It’s Saturday afternoon in the fall. I grew up down South, which means that there is one thing and one thing only on our television: college football. Husband obliges because it suits his love of sports. Even the dog is in on the fun, though she intermittently cocks her head to one side or the other, confused by the sounds and pictures that steal our attention and keep her from going outside.
After all the noise of commentators picking their picks and college students alive with the idea of a win (and other things), we get to coach speeches. Invariably, in locker rooms across the country, these moments end with a call-and-response football stadium, spoken word hymn:
I have all the feels. That’s why I love watching Saturday football right there.
I swell with pride – despite going to a school that hasn’t been a household football name since the time of Vince Lombardi. Why? Because these lines remind me of the power of HOME. Despite screaming until I lost my voice while watching Fordham lose more games than we won, I am blessed to have called it home for four years.
It’s a special thing to feel that way – to love a place, warts and all. To own the good alongside the bad. To own – both outwardly and inwardly – a humble confidence and sense of self that does not infringe upon the right of other people to feel the same way about different places, homes of their own.
A native Manhattanite, whose name I will neither disgrace nor honor by sharing it here, once taught me the same powerful lesson. In a conversation we were having about the frustrating complexities of inequality in New York, this person began, quietly:
“At least it’s not….”
She stopped herself mid-sentence, probably because she saw the look of surprise on my face.
I helped her finish.
“No, say it. At least it’s not North Carolina.”
I wanted her to hear the ridiculous, small-minded thought she was afraid to own, or at least own out loud. To do that would mean she might have to reevaluate her educated privilege and confident liberalism. Because by definition, all liberals and New Yorkers and educated people don’t judge other people, and are inclusive in their thoughts and words, right? Wrong.
Don’t misread me – I just want to be honest about what a personal platform of inclusivity really looks and sounds like. Sure, it doesn’t always look or sound like me. I’m nowhere near perfect. But it sure-as-something-else doesn’t sound like the thought she was afraid to finish.
I have long believed that someone should call BS on the idea that New York is the most culturally advanced city on the planet. Ask my husband, who hears this stump speech from me way too often (sorry, subjected again).
The mere idea that one place could be “more advanced” than another is not just infuriating and patronizing. It’s also the same kind of small-minded thought that so many New Yorkers blame other, “lesser” places for engaging in. It just has a harsher accent and faster speed up here.
Half the time, I’d like to hand my neighbors a mirror. Way more than half the time, if I’m really preaching truth. But since in this case I didn’t have my makeup compact, and since I had the good fortune of finally being in a moment where I could address BS head-on, I called it out another way.
I might have given a soap box speech at her. I might have “educated” this very educated woman on the hypocrisy of her thought. I might have made her feel as small as she was about to make me feel in that moment. I might have given her reason to believe whatever backwards views she has about the differences between her home and mine. But that would’ve been small-minded of me. That would’ve been hypocritical of me. That would’ve been, plainly, wrong. So I didn’t.
Instead, I chose to help her look in the mirror – without even approaching glass or the glass house she doesn’t realize she lives in. Instead, I helped her finish the thought, out loud, to the person she was too politically correct to finish her all-kinds-of-wrong sentence with.
I’m not sure if Anonymous Manhattanite learned anything from that. I used to be a teacher, but I didn’t consider this a “teachable moment” – at least for her. It was a big moment for me, though. One that I hadn’t really thought about until my home was, once again, plastered all over the news. Images of destruction and despair. Images of brave rescues amidst rising waters. Images of small towns, of lesser places, of the places I’m sure she was conjuring when she couldn’t even finish her thought.
Looking back on this moment, it probably wasn’t the place she was afraid to name – it was her own ignorance. By finishing her sentence, she would have been forced to own it, in front of a person from the very place she considers backwards and ignorant. How convenient for her, then, that I was brave enough to finish the thought.
Regardless of whether Manhattanite can own her identity, her thoughts and her privilege – regardless of whether she can see that New York is great, but not greater than any other place – I can. I can proudly say here and anywhere else:
I am from North Carolina. We are not backwards – or at least, not any more backwards than any other place, including New York and the people who call this great city home. I love my home. I love it – even and especially when hurricanes and despair and questionable movements of exclusion fill me with sadness.
I often wonder at people like the woman in this story. Can she say the same thing about where she’s from? Does she not know or is she not ready to own that New York has its own inconvenient histories that she would rather not repeat? Is it easier to believe that some other place is more backwards, less inclusive, just generally lesser than hers? Either way, I am sad for her.
I am sad that she doesn’t have what I have. I am a lucky woman. I have a home I love so much that I can own it in all forms, in all ways, in all people. And today I wish I could tell her:
Come tell me my home ain’t no good. Come tell me it ain’t got no religion. Come tell me all the ways you make culture matter while my people confront it head-on. Come tell me. And then remember, sugar, that we’re all in the same boat. We all have a home. We all need to own them. As well we should.
Key word being our.
Ryan Vale McGonigle