with their feet and the results are the only conclusion which needs no clarification. One day, hopefully, Brinkley will discern a path toward revitalization but all such paths are dead ends without new faces and new opportunities.
Springdale, albeit with a few hiccups still to come, is a place which can be a foundation for everyone to look back upon and feel a sense of community. It defies an easy definition, precisely because other groups came here to stay.