Like many a child of the Great Migration, all my extended family actually lived nowhere near me. My mother “escaped” Arkansas for Iowa right after graduating from Philander Smith College in Little Rock to become a school teacher, but Iowa was too cold, too white, and too far from her ancestral home, so she moved to St. Louis to teach with its much larger Black population and, then, eight-hour drive away from Newport, Ark.
There she met my Texan father, then an engineer with the former McDonnell Douglas firm (at a chance meeting via a teacher friend at his apartment nonetheless), and the rest was history. Engaged after about six months, married six months later. I guess they both really knew what they wanted!
But because my mother was very close with her mother, as my Granny’s eldest child, her ties to Arkansas were strong. She also was a homebody who didn’t like to travel much outside her comfort zone. So to my father’s joking lament, the Mercury Marquis we drove seemed to only know how to go in one direction—down South to Arkansas.
But as a kid, I did not mind. I loved going to see my grandparents in their lovely ranch home right outside of a giant field in Newport. I was obsessed with nature and animals and country living as a kid, so this certainly fulfilled my Little House on the Prairie fantasies. Plus, there were always ever more cousins to play with, as Mama’s family was so large. She was the eldest of nine. Almost all of them had kids. Both her parents were one of 10, and most of those aunts and uncles had families, meaning I have infinite cousins. Cousins of cousins. Seconds and thirds. Older and younger and around the same age. Infinite cousins is heaven when you’re a kid who had as strict an upbringing as I had (I wasn’t allowed to leave our backyard in St. Louis, and we could roller skate or ride a bike around our basement but not around the block).
Newport, being my mom’s country home, always felt safe to her. After all, in the ’80s and ’90s my grandmother didn’t even bother to lock her car door when we went to Walmart. For the first and only time, my mom didn’t care what me and my sisters did or who we did it with because we were with our “cousins” and nothing bad could happen to us. These were lies of course; I totally fell in a ditch once, skinning my knee, trying to cross between backyards to get to another cousin’s house, and my eldest sister, Denise, did nothing to help me but join in the laughter. She would later abandon me outside after it got dark, scaring the shit out of me. Did I mention Denise, despite being the “nicest” of us, was also forever trying to get rid of me as a child? I know I was an annoying, overly sensitive know-it-all at that age (I was about 6 and she was 10), but damn. I couldn’t help it!
But down South was where I learned about hot pickles (dislike) and Now-&-Laters (LOVE); where Granny made sweet potato pies and caramel cakes; where my baby sister Deidre learned how to ride a bike; where all the cousins would fight over who got to play with Granny and Grandpa’s Atari they’d purchased just for their horde of grandbabies; where my little cousin DeShawn would ask for “cooks” instead of saying “cookies” when we babysat him; where all my little cousins, especially DeShawn and Rosalind, would pester me for drawings and fight for my attention; where our Grandpa loved to show us off proudly, announcing how his granddaughters were “all smart, all pretty, and all looked just like Grandpa!”—something he started saying after misinterpreting a conversation I had with him, complaining about my parents always saying “You take that after your father/mother” in a negative way when one was annoyed with the other. My loving and silly Grandpa wanted me to know that he would always proudly claim every part of me, hence, “We all look just like Grandpa” was born. He loved it.
Even if he didn’t quite get what I was saying, the sentiment was more than appreciated. I never felt like he didn’t love me completely.
I know some Black folks from “up North” have a negative view of the South. A lot of my peers with Mississippi relatives complained about going “back home” all the time because “back home” was in the woods near nothing and at least Newport, had a dollar movie theater where I watched Home Alone for the first time and a McDonald’s. But mostly, it just had cousins, clean air, and space without parental supervision, and that was more than enough for me when I was little. Nevermind that the food was good and everyone was simply just…nicer.
As I grew older, I was less and less interested in Newport. The differences between my sheltered, bougie, suburban ass and my country cousins were palpable. We all grew apart over time. Then there was just the fact that what appealed to you at 6 is very different from what you want to do at 16. By the time I was a teen, all I wanted to do was dream of making my own escape from dull ass suburbia and even duller Arkansas.
But I’ll always have those memories of the joy I felt in the wilds of where they grow our rice, soybeans, and cotton, and where my “people” came from. And even though it was really my mother’s home, I still call Arkansas “home” because, well, that’s what it is and will always be.