Prairie Peace Train : Driving the “Republican Highway”, through the heartland with my African wife

Posted in John's Musings by john

I am a white male. Although, unlike others, I don’t apologize for this, I feel that it is necessary to let it be known to set the stage for the story that follows. I am married to a black, Kenyan woman named Irene. Now that we have the main characters and their respective melanin levels established, which seems so important these days, we can get to the story. We just returned to our home near Washington D.C. after a month on the road. As a biologist-geologist, wildlife photographer, I love the American countryside, so it should be no surprise that during our travels, we mostly took the more intimate backroads, rather than the impersonal and uninviting Interstate highways.  Our destination was a remote ranch in Southern Arizona, where I could do my wildlife photography. The most direct route took us right across America’s heartland, the bible belt and the Southwest: rural West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, New Mexico and Arizona. I just looked up voting records from the last election, and not only did we travel only through red states, but as far as I can tell, we only visited red counties! This is hard to do given the length of our drive. If I had tried to plan a Republican route, (which I definitely didn’t), I couldn’t have done a better job, threading the needle precisely in New Mexico and splitting two big blue blocks in Arizona. It is easy to drive Republican in North Texas and Kansas, and you can’t do anything else in Oklahoma or West Virginia as every county was red in 2016. These are the kind of places that most people only fly over and are largely inhabited by conservative, supporters of you-know-who. We didn’t know what to expect as far as people’s reactions to my wife, but according to an oft-heard narrative, most of these people should be red-necked, bible and gun-toting, “deplorable”, racists, so we were on guard at first. 

Many that we encountered were indeed Christians, owned guns and had red necks, (they work outside after all).  I hate to disappoint those that might be invested in the view that there is unabated racism seething through the hateful, Caucasian veins of every inhabitant of this cultural wasteland, but our experience was that of warm, kind, unpretentious people that often doted on my wife, who was always the only black person in sight, and probably the only one for the next hundred miles or so. Despite what we had been led to believe, people obviously loved her. At times they fawned over her, “ I want your lips, I want your nose, I want your skin,” effused a lady in an antique store in Galena, Kansas. No, I don’t think that she or others were being patronizing. A drunk in Quemado, New Mexico, held nothing back from his new found “Mama”, “I don’t care about skin”, he proclaimed, as he held his palm against hers for comparison. She was described as a “gem”, “beautiful”, (many times), and elicited innumerable hugs and kisses. We were invited to stay over at a farm, and a museum was closed on her behalf to try to find another Kenyan living in the small Kansas town of Meade. People loved her not in spite of her race, but because of it. I have traveled these backroads by myself and with white friends, and never experienced anything like the kind of kind attention that came our way, or more accurately Irene’s way. Perhaps the most revealing episodes came when a young boy spontaneously ran to her and grabbed her leg and held on obviously seeking comfort and protection. If this child was growing up in a racist household, he obviously wouldn’t behave in this manner. On another occasion, an old lady held her hand throughout the course of a long conversation at a restaurant, talked about my wife’s beautiful skin, and begged her to come over for some of her homemade plum jam. When she wasn’t being treated as royalty she was treated as respectfully as any other person in homes that often harbored guns, bibles and MAGA paraphernalia.  

One good thing about this trip is that I largely unplugged from news. The few times that I watched television, most of what I heard were white people being called racist, often by those in search of votes, including other whites. I must admit that in the few minutes that I listened to radio while driving, besides hearing about pork belly futures and the like, I  heard a woman,(from where I don’t know), tell Rush Limbaugh that she felt that the President had  thrown her “under the bus”, by denouncing racism and white supremacy. This caller only momentarily disrupted our vibe but served as an unpleasant reminder that racism is still alive and well amongst some, thankfully few, mostly older folks. In any case, I quickly turned the radio off, and our own little “Peace Train” was again sailing across the prairie. That was the end of the “news” until we arrived home. Having returned and connected to the news again, one of the first things that I heard was the notion that anyone that would vote Republican is, by definition, a racist. Having seen all the positive attention and affection heaped upon my wife during our trip through the heart of Republican country, this type of rhetoric rings hollow. Throughout our travels through rural “red” America, whites and hispanics alike were drawn to my black wife like a love magnet and if this is racist country then they sure fooled us. 

Irene has since related these stories to her black friends in D.C., who have universally tried to invalidate her experiences: “They were just thinking about the election.”, “They would have been different if your (white) husband wasn’t there.” We both disagree. Although contact was mostly superficial, the sincerity was palpable, and I have seldom known children, drunks or old ladies to put on airs. I was interested in getting feedback to my story from from a white, left-leaning person, so I showed the piece to one such person at a party. As she read on her phone while I watched, her comments suggested that she believed that I was writing about how racist these people were! Unfortunately, or fortunately, she was interrupted and I wasn’t around to see her reaction after reading the whole piece. I did see enough to know that some people’s views are so well ingrained that they are seemingly blind to any evidence that might conflict with existing dogma. 

So corrosive has the dialogue around race become in our country, that we feel obliged to let our stories be known to anyone that would care to listen. Although our trip could be seen as a sort of “sociological transect” across the Mid and Southwest, it obviously does not represent a scientific study, but rather a series of anectdotal samples. Nevertheless, from our experience, the broad brush used to paint bible-wheat belt Republicans as being universally, incorrigible racists, needs to be filed forthwith in the trash bin of history, along with the few real racist dinosaurs still surviving. If truth matters, then we feel a new vision of rural “red” Americans must be put out there, in light of the reality that my wife and I experienced on our recent trip. Time after time we saw Afro-infatuated people that were not what either of us would have expected. A very pleasant surprise and  a very positive American reality that we feel needs to be recognized and acknowledged. 

© John Cancalosi- Not to be reprinted without express written permission.