I grew up listening to country music. It was the soundtrack to almost every road trip I’ve ever been on. Our family rule is that the driver picks the music, which is convenient for my dad becase he drives about 97% of the time.
As a child, country stations became mile markers. We’d get out of range for one station and scan until we found the next one. I learned my country classics on these road trips, humming along about moving to Tennessee because all my exes lived in Texas, singing about wide open spaces as we whizzed down the open road.
These singalongs in the car were juxtaposed by rest stops. I was young when that piece of the road trip began to make me nervous. My parents and I would exit our car at a rest stop somewhere in rural Indiana. It felt like we were in rural Indiana for most of our drives from our diverse suburb of Chicago to our family in Ohio.
We were often the only people of color, and I had a niggling fear that we weren’t completely safe. I hurried from the car to the bathroom and back to the car, never appreciating when my parents wanted to stop for a cup of coffee. All I cared about was arriving to the destination, to a place where I had an idea of where people stood.
I remember taking a road trip to Wisconsin with another black family. I was in my early double digit years. The drive was just a few hours, but for whatever reason, the two kids from the other family and I all had to go to the bathroom. We found a building on the side of the road that looked large enough to have several bathrooms.
Two sets of parents and three children opened the doors to what could best be described as a honky tonk. It was a building full of white people blasting country music and having a good time. Everyone’s heads turned toward us. No one spoke.
Country music paints this idyllic picture of America, filled with small towns and pick-up trucks, neighborly acts of kindness and blonde haired, blue-eyed beauties. I often wondered if I’d be welcome in the All-American world of country songs. This experience answered that question for me.
I can still hear my dad’s voice telling us to turn around, to leave. We weren’t welcome there. I can still feel the terror.
There was the Bob Evans my family and I stopped at on a road trip. We stood at the counter, waiting to put in our to-go order. We were the only people in the line and yet somehow there was no one available to serve us.
The staff hustled to fill coffees for seated patrons. They looked up at us. They busied themselves with some other task. My dad finally asked, “Are we invisible?” He didn’t have to ask. The manager fumbled together some half-baked excuse which only underscored the true answer to my father’s question.
One of my dearest friends was married in Birmingham, Alabama. My then boyfriend, now husband, and I drove down to celebrate. It’s customary for my family to pray before road trips, but this time felt a little different. Everyone tip-toed around stating the root cause of their fears. We agreed upon regular check ins.
The first leg of our trip was from Chicago to Memphis. That drive felt familiar after so many road trips to Nashville for college. We ate barbeque with my family who lived in the area and faced the drive to Birmingham in the morning.
At one point in our trip, we needed gas. We pulled off the highway and attempted to find the gas station. We were in the backwoods of some Southern state. We had no cell service, and the signs stopped making sense.
In a country song, we’d ask for directions to the gas station. We’d be offered a meal and some of Miss Bell’s sweet tea. That quaint scene clashed so viciously with my reality.
I was terrified, but I didn’t want to freak Matt out. My efforts to play it cool fell flat. I was afraid to knock on anyone’s door to ask for directions. Black people have tried that before and ended up dead. We turned off our Mockingjay audio book. Matt focused on figuring out where the heck to go as I silently prayed.
We finally found the gas station, and I almost didn’t want him to leave the car. Questions of “what if” flooded my brain. Thankfully, none of them came to fruition. We made our way back to the highway as our hearts slowly found a steadier pace.
I still listen to country music if I’m in the car with my dad. I still sing harmony if one of our favorites plays. Country songs are still mile markers. They sing of an America that is not fully available to me. They reflect an All-American experience that is not my own, filled with activities were never meant to include me. I’ve felt the desire to be included less and less and yet I feel compelled to share these stories, these experiences so that my children can one day claim the mantle of All-American, if they want it.