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Commentary: Place-Story

Sunita George
Rich Egger
Sunita George

In his new book, “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” Bono, the singer-lyricist and activist of the rock band U2 wrote, “A country is a story we tell ourselves.” He went on to add, “The stories a country tells of itself are essential to its identity and its development…For America to take root, it has taken novelists, poets, filmmakers, and composers, artists in every medium to depict the diversity of America on a single canvas. The country is still stretching that canvas; the easel can still be wobbly.”

Any community-defined place, I would argue, is a story we tell ourselves—the heroes we worship, the villains we disdain, the clowns we mock, the overlooked we fail to “see” as worthy of inclusion in our story-telling—is a story of us. Our exclusions reveal us as much as do our inclusions. So, I wonder, what is our place-story here in Macomb? How are we stretching our canvas to be more inclusive in our story-telling? Does the tripod of equity, inclusion and diversity create the necessary sense of belonging for all people in our local society?

Macomb has seen its of share of revenue-generating troubles in recent years—from the Illinois state budget impasse, to the faculty layoffs at the university, to declining student enrollments at WIU—all of which have created an urgency to develop a new, and perhaps a more hopeful and enticing, story-telling of place. According to the 2020 census, McDonough County’s population declined by about 16 percent, and Macomb saw a decline of almost 20 percent. As our place began to shrivel and shrink, we needed a new script, a new story, a place revival, and I do believe that in times of crises, the imagination, like a canvas, is stretched.

The revival of the mythical place-name “Forgottonia” for Macomb evokes, for me, a place that is pristine, a place of quiet, allowing the mind and feet to wander and wonder leisurely. The beautiful murals now draped across buildings in our town add a pictorial element to our story-telling. The magnificent 70-feet mural of C.T. Vivian on Macomb’s East Carroll Street that was unveiled in July last year, celebrates the civil rights icon who spent his formative years in Macomb and went to school here, and whom we claim as our own, is story-telling at its best. At a time when public art installations across the country have been brought down because of their racist history, our town sought to commemorate the achievements of a local hero by painting a mural of him in downtown Macomb. The portrait of him gazing over his life-work from his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi to the conferment of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013, tells a powerful story of redemption from defeat to recognition—a story that perhaps we hope to revive in our own place.

Yet, between the Image-building and reality, falls the shadow.

A recent report posted by the Black Students Association (BSA) at WIU underscores the need for real inclusion in our story-telling. Currently, Black students make up nearly 20% of the student body at the university, and nearly 40% of the freshman class in Fall 2022. In various forums posted on YouTube and elsewhere, Black students have articulated their experiences with micro aggressions and the down-right racist treatment some of them endured both on campus and in the town. These experiences belie the idyllic constructions of a place-story portrayed in the beautiful murals and evocative place-names such as Forgottonia. The BSA sought remediative action from the university. The university, in turn, has reasserted its commitment to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, and has taken several steps--such as the WIU President creating a Council on Community Engagement, to engage in a “productive discourse focused on improving University-community relationships, with an emphasis on social justice and equity, and to discuss the issues and concerns facing our minority populations.”

Institutional responses take time to implement, but I remain hopeful that incremental changes in the right direction, especially where those institutions are central to the identity of a place, have the potential to shift attitudes and enrich the whole place. As the town-and-gown become more diverse we should always be asking ourselves: Are we stretching our canvas enough to make everyone feel welcome here? Are we doing enough to make a place that is not just a storybook idyll, but one that functions well for all its denizens, and thereby radiates the glow of a truly beloved community.

Sunita George is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.