It’s a small dot `just thirty minutes south of Pine Bluff, and about an hour from the Louisiana line.’ There were always corny jokes like that. Or another one I heard over the years, `if you dare blink your eyes you’ll find yourself in the next town, or maybe inside Cummins Prison farm.’ This was how my hometown was described back in the day…the good old days, before the political wrangling and violence began.
Back then, I snickered right along with others at the self-deprecating jokes, even after I realized we were really only trying to beat outsiders to the punch of laughing at our small town. Petticoat Junction, Arkansas, some called it. Back then, we didn’t self-analyze about why it was we’d denigrate the town’s rich history, and good people. Sometimes, if the jokes became more than I could stomach, I’d half-heartedly redeem myself with some weak retort, like: “You may be right, but, it’s my Petticoat Junction…and, always will be.”
Most recently, though, my heart has gone back and forth between that childish pride and an adult disgrace as I’ve watched my little town bare its tattered underwear for the world to see. My weak refrain of yesterday hasn’t disappeared. In fact, today it is a purposeful, thoughtful position; a genuine, and unconditional pride in my past and the place I call home. Gould remains my little town. It is who I am, my place of birth, my childhood, my coming of age through the 50s and 60s; that place where years of living and sharing, engraved something deep and permanent inside my heart. A love that I’ve never been able to recreate in other cities …even the most exciting and exotic ones I called home for a while.
The truth is, I’ve spent much more time in the small town of Gould as an adult than I ever did growing up. I’m not counting the hours I toiled under the eagle eyes of my teachers at Fields Elementary and Gould High school, or the more enjoyable times on the football field, or gym floors cheering the Gould High Panthers on. The balance of my childhood, though, was spent out on Varner Road – five miles outside the city proper. There, I learned the real life lessons – just how long cotton rows can be; just how unwieldy my dreams could get, and how scary Revelations was when the pastor preached on Sunday evenings. Gould, and Varner Road taught me the values that remain with me today- that hard work, family, education and faith are the foundations for life. And, that you never turn your back on the person or the place that helped make you.
Certainly, mine and my siblings’ childhoods were different from most of the “town” kids. But, surely, ours were not the only parents to instill the invaluable life lessons. Gould was home to all of us, even if we dreamed of being somewhere else when we became adults. I vividly recall that a number of my classmates spent summers “away;” in Chicago, Detroit, even California and St. Louis! Their return from their travels in September was almost as exciting for me as my leaving the cotton fields and returning to school.
I lived vicariously through those lucky students’ summer experiences, excitedly listening as they shared those awesome experiences with the unlucky ones like me. I’d later notice that it was these very same summer travelers who bragged to visitors that they weren’t really born in Gould; that they were actually from Chicago or St. Louis, or Milwaukee. They weren’t country, like the rest of us.
The insinuation, of course, was that small, rural towns were naturally backward, even embarrassing; and that cities like Chicago and Milwaukee were not only bigger, but better.
Even then, my pride in my small town of Gould remained intact. In spite of how exciting my classmates’ travels were, what I treasured most was my feeling of security in this small world of mine, and the people who made Gould what it was to me.
Now, even as I cringe at the television pundits, the newspaper articles and radio jokes in response to the bad politics playing out in my home town; I am no less proud of the Gould that helped shape me, helped propel me to the place and person I am today. Even, my anger and incredulity at the sad undertakings won’t make me disown, or turn my back, or change what I feel for my town.
I am not an apologist for the city of Gould. I do not apologize for its past, or excuse the more recent political shenanigans, or shameless violence. And, as one who has proudly cast my lot as a native of the small town…the face it has shown the world these last few months is almost enough to make me want to hide my head in shame, almost…but my past, and my memories won’t allow it.
I am Gould. The small town runs deep in my veins and in my heart, and was part of the endless dreams of my childhood, and who I was all those years before I left for college and found my niche in life. And, because of this…because of that history, and that knowledge, no five or ten, or 15 people in my hometown can change what I know, what I hold dear…that place in my heart.
It is the memory of the people of Gould, those who shared my experiences, and helped shape my destiny that hold fast. The recent death of two educational icons, who gave so much to the families and the children of Gould, reminds me as much as anything, of what Gould was for youngsters like me. A.C. Johnson and his beautiful wife, Frances, came to Gould as strangers, in the 50’s; but left some decade later as much a part of the fabric of the town as any of us born there. Like so many others, they brought with them a pure heart and good intentions, seeing something worth staying for. And, in return, they made a world of difference in the city’s landscape. It is that history that tell me that Gould must survive this bad turn.
I am Gould…and, no small-town political warfare can erase what I remember about my home. Memories of parents like TJ and Ethel Kearney who toiled and sacrificed to make their 19 children productive human beings; of Rosie Jones, that wonderful young teacher who enhanced my already budding love of reading and books; of Pat Craig, the kind instructor at the “white school” who believed that the color of mine and my sister’s skin weren’t natural deterrents to our learning; or Melvin Caldwell, who nurtured my love of history that began at my father’s knee; or Pat Failla, whose humor and intellect stretched my mind as he taught the elements of science and chemistry…and, how life was different, and the same, on the other side of the tracks. But, this list is only a fraction of the people who touched our lives, and reshaped our futures and made Gould what it is to people like me. These people, and my memories of those times, allow me to love Gould, unconditionally… even with these most painful recent events.
And, lest we forget… we must not forget that history is an unyielding teacher. That part of our lives we fail to address and resolve, in time, returns to haunt us; always finding a way to rear its ugly head. Gould, like so many other small rural towns, is a victim of its history and past; a product of centuries of missed opportunities. A town stifled by what should have been, and by its refusal to change when change was inevitable.
Now, today, it is a town yearning to grow out of its past, wrestling with the insidious scars left decades before – racism and oppression and hopelessness that infiltrated so many other small southern towns, propelling the great migration, bringing the era of King Cotton to an end, hurrying the demise of communities, commerce, and quality education. What city can prosper and grow without these basic values?
While our pasts do not oblige us to forget the meaning of democracy or disregard the law, the unadulterated truth is that Gould is much, much more than what the world witnessed these last months. As a daughter of the Arkansas Delta, and of the town whose image has suffered, I implore those looking in from the outside to remember: Gould is made up of real people, real families, and a rich history mixed with both good and bad that predates the recent news stories. It is a town with promise and possibility, and one that –with any luck, and lots of hard work–will see itself out of this recent shameful period. I believe in that possibility because I am a product of its past.
I am Gould, still proud, and ever hopeful.
Janis F. Kearney is a native of Gould, Arkansas. She is founder and publisher of Writing our World Publishing, an Arkansas-based micropublishing company, and author of five books, including Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir, an historical perspective of Gould, and a narrative on hers and her family’s extraordinary lives as cotton sharecroppers. The author and publisher purchased the Arkansas State Press Newspaper from Daisy Gatson Bates, in 1988. She also served as Personal Diarist to President William Jefferson Clinton from 1995-2001.