Thinking through lineage, family and politics

faminbeason

Those glasses were boss. Big boss.

Today, fourteen years ago, Dad died. I’ve been thinking about him of late, though to be honest, the anniversary completely snuck up on me.

Rather, I’ve been considering my Indian immigrant father — and my lineage and family in general — because I mostly grew up in small towns in Central Illinois. These are places that voted earlier this month for Donald Trump to be president.

Though I was born in Decatur, a city of 74,000 people today give or take, we shifted before I have memories to Avon, population: less than 800. When I was 5, we spent a year in Quincy (41,000 people) but moved again to the country. Those earliest years are indistinct in my brain.

Beason, Illinois, in 1988, represents the real start of my remembered childhood. That’s where the above photo was taken. Beason is barely even a village, an unincorporated census place. Which is to say it had a Post Office and a single soda vending machine. As of the 2010 Census, 189 people lived there. Beason’s primary reason for existing was a grain elevator and a grade school. The latter has since been razed.

I spent ages 6 through 9 in Beason. My family wasn’t a farm family, but I certainly grew up in that circuit. Dad was the town preacher. So many friends and neighbors also attended our church. In the school, there were about 80 kids in grades K through 8. I was often babysat by one or more church families, often on their farms. I taught myself to ride a bike in a country gravel driveway. I played with my babysitter’s children (my friends and school mates) in hay lofts. I developed my still-existing fear of cows in barns and pastures, where I also learned to ride a horse.

In the Methodist tradition, preachers are itinerant. They typically relocate every several years. So after four years, we shifted to Henry, Illinois. Population: 2,600. This felt like a big city, compared to Beason. The town had industry (a fertilizer plant and a tire factory). There was a community swimming pool. A grade school AND a high school. Grocery stores (two, as I recall) and a Dollar General. County fairgrounds. Gas stations. The Internet showed up when I was 12.

But there were still farm (or country) families, whose kids were my friends. I learned to drive on country roads. My neighbor’s dad took me mushroom hunting. My first W2′d job involved detassling corn during a summer. My second legal employment: Stocking shelves for one of those grocers. We lived there six years, before shifting back to Decatur when Dad got transferred again.

These memories of childhood in conservative rural America — with my immigrant father as a figure in those communities — have been in my head for a week and a half, since it became clear that indeed Trump would be the next president of the United States.

Today, I sit in a beating heart of so-called liberal America, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley. My primary research focuses on capitalism, India, fishers and the oceans. In the last decade, I’ve spent as much time out of the country as in it. I read and generally agree with a fair bit of Marx. I embrace the majority of left, liberal, progressive causes. The Democratic Party is usually to my political right.

From the perspective of many places where I grew up, I’m a neo-hippie. Or a communist. Or out-of-touch coastal elite.

In my current circles, there’s a lot of head scratching at how an openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist like Trump could get himself elected. Why did so many of those folks in the “red” counties — places like where I grew up in — vote for Trump? Is that really the political fabric of a not-quite-majority of our nation? This concern among progressives is echoed hyperbolically in media and many late-night TV shows.

There are lots of assumptions embedded in things “liberals” say about conservatives, but many are grounded in real fear, justified by some of Trump’s outspoken and openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist voters. But this rendering of conservatives doesn’t fit neatly with my own upbringing.

To understand, look again at the family photo above. Dad was brown. My sister and I are mixed race. To be clear, we certainly met racism. My father especially. Family lore says he received death threats at different moments (though in Decatur, which is not actually the most rural of places). In Henry, I didn’t understand the term “sand nigger” the first time it was directed at me. I’m not denying that rural conservative America is not always welcoming of diversity.

But race hardly framed my upbringing in these communities. I’m sure my parents sheltered me somewhat (and my sister probably had a different experience), but discrimination wasn’t the overriding theme of my childhood. My family also knew kindness from at least some of the same people who probably also voted for Trump. In Henry, after the parish fundraised a few thousand dollars with a community shrimp boil, the church turned around and surprised our family by paying for a trip for Mom and Dad to go back to India so they could visit his parents. Dad performed baptisms and marriages and funerals for many people in these places. He counseled and prayed with and ministered to many people, some of whom today might be labeled as racist.

(There are also “blue” voters in majority “red” places. Thirty percent of Marshall County, where Henry sits, voted for Hillary Clinton.)

And in every church my father pastored, I had umpteen adoptive grandparents, who might have feared a person of color but nonetheless treated the preacher and his children like their own. I was given advantages in school — bumped up in math class, taken to state journalism conferences, pushed to be a good student. The local grocery store hired me before I was 16 (and did adhere to child labor laws); the owner hired my sister, too. Even an old man in the community, who I believe was probably a bigot, once paid me to teach him to use his computer.

The point of these anecdotes: The political, social, economic (and even ecological) reality in the rural America I knew was complex. I do not give racism, xenophobia and other bigotries a pass. But I also have sympathy for conservatives that is rooted in my own upbringing. I honestly do believe that progressives today engage in Othering conservative America as a place that is mysterious, irrational and sometimes — in a rather colonial logic — inferior.

I’m following political geographers here, who describe Othering as a process of distinguishing people and places hierarchically, of drawing boundaries between who/where/what is included in a collective identity and those people, places and things that are excluded as the Other. Think Edward Said’s history of denigration of Asia by European colonizers. More recent application of the process of Othering can be found in Derek Gregory’s analysis of the way Islamic people have been Othered as barbarians, particularly since the Bush years.

As a youngish geography scholar, I want to explore a deeper why behind the conservative vote, to overcome this process of Othering of conservatives by liberals. I’m now looking at voting patterns and economic data, for example, for Henry. The county last voted Democrat for president in 1992 and 1996. Before that? Johnson. Meanwhile, the county has also watched inflation-adjusted median income fall from 1990 to 2010 by 20 percent or so. Farm jobs are down. Population is flat. The tire factory? Carved up into units, one of which is owned by a global equity firm. The fertilizer plant? Now under control of the Koch bros.

These are material happenings that deserve consideration alongside socialpolitical reality. I suggest they need to be approached, perhaps by scholars with sympathy and method rooted in autobiography (even autoethnography), or at the very least transparent consideration of subject position. In this regard, I’m thinking of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas as well as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.

And today I’m remembering my father mostly because he lived as a brown man, raising family amid these places, and actively ministering to the emotional and spiritual needs of this Other. And I’d desperately like to talk to him about that.

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Best super swami there ever was

dad-super-swami
Father’s day and all. Miss you so much, dad.

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I’m writing to you, Senator #nokxl

Senator Durbin:

This is not a form letter. You and I have shaken hands plenty; for a while we were on a first-name basis when I was a political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. How many times did I tour the Metro East with you? How many times was I there at town hall meetings in the Collinsville City Council chambers or Edwardsville or Granite City?

Today, I am in graduate school here in D.C. studying environmental policy. I’m an activist. I was arrested for protesting in front of the White House in September. I’m a scholar. I research natural resource policy, environmental degradation and sustainable development.

I’m asking you as a professional acquaintance, as someone who listened for a long time to the political concerns of southern Illinoisans, as a worried citizen and as a registered Illinois voter (my permanent address is in Champaign) to do all you can to stop GOP factions and Big Oil special interests from resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline.

If you and your allies in the Senate take the time to talk straight to Americans (whatever the hell Fox News thinks), they will listen. If you take a moral stand, you’ll be doing the right thing (whatever the hell the Tea Party thinks).

And if you need help that I can provide, contact me.

There’s so much more we could be doing to invigorate our economy and protect this planet. Think about green jobs in a renewable energy economy. Think solar and offshore wind and green infrastructure. Think better quality of living and public health. Think natural splendor that warms heart and soul.

But if we instead take the cheap (actually more costly) and dirty (yes, really, really dirty) way of burning tar sands, we become that much more path dependent on oil. That’s game over for our planet.

I’ve heard you tell me directly about how Washington needs change, how it’s beholden to special interests, how our government needs bold action.

I say to you, lead the charge.

Adam Jadhav

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Illinois prairie of yesteryear

All but gone

My bike rides routinely take me to Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, home to a decent swatch of prairie restoration. It’s small lake of the tall grasses, flowers and red-wing blackbirds that once formed an ocean as far as the eye could see across this state.

Today, we have settled the land, replacing the prairie with corn and our homesteads with neatly packed towns. Our yards are short grasses that we try our damndest to keep short.

In the process we’ve compromised our ecosystems, forcing us to rely more on biotech farming and synthetic fertilizer. We’ve watched nutrients be leeched from the soil or washed into our rivers. We’ve taken too much, in our quest to feed our cattle and our cars.

I vote for more returning to native plants, for more prairie restoration, for more preserving land for all creatures; Aldo Leopold saw the problems decades ago when he wrote about riding a bus across Illinois.

And so have countless of other scientists, conservationists, nature lovers and people lucky enough to experience the beauty of Illinois prairie that is now mostly confined to parks and the occasional highway embankment.

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Country son, country sun

It feels absolutely fantastic to ride long miles through nothing but country. And with my new road bike, I’m thankful then to spend a few weeks here in Champaign-Urbana, where I’m no more than eight miles in any direction from wide open cornfields.

OK, so there are no grand mountains or sea views. But there’s still peace to be hand with sun shining through cotton-ball clouds and the wind in your face as the green of Illinois farmland flies by.

I grew up in small farm towns across central Illinois. In recent years, too many years now, I’ve lived in metropolises with populations ranging from three to 20 million people.

I belong out here, in the country.

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