As a little way to clean my palate between trips, I enjoyed a short lecture tour around the USA this last week–giving talks in the Midwest (Sioux Falls, Fargo, and Des Moines), New York (Albany and Rochester), and Alabama (Auburn). At these locations I found myself talking to (and with) librarians at their regional convention; TV and radio station staff and their supporters; venerable women’s club members at their lecture series; and professors, administrators, and foreign-study program staff at universities. I met people both proud of their cities and curious about the world.
While I was hired to share what I’ve learned through my travels, I enjoyed learning from the people who hired me to teach. In Alabama I explained how the anti-USA graffiti travelers encounter is not really anti-USA or anti-USA ideals, rather, it’s anti-aggressive US trade policies. For instance, in struggling countries throughout the developing world, hardline First World trade tariffs allow poor countries to export raw materials but often not finished goods. In other words, if you grow peanuts, you can sell raw peanuts but not peanut butter. Discussing this over dinner, my host told me back when America was living under British rule, farmers in the South dealt with the same kind of structural poverty. They could produce cotton but not refine it into textiles. Being forced to sell the raw material to England so the English could make the serious money stoked local anger–and likely anti-English graffiti.
Crossing from Georgia into Alabama, I noticed huge fireworks emporia along the freeways. I said that where I live, fireworks are only sold in the weeks leading up to the 4th of July. My host explained that in Alabama fireworks are on sale all year long. “Rednecks like to blow things up all the time. Why wait for the 4th of July?” he said. The fireworks draw lots of people from neighboring states too.
Alabamians have a particular kind of pride. When I asked about the freeway exit to “Phenix City,” they said that’s just how they spell “Phoenix.” They added, the next time I come, I must spend some time on the Gulf Coast, which they called “the Redneck Riviera.” And driving back into Georgia they had a good laugh at how, at the border, the sign still reads, “Welcome to Georgia, Home of the 1996 Olympics.”
I enjoyed a wonderful day at Auburn University, and before my lecture I was given a “golf-cart tour” of the campus by two wonderful young people whose responsibility is to show prospective students around. Here’s a little video clip which splices in a particular Alabama love of peanuts.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.