The Kansas Diaries

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A mural in Minneapolis by Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Hernandez.

One day, I came across a singular, thoughtful voice with a heavy Australian accent, narrating everything she saw as she walked down the street, the sound of evening insects and sprinklers behind her. I was struck by the quiet sincerity of the tone in this portrait of a small town, the complete lack of plot. This was The Fitzroy Diaries, a radio series written and performed by Lorin Clarke. Jonathan Mitchell’s The Truth guest-featured two episodes out of Clarke’s eight episodes, which was originally produced by the Australian Broadcast Corporation.

“A woman walks, baby strapped to her chest, through the streets of Fitzroy and Carlton,” the episode description reads. “As she walks, she notices the way the skyline edges upward, nudged by the cranes of developers. And she notices the history of this place, ever-present, despite those cranes.” That’s it, on the surface. Just a woman trying to get her newborn to fall asleep on her nightly strolls, noticing details about her neighbors, strangers sparking curiosity, documenting the comings and goings of people on the streets of her town.

Under the surface of any public observation, power structures flow like a river. The senses that capture the city belong to a body that has a certain place in that city; in my case, a privileged place. The institutions that claim to keep the peace on our streets are actually state-sponsored mechanisms of control, sacrificing the lives of Black, Brown, and poor people for the perceived “safety” of the wealthy and the white. It means something different for a white woman to walk through her American town than it does for a Black or Brown person of any gender. Simply driving (Sandra Bland, Philando Castile), walking (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin), going for a jog (Ahmaud Arbery), sleeping in your own bed (Breonna Taylor), playing (Tamir Rice), going to the grocery store (George Floyd) is reason enough in be accosted, arrested, and killed by cops in America, or in Arbery’s and Martin’s case, American citizens who fancy themselves cops. Almost all of these killings are state-sponsored murder. Exceptional thinking or individual rationales cannot dam the larger fact that we are paying the salaries of those who shoot and kill our own neighbors. It doesn’t matter if someone’s friend or sister or father is a good person on the local police force. It certainly didn’t matter to Minneapolis officers whether or not George Floyd was a good person when an officer murdered him in broad daylight, in cold blood. He was a friend. He was a father.

Like many cities large and small in America, Lawrence’s residents are asking themselves to whom their city belongs. Progressive pockets of Kansans are asking themselves whether their radical abolitionist and anti-war history does any work for the current needs of their most vulnerable citizens. They need to wonder, often and loudly, who their tax dollars protect, and who their tax dollars kill. These questions will show up in public space. These questions will be asked and answered in protests, press conferences, and on ballots, but they will also ripple among quiet conversations, through small acts of kindness or aggression, flashes of civic pride or disappointment, on a handmade sign in a yard.

With the limited subjectivity of my senses, I have spent the last two months trying to witness this as Lorin Clarke’s narrator does, brushing my hand across the surface of my new city, touching tips of root systems and rot and resilience. I take daily walks. Homemade Black Lives Matter signs dot the sweeping lawns of former hippies and tenured University of Kansas professors. Their children write it in chalk on the sidewalks. Activists camp at 11th Street, blocking traffic. I walk through them wondering who to ask how I can help. I pick up trash. Weeks later, my father drinks wine from a thermos in the park. My mother gives me a jar of her sauerkraut, but warns it’s powerful, that I should only take one spoonful at a time. Sitting six feet apart, we watch a group of unmasked white men playing frisbee. Across the street, I CAN’T BREATHE is graffitied over a shuttered ice cream shop downtown. On Sundays I sit with my parents in their backyard in Topeka and we argue about the effectiveness of voting versus protesting. We talk about disenfranchisement and suppression, and what it actually means to “defund the police.” We water the church community garden. Dad shows me the songs he’s been working on in the basement, where my bedroom used to be. I sing along to “A Day in the Life” under my mask, smelling my own breath. On Saturdays I talk to Kansans on the phone in Osage County about a rare Democratic Senate candidate, helping them make a plan to get to the polls. One man tells me he wants change, and that Washington is corrupt, which is why he supports Donald Trump. Another woman tells me to stay out of her business. I sit with my mother on the steps of the state judicial building and tell her I can’t canvas for the Senate candidate anymore. When she asks why, I tell her the candidate is too moderate. We sweep up the discarded ends of the green beans we’ve been eating. I check out the candidate’s new opponent, a recent graduate, a leftist. On his website, he pledges not to use Facebook to advertise. On the path along the river, I pass by farms. Sometimes I just stand and watch the horses. I send a message to my online therapist, canceling her services. When the prompt asks me why, I click ‘financial’ and type: health insurance gone. I consider canceling my dues for the union in Mississippi, too, but I don’t. I won’t. In Kansas City, the air is smokey on the Fourth of July. I stand on the bridge over the highway on 56th street, drinking sparkling water out of a can. Gold explosions pop all the way out to the suburbs. Just a few blocks away, the baby of my childhood friend is falling asleep in the house she and her husband bought last year. I didn’t tell her I was here.

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