The Legend of ANNA
June 5, 2020 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Revisiting an American Town Where Black People Weren’t Welcome After Dark Most people I met in Anna, Illinois, wish the racist lore behind the city’s name would go away. So why hasn’t it?

If Anna has changed, how?

Today, Anna is one of the whitest municipalities in southern Illinois — according to the 2010 census, 95.7% of its citizens are white — and its black population hasn’t changed much since that modest uptick nearly 40 years ago, according to census data.

There is some progress: Smith, 38, moved to Anna in 2016 with her six children: Arieh, 19; Atarah, 18; Amiyah, 16; Arojae, 15; Asaiah, 12; and Aseana, 11. Smith thought hers was the only black family in Anna when she arrived, though she thinks a few more families have moved in since.
posted by shoesietart (15 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This is a really great article. Thanks for posting it.

The biggest issue with the people in somewhere like Anna is that most of them probably believe they aren't racist. The man at the beginning of the article who explains what Anna stands for probably believes he is not racist.

And because they live in a place where their attitudes and base assumptions are never challenged -- because there are essentially no African-Americans in Anna -- this will not change.

The same thing is true for the "privilege-bubble" whites I grew up with in Mississippi who chose to stay. (I say chose; these are all at least middle-class people who all had the means and opportunity to venture out, but instead chose to make their lives in Mississippi.)

Most live and work and associate pretty much only with their own privileged class of professionals and other high-caste merchants (insurance, accounting, etc.), attend very white protestant churches, and send their children to schools founded in 1954 [1]. (I have consciously left out medicine here; my experience with physicians there is more positive, maybe because hospitals are by default pretty diverse socioeconomically, and it's harder to silo yourself?)

They are, at least superficially, nice people. They will do anything for you. If one of you were going to be in Jackson or Hattiesburg or Oxford for work, it would be a trivial thing for me to ask one of these people to meet you out for dinner, and they'd do it, for an unseen and unknown Internet stranger. I am not exaggerating.

But if you spend enough time around them, the unexamined assumptions start to show. People say absurd things just like these Anna residents, like "That's not the Mississippi I know" or "Racism is not a problem here, at least no moreso than in the rest of the country."

These statements are transparently false, but these people aren't lying to you, because they believe them. They live in a white world, full of white privilege, that allows -- encourages! demands! -- that you ignore that which does not comport with your view of yourself and your community.

This also leads to darker, more specific lacunae. For example, the lawyer my family used for decades -- the son and grandson of attorneys, who went on to join his family firm -- was IN LAW SCHOOL AT OLE MISS with James Meredith matriculated in 1962, but to this day insists it was all overblown and that he doesn't remember any unrest -- and never mind that the Ole Miss Riot of 1962 is literally on Wikipedia.

I don't know how to address this. You can't force people to leave these monochrome, monoculture places. Attempts to insist places like this grapple with their past -- or, shit, that the United States as a WHOLE confronts its past -- have thus far had only spotty success. For a place like Anna, with limited opportunity anyway, it seems more likely that the town will eventually wither and die like so many other small towns. For a whole state, like Mississippi, well, I dunno. But I doubt its future is any brighter.

[1] There is a private school in Jackson founded before 1954. Liberal residents of Jackson send their kids there, mostly. It's affiliated with the local Episcopal cathedral.
posted by uberchet at 11:26 AM on June 5, 2020 [32 favorites]

I grew up in St Clair County not far from this story. My much larger home town was de facto segregated with a widely known "not after sunset" police force until the early 1990s. I'm happy to report that on recent trips the racism is less in the open than when I grew up there, and the overt segregation ended. I'm sad to report that the racism is still seething under the surface and doesn't take much to bring out into the light.

I'm nauseated seeing a fucking confederate battle flag in The Land of Lincoln.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 11:30 AM on June 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

uberchet is right about Mississippi. My Delta hometown does not have a lot of surface unrest, even at times like these when you would expect it. But it operates as two parallel cities--the white and the black. Black citizens are the majority and largely populate the city government, which is disparaged behind its back by the white (and Chinese, and Lebanese) minority, who have the money, the property, the private schools, and the cultural cachet. This isn't a sustainable state of affairs; younger, well-meaning white property owners are working across racial lines today to help fix the town, but it's slow going because of *waves hands* everything.

"I mean, at what point do we heal instead of coming back and going, ‘Let’s rip this wound open again?’"

I wish people would quit saying this. There is indeed a class of wounds that will superficially heal if given mild treatment, while beneath the skin infection develops and creates a necrotic core. Sometimes wound treatment requires opening the wound further, debriding it, packing it with gauze and medications, and draining it periodically. Even then, it will be slow going. That's a better metaphor, if you want one.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:44 AM on June 5, 2020 [38 favorites]

younger, well-meaning white property owners are working across racial lines today to help fix the town, but it's slow going because of *waves hands* everything.
That slow-going is good work, and I'm glad someone's doing it, but a HUGE chunk of smart kids in Mississippi leave the state after high school with no intention of ever returning. For example: I was one of EIGHT National Merit finalists at my high school in 1988. Only ONE stayed. That's not a great ratio.

In large part, the people that stay like it the way it is.
posted by uberchet at 11:57 AM on June 5, 2020 [9 favorites]

And yeah, the esteemed Countess is spot on, metaphor-wise. If you heal over a wound without removing infection, you get an abscess and sepsis and all kinds of trouble later.

Just saying.
posted by uberchet at 12:00 PM on June 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

Lately I've been thinking that American Racism is like alcoholism. The alcoholic is the person with the problem, but the impact is primarily felt by those around them. Racism is undeniably white people's problem. What makes it difficult for us to address is that our problem affects people of color instead of ourselves.

Much like addiction, we can't begin to address the problem until we admit we have one. And while many of us white people can admit there is a problem, there are many many places like Anna and Mississippi where people cannot admit this.

I feel like we need some sort of support group for white people to address their racism. I am not sure how to do this while trying to avoid the danger of excluding the voices of people of color. But these sessions will not be pretty and I fear the conversation would be very difficult for people of color to hear. But much as us white people will never know what it is like to be black or brown, only white people really know what it is like to BE racist (in this way) and I feel like those of us who have figured out how to move even a little bit in the right direction should be able to help bring along those who have not...

I'm not able to make a statement about what should be yet, but I guess I'm just processing here on a Metafilter thread. I am just hopeful we can make progress, but saddened when I see things like what I've read in the article.
posted by keep_evolving at 12:08 PM on June 5, 2020 [7 favorites]

I grew up in Buffalo, NY and then lived in Southern Illinois (in the towns of Carbondale, Murphysboro, and Cobden) for several years in the early 2000s.

Buffalo is racist. Still, I was shocked and horrified at the extremely overt racism in that area of the midwest. Southern Illinois is called so because there was an effort to secede from the rest of the state during the civil war.

I ran around with a crowd self-proclaimed hippies, and cannot express the bizarre reality of people who THINK they love reggae music and white power.

I decided I had to leave because the issue was so pervasive and the people I was around could not acknowledge it. Agree that they don't think it's their town or their family values that are utterly racist. I was told multiple times to never visit Mississippi or Alabama if I "didn't like it here". I am disturbed but not in the least surprised that no one ever told me how the town of Anna got the name.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 12:17 PM on June 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

This article hit close to home. I grew up in a tiny town in Indiana near the Illinois border. As a teenager in the early 00s, I wondered why there were only a couple black kids in my school, but I always just figured it was because it had always been all white people, and there was no reason for anyone new to move there. It was only in college that I learned about sundown towns and their legacy in shaping the demographics of the rural midwest.

I think it's hard to really get a grasp on racism as a kid when your community is almost all white people-- you don't really see it as much if you're also white and there aren't many non-white people around to be targeted. The black kids at my school definitely got some of the treatment that the article is talking about, where they were superficially welcomed and showcased as proof that the community could embrace black families and didn't see race. I think it's easier for people in these kinds of homogenous white places to believe that they're 'post-racial', or maybe 'post-racial except for, you know, a few bad eggs that fly confederate flags but what are you gonna do some people are just stuck in the past, but Bobby's a nice guy really just don't bring your black date around him hahaha.'

A few days ago I somehow came across a facebook post from someone in the county I grew up in, which had been shared 450+ times. It said that 'someone at Marathon [gas station]' had told her that there were 'three buses of people coming down from Chicago' to loot and riot so stores should close early and people should be ready.

It was like a gut punch to see that. I don't know what you do with that level of racist delusion. I don't know if it can be fixed. It was heartening that there were a lot of younger people calling it out as bullshit and fear mongering, but when you really push those people do they believe any different than their parents? I don't know.

It made me think about what people like me who leave these communities owe to them/the rest of the world in terms of dragging them toward awareness-- I think other people tend to overestimate how much clout those who have left have among anyone besides family, but it's more than other people do I suppose. I think the person who probably did the most anti-racist work in the county was my high school English teacher who has since moved away. I still see her on social media pushing new viewpoints of 20 years worth of students-- but she was special in the way that she was able to really relate to everyone, especially the kids that others didn't think were going anywhere.
posted by geegollygosh at 12:59 PM on June 5, 2020 [8 favorites]

Why would you owe the community you grew up in anything if you no longer live there?

I looked around me where I came from and knew I’d leave, for a whole host of reasons. We all have an obligation to work for change where we live, but I refuse to accept any responsibility for Mississippi.
posted by uberchet at 1:04 PM on June 5, 2020 [7 favorites]

A couple of observations about Anna and Illinois:

1) One of the things that I realized after going through southern Illinois for the first time (when I was well into adulthood, despite being from this state, trips down I-55 not counting) was that the southern halves of quote-endquote Union states could be considered essentially Southern in character; if you extend the Mason-Dixon line west to the Mississippi River, you bisect Ohio just south of Columbus, Indiana just south of Indianapolis, and Illinois just south of Springfield, cutting each state into a Great Lakes half and an Ohio River Valley half, with startlingly different characters.

2) That shouldn't be taken as a claim that "all the prejudiced people are down there" or anything nearly like it. Chicago was, and for all I know still is, the most segregated city in the nation, geographically anyway, and Laquan McDonald is still fresh in everyone's mind; Lori Lightfoot's election didn't change things overnight any more than Harold Washington's did, and it's striking how many white Illinoisans seem to still think that the biggest scandal in a decade was Jussie Smollet's alleged faking of an attack on himself.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:09 PM on June 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

The thing about "busloads" of "those people" coming in to do whatever always seems to come from people living in the most boring suburbs or tiny towns. Like yeah, three busloads of black people have nothing better to do than drive three hours to rob your Piggly Wiggly or set fire to your Ford Explorer.

Similarly, my brother, who lives in the middle of nowhere, was blathering once about terrorist cells attacking local towns. He got mad when I asked if he really thought Al Qaeda was going to bother driving five hours from the closest airport to blow up his cow pasture.
posted by emjaybee at 4:23 PM on June 5, 2020 [28 favorites]

Smith told me her family feels pressure to always be on its best behavior. “I mean, that’s just how we were taught,” she said. “Act like the camera’s on, act like somebody is following you, act like somebody is watching you, because nine times out of 10, they are.”
OMG, I read that and shuddered. This was THE most exhausting thing about living in Milwaukee. Even on my ghetto blocks, there were always a few white people who hadn't left after the main white flight of the late 60s and early 70s. And they were watching us. Calling the cops. Acting affronted if someone spoke to them. Thanks to the sort of schools I went to, most times I was the only black kid in class, and usually the poorest. I had this performative "See? I'm nice and middle-class acting! I'm a good person! I'm no threat! Please leave me be!" bullshit drilled into me, and it made no difference. We were still seen as people who didn't belong, and I still got called the N-word in class by white boys (the white girls simply didn't speak to me unless they were forced to by a teacher).

NYC is fucked up racially, no doubt (I've been to Staten Island a few times with friends to a particular pizza place, and the glares from the customers that I got were so exaggerated as to be comical. One day I think I'll go just to tell them my father's family are from the Tuscany region and Avellino to watch their heads explode). But I don't have to perform any sort of persona to make white people comfortable; they know here that black and Hispanic folks will not be cooning for them. I can't imagine what it's like in Anna.
posted by droplet at 5:17 PM on June 5, 2020 [9 favorites]

Ten years ago, Patrick Carr and Maria Kalefas’s Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America was published. It’s a study of why high achieving kids in small towns through Iowa rarely return to those towns to begin their adult lives after college or the military, and although the book is framed through a predominantly economic lens, what stuck with me on reading it were the anecdotes in which kids from these towns would head off to University of Iowa or Iowa State, then come home a semester or a year later because they couldn’t handle the size and diversity of their college population. Being around people who didn’t automatically know who they were, being around people who didn’t share the same cultural experiences growing up — that was a real metaphysical crisis for them.

(University of Iowa’s student body is 83.2% white; Iowa State’s is 74.2% white.)

I have wondered to this day how much of following through on “I’m leaving because I’m not surrounded by people just like me who confirm my societal identity” comes down to temperament and how much comes down to how one was raised. I sometimes think that there’s a fundamental temperament thing to address, that people who stay in places like Anna don’t want to address the history and attitudes of those places because it’s another challenge to their identity and they’re already living in a country and a world that isn’t centering their experiences and values as normal.
posted by sobell at 11:02 AM on June 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Fizz and I were just discussing the “Anna” acronym when he joked (and I am posting this here with his permission) that he’d find his own town and name it “Fawp.”

I’ll let you folks guess what that one stands for!
posted by nightrecordings at 6:00 PM on June 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

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