Sunday, April 28, 2013

A cluster of rural vignettes in the New York Times

The national page of yesterday's the New York Times featured three stories that present vignettes of rural America.  The stories are from different regions and about very different issues and events, but all rural.

One is a follow up on the recent explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.  (See an earlier post with references to the disaster here).  The headline is "In Texas Blast, Horseman Died Trying to Save Animals He Loved." The story, by Manny Fernandez who reports from Texas for the Times, focuses on Buck Uptmor, 45, one of the 12 men who died "serving officially or unofficially as volunteer firefighters" and first responders.  Uptmor died trying to save his horses, which were in a pasture near the fertilizer facility.  Fernandez provides a vivid vignette of a "a youth baseball coach, a racehorse jockey, a bull-riding and bareback-bronco-riding rodeo cowboy, and the former drummer of the family country band Billy Uptmor and the Makers."

But the story is more about the town of West than it is about a single victim of the April 17 disaster. Fernandez writes of those who died:
They were an unpretentious lot, not unlike the town they died saving. They were deer hunters and Nascar fans, practical jokers and backyard BB gun marksmen. They tinkered with their cars — Kevin W. Sanders, 33, had a Superman logo painted on his — and they went by their nicknames so often for so many years that their real names faded, as happened to Mr. Uptmor. 
They were goateed, mustachioed McLennan County country boys, with wives and ex-wives, children and stepchildren, grown sons and newborn babies.
Call me nostalgic, but I loved--even treasured--this depiction of ordinary, working men in middle America--small-town America.  

The next story definitely does not make me nostaligic.  It is headlined"A Racial Divide Closes as Students Step Up."  The dateline is Abbeville, Georgia, where two Black students and two white students planned the first integrated prom at Wilcox County High School.  Robbie Brown writes:
The rural county in central Georgia is one of the last pockets in the country with racially segregated proms.
That is the story's only reference to rurality, but Brown implies that the persistence of segregated proms has been a phenomenon associated not just with the South--but with the rural South:
Across the South, segregated proms have gradually faded away. In 2008, Charleston, Miss., held its first mixed-race prom after the actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up there, offered to pay for the event. In 2010, Montgomery County, Ga., stopped its segregated proms after they were featured in an article in The New York Times Magazine
Paul Saltzman, who directed a film about Charleston’s desegregation, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” said he did not know of any other proms that were still segregated. 
The population of Charleston is 2,198.  It is in nonmetropolitan Tallahatchie County, population 15,111.  Montgomery County, Georgia is also nonmetropolitan, with a population of 8,963.  

I suppose that one would expect rural places to be more resistant to integration because they tend to be more static and traditional in most regards.  They also tend to fly under the radar of national news scrutiny.  That is obviously less so in relation to high-profile issues like racial segregation, as suggested by what happened in Charleston, Mississippi and Montgomery County, Georgia.   

The third story is really just a photo and its caption.  It shows high school students in Fargo, North Dakota, stacking sandbags in preparation for the crest the Red River.  The caption notes that students have done this each of the last four springs.  I know that Fargo, a city of more than 100,000, is technically not rural, but the NYT so often refers to states like North Dakota as rural in their entirety, so I am taking a similar liberty.  Certainly, what the students are doing reflects what is popularly seen as the spirit of rural community.  

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