Where are you from?

“I was born in Kansas, I was bred in Kansas
And when I get married I’ll be wed in Kansas.
There’s a true blue gal who promised she would wait
She’s a sunflower from the Sunflower State.”

Some bullshit, huh?
I learned those words as a first grader in Custer Hill Elementary School at Fort Riley army base near Junction City, Kansas. About a month ago, traveling with my youngest son (a 2-year-old) I found my way back to the school, atop a hill in one of the housing areas. We pulled into the parking lot and I told him that when I was little, this was my school.

“When Dada was little,” he repeated.

We drove down the hill, past the duplex where my mother and four brothers and I lived while my father did his tour in Vietnam. My memory is of a field that stretched empty and far in those days. What I found during my visit was a grassy area, a line of trees, another grassy area, and row of houses behind it.

We left Kansas after about a year and a half there, but we returned in the early 70s, in time for me to begin seventh grade, and I stayed until the mid-80s. So I spent many of my most formative years there, but being a black person from Kansas is not an uncomplicated condition. Then and now, I receive some “You’re not from around here, are you?” looks and comments. And there have been times when I wished I wasn’t (during, for example, the whole creationism-in-the-schools period), but the truth is that the prairie in general–its landscape and weather and culture–helped to shape me. I ran on dirt roads during cross-county and track seasons; I’ve felt the relentlessness of prairie winds; I’ve been whipsawed by the wild weather fluctuation; and I’ve come to love the wide, sky-dominated view.

Now that I’m back in the region, a place to which I often thought I’d never return, I find myself thinking about that, about how the prairie feels like home and not like home. So that’s one of the things I want to figure out.


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