Every time I go home to El Dorado, Arkansas, I can’t seem to fight the feeling that someone or something is trying to kill me. To reach El Dorado (pronounced “El Do-ray-da), one must fly to either Little Rock, Arkansas or Monroe, Louisiana. It is then a two-hour drive from the airport to the small town of 18,000. As you snake through the roads, surrounded by occasional cow fields or chemical plants or abandoned plantation turf, you’ll notice that there is more roadkill than there are people on the roads. Armadillos, deer, possums, raccoons all scattered in varying degrees of mess. The only animals clever enough to avoid getting hit are the vultures, believing that lighting will not strike twice as they devour the street carrion. After all, how many people voluntarily migrate to El Dorado?
After enough trips to and from this place, the roadkill becomes a game. Who can spot and identify the dead thing first. Deer are easy because they are the largest, and are usually accompanied by a spray of glass from the windshield they did not see coming. Chickens and ducks scatter feathers. One time, we hit a duck and what followed could only be described as an explosion— feathers billowing as if they were remnants of a pillow fight. As a native northerner gone south, I cannot imagine this place without seeing blood in the warm soil.
Whenever I return home, the sunken southern humidity bakes an unsettled feeling into my skin. To my surprise, there are Black people in El Dorado. In fact, nearly 50% of the people living in El Dorado are Black. If you live above the poverty line, you will rarely see them. That’s why they built the railroad. People will tell you that too. There are tracks, quite literally, that were not meant to be crossed.
In town, there is every fast food joint you can think of. A Wal-Mart. An Applebee’s. A local holiday was nearly declared on the Friday that TJ Maxx had its grand opening. For fashion, go to the City Style or Rue 21. The Fish Fry Shack always has fresh catfish. Arkansas is a landlocked state so don’t ask where the catfish comes from. Down the way is the “Klean Kar Wash,” which seems like a questionable use of the letter K. One K short from a white hood, a pitchfork, and proving my initial statement true.
A billboard near town displays a woman holding a shotgun. The message reads “Buy your wife a diamond; receive a free gun.” There is no way to know whether this is a gun store that sells jewelry or a jewelry store that sells guns. But every New Year’s Eve, come midnight, the sky is lit up with exploding metal. There are no fireworks here, but the sound is the same as it is in my other home, West Philly. Too many bullets to keep track of.
What I understand of “The South” is nothing and everything. I expected to be called nigger. I haven’t been. I expected to see confederate flags. I have. I expected to be treated like a foreigner. I haven’t been. I expected to be pulled over and never told what I did wrong. I have been. I expect that there are places, certain bars, certain restaurants, where I still need to look over my shoulder. Not necessarily for fear of harassment (which is certainly still a thing that can and does happen). But for that unspoken too-focused gaze from the wrong eyes. It’s frequent. The lingering look that says something like, “I wasn’t expecting to see someone like you here. In my space. I have my own ideas of what you are too, you know.”