Waffle House is a relic of the South–the scent of frying hashbrowns and slightly burnt bacon, toast soaked in margarine and jam glistening under the florescent bulbs. It is where you can wax philosophic while chain smoking Pall Malls and throwing back cups of weak coffee. It is where you can play old Loretta Lynn songs on the Jukebox while overhearing topics ranging from the specter of government to the rise in gas prices to noodling* to American Idol and so forth. Oh, how easy it is to romanticize the past and to put a sunlit veneer on hopes for the future*.
Born and raised in rural Louisiana, I am tethered to a love of small-towns, finding reprieve in this slower pace. However, much to my chagrin, the culture is mired with its own inadequacies. I pause at redlights behind bumper stickers like: ‘I love my country but I fear my government’ and ‘keep your friends close and your guns closer’. I sit in an old, familiar room immersed in memories of childhood, innocence and wonder. In the dusty corner–where that rocking chair my mother used to lull me to sleep in was–we sit on an overly priced Pier One couch and argue over things like women’s rights, bigotry, homosexual marriage, and so on. My kneejerk reaction is to be miffed with the parochialism, to write everyone off as ignorant. The claustropohobia in my mind kicks in. I imagine I am on an island and there are seas surrounding my stance. The sea that was once an outlet for escape is now a liquid barrier fencing me in. Fencing me in and flooding me with confused stereotypes.
I’ve speculated a lot about voice and agency this year, mostly in terms of dialogic and monologic communication as well as information communication technologies. Something I keep coming back to is how can we better foster dialogues across vastly different cultures? It has become clear that community empowerment through expression of voice in response to an ‘other’ is a way for individuals to have agency within social structure. However, how does one ensure that institutions are not simply designed to elicit a specific response? As I puzzle over the politics of my hometown, it is clear that it is not a matter of simply providing the technology for expression. Perhaps there is also a need for rural community empowerment in a global sphere. Why haven’t rural communities grown despite being relatively well connected through ICTs? How can I account for a vastly different view of morality than my friends and family in my hometown? Have I simply devolved into the city-girl stereotype—soulless, jaded and liberal?
As much of the literature has shown, it is through dialogue that individuals are able to see their identity actualized in a public space. Being human is necessarily participatory in that it must happen in the discourse and deliberation with others. For empowerment to occur, it takes establishing one’s own voice and identity, even if initially seen as a failed performative in the short-term. One example Arjun Appadurai gives of failure and public deliberation is seen in the sharing of cultural norms in a network of slum dwellers in Mumbai. On one particular learning-oriented visit in which a group of young women from Nepal met with women from Mumbai and Cape Town, a scene of dancing took place. Appadurai remarks that initially the Mumbai women from the Nagpada slums were reluctant to dance because “it is associated with the profession of sex-work” (2010); however, the women seemed to be overcome with the moment and all engaged in the scene in their own way. This event gives a good depiction of how one must witness one’s own identity in the reflection of another. Isn’t being human predicated on the existence of an ‘other’?
Despite my frustration on some of my visits home, I was recently driven by a greater desire and forced to listen, to be amiable. Much like those evenings of discussion in which the longing for another drag and piece of bacon fueled thought trains into the wee hours of the morning, I find more and more that even in arguments, the connection to another person is enough to carry us through to a resolution.
*Noodling, also referred to as ‘hogging,’ is form of “handfishing” done in the South. It involves putting one’s bare hands into a hole that may or may not house a catfish. The idea is to put one’s hand into the mouth of the catfish to catch the fish. It is illegal in some states due to associated risks.
*I spent this afternoon watching Ron White and Duck Dynasty in an effort to remember my roots; it should be noted that this effort inadvertently took all the romance out of my memory!