What was so startling about listening to S-Town was how familiar it was to me.
After leaving Ethiopia and eventually Kenya, I came to the States and settled in a small farm town in Colorado, one closer to the border of Kansas than it was to Boulder. It was a town dominated by pick-up trucks, some sporting Confederate flags, almost always with rifles. When I heard the residents of Woodstock, Alabama, speaking with the host, reporter Brian Reed, I felt I could recognize some of the residents of my former hometown. The drawls, the idioms, the anger and frustration lurking beneath the jokes, the tragicomic consequences of small decisions manifested in exaggerated forms. This world felt recognizable in the ways that some Americans may never experience. In towns like this, the hierarchies are rigid and the social lines have solidified over generations. Blood matters. Names matter. It is very hard to shift out of perceived notions of who you are in order to make yourself anew. Here, the world of the Old Testament, with its brutish retributions, fits nicely alongside the difficult labor that farming demands. The English spoken is different. It dips, cuts into itself. Words are stretched and swallowed. What tumbles out has its own cadence, a rhythm with a particular allure, both blunt and melodic.
I listened to S-Town with my own childhood experiences in mind. This is, perhaps, what the podcast intended: to make us reconsider and question aspects of our own living. I’m not sure the producers imagined that a black writer, billed as African, would be listening with some knowledge of what Reed was walking into when he stepped into the community of Woodstock. And it is not that I know every small town, and it is not that every small town is the same. But listening to Tyler Goodson and his friends at the tattoo parlor, I heard something from my childhood. In John B., I remember thinking, maybe here is someone who was part of those groups who made fun of me, that perhaps he is the person who went out of his way to be friendly when he was alone. Someone who was a part of it, reveled in it, but disliked its reflection on him.
When Reed went to Woodstock, he stepped onto unstable ground. Suddenly, he was forced to make decisions about his background and his wife's, who is black. How much could he say, even as he was asking others to reveal their stories? This is what racism does: it destabilizes and leaves you grasping for surer footing. It exposes vulnerabilities and leaves you aware of how alone you would be under any kind of assault. I can imagine this is what Reed wanted to avoid. This may explain why he chose to pivot away from confrontation. This was not his job, anyway. His job was to get the story. But in that pivot from a world where an Italian and half-Jewish man can have a black wife, to one where whiteness is flattened and exclusive, he helped to normalize an imaginary white existence, one absent of blackness, unfettered – as best as it could be – by this country's racist past.
Racism, this show would like us to think, is too complicated to render fully in a short series. It is an unwieldy beast that must be set-aside in a predominately (93 percent) white town so the real story can progress. This is about small town America; this is not about race. This is about the America we have forgotten, as if there was ever an America that did not include those it wished to keep silent and invisible. This podcast is supposed to be about all those things we do not know of a person, all those things that we cannot imagine that make up their totality. In producing this podcast, however, the creators made an assumption that rings false, that frankly, rings white: that it is possible to move through this land and simply tuck race into a corner until it's convenient. Every step that Reed made, every question he was allowed to ask, and every venture into uncomfortable territory was possible because he exhibits whiteness, and he is male. He acknowledged this. He acknowledged his wife's background. He told us of his Italian and Jewish heritage. The show's misstep came in assuming that was enough, that those admissions settled the uncompromising subject of race. The ease with which Reed was able to move between conflicting worlds was a privilege he was afforded because of his appearance, but it was also a privilege he chose not to forfeit or risk for the sake of a more complex truth.
For someone who moves in skin that creates its own paths in America, this ease is laughable because I know it is not true, it is an illusion, and that is a small-town American story as much as anything else. We were not told of Tyler Goodson's confederate flag tattoo, though I didn't need it to understand what world we were in. The omission, however, is glaring when set next to the fact that the deputy sheriff convicted of raping women he pulled over on the road, is black and the women he raped are black. The details of this case were sketched in for us; the race of both the rapist and the survivors was not. Blackness was carved out of this world as best as the creators could manage but the weight of racism – messy, violent, virulent – was clearly audible to some of us.
Then there's Tyler's photograph: Didn't you know, Tyler, that you cannot tattoo confederate flags on your body without carrying blackness with you for the rest of your days? You cannot look at those symbols and not think, first, of people like me, of people who look like me. You do not wear a confederate flag tattoo to affirm your whiteness. You wear it to affirm your relationship to that other world that stands so close to yours you mistake it for air. This is what you carve into your skin; this is what colors your decision.
But why am I talking in lofty terms? Why am I speaking in metaphor? This is what I mean to say to Reed and the producers of S-Town: you cannot remove the history of blackness. It is the history of America. You cannot rightfully talk to a group of white men sitting and drinking beer in a tattoo parlor without vocalizing who is excluded, without questioning why. Without wondering how a listener who is a woman, and black, might manage this same place, this same language.
The mayor of Woodstock, Alabama has a 24-year-old adopted son who is African-American. John B. tattooed his back with red ink to look like scar tissue, inspired by an old picture of an enslaved man named Gordon, a person whose whip-tattered back was photographed then reproduced as an outcry against human bondage. Black people have been here. We might seem invisible when heads turn away, but that does not mean we disappear. Racism is not a distraction. To resist pushing further into this glaring wound is to ignore that the cut ever existed.
Maaza Mengiste is the author of Beneath the Lion's Gaze.