A FEW YEARS ago, we wrote about the average Arkansan. Or, more specifically, the very most statistically average Arkansan. Using public records from the Social Security Administration and the United States Census Bureau, we learned that this hypothetical figure was female, 36.4 years old. She was white, had a household income of $40,531 and a 21.3-minute commute. Oh, and her name was Jennifer.
But of course, because numbers, specific as they might be, are limited in the story they’re able to tell, we set out to meet the average Arkansan. For the past several months, we traveled the state—to Batesville, El Dorado, Fayetteville, Little Rock and Pine Bluff—setting up a portrait-station and conducting brief interviews with anyone willing to give us a few minutes of their time. And in that experience, we learned about Arkansans as they are today.
Sometimes they rambled, falling down rabbit holes, following tangents. Sometimes they were clear, concise (though with their storyteller hearts, it wasn’t terribly common). Sometimes older Arkansans, when they sat for their portraits, needed to be told to sit up straight, to pull their backs off the chair, whereas the younger among them needed no such direction, folding themselves into practiced, Instagram-ready poses.
Sometimes they already had the story they wanted to tell, and you could tell it had been told many times, polished, burnished. In other instances—and, in fact, far more of them—people insisted that they had nothing to say, that there was nothing special about their experience. But of course, those were often the people whose stories were the richest. A chance word or phrase exploded into a wide web of a story: what it was like to see a downtown change over 40 years, what it was like to find a new life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, what it had been like to integrate schools.
It’s impossible to say briefly where they were, or are, in their lives, what brings them joy, what home means to them and how they view it, if only because for all the similarities tethering them together—the shared geography of place, the common complaints and vexations and points of pride—the stories they tell are all their own. If there is one truth that can be said of this project, it’s that with every person we met, every conversation we shared, our ideas of who an Arkansan is were blurred and wrinkled and turned out, expanding ever outward.
“One thing that’s woven its way through is football in Arkansas. I just feel like that’s been a constant, and it’s always brought my family together. My dad is a huge avid Razorback fan. So I just grew up with that’s what you do on Saturday mornings. My husband worked in college athletics. So whereas I had always kind of bled Razorback red, all of the sudden I’m putting on this Arkansas Red Wolves hat. Now our family loves to cook a big breakfast or grill out something to eat for lunch or dinner and have people over or just kind of huddle up together. It’s just kind of an excuse to build community.”
Georgeanne Ford, 31, Batesville
“What am I most proud of? I think graduating from college, becoming a registered nurse and becoming a business owner. To me, just carrying on that legacy because my dad was a small business owner here in El Dorado for over 30-something years. He owned an upholstery business here, and even after he’s had other businesses as well. He is like a serial entrepreneur, and I feel like I take after him. So I’m most proud of being able to be self-employed for over 20-something years. I think that says a lot.”
LaQuita Rainey, 52, El Dorado
“There’s a lot of pride in the state of Arkansas. There’s been a lot of years when we didn’t have anything but pride. That’s the reality of it. We were one of the last states in the country to have, you know, electricity in rural areas. And plumbing in places. Running water. I remember being a kid and there were places that we went to that still had outhouses. Because my family came from rural areas, were farmers and things. And that’s within my lifetime. I’ve used an outhouse. More than once. There’s a lot of pride in the state. But it’s going to take people investing in it—not just in terms of finances, but the time that they put in, care and concern that they put in. Services and people and everything”
Heath Waldrop, 44, El Dorado
“I was born in Berryville. It’s a small town, but I’ve been in Springdale mostly. Everybody in my family moved down over here—Springdale, Fayetteville, Bentonville, Rogers. I went to Texas for three years and then came back over here. So I’ve been here for four months, almost. A lot of things changed, actually. I would say the Hispanic culture, a lot of Hispanics came over here, especially Springdale and Lowell and Rogers, around that area. It’s been growing a lot. I’ve been seeing a lot of people talking more Spanish. Especially in Springdale, there are some stores where they only speak Spanish.”
Francisco Reyes, 23, Springdale
Click the photo below for a closer look at our Arkansas Story portraits.
“Enjoy life one day at a time because you go to big cities and it’s rush rush rush. It’s so fast-paced, and then in Arkansas, it’s just like the granny low gear, and that’s the best thing about it.”
Jesica Bishop, 36, Batesville
“You can walk through Walmart and probably talk with more than a handful of people. That’s usually how it goes. Like, your new doctor will know you. Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of people say, Oh I used to watch you when you were little. And I had no idea. But they knew me before I knew me I guess.”
McKenzie Tate, 18, El Dorado
“[What comes to mind when you picture home?] Peach cobbler. Pecans. Family. Mama Lillie, my grandmother. Lillie Dorothy Toombs was her name. Married to Willy Toombs. I’ve got a sister named Millie Stewart, and I’ve got a cousin, deceased now, named Billie Jean Stewart. So, it was Millie, Willie, Billie, Lillie. And I’m like, why y’all do that?”
Rhonda Stewart, 58, Little Rock
“I’m from a really small town on the western side of the state. Hackett. No stoplight. Little bitty. I always say, you’ve kind of got to be going there to go there. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. There are certain values that come with growing up in a place that small, where everybody knows everybody. Most everybody that’s from there grew up with not much, so there’s a certain appreciation for life coming from a small town, I think.”
John David Pittman, 39, Little Rock
“My grandfather had a farm and I spent a lot of time with him. He had horses and cows, and at my house we had pigs and chickens, and we would raise them to eat, which was pretty interesting. My mom would never name the animals because next thing you know they might be in the griddle.”
Rod Bryan, 50, Little Rock
“Fishing, all I’m trying to do is beat the fish. I’m not trying to beat the other 150 anglers out there. I got to beat the fish, and they’ll take care of me. There’s nothing like being on the lake at daylight, watching the sun come up. But you ought to come with me! I’ll even teach you how to fish.”
Chris Layton, 53, North Little Rock
“Well, my dad met a lady, I guess it was about 12 years ago. And I’ve just been here ever since. It’s kind of like everywhere else if you ask me.”
Spencer Kemp, 23, Fayetteville
“During the integration, I was the first black athlete for El Dorado High School to letter 10th, 11th, and 12th, play an All-Star Game and make All-State. Each February that comes on the radio. Makes me feel kind of good. I was also on the biracial committee. At that time, blacks and whites were just getting together and needed a people to kind of keep it together. And I had a great time. I could get along with people. I’ve been a happy-go-lucky person all my life.
“I worked for Murphy Oil offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Louisiana Gulf. I drove 49 miles southwest of New Orleans to Houma, catch a helicopter out to the Gulf, stay seven days and come back for seven days, which was $1,000 a week I brought home back in ’82. So, man, I’ve had a really experienced life. Anything I wanted, I’ve had. So all I want to do now is just bring my baby up correctly, just be happy, treat people nice—nothing but love.”
David Taylor, 66, El Dorado
“I’m 73, so I’ve got a long history of sharecropping, one of 13 kids. I was the only one to graduate from college and I was the first black to graduate from UAM nursing department, the University of Arkansas at Monticello, after they integrated. After that, I went back as a campus nurse for 15 years. So I’ve had an interesting life.
“I remember the first job I had: We’d chop cotton all day. I couldn’t pick to make a hundred—you had to pick a hundred pounds to get 2 dollars—but I could chop cotton. Chopping cotton down would make 4 dollars a day. So we would chop enough to make our school supplies. They might have a field, 25 acres, so they would just hire my family and Daddy would just take us down there. If all of us make 4 dollars a day, see what he would make there?”
Classie Green, 73, Pine Bluff
“I’m from Junction City actually. It’s on the border of Arkansas and Louisiana. The population is roughly … I know it’s 750 just on the Arkansas side. That’s what makes it so unique. It’s Arkansas and Louisiana. There’s a sign that says ‘Welcome to Arkansas’ and there’s a sign that says ‘Welcome to Louisiana.’”
[Are you an Arkansan or Louisianan?]
“Well, when people ask me, I just tell them, I’m from Junction City. That’s what I tell them. And they’re like, Well there’s two sides though. I’m like, Yeah, I’m from Junction City. I say, It doesn’t matter which side. I just see it as a whole. But, technically speaking, I’m from the Louisiana side.”
Fred Daniel, 21, Junction City
“I live in River Market Tower, the high-rise over here, so home is a little box in the sky for us. It started as a box in the sky when I was his age [motioning to her young son]. We lived in the top of the Stone Ward building because we were trying to be pioneers of downtown urban living. And my dad was trying to work on revitalizing this district. And we were a little early to the game. There wasn’t a lot going on down here, so we moved to Hillcrest. And then 30 years later, we moved back down here. And now it’s actually blowing and going. Everybody says it was an overnight success. I’m like, no, it was a 30-year battle. A 30-year overnight success.”
Kate East, 37, Little Rock
“I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana. I ended up here after the hurricane. It was diffi cult because I came when I was about 9 with my grandparents and my other siblings and my mom and dad. It was diffi cult at first because I felt kind of like an outcast. But then I met really nice people, and I have friends now, so it got better. It was completely new. I’ve gotten comfortable, but home is home.”
Janay Bradley, 25, Pine Bluff
“Interesting story, when I first moved here, you know, I played music off and on up in Michigan a lot, and the only music I could find here was country-western. And when I first started playing, I would sing some songs and everybody in the audience or dancing would look up at
me and have that look of, You’re not from around here, are you? ‘Cause I was singing with my Northern voice. So I had to develop the Southern drawl. So that was probably the biggest adjustment early on.”
Bernie Quell, 68, Little Rock
“Five years ago, our downtown, you wouldn’t have recognized it. It was 80 percent vacant. One of our board members lives at the top of Main Street, and she said that she could lay down in the street and a car wouldn’t hit her because no one was coming downtown. In five years, it’s gone from 80 percent vacant to where we have no available storefronts. New streetscape and everything. We had to make the city sell itself.”
Mandi Curtwright, 32, Batesville
“As a kid, I was like, There’s got to be more to life than biscuits and fried chicken. And then 30 years later, I come back and I’m like, There is more to life than biscuits and fried chicken.”
Lillian Ellen, 34, El Dorado
“Home is what you love to do and what you can’t live without. It’s a unique place in your heart that you can’t describe in one word. So, you’ve just got to understand it.”
Karon Kirklin, 27, Pine Bluff
“Me and my friend, we always say that we’re going to live in New York, even if it’s just for two weeks, and we run out of money. I’ve always just wanted more. I figure I’ll be a lot more surprised, and not as happy, as I think I’m going to be—but I’ll be able to say that I did it.”
Savannah Slaughter, 19, El Dorado
“I feel like people here, maybe more so than Houston, where I’m from, they are able to relate with each other or take the time to relate with each other more. They understand how to do family. I feel like I’ve learned to do that better here than I did when I was at home.”
Joy Spence, 23, Little Rock
“Well, if you go to Stoby’s on Tuesday, it’s omelette day. I get an omelette, hash browns, and toast. And sweet tea with extra ice in a to-go cup—and now, with no straw. [How long have you ordered that?] Oh, about 25 years. Betty, the waitress, she’s been there forever, and she knows what I want. Even if it’s been months.”
Alysanne Crymes, 61, Conway
“I’m from Evening Shade, 45 minutes north of here. I drive here every day. I work for Peco, it’s a chicken plant. I work weekends on my family’s farm. I work six, seven days a week. At Peco, we catch ‘em and we vaccinate them. It’s hard work. It ain’t for the weak.”
Cody Foree, 38, Evening Shade
“Oh, I’ve been here since, let’s see, the first time in the military was in ’61 and into ’65. I worked in computers in the military, but I had no sheepskin, you know? College education. Mine was bootstrap. My grandfather on my father’s side was in the Army, and he was college-educated so they put him in teaching. He went over to China, and he taught English over in China. And he picked up the language, so that was good. He came out as a captain. My grandfather on my mother’s side, he started out in the circus. Yep, he played in the band. He was a circus man, until he met my grandmother.”
JB Cook, 78, Batesville