by Teagan Hughes
To paraphrase Chris Tebbetts’ Me, Myself, and Him—a young adult novel I remember nothing else about—2019 was the year I became from Ohio, rather than simply being in Ohio. I grew up in and around Athens, a small college town situated in the southern Ohio foothills. Most of the people I knew and loved while living in Athens were, believe it or not, also living in Athens. The state of Ohio was a fact of life. I knew when beginning my college search that I wanted to stay in Ohio in order to remain close to my family, which eventually led me, as all roads purportedly do, to Oberlin College.
At Oberlin, my Ohioan-ness became an uncomfortable part of my identity. Mentioning my hometown to fellow Obies often elicited a response of “I’m sorry” at varying levels of genuine pity, a response it had never occurred to me to expect. And when it wasn’t pity, it was surprise—as if to say, “oh, I didn’t think you could exist here.” I became distinctly aware of my regional identity, in the same way that you occasionally become aware of—and subsequently struggle to regulate—your breathing or blinking. My home had been shaken loose inside of me. I didn’t know when to mention it and when to keep quiet; I didn’t know how to navigate conversations involving it even tangentially. I tried to write through it—a rambling Winter Term project, a portfolio’s worth of geography-based poetry, venting text messages to my mom—and eventually amassed a body of work that, honestly, just kind of goes in circles. Most of it was, and will remain, private, but there were the occasional public-facing pieces.
I recently reread the first article I published as a Grape Staff Writer, “Cicadas Aren’t Coming to Oberlin This Summer, and Other Myths About Ohio,” from June 2021. In it, I defend the state of Ohio from fellow Obies’ accusations of boringness, worthlessness, and nothingness. I don’t believe, now, that it is as strong of a defense as Ohio deserves. Reading it back, I can feel my nineteen-year-old self walking on eggshells. Referring to the Ohio jokes I still hear on a daily basis (think cornfields), I asked: “Where do these attitudes and misconceptions come from, and how valid is that origin? Are they based on a narrow perspective of our surroundings, or a bigger and more accurate picture? Is it possible that they are rooted in deeper socioeconomic biases that may warrant further examination?” I didn’t provide a definitive answer, despite knowing full well the one I wanted to give. Every claim in the article is couched in a disclaimer or punctuated with the question mark of plausible deniability; the whole thing is characterized by a tone of extreme caution and a willingness to concede.
I was afraid of ruffling feathers. It was my first time expressing these indignant feelings for an audience, and I was afraid of coming off too accusatory or too bitter. I was afraid, too—maybe even more afraid—that no matter what or how I wrote, the premise that I had something worth defending, that I had something worth loving, would be dismissed out of hand. So I tempered myself. My fears were wrong; the response to my article was kind and I remain grateful for it. But I believe that I’m capable of being less tentative now, and I would like to provide a supplement to my second-year self before I graduate and move one state over.
I was inspired to revisit my first article in writing by fellow Editor-in-Chief Saffron Forsberg’s incredible article “Rich Cat, Poor Cat” from the April 14th, 2023 edition of The Grape. I very highly recommend you seek out this article in print or online, at oberlingrape.com. In it, Saffron addresses and refutes the “mythical narrative that Ohio was a place I should think myself too good for,” a narrative manufactured by city-dwellers who routinely express shock that they, the enlightened ones, ended up in such an insignificant place. The sentiment Saffron identifies here is a sentiment that caused a great deal of alienation for me upon moving to Oberlin.
As a first-year, the brand of anti-Ohio-ness that is a staple at Oberlin made me feel very out of place, very quickly. As aforementioned, I heard a lot of “sorry” in my early days. I heard a lot of jokes about cornfields and the “middle of nowhere.” (I used to reenact my experience meeting fellow Obies for my family on breaks: “ugh, I can’t believe I go to school in Ohio, why did I come here, it’s just corn out here, I can’t believe people actually live here, I hate it already…anyway, where are you from?”) I received occasional comments on my at-times-notably-Ohioan voice and manner—the connotation usually being: it’s weird, change it. People would express excessive shock at the places and experiences that had been inaccessible to me growing up (“what do you mean, you’ve never been to a Trader Joe’s?!”), which could cause discomfort for me in social settings, especially when the places or experiences I had apparently missed out on were markedly upper-class. Someone once told me that I was from the worst place anyone could be from, which is a thing no one should ever say to anyone else.
The cornfields and “middle of nowhere” jokes—sometimes boiled down to just the word “Ohio,” spoken in a tone of disgust—are the most common derisive comments I hear, and I have long argued that these jokes are inescapably rooted in classism. In truth, what’s wrong with a cornfield? What’s wrong with a state that has a lot of them? Nothing, or at least nothing unique. But the way that Oberlin students talk about cornfields, or being in the “middle of nowhere,” it becomes a euphemism for “there’s nothing of value here.” The homes, the communities, the land—nothing to see out here. Nothing worth considering, documenting, fighting for, loving.
Oberlin students that aren’t outright dismissive or derisive towards Ohio sometimes treat the state with a strange irony; a “tongue-in-cheek” attitude, as Saffron identifies it in her piece. There’s this pervasive sense among sects of Obies that rural Ohio is perhaps a quaint shoebox diorama that exists solely for their amusement; i.e., the amusement of those who came from, and will someday return to, sizable cities. It’s as if those of us from rural Ohio will stop living our lives once they are no longer visible to others who seek entertainment and enrichment in engaging with us. Some people seem to hold the belief that close observation of curious Ohioan going-ons will ultimately serve the observer by making them a better or more well-rounded person (or, at the very least, giving them a fun little story to tell back home). There’s a style of semi- to fully ironic Ohioan immersion practiced by numerous Oberlin students—oh, isn’t this quaint? Isn’t this cutesy, homey, peculiar?—that serves primarily to belittle and overwrite rural Ohioan narratives. I’ve often witnessed my home flattened into a backdrop—especially for use in student art, which can easily tip over to the wrong side of exploitative.
The belief, subconscious as it is, that rural Ohioans do not lead three-dimensional lives—that our lives only exist when they intersect with “the outside world,” for others’ amusement—is also rooted in elitism and socioeconomic prejudice. It stems from the same place as the outright dismissiveness and disregard discussed above. In Obies’ Ohio, rural Ohioans often become set pieces, if we’re there at all. Our lives, our work, our communities are not significant enough to warrant continuity. This is an attitude that people from cities and suburbs often hold towards rural areas in general; it is not specific to Ohio. Classism and stereotyping aimed at rural areas is inescapable nationwide, especially toward the Midwest, Appalachia, and the South. The Ohioan dimension of it is just uniquely pervasive at Oberlin.
I told myself I was leaving disclaimers behind in writing this piece, but this one feels obligatory: bad things happen in Ohio. Of course they do. Our state legislature is a captured institution—gerrymandered beyond belief—and it is only one of many Ohioan institutions worthy of sharp, sustained criticism and even total overhaul. I don’t mean to say that Ohio is a dreamland. I mean only to say that it is my home.
Ohio is not a wasteland, or a utopia, or a show put on for the enrichment of those unfamiliar with rural life. Ohio is a place. Like any place, it may be hated, idealized, derided, exalted. Like any place, it is a home. I love Ohio dearly. It was not a conscious choice on my part to develop an affection for my home state, but it is a choice to make space for that affection inside of me, and to voice it to others. I do not wish to, nor do I claim to, speak for or represent Ohioans at large. I simply write this piece as a rural Ohioan who thinks that Ohio can be a pretty wonderful place. I want to encourage careful consideration of one’s attitudes toward the state and toward rural areas in general. If undertaken thoughtfully and genuinely, such consideration can be fruitful in helping root out subconscious classism and elitism. It’s worth making a home in Ohio, whether you’ll be here for four years or a lifetime. And it costs nothing to respect those who have.