The draw for me, though, the thing that has kept me coming back even after I've moved away from home and into an urban area, is the people. I see people that I grew up with and family members. We share food and stories. It is a connecting zone. It's just a bonus that my daughter gets to run around over dusty fairgrounds, riding in toy trains and World Fair-era merry-go-rounds.
Some of the best traits of rural living are captured in this small town festival: the friendly greetings, the eclectic collection of handmade goods, the wide open fields in beautiful fall weather, and the ethic of hard work underscoring it all.
That hard work is so prevalent that, at one point, my daughter literally crawled onto the ground and fell asleep in the grass.
Unfortunately, this festival also represents some of the worst aspects of small town living: a narrow-mindedness that can be blindingly cruel. I wrote a long time ago, when I first started this blog, about the sale of racist figurines at one of the booths at this festival, but what we saw this year was even more disturbing. (Warning: I'm going to post some pictures of racist memorabilia that many will find offensive and disturbing.)
Among these tents of knick knacks, homemade soaps, and plastic bracelets was one shaded on three sides by dark green tarps. Inside, the tables were covered with glass-enclosed cases, the middle rows filled with knives of various sizes. Along the outside tables, there were an assortment of historic buttons, coins, and signs, including several reminders of the most racist parts of human history.
KKK membership badges, slave shackles, a "Keep Out" sign with a swastika, and a segregated railroad restroom sign all adorned the inside of this family-friendly festival booth.
I know the arguments against my outrage. Yes, these are real pieces of American history. No, I do not want to erase or deny the veracity of that history. That's why the presence of these exact same pieces in, say, a museum exhibit would not bother me. After much reflection, I think there are two things that made them so problematic in this venue.
Profiting off Terror
First of all, someone is profiting from these pieces of American history. The fact that someone's flesh and blood were once in those shackles makes them more valuable. The fact that the KKK badge was once held by someone who terrorized and murdered human beings now earns its peddler cold hard cash. Of course, I can only speculate to the familial history of the person selling these wares, but I feel fairly confident in saying that the person making the money is not someone who identifies with the members of these oppressed groups. He is profiting off of his white privilege and the history of genocide, terrorism, and bloodshed that made it possible. That's sickening.
I have never seen anyone actually purchase one of these things, and--as far as I can tell--the cases usually stay pretty full. Perhaps that means that the good people of this small town have no stomach for such disgusting paraphernalia. At the very least, it probably means they don't want to shell out the better part of a week's paycheck for trinkets of terror that they can't really do anything with. The knives in the middle cases are likely drawing the attention of hunters as they have practical application.
But what does it mean that so many people can walk into this tent, see these items, and continue to casually browse the rest of the selection? It requires a dangerous cognitive dissonance to tell ourselves that just because we aren't buying those things means that we aren't helping the man who's selling them.
This was the only booth I saw with such blatantly racist messages. Elsewhere, though, there were displays of a conservative ethos that's clearly tied up with the deep political divide in America.
One booth had dozens of Second Amendment signs. Row after row of metal placards quipped things like "Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Owner" with a cartoon gun staring down the center. "What Part of 'Shall Not' Do You Not Understand?" another read. Absurdly, there was a handwritten sign clipped to the front of this entire tent with "SeLF DeFeNSE" scrawled on it. Another booth had raffle tickets for guns.
Surrounded by knives, guns, and a firm statement of "self defense," those tokens of historic terrorism take on a decidedly contemporary feeling. With the Trayvon Martin case still weighing heavily on my mind and the stories of all the times the same "stand your ground" defense has not been working for shooters of color, the meaning is disturbing.
The attendance at this event is almost entirely white. There are a handful of people of color scattered amongst the crowds, and my husband and daughter are among them. The casual acceptance of KKK buttons and slave shackles, though, does cast some pretty deep boundaries. How are people of color supposed to feel welcome in this environment?
An Urban Perspective
I've been re-reading the words I just wrote and putting myself into the shoes of my potential readers.
I know that I will have several very progressive (and likely urban) friends who will read the description of what was in those booths with horror. How, some of them might wonder, can I even think of bringing my family to such a backwards place?
At the same time, some of my friends from this small town will be reading with horror as well. How, they are probably thinking, can you misrepresent us so badly? We don't even know the man who sold those things (they likely travel around the country to these different events) and the festival is about so much more than that. We're not racist, and we love your family.
My response is somewhere in the center of these two reactions. I know that most of the people at this event harbor no ill will toward my family, and many of them I personally know and love. Getting the chance to see them, share the day with them, fellowship in this idyllic place carved out of the land is a beautiful thing. But those images sear into my mind. There's a very real chance that the people selling those things would hurt my family if they could, and the presence of these tokens seems like a banner designed to remind us of that.
Underpinning all of this is the fact that we left the festival in the early afternoon and returned to our home in the city. There was another festival going on a few miles from our house. Several blocks of the city streets were closed for a dance festival. After many professional displays of dancing from a plethora of cultures, age groups, and styles, we were all invited to dance together.
Filling the stage at the front and the streets around us were young and old faces of many colors smiling and laughing together (sure, they played "Blurred Lines" twice, so it wasn't exactly a perfect sea of human equality). There were booths set up along the streets selling handmade crafts and local restaurants' food. I tried to imagine, for a minute, what would happen if the man selling the KKK buttons had tried to set up shop here. I don't suspect he would have felt very welcome.
And he shouldn't. He shouldn't feel welcome as the profiter of hate. At the end of the day, I want to be among people who stand up against that display, and that is why I can't ever imagine taking my family to live out of the city.
While my country family often worries aloud for my safety as they watch the images of urban violence fill the news, I can't figure out how to get across to them the fact that the real fears for the safety of my family that keep me up at night rest not in the shadowed city alley mugger but in the sly smile of an overall-clad flea market booth proprietor.
Update: After I wrote this, I sent a message to the association that organizes the event to voice my dismay at seeing these things. They responded that they do police what they sell, but that these sneaked past them and promised to fix it for future events. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that someone is profiting off of these pieces of terror, but it does mean that it won't have to be such a terrible reflection on my hometown and this quaint festival.