This is the first in a series of short essays by local individuals on what Oklahoma means to them. If you are interested in contributing an essay to “Being Okie,” contact us through the contributors’ page.
by Gene Perry
A few years ago, I visited the opening of a museum. The man who had funded the new building was being interviewed, and the interviewer said at one point, “One of most amazing things to me is that you’ve stayed so humble.”
The man, who the museum was named after, replied, “We don’t have the problems with huge egos that you might see in other parts of the country.”
This struck me as quite funny and characteristic of our state. The familiar license plate slogan comes to mind, “Oklahoma is OK,” but with the subtext plainly stated: “Oklahoma: Our Humility Makes Us Better Than You.”
I’m making fun, but it’s not necessarily a bad attitude to have. Humility is a virtue, but it’s even better when reinforced by a skepticism of grand schemes and a feisty disregard for elites who put on airs. At its worst, this attitude can be plain old arrogance with glasses and a fake mustache. But at its best, it takes pride in simple things, comfort in smiling at a stranger, happiness from a raging thunderstorm that shows us how small we really are. And in a time when some of the greatest American schemes have fallen apart around us – in the aftermath of an economy built on delusions and a war based on worse – some proud humility might go a long way.
All virtues have their counterpoints as faults, and ours are no exception. We are polite, neighborly even, but this surface courtesy can leave uncomfortable topics undiscussed until they boil over. Oklahoma originated as the culmination of a centuries long mistreatment and genocide of American Indians. We experienced the worst race riot in US history. We ignored for far too long huge inadequacies in our schools, prisons, and mental health system, abandoning the weakest among us to immense suffering.
These tragedies are not just the stuff of history. As demonstrated by Voices of Oklahoma’s headline story about the problems in Bokoshe, we continue to ignore terrible abuses going on in our own backyards.
Even so, I love Oklahoma, and I am glad to have lived here all my life. Through good times and bad, dust bowls and oil booms, the story of Oklahoma is at its heart one of ordinary people relying on each other to get by. When we do find greatness, it is on a human scale – I think of Woody Guthrie with nothing but a guitar and a thirst for life. We may not always know what’s right, but we know what’s important.
We do suffer from a “brain drain.” The smartest and most talented of us frequently leave for bigger cities, more cosmopolitan cultures. That feeling of smallness in Oklahoma is a source of shame for some as much as it is pride for others. I admit that I’ve been tempted by the wider world, and at certain times only chance and a terrible job market have kept me here.
But I am glad to be here now, and to those who are still eager to leave I would say not to underestimate the power of roots. For most of us, there is nowhere that we can make a greater difference than the place we were born, not because it is special or different from anywhere else, but because of the family and friends, experiences and knowledge that can only be earned over many years in a place. Even at a time when we can make friends in every state and country on earth through the Internet, or when mass media and chain stores enforce a homogeneous culture on us all, the power of place is not gone. It’s just quiet, and it takes patient listening to find.
Plus we do have some great storms.