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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Heartland of the United States

As an academic, teacher, activist, and "progressive" (leftist) living in a large city, I can't help but reflect on things as I drive across the country.


I do find that many folks who have been trapped in a city, regardless of where in the country, are unfamiliar with the realities of the rest of the country.


Let me preface this with this: Yes, I know that The United States has a longstanding and intimate relationship with oppression. And that oppression stems deep and is very obvious within the heartland of the United States.


One of the things that I've noticed is that the "economic development" that could exist in some of these towns just isn't there. In addition, it's fascinating to see big businesses that dominate and dictate farmers' agricultural growth as a means for economic development, both individually as well as collectively. For instance, farms will have a sign in front of it advertising the big company that provides the seeds. Monsanto gets a bad reputation, but a capitalistic system opens up opportunities for others to exist as well, such as the ones out here.

Driving through the midwest, the heartland of the United States, in states like Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, and Oklahoma, there is a whole lot of flat. A lot of farmland, crude oil extraction, and nothingness can be found while driving through the 2,000 miles between San Diego and the middle of Illinois. With that said, there is such rich cultural analysis that should be considered while driving through the country. If ever there is a place to do a true ethnographic analysis of this country, it's driving and stopping, seeing billboards, reading signs, and walking through historic towns (and non-historic towns.) Now, I recognize in terms of walking through some of these towns, I have a great deal of privilege because of my white presenting identity. I'm aware of this. Driving across the country should be an important analysis to consider, solely because of what you see, what you can experience by yourself, and the mindset you can develop.


There are good people everywhere of course, but as a sociologist, I look at structure, systems, and how they impact individual choices and situations. This is something that sociologists call The Sociological Imagination. Anyway, my sociological imagination is always running and I think about how these systems have impacted the folks here, and how they uphold white supremacy. It's fascinating to me to see anti-abortion billboards, pro-gun billboards, and Jesus billboards in a row, followed by a billboard supporting strip clubs, meanwhile, the same folks who are all in this corner condemn sex work.


So, there's that in Missouri and absolutely a cultural analysis, right? Right.


World's Biggest Ruler


Anyway, we visited a place called Casey, Illinois today. There is a population of a little over 2,000 folks in the town. It has over 14 "World's Biggest" world records. The town started small, and is still small, but has a lot of really cool tourist things to see and do. It's fascinating because this is not necessarily cultural, though it actually is, and is somewhere in the middle of central Illinois, yet not a "hot spot" for tourists to stop in, though, there were quite a few people there walking around taking photos, but not nearly as many as I'd think.


The point of this is mostly that I think is that there are so many cultural pockets in the country, and yes, I see many confederate flags as well as "Let's go, Brandon" flags that make me roll my eyes, but, it's interesting to think about all of the things in this country that are good and bad and reflective of the very systems we are criticizing as academics.


I recently discovered a "witchy" shop in the big town near my little town I'm in and that blew my mind. But it also shows that there are cultural values that are changing, coexisting, and reshaping. It does not mean that institutions and systems are equitable, but rather that individuals are making changes and reshaping things.


This "World's Biggest" town here, Casey, really only has the world's biggest as its main attraction. What started as an oil town is advertising itself as the world's biggest with the Guinness World Record certification. What's also interesting is that every single "Worlds Biggest" has scripture from the Bible o it that corresponds with what was created. For example, the mailbox discusses being read and being a letter (see photos below.)

It's made itself an interesting little town with a lot of cool things to see, and with very real people living here. People who have lived their lives and may not see the benefits structurally that the rest of Illinois may see. They also represent a small cultural component of the midwest that is here and represents the larger institutional understanding we have right now, which is that the most marginalized people are not allowed to exist with rights, which is not new but is very real. Many folks live without rights in this country, whether legal and formal or not, and this can be absolutely reflected in this part of the country. What we see are folks who have been disenfranchised for many things not related to race, yet somehow believe that that means racism does not exist, all while blurting out racism from their mouths reflecting the very structures in place that support white supremacy (and were created by such.)


By no means do I think Casey itself upholds this or represents it, I do not know enough about the cultural components here, but, the entire Midwest and traveling through it should absolutely push folks to reflect on what's going on in the rest of the country outside of political hubs and major cities.


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