by Skye Jalal
At Oberlin, you soon become familiar with a certain chorus of lamentations about life in Ohio. The lead sopranos, I’ve found, are natives of a certain unnamed northern city off the Hudson River, and their cries cover many topics: the winter, the cornfields, the drabness of the suburbs, and so-forth. Listening to them, it’s almost hard to believe that Oberlin is not some large, private-funded prison, but instead somewhere we all elected to attend, and many of our families pay large sums of money to send us to.
In a way, I do sympathize with the struggle. If I came to rural Ohio expecting it to resemble lower Manhattan, I would also probably be pretty disappointed upon arrival. Still, the narrative is tired and I think both the city evangelists and my own eardrums could benefit from some new talking points.
It is a strange relationship, the one between the Oberlin student and the land around us. I felt the strangeness a few weeks ago while shivering in a wedding dress in a small church parking lot near I-71. I was working on a photo project with a friend and we had been driving around all day to different churches in Lorain to take photos. I was cold and uncomfortable, feeling like a trespasser in several ways.
Most acutely, I was aware of my friend and I’s brownness, alone in a space we didn’t belong to, and the bright-veneer whiteness of the dress on my body, making me stand out from the landscape and blend in with the church. It made me nervous. At one point, I pulled a steel pipe from the back of my truck, gesturing to it as my weapon of choice if any white hoods were to come running. It was a joke, but it also wasn’t. We had seen the flags and billboards from the highway while driving over. I had read the news.
Aside from that, I felt like a trespasser in another sense. Scared as I was to be a Black person, I noticed a certain power that I carried as an Oberlin student. Not that I believe in the right of white people to any of this land, and much less so the right of the church, yet I still wondered if it was an entitlement that made me feel so free to use someone else’s sacred space as the backdrop of a photograph. There I was, nervous to sign longer than a 3 month lease on a storage unit in this state, but feeling apt to tell its stories.
I ended up not printing that roll of film. The photos were dark and a little out of focus, but more so, I knew I hadn’t thought about my relationship with the landscape around me deeply enough.
A description of a world-map on the walls of a 1920s British classroom reads, “The world map was red for Empire and dull brown for the rest, with Australia and Canada vastly exaggerated in size by Mercator’s projection. The Green which Meridian placed London at the center of the world.” Unfortunately, many Oberlin students have formed a similar mental map of the world as the imperial British empire - centering what they know in bright red, and everything else that is more rural, more conservative, and quite frankly, poorer, forming a dull brown expanse around it.
There are criticisms to be had about Oberlin’s location in terms of accessibility, however much of the “I hate Ohio” narrative is just a thinly veiled classism. At times, even I am surprised by how readily a blatant hatred of poor people will be admitted on this campus. “Love the Marxist theory, hate the proletariat,” it seems to be. Or perhaps its “Hate the proletariat, love their Carrhartts.”
The town of Oberlin has a poverty rate that is almost double the national average. About 1 in 4. I really do wonder if people know this or care as they complain about the cornfields, the strip-malls, the trailer parks, the visual blandness, the poor transit system, the lack of things to do, and whatever else that is on the agenda. What they are referring to is evidence of economic despair. Oberlin students complain about Ohio as if the communities around us elected to have their cultural centers bulldozed by Dollar Generals. The uncomfortable truth is that the major difference between where many of us came from and Ohio, isn’t a matter of city versus rural, or red versus blue, but a glaring wealth disparity.
It’s a wealth disparity that we are greatly padded from experiencing fully, with regular shopping shuttles and musicians bussed in on the weekly from all over the country. But for some this still isn’t enough. The extreme disgust with having to live like much of America does, the disgust with proximity to the “wrong kind” of poverty, is an ailment that can only be cured with flights home and semesters abroad to European countries. Oberlin complaints about the standard of living here are markedly blind to the fact that other people are experiencing these issues with much greater force.
If not blind to the issues of class, the blanket statements of Ohio disdain carry a heavier weight—a belief that Oberlin students deserve better than the people around us. Aware of the class dynamic, the Ohio-hate then stems from a belief that Oberlin students are uniquely special and undeserving to live in this landscape, entitled to a transit system and bustling nightlife, in a way that the people around us aren’t.
This is why I wouldn’t say that I sympathize with the “Support Gibsons” signs that you’ll see staked around greater Oberlin, but I do recognize how there is a certain depth behind them. I understand how, if you lived in a community where the greatest economic power was constantly bulldozing over residents, laying off workers, and busting unions, and then its students pranced around as if they are supreme human beings, anything taking down Oberlin would be a cause to celebrate.
I say this, because many Oberlin students will justify their unsavory attitudes towards the people around us, with the perceived ideological differences between the college and community. However, this first rejects the porousness between the two communities, and the reality of how Oberlin-esque privilege contributes to the conditions in which ideological extremism is able to breed. Secondly, it rejects the fact that Ohio is not a monolith—it is the land of abolitionists, those who ran away to them. This “Trump Country” is indigenous land.
My mom grew up on the Georgia coast, so I spend many of my summers driving from Atlanta down to Tybee Island to be with my family. The whole island is only three miles long. When work is a mile away and family is even closer, life forms this wonderful orbit around the home. People have the time to labor on their homes and their families, in a way there isn’t the time for in the city. You have the time to pop back home halfway through the workday to water the plants and check if the sourdough is rising.
It's something you can’t really understand from afar. It’s something you can’t fully appreciate unless you’ve spent almost 20 summers with your aunt, watching her leave for work in the morning, coming back midday to make you a salad for lunch, and then arriving at the end of the day with zucchinis from her dads garden to make dinner with the tomatoes from her own, everyday.
A couple weeks ago in Atlanta, I was in a conversation about Georgia beaches, and was surprised to hear the Tybee ocean described as “shit brown.” After looking back at photos, I have to admit, the water does look a little khaki colored. But it was something I had never thought about before.
Me and the person who then went on further to call Tybee a “white trash Seaside”, were both talking about the same three-mile stretch of island. Our difference in perception lied in that we had different metrics for measuring it. In all my summers spent on the island, I had never thought about the clearness of the water. It had never mattered to me.
Compare this to the last time I went to New York, when I spent my time wondering only why parking cost more than my phone bill, and where all the trees ran away to. Different people can experience the same landscape in different ways. Perhaps the perceived lacking of Ohio, isn’t an inherent lacking of the landscape, but a gap in one’s understanding of it.
Last semester, my friends and I went to a “Root Beers and Yesteryears'' event at the Oberlin Heritage Center. We were younger than the median age there, by probably about 40 years. On the side porch of the OHC building, there was a man playing a phonograph recording of Thomas Edison’s speech following the end of WW1. Dressed in 1930s period wear, the man spoke to us from the porch in an assumed trans-Atlantic accent about the history of the RCA dog for almost half an hour, and it was delightful.
There is something special about living here; about the quiet, the grass, and the midnight stumbles down Union Street. It isn’t home, and it probably isn’t where I’ll want to be forever, but it is something different. Perhaps there are other things to be learned from this land. Maybe there are things to be loved and cherished, and possibly somewhere down the line, things that will be missed.