John Samuel Tieman: A Billboard Not Outside Ebbing, Missouri
A few years ago, my wife and I were driving in Franklin County, Missouri. I saw something off the road, and excitedly said to her, “Honey, look — look at all those things!”
A little disgusted, she turned away and said, “Those things are called cows.”
First, a disclaimer. I love Francis McDormand. I wish her all the best at the Oscars. Also, I found entertaining “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. Not a great movie, in my opinion, but a perfectly entertaining one.
What I hate is that folks think this is what all of Missouri is like.
Let me emphasize all of Missouri. I also love the movie “Winter’s Bone”, a fairly accurate depiction of the poverty in rural Missouri. But when I survey movies about Missouri, a quick internet search yields these top five – “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, three movies about Jesse James, and “Waiting For Guffman”.
There are a little over six million folks who live in Missouri. About three million live in Metropolitan St. Louis, another two million live in Kansas City. (Both of these metropolitan areas are so big that they cross two state lines, and teasing out the Missouri numbers is another essay – but you get the urban idea.) So if you’re going to guess at the average Missourian, an accurate supposition would be a woman on her lunch break from her downtown office, reading her Kansas City Star at a sushi joint.
Jesse James was born and raised in 19th century Missouri, that’s true. But then so was General John J. Pershing. And Mark Twain. And Sara Teasdale. In “Waiting For Guffman”, Parker Posey’s character, Libby Mae Brown, the perky Diary Queen employee, well, yes, that is one kind of small town Missourian. So is Senator Claire McCaskill.
Now I will be the first to admit that there is not a week that goes by that I don’t thank Sweet Loving Jesus for Arkansas and Alabama. Otherwise, Missouri would be 50th in everything. I’ll also frankly admit that our state legislature, what my beloved wife calls “that great brain trust in Jefferson City”, can, at times, do imponderable stuff like proposing legislation against the statewide implementation of Sharia Law. Then there was the legislator who said extending discrimination protection to LGBT Missourians infringed on religious liberty, because most religions don’t consider gay people to be human beings. Not to be outdone by our legislature, our governor cut $68 million this year in funding for higher education, and plans to cut the same next year. This is the same governor who is accused of blackmailing a woman with whom he was engaged in S & M bondage. Such a list can go on and on. OK, and yea, my home does in fact rank 48th in funding of K-12 education.
The problem is the stereotype. Fly over country. Pill-billies. Hoosiers. It leaves folks with the impression that Missouri brings nothing to the cultural table.
Hey ya’ll, we got hillbillies, and we also have culture. We gave the world Chuck Berry. Samuel Clemens. T. S. Eliot. Langston Hughes. William Least Heat-Moon. William Burroughs. Reinhold Niebuhr. Josephine Baker. Anna Marie Bullock, known to the world as Tina Turner, graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis, Class of 1958, and it was here she got her start in music. Scott Joplin wrote some of his finest music here. We have great universities.The Arch is perhaps the most beautiful – or, at least, the largest – abstract sculpture in the world. We fry the finest catfish, and play some of the sweetest baseball in either league.
To drive through the Ozarks in the early morning, when the fog still lies low in the valleys, is to yield to more shades of blue and gray than any language ever named.
And then, yes, there’s Ferguson. Which is to say St. Louis. Virtually segregated schools. Economic injustice. White flight. This familiar litany can go on ad infinitum. The greatest pain of racism is to tell someone that, because of the color of their skin, they will spend their life unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. And that pain, that is as All American as, well, the Meramec River or Route 66.
But look. I’ve been to New York City. So three things. First, Donald Trump isn’t our fault. Missouri may have voted for him, but we didn’t give birth to him. Second, true, 60% of New York state voted for Hillary, and 60% of my state voted for Trump. But don’t make like this is some sophisticated versus unsophisticated thing. 40% of New Yorkers voted for the orange booty grabber, and 40% of Missourians voted for the feminist. Lastly, just because we speak the Midlands Dialect Of American English, that’s no reason to presume that, at some point in our lives, every Missourian has gone recreational possum tossing. Some of us have gone to the symphony.
Which brings me back to the movie, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. My wife and I are not from Ebbing, Missouri. We’re from St. Louis. In our neighborhood, we’re more likely to run into a Hasidic Jew than a hillbilly. That said, we know folks who have traded teeth for meth. It happens. It’s just not as common as folks think. Which brings us to our new t-shirts. My beloved has one that reads, “Washington University in St. Louis”. Mine reads, “Don’t Meth With Missouri.” And neither of us have snipped-off the sleeves. Oh, yea, and neither of us say “Missour-ah”. Although I do say “Wa-R-shington”, and she just hates that….
Copyright 2018 John Samuel Tieman
Delightful, John! An immigrant to the US, I spent over twenty years in the country, divided roughly equally between New York and Missouri. Your essay captures so precisely so much of what I experienced but could never quite articulate. Many thanks.
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