I Am a Black Kansan in a Sea of Red, White, and Blue

To be a POC Midwesterner is to be steeped in a rich and magical history

Elle McKinney. Illustration: Renald Louissaint; Photo courtesy of the author.

“Y“You sound funny, where you from?” “What the hell kinda accent is that?” “Wait, say that again!” That’s how it starts, usually after I speak for the first time in a new setting with people who I’ve never met.

The questions are relatively harmless, and the sharp fascination with my cadence and the rhythm of my mumbling meter can be amusing. Sometimes I indulge these requests for linguistic gymnastics, letting words roll off my tongue as I juggle letters like a circus performer, swapping them back and forth, cutting them out entirely or forcing them in where they weren’t before.

For example, you can pick pecans, but when you bake them with a crust, it’s PEE-CAN pie. Also, there’s an R in “wash.” Webster and Siri will deny it, but where I’m from, we wedge it in after the A.

Sometimes I indulge these questions. Usually, I take a breath and brace myself for what I know is coming next.

Hi, my name is Elle, and I’m a Black woman born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas.

Yes. You read that right, Kansas.

This is the part where, if I say this out loud, people make this really interesting face. It’s a mix of shocked and disturbed — like they came home to find that someone had broken into their house, but instead of taking anything, the burglar left cookies on the coffee table.

“Oh! Oh,” they’ll say. Then they’ll share a look as if they’re asking each other if they believe me.

“Why the hell do you live there?”

“Kansas? Really?! Wow.”

Insert the obligatory Wizard of Oz joke or a statement along the lines of “I didn’t know niggas came in Kansas flavor!” People are always surprised, but I no longer am. No, I, like many other Black Kansans, have come to accept my role as a perception doppelgänger. I bear a striking resemblance to something familiar, but it’s not quite right. However, unlike the creatures of myth, with being a Black Midwesterner, other people’s disassociation isn’t with what’s seen, it’s with what’s expected. No one hears the word Kansas and thinks of anything or anyone with much melanin. Thus, for all intents and purposes, like the doppelgänger, we too are imaginary.

Now, I may be a wee bit biased in saying so, but Midwestern Blackness is not only very real, it’s steeped in history and magic. Black Midwesterners are wizards, and the source of our power is the Heartland itself. Living in the literal middle of the country means we’re connected to every corner. There’s a pulse here that carries the beat of life in America. Before planes could fly over the Plains, trains and roads passed through them. Independence, Missouri, which is less than 20 minutes from where I live, was the beginning of the Oregon Trail. To get anywhere and everywhere, that’s where you had to start. Now, as a result of bearing the crossroads of centuries worth of infrastructure, everything from everywhere gradually makes its way here, like sand settling at the bottom of a bowl. It’s with these granules of East Coast hustle, West Coast chill, and Southern swag that Black Midwesterners perform alchemy.

No, I, like many other Black Kansans, have come to accept my role as a perception doppelgänger. I bear a striking resemblance to something familiar, but it’s not quite right.

SSomewhere in the heart of Kansas City, an old Black man rises before the sun. He cooks a quick breakfast of eggs from the chicken in the pen under his porch and bacon from Aldi. Just as the first rays of gold kiss the horizon, he makes his way out back to a barn he’s built by expanding an old tool shed. A stunning beast of a quarter horse waits patiently as he saddles her up while mumbling words of comfort and affection. Together they ease their way to the main road, where the morning traffic has started to trickle in. Cars and trucks speed by, but both horse and rider are unbothered. There’s a sidewalk on one side of the street; the other is left wide, empty, and green. That’s where the old man, a retired GMC factory worker, is joined by a nurse, a teacher, an architect, and a barber. Every other Saturday morning, after putting in their 40+ hours, this group congregates at the bottom of a hill in historic Quindaro, near the old elementary school, and they ride.

This is the magic of being Black in Kansas; we ride horses in the streets and go fishing in the creeks, and we speak a love language of food and fellowship.

About 14 miles east of that urban horse trail, a middle-aged Black woman finishes up her errands. She’s dropped off the kids, picked up the dry cleaning, and swung by the Piggly Wiggly to grab some things for dinner. While she puts away her groceries, she pulls out what looks like a white ice-cream tub with holes poked in the top. Smiling to herself, she takes that tub, a cooler of snacks and drinks, a set of rods and lines, and heads down to the little lake in the middle of a neighborhood not far from hers. With her folding chair, her sunhat, and the gentle chirping of crickets in the tall grass, she settles in to try and get a few bites as well as some peace of mind.

This is the magic of being Black in Kansas; we ride horses in the streets and go fishing in the creeks, and we speak a love language of food and fellowship. Black Midwesterners are always ready to show up and show out, be it at a family reunion, cookout, festival, or just playing cards at grandmama’s house. It’s going to be a party, and everyone’s invited. This is where a touch of those Southern roots peek out, but we’re gonna switch it up a little bit. While cornbread and collard greens come out on Sunday after church — we also do grits with cheese and sugar, though not at the same time — in Kansas City BBQ is king.

This is a land flowing with homemade sauces and rubs that’ll outdo anything you could get at a store or restaurant. Smokers and grills fashioned out of old metal barrels or leftover brick fill the air with a haze of spicy and sweet. The family pit master sits on the back porch with a towel over one shoulder, wielding a flyswatter to ward off bugs and nosy taste testers alike. Since fun is infectious ’round these parts, neighbors fire up their grills and kick off shindigs as well, calling up family and friends with a message of “we ain’t got much, but we got what we need — bring something to add to it, and let’s do the deed.”

Music fills the house and spills out into the front yard and the back. A syncopation of guitar twangs and trap beats punctuated by slaps of dominoes sets the tone. The porch, either one, is converted into another room in the house, and all are welcome, so you may as well go on ’head and make you a plate. The fun and the food last well into the evening. That’s the Kansas nightlife: Porches lit by torches, card games, and whiskey — not so much clubs, bar crawls, and shots. Well, we still do shots. This is how Black people laugh, love, and live in Kansas. This is the way of life, our way of life, that’s oftentimes overlooked if not entirely forgotten.

WWhen people talk about the Midwest, it no doubt conjures images of little White families wearing MAGA hats and working on a farm, surrounded by miles and miles of flat land filled with corn or wheat or something that goes on a box of bland cereal. To most of the world, this is not just a face of the Midwest, it is the face of the Midwest: proud, patriotic, and fraught with economic anxiety. The media focuses all of its attention and resources on this “ideal” image of life in flyover country. In doing so, Black Midwesterners are forgotten, and so is what we have to live with, especially in Kansas. After all, the empire of the Koch brothers is based here, as is the Westboro Baptist Church. Imagine what it’s like having them and the people who support them as neighbors, teachers, and authorities over various aspects of your life.

It’s a widely known secret that, before the right wing rolls out pretty much anything, it uses Kansas as its political sandbox, often testing policy and theory here before trying to implement it nationwide. Because Kansas is a heavily red state, these policies are often passed without much, if any, opposition. As a result, the marginalized people here are often victims of laws and government proceedings harsher than most of the rest of the country. Neglect from the blue is just as much to blame. This ideal face of the Midwest is allowed to chew us up and spit us out without any opposition from moderates, progressives, leftists, whatever folks want to call themselves. Black people in the Midwest are a prop, a political tool to be used and then discarded, and it leaves us open to further abuse. It’s always been this way, clear back to before the Civil War, during the days of Bloody Kansas. And this face, this ideal Midwestern visage, is one we cannot escape.

This face belongs to my neighbors and coworkers. It belongs to the woman who told me I was “lucky I can get away with that,” when I wore a head wrap to work one day. It belongs to the board member of a project I was part of who told another woman of color that she couldn’t introduce a speaker at a function because they belonged to the same ethnic group, and things would be too matchy-matchy. This face teaches my sisters’ children and, for the entire month of February, “forgets” to present anything on Black History Month. When asked why this was the case, this face smiles and says no one’s history is more important than anyone else’s and they won’t play favorites.

This face is the one I have to go to for medical treatment and is often the one that denies it under the pretense that my pain is imagined or not as bad or that “we all” (Black women) end up single mothers anyway. That face is gentrifying historical parts of our city without a second glance at the population it’s displacing, foreclosing on homes that were built by strong backs and stalwart hearts, only to be snatched up by redlining banks, the lots set to be repurposed and resold. This face strips away our rights, leaving us all but bare. It steals from us then jails us for the theft. This face is always there to greet me in the morning and follows me home at night. Kansas is incredibly conservative, the population is predominantly White, and the more liberal parts of the country have all but written us off, sentencing us to a lifetime of fending for ourselves. Or we’re told to leave. Go somewhere better. Go to the east, go to the west, you don’t need help, just go! That is easier said than done.

I still live in Kansas for many reasons. For one, this is my home. This is where I grew up, these walls contain the multitudes of my life and the lives of those I love, the lives of those that came before me. My family is here. My friends are here. My roots are here. And if that wasn’t reason enough to stay, going somewhere else would be too expensive. Well, going anywhere that might be friendlier. The cost of living in Kansas is very low, especially compared with the coasts.

For example, the monthly cost of my two-bedroom apartment at nearly 1,100 square feet of space is less than $900. In New York, I’d pay more than three times that amount for the same space. For less than half the space, I’d still have to pay at least twice as much, and I can’t afford that along with utilities, food, etc. While I love my home, as much as one can, all things considered, there are times I feel trapped by my financial circumstances. It’s the same for a lot of Black folks in the Midwest, but, thankfully, we have each other, and that’s what makes all of this bearable.

Hi, my name is Elle, and I was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas.

Yes. You read that right, Kansas.

I am a Black woman adrift in a sea of red, white, and blue, and it’s only because of my people — the Black Midwesterners who are often overlooked — that I haven’t drowned.

Blerd. Author. Writing fairy tales with an urban twist, and saying those things we’re all thinking but few are talking about. HeiHei stan. llmckinney.com

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