In my last post, I explored the fact that so many people at the end of When the Levees Broke chose to identify themselves through association with their home city, proudly declaring their having been “born and raised” in New Orleans. In fact, I did more than examine this facet of the documentary–I celebrated it. I wrote, of the cast’s proud proclamations of their New Orleans origins, “I see this as not only a testament to the richness of the culture and life in New Orleans… but also as a testament to the inspiring pride and strength of the people of New Orleans.” While I have not changed my perspective of this scene as inspiringly beautiful, further reflection upon its implications has positioned the scene in my thinking as a springboard for further exploration of the notion of being “born and raised” in one place and continuing to live in that place through adulthood.
While this concept might seem pretty straightforward–so you live in the same place you grew up, big deal–staying in (or returning to) the place a person comes from actually carries with it a whole host of implications for the kind of person you might be if you choose this path and how others will perceive you if they know you’re living in your hometown/city in your adult life. My foremost reason for pursuing exploration of this subject is to remind us, myself especially, to be careful not to romanticize New Orleans people and/or culture (to draw the line between appreciation/respect and romanticization, if you will) and to remain grounded in the multitude of both/ands that constitute our reality.
I became a bit wary of my own romanticization of New Orleans’s people being “born and raised” there, but I have come to conclude that I am not falsely romanticizing their deeply rooted history and culture by celebrating peoples’ lives being spent in one place. I do think it’s a beautiful thing, and I recognize my own bias here; I was born on a farm in a very small rural town, and my family has lived on this land since my great-great grandparents dropped the O’ from their surnames and began to call the United States home. For generations my family has been born and raised in the same place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While I cherish my roots, though, I am also keenly aware of the stigma that so often comes along with being “born and raised” in a place and continuing to call one’s hometown/city “home” past their childhood years. Granted, I know I’m still young and I don’t know where my life will take me in the future–maybe I’ll leave, maybe I won’t; maybe I’ll return home one day, maybe I won’t–already, though, I have experienced people’s reactions when they find out I haven’t necessarily “left” home, and the reactions are usually less than gleaming. When I tell people I come from a town not more than thirty minutes from Geneseo, this is usually returned with a puzzled look and questions about why I didn’t want to “get away” or assumptions of how I “must be sick to death of it here by now”. An intimate awareness of the common negative perceptions of people who live in their hometowns/cities in their adult lives made it all the easier for me to see the beauty in the pride with which New Orleans natives proclaimed their roots at the end of Levees, but I feel compelled to attend to the far less positive perceptions of being “born and raised” that exist in our society, too. I feel that this will help me draw the line between romanticization and respect.
Of course, I cannot assume that personal experiences account for anything more than just that, so I’ve done some research to find both facts and perceptions of people who spend their lives in the places where they were “born and raised.” In a 2008 study, the Pew Research Center found that 37% of the study’s participants had never left their hometown, citing the following reasons for their having stayed put: family ties, hometowns being “good places to raise children,” and a sense of belonging. People who left their hometowns, on the other hand, cite job or business opportunities as the most common reason for their moving to a new community.
A vox.com article cites a study of more than 300 people at high school reunions, with an apparent goal of figuring out “why people returned to their hometowns after leaving for whatever reason.” The article jumps at lightning-quick speed from introducing the circumstances of this apparent study to purporting some pretty stark “findings”–the article says, “Those who stayed in their hometown tend to be less educated, less wealthy, and less hopeful. They tend to be less open to other cultures and less open to immigrants. Ultimately, they tend to be more likely to support Donald Trump.” This article makes some pretty impressive leaps in logic and, while some of its assumptions might carry some truth, the piece is generalizing to an offensive degree.
And then there’s this little gem I found at the online magazine Thought Catalog, entitled, “Please, Please Leave Your Hometown If You Care About The World At All.” Because she is “from a relatively small town… where most people don’t leave,” this author feels as if she has the authority to say that “By staying in your hometown you never grow, you never change and you never challenge yourself. Ever. You might think you are, but you’re not.” Granted, this is written on a site where there’s a trendy clothing ad consuming half the webpage and a full-screen Capital One ad popped up as soon as I entered the site, but still—it’s important to note that this kind of stuff is out there, and this is a very real mindset held by some people. I think it’s a wonderful thing to experience new people and places and cultures and challenges, and obviously one cannot have these particular kinds of formative experiences if they never leave their hometown. Still, to say that “if you care about your country at all, you’d leave your hometown” seems awfully brash–this author clearly thinks there’s nothing wrong with making a statement like this, though, and she’s not alone in her sentiments. A simple internet search pulls up countless articles containing warnings about “what never leaving your hometown does to your brain” and urgent reasons why “you need to move away from your hometown.”
In Unfathomable City, Rebecca Solnit writes the following:
“…I began to tell people elsewhere that New Orleans’s exiles had lost things most of us hadn’t had for generations. Maybe our great-grandparents before they emigrated or our grandparents before they left the farm or the small town or the old city… had the deep sense of belonging that comes from extended family, intricate and warm social relations woven into the fabric of a place, long memory, customs and rites, a sense of history, and the stability of a life lived in one place” (7).
The “deep sense of belonging” that Solnit admiringly describes in this passage is part of what was so beautifully displayed at the end of Levees when cast members proudly announced their status as “born and raised” in New Orleans. With this admiration, though, it is also important be aware and mindful of the negative assumptions and prejudices that many people hold for those who enjoy the “stability of a life lived in one place.” It is my hope that an awareness of these common assumptions about people who remain where they are “born and raised” might lead people to push back against these generalizations and realize that while a person’s place of residence might tell us a whole lot about a person, it might also leave out very important pieces of an individual’s story.