My Midwest

They have Black People in…Kansas? Yes, Virginia, They do.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

We arrived crumpled and tired in South Wichita, Kansas after having spent three years overseas at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. We were already outsiders, of course, but there were others like us already there who were able to help us adjust to Wichita and to America again.

We knew of some soldiers who had left their families stateside while they rambled overseas to places like Spain, Germany, and the P.I. Not us. Once I asked my mother where we were from.

“We’re from wherever we are. We go wherever your daddy goes,” she said. “Home is where your family is. You’re stuck with us, girl. How about that?” She talks like that.

October 1978: I didn’t want to leave the Philippines; it was my senior year — the year that had been meticulously planned by myself and my friends to be relaxed, all-knowing, confident, sexy (yes, sexy) and the pinnacle of our lifetimes! I had new contact lenses! A new perm!

My life was ruined. Nothing would ever be the same again!

Ok. Rant over.

There was no Google to consult about the possibilities of Kansas. The encyclopedia blandly focused on cattle, corn, wheat, and the beautiful Flint Hills. Which aren’t even really…hills? Actually, they’re more like mounds.

We were already outsiders, of course, but there were others like us already there who were able to help us adjust to Wichita and to America again.

After receiving the news, some of my schoolmates started making comments. They went something like this:

“Damn. Do they even have black people there? What are you going to do?”

“Tell Dorothy we said hi!”

Ironic. It wasn’t too different from what some said when they found out we were leaving New York and going to the Philippines a few years back.

“Damn. Do they even have black people there? What are you going to do?”

“The Philippines? What is a Philippines?”

It was 1975; Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought that October in the ‘Thrilla in Manila’. Five months later, the Jackson Five arrived and the concerts were glorious!

Well, at least, that’s what we heard. We were there! Kind of. Well, We weren’t at the concert. We were on the base in the same country, I mean. We were nearby, ok? Quit asking.

It was national news.

Those we left behind in Plattsburgh AFB, New York? They knew what ‘The Philippines’ was then.

Wichita, Kansas was safe. It was steady. For the most part, jobs seemed to be plentiful. You know those empty, decrepit buildings you see throughout the region? Imagine. In 1978, they were lit up and full of people. There were companies like Boeing, Cessna, and AT&T. They were open 24 hours a day. That was normal.

Can you believe that people actually went on strike because they worked too much? Some years later in Detroit, Michigan, one of our competitors went on strike because of this. As for me? I once worked five months in a row…with no time off. We worked seven days a week.

You had to go in to ask for a Saturday or a Sunday off. It had to be a death in the family or maybe…a wedding or graduation.

You were still penalized when you did.

That was the Midwest.

But I have to confess that I initially did not do too well. Because we moved once again after landing in Wichita, I had to attend two stateside schools that year and worked feverishly in order to graduate on time. I had a good base to work with because the schools in the P.I. were very good (in my opinion) and I have always been an avid reader.

I also met a lot of good white and black people.

No matter. I still endured some pretty grim microaggressions and untainted racism. The bad ones assumed that because of the color of my skin that I needed special help…and if I performed exceptionally good work, well, I cheated. It just wasn’t possible. You didn’t do that.

I wasn’t used to this…

The Philippines wasn’t perfect, but we had so many colors over there. In Kansas, we just had black and white.

Do you really want to know why I went to college? Pride. The summer after high school my plans weren’t final. I had applied to two colleges (imagine) and attended one orientation. But I was still hoping for a white-collar job. I was ready. My typing fingers were hot. I knew I could pass any test around. I was open. Most people I knew didn’t go to college. If I found an opportunity…

But soon it was August. I had been turned down for many reasons. One woman said I failed my grammar test. Lie. Another told me that she was sorry that I hadn’t passed the typing test. Another lie. I had been prepared well by our high school business section for this work. My teacher was strict. She didn’t play favorites (remember the ‘good’ people?) Back then, I even knew (gasp!) shorthand.

I went back to McDonald's.

When the agency finally called in the second week of August I was already packed. We have a job stuffing envelopes, she told me. No thank you, I said. I’m going to college next week.

Thank you for calling.

The Philippines wasn’t perfect, but we had so many colors over there. In Kansas, we just had black and white.

I can’t tell you what it was like in the east or the west. But I can tell you what it was like in downtown Wichita, Kansas in the summer of 1979 for a young black girl.

It was true. Black had to get back.

Even then (like now) Kansas was considered the quintessential American location. Their opinions carried a bit more weight. Perhaps it was because it was in the middle of the United States geographically. They grew things (Breadbasket of America!), or built things (Air Capital of the US!), became teachers or sold insurance. There were banks everywhere. Kansans did solid, easy-to-understand things.

There is stability in that.

So I look at the Kansas of today and wonder — what the hell happened?

The Kansas I remember valued education. They knew that schools, books, and teachers cost money. They were so proud of their educational tradition.

The Kansas that I knew believed in maintenance. That’s what they did. They maintained buildings, tractors, factories, planes, and bridges…they salted the roads and they shoveled snow. They farmed, oh boy, they farmed. Farmers everywhere. They knew how to take care of things. The right way.

They knew that paying taxes created and maintained their standard of living.

This was because the Kansas that I knew was well aware that nothing worthwhile is free.

“Nothin’ is free, Lil gal. So don’t ask.” I can’t tell you how many times some old bad-tempered Kansas farmer told my teen self that. (That involved a nearby fruit orchard…and an overflowing basket, but that’s another story.)

And then, Kansas elected a governor that said that none of those things were important enough to fund properly.

A governor who set the rich and wealthy free from…taxes. These individuals and companies are using the resources of today — that were paid for with the taxes of yesterday.

That governor was elected…twice.

“What about the future,” You ask? Apparently the future will take care of itself.

That is a very un-Kansas attitude.

No, I don’t know the Kansas of today.

Later I went on to marry my college roommates’ brother. D. L. and I moved to Michigan in 85'. We adjusted. We were Midwesterners; he was from Kansas City, I was Midwest adopted, and we were rooted in this region until I became ill. First I would have a cold, then a fever, then bronchitis topped off with pneumonia. It began to occur on schedule every winter. Finally, after years of this, I only needed to cough and it was on…to full-blown pneumonia.

The disease was cheating…it was skipping stages. Was it telling me something? My son said I was allergic to the cold. In 2004, a particularly bad year, I felt like I was dying.

“You should consider moving.” Our doctor said. It sounds quaint, but D.L. and I would go see him together.

“We do move,” I said, kind of indignantly. “We go to the gym regularly.”

He laughed. “No, I mean, you should consider moving to a better climate.”

He was serious.

Within three months we had sold our home and moved to Dallas, Texas.

I haven’t had pneumonia since.

Writer and Observer: Injustice, History, Family, Love, and Politics. Electrical Engineer. Completing First Historical Fiction Novel.

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