I’m in the Deep, Deep South, y’all. And I’m in it deep. Like fried chicken from the Piggly Wiggly counter, sweet tea at the plantation, carrying a knife in case of gators, must be white to have money, deep. Deep, y’all. I’m only halfway through my first week here and I am already emotionally drained. Things are different here. They are different than any other part of the United States I have ever been. Things here are different physically, financially, and economically. They are different in ways that you can see, and in ways you can feel. The way people look at you. The way people move around in public places. Yes, things are different in the ways that you can see. In the physical. But it’s the things that you can’t that make it so disturbing.
The first thing I noticed crossing over the Alabama line from Georgia is the physical changes. The roads for example, went from smooth, black asphalt to a bumpy red and brown mixture. The potholes nearly doubled, and the trash on the side of the road skyrocketed. By the time we were in Montgomery, a mere two hours from our house, I felt like we had been transported thousands of miles, and by the time we got to Mobile I felt like we had been transported back in time. At a Piggly Wiggly between Biloxi and Gulfport, I overheard a man and a woman arguing over whether or not he would blow his whole paycheck at the casino, and then I watched as a woman made the crucial decision on whether to spend her last dollar on a candy bar (that was marked on sale, but rang up full price) or a Faygo Orange Soda. She picked the soda as it went better with her microwavable shrimp gumbo.
The second or third time my car hit a very large pothole, I asked my husband why the roads were so bad. He mumbled something about low taxes and that we need to check our tire pressure. The next day he sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal with the subject: Thought you might be interested in this, per conversation yesterday. The article title was: The South’s Economy is Falling Behind: “All of a Sudden the Money Stops Flowing”. I will leave a link to it here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-souths-economy-is-falling-behind-all-of-a-sudden-the-money-stops-flowing-11560101610 He is right, my husband. The South doesn’t like taxes. They also don’t like education, healthy food, or relinquishing their divisive ways, and nowhere are those ways more divisive than here in Baton Rouge.
In Baton Rouge there is a very clear economic and racial divide, and it starts near the university. Louisiana State is quite clearly the pride and joy of Baton Rouge, but it seems to go a step further. Something changes when you see the first sign that says: LSU This Way. The streets get better. The houses get nicer. You suddenly don’t feel like you are stuck in Louisiana. I Suddenly felt like I was in Kansas City, or Chicago, or one of those tree-lined streets in (insert small Northern town). Jackson and I spent about an hour walking around campus yesterday. We saw Tiger Stadium, which rivals Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City (home of the NFL team The Chiefs) and shines so brightly at night, that a purple haze can be seen across the Baton Rouge shipyards, deep into Port Allen. We saw Mike the Tiger in his 15,000 square foot enclosure, complete with a waterfall and a rock that both cools in the summertime and heats in the winter. He is a lazy sort of Bengal, having never had to work for his food, nor fight for his dominance. He was born and raised in captivity, and was gifted to the University from a tiger rescue in Florida. He is the seventh tiger to be housed on the LSU campus and a constant reminder of Baton Rouge’s priorities.
We were schooled in Mike the Tiger from other visitors from the moment we stepped foot onto campus, until the moment we left. They beamed as they told us: He likes to run and jump at the fence. He likes to have his belly scratched. There are only two people allowed in the fence. He has a separate enclosure for game day. He used to be placed behind the opposing team in a rickety sort of cage. Psychological warfare. Cool. Very cool. Their pride in this tiger is palpable. The rampant racism that sizzles under the surface like the midday sun, is less noticeable.
There were a group of school children at Mike’s enclosure when we got there. There were maybe twelve or fifteen of them. There were about four adult escorts. The children were running along the enclosure fence, yelling for Mike to come out of his lazy, afternoon nap. They were pumped up to see him. I imagine they had traveled by bus to get to him. They had energy to burn. When Mike would move one of them would yell for the others and they would all crowd around, trying to get the best view. Occasionally one of them would whistle. Jackson joined a group of six or seven other boys at the fence line and was looking at me smiling. An older woman, there with her grandchildren to see Mike, approached me and politely suggested I get my child back away from the enclosure with a wink and a nod. It wasn’t because Mike was up and around. He hadn’t moved from his afternoon siesta. It wasn’t because she feared for my son’s life at the paws of a Bengal Tiger. It was because all the children hanging on the fence line were black.
I’m probably not saying anything new here. It’s the South, after all. And I probably have a lot more to say on the topic. And I feel like I am taking the easy way out by ending here. But sometimes you just have to see something to believe it. And this was my seeing. And now I just don’t know what to do with it.