Unfolding the Map
"At Ida, a sign in front of a church announced the Easter sermon: 'Welcome All God's Children: Thieves, Liars, Gossips, Bigots, Adulterers, Children.' I felt welcome. Also in Ida was one of those hitching posts in the form of a crouching livery boy reaching up to take the master's reins; but the face of this iron Negro had been painted white and his eyes Nordic blue. Ida, on the southern edge of Appalachia, a place (they said) where change comes slowly or not at all, had a church welcoming everyone and a family displaying integrated lawn decorations.
"I lost the light at Bug, Kentucky, and two miles later, at a fork in the road with three rickety taverns in the crotch, I crossed into Tennessee."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 13
Ida, Kentucky and Bug, Kentucky
I really enjoy the picture William Least-Heat Moon (LHM) presents of the lawn jockey in Ida painted white with blue eyes. It stands in stark contrast to the South that many of us (me included) in the North read and were taught about. In truth, the South is much more complicated than some of my friends, who argue that we should let the South secede from the Union if they really want to, truly understand.
In 1995, I moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio with my wife. Texas is on the far west side of what would be considered the old South, though Arizona seems to want to become part of the South as well in the last few years. I'd grown up in California, then lived in Milwaukee for 8 years. Milwaukee was about as Northern a city as you could have. With Germans mainly controlling the power structure, it was a leftist stronghold for years. While the rest of Wisconsin was giving America Joseph McCarthy and his fear-mongering about communists, Milwaukee was electing socialist mayors up through the 1960s. We actually got to know the last socialist mayor of Milwaukee, who by the time we met him was a pretty old guy.
We moved to Texas, and we were convinced we would hate it. In truth, our first year there, we really did hate it. Everything seemed to be about Texas. Not only is Texas part of the South, but it has a HUGE ego about itself. The Austin Lounge Lizards make fun of Texas' attitude in their Stupid Texas Song:
"By God we're so darn proud to be from Texas - yahoo!
Even of our pride we're proud and we're proud of that pride, too
Our pride about our home state is the proudest pride indeed
And we're proud to be Americans, until we can secede"
Tortilla chips in the shape of Texas, pasta in the shape of Texas. The Texas flag flown everywhere. In the first store we went into, the yams had a sign with a yam in a hat with the Texas colors shooting guns in the air. The Alamo was considered a shrine to Texas liberty - men must remove their hats entering it. Jim Lehrer, distinguished newsman, told a story about how he was taken to task by the Daughters of the Texas Republic for some statements he had made. We don't understand how a person born in Texas could say such things about the state, they wrote him. He wrote back explaining that while he grew up in Texas, he was actually born elsewhere and didn't come to Texas until he was six months old. Now we understand, they wrote back to him.
Despite all that hubris, we grew to love Texas. The huge open spaces. The varied people and landscapes. The little weird places we discovered, like the art scene in Marfa, way out in the wilds of West Texas, to the Orange Show in Houston. Sure, you'd find some crazy thing that would make you pause, like the time we rented a room in a Fort Davis B&B and the brochure had hand-written on it "no fornicating." But seeing the bats fly out from under the Congress Street bridge in Austin, or taking a dip in Barton Springs, or catching Terri Hendrix or the Asylum Street Spankers at old dance halls like Gruene Hall or Cibolo Creek Country Club was fantastic and captivated us. The music scene was like nowhere else, and introduced us to the Texas singer-songwriter.
While we were there, California passed a proposition denying most services to illegal immigrants. Arizona recently passed a law allowing police to stop anyone they suspect to be illegal immigrants (in other words, people who look brown). But in Texas, where the Mexican border is quite fluid and really starts at San Antonio, even under George W. Bush as governor, the state would have never passed such a law because of the ties between Mexico and Texas. Republicans are now in control of the state but the state is still full of Texas Democrats, who are blunt, pointed and direct. As I said, it's complicated.
Then we moved to New Orleans. Again, things were not always as they seemed. New Orleans is a majority black city in white Louisiana. New Orleans history had both slaves and free men (and women) of color. It had Creoles, mixed race people who made their own society to rival the white society, and some of whom owned slaves while others worked to end slavery. Pre-Katrina New Orleans, when we lived there, was a mix, a gumbo if you will, of all kinds of different people living all kinds of different lives and doing all kinds of different things. In one city, you could get your South fix by visiting a plantation, or eating at Galatoires or Antoines, or cruise the stately mansions along St. Charles Avenue. Then you could visit Vaughns, where Kermit Ruffins plays trumpet and serves up red beans and rice, or catch the Mardi Gras Indians on Mardi Gras or St. Joseph's Day. You might read Nell Nolan in the Times-Picayune as she lists the kings and queens of Mardi Gras and announces the various coming outs of debutantes, all white and beautiful, while outside a second line turns onto your street sending a member of the black community home. A city where (until recently thanks to Katrina) African Americans dominated the political landscape, while the old white families dominated the economic landscape. Again, it's complicated.
Now we live in New Mexico, where being Hispanic means that you are not Latino, and vice versa. Here, being Hispanic means that you are descended from the Spanish conquistadors. Being Latino means you are not. Once again, ethnicity and race become very complicated. An unsuspecting person might offend someone with a Spanish last name if they call them "Mexican." Just like in the South, you can't take everything for granted and things that you think you know about people and ethnicities can be very different from reality.
There isn't much on the Internet about Ida or Bug, but there is quite a bit on Clinton County, where they are located. The links I include, therefore, will be for Clinton County.
If you want to know more about Ida, Bug or Clinton County
Next stop: Livingston, Tennessee