Here's why I can't quit y'all
156 reasons why the people and places of this country deserve something better
You don’t need me to tell you for the millionth time about all The Very Bad Things Happening. You don’t need me to make you more on edge. The world is doing that on its own, thank you very much.
You also don’t need me to lecture you on how all those Very Bad Things are not anomalies, that “2020” isn’t going down like this simply because we collectively broke a bunch of mirrors and opened a bunch of indoor umbrellas at the end of 2019. Things are bad because America has never paid its Justice and Community bills in full and, well, that has a tendency to catch up with you.
Don’t worry, what follows isn’t some sort of saccharine sleight of hand trick. I’m not making an argument that Things Are Quite Good, Actually.
What I know, though, is that however we emerge from the next few months, the task of building something better on this particular chunk of subcontinent is going to be long and hard and will require the kindest and most creative versions of each of us. It will force us not simply to crave justice and equity as an abstract concept, but to actually build it alongside the other actual human beings with whom we share this space.
Here are 156 reasons why I want to work towards a more beautiful, more just version of this country. There are three reasons per state, plus three for D.C. and Puerto Rico (I acknowledge that this is erasure of other U.S. territories, but I decided to limit myself to parts of our country where there are active movements for statehood). There are some celebrations of landscapes in there, but mostly it is a celebration of people. It’s about the activists and artists and writers and cooks and weirdos who remind me that we’re worth something so much more.
The list is frequently ridiculous and it is thoroughly, fully mine. If you disagree and think that your list would be better, that’s sort of the point. We’ve got a lot of work to do and we need all the fuel for our collective fire that we can get.
Alabama: 1. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers (and their experiments with cross-racial labor organizing). 2. White BBQ sauce. 3. SPACE CAMP! (do you know anybody who ever actually went to space camp? My assumption is that there’s no way the reality of Space Camp can live up to the fictional Space Camp that existed in my fourth grade mind, which I’m pretty sure is the whole point of Space Camp).
Alaska: 1. The Alaska Permanent Fund (imperfect but still… it’s our nation’s most successful UBI experiment and it is beloved across political lines). 2. That one town (Whittier) where everybody lives in one big building. 3. Giving Denali its Athabaskan name back.
Arizona: 1. Rez basketball. 2. Border activists staying strong in spite of government attempts to criminalize providing water to other human beings. 3. Its identity as the only place in the world where you can get both great Mexican food AND every Midwestern regional restaurant chain (Portillos and pozole, Culvers and carnitas, etc.).
Arkansas: 1. Whitaker Point. 2. The Little Rock Women’s Emergency Commission to Reopen Schools; 3. Maya Angelou.
Colorado: 1. Robota (The Denver Nuggets’ Official Witch!); 2. Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice; 3. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Honorable mention: Casa Bonita Cliff Divers).
Connecticut: 1. Best pizza in America and it’s not even close. 2. Birthplace of John Brown AND the Frisbee. 3. Residents voluntarily call themselves Nutmeggers, which is objectively hilarious.
Delaware: 1. Best beaches in the Mid-Atlantic. 2. Least populated state to have an HBCU (that HBCU, by the way, is Delaware State and their marching band, which rules, is called THE APPROACHING STORM, which rules even more). 3. George Thorogood and The Delaware Destroyers (which is both the toughest and least tough sounding band name of all time).
Florida: 1. Viter Juste and the creation of Little Haiti. 2. Publix subs. 3. The Bad Boys cinematic universe.
Georgia: 1. The Cherokee Phoenix and the birth of Indigenous print journalism. 2. Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s friendship. 3. The fact that there have now been a bunch of good movies filmed there, thus erasing the stain of Deliverance (side note: Deliverance is classist trash).
Hawaii: 1. The invention of surfing. 2. The fact that the Hawaiian language is a co-official state language. 3. Political sign-waving (it’s a thing there!).
Idaho: 1. Ok, this is a hard one to explain but the particular treelessness of Idaho’s mountains gives it a chill lunar vibe (especially on long summer nights), that is distinct from the rest of the Mountain West. 2. They serve fry sauce in school cafeterias. 3. The 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Honorable mention/update: When I first sent this out, Nathan Apodaca, the “Fleetwood Mac/Cranberry Juice/Skateboard” had been publicly identified as a Wyomingite. I should have seen through this, what with the “208” in his “420Dogggface208” username and all, but I didn’t so I placed him in the “Wyoming” category. I would like to apologize to Mr. Apodaca, to the state of Idaho and to Southeast Idaho in particular (because my God that video has such distinct SE Idaho vibes).
Illinois: 1. Ida B. Wells. 2. The original Rainbow Coalition (Black Panthers, Young Lords, Young Patriots). 3. The John Deere headquarters building in Moline. Honorable mentions: The Super Bowl Shuffle (and particularly the contributions of Walter Payton, who “likes to dance” and who taught four-year-old me that “running the ball is like making romance”), horseshoe sandwiches.
Indiana: 1. Every single one of the best basketball arenas in the country (Assembly Hall, Hinkle Fieldhouse, 10,000 seat capacity high school gyms). 2. Brown County in the fall. 3. An incredible bumper sticker that I saw first-hand in Richmond in 2002 (it was in the once-popular “Calvin Peeing On Things” genre. In this iteration the beloved cartoon character was urinating on the words “all y’all”).
Iowa: 1. Casey’s General Store pizza. 2. The whole town of Decorah (don’t tell Viroqua, WI, but it’s my favorite town in the Driftless, which in turn is the single best region of the Upper Midwest). 3. Jack Trice (frustrating but true fact: ISU’s Jack Trice Stadium is the only D-I football facility with a Black namesake).
Kansas: 1. Amelia Earhart (Do we talk enough about Amelia Earhart? That’s a wild story). 2. Kansas State University’s Willie the Wildcat mascot (Do we talk enough about the fact that he has a wildcat head but human arms and legs?). 3. Basketball! (I guess we do talk enough about basketball… but still… basketball is an American invention! Hell yeah!).
Kentucky: 1. Muhammad Ali (interesting note: Ali is actually the second fascinating Kentuckian named Cassius Clay; his explanation as to why he didn’t want to honor his slaveholder-turned-abolitionist namesake is one of the most prescient reflections on whitenesss that I’ve ever read). 2. Berea College (no, I’m not an alum so you should trust me when I say that it is the best college in America, and not just because bell hooks teaches there) 3. Anne and Carl Braden. Honorable mentions: Wendell Berry, Loretta Lynn.
Louisiana: 1. Cash Money Records (both as a record label and as a graphic design vibe). 2. This particular defense of Huey Long’s legacy. 3. REALLY, REALLY LONG BRIDGES THROUGH NEVER-ENDING LAKES THAT ARE SUPER COOL AND SUPER FREAKY.
Maine: 1. The entire state’s general ability to keep its sense of itself while being overrun with tourists every summer. 2. Hilda Edwards (the Lupine Lady!). 3. L.L. Bean. Honorable mention to the time my whole family went with my dad to a work conference and my teenage brother was so bored in our hotel on the outskirts of Portland that he went to the movie theater next door and just watched Ghost over and over again all day long.
Maryland: 1. Harriet Tubman AND Frederick Douglass. 2. Lake trout AND pit beef. 3. The way that Orioles fans yell the “O” during the national anthem (which is the only good thing about the National Anthem and, increasingly, the only good thing about being an Orioles fan).
Massachusetts: 1. Mary Dyer (Quaker martyrdom will get you a permanent spot on any list I make). 2. The Modern Lovers (and specifically the song “Government Center”— Bostonians, you can hate me for this, but your City Hall actually rules and is worth celebrating). 3. The state’s charming but incomprehensible loyalty to a thoroughly acceptable but unremarkable coffee and donuts chain.
Minnesota: 1. The American Indian Movement. 2. The Minnesota State Fair (whose “giant bucket of cookies” I’ve never had but which I think about at least bi-weekly). 3. The line in Lizzo’s Truth Hurts where she talks about her “new man on the Minnesota Vikings.” It is so much funnier than the over-quoted DNA test line, mostly because she says the full “Minnesota Vikings” instead of just “Vikings”… listen, I can’t explain humor, it just works. Honorable mention: walleye.
Mississippi: 1. Freedom Summer (and all of the institutions/experiments in community organizing it seeded). 2. Delta tamales. 3. Forgive the recency bias, but this particular Kiese Laymon essay (you can probably safely update this every time Kiese Laymon writes something new, to be honest).
Missouri: 1. Gooey Butter Cake. 2. Thomas Hart Benton (the painter, not his dad the politician). 3. All right, since I’ve already opened the door to including specific lines from songs that I find hilarious on this list, please go re-listen to “Tipsy” by J-Kwon and tell me that the “teen drinking is VERY bad…” intro isn’t the funniest way possible to begin a piece of music.
Montana: 1. The final paragraph of A River Runs Through It. 2. The 1972 State Constitutional Convention (and that preamble!). 3. Jeannette Rankin. Honorable mention: everything, because Montana is a perfect place with no flaws but no you should not move there as it is getting way too expensive and also you wouldn’t like it any way— you have to drive to Spokane to go to, like, an Olive Garden and we have an annoying habit of allowing extremely aggro conservative millionaires who just arrived in the state yesterday to have political careers and…well… nothing to see here, please find a way to stop this terrible housing bubble.
Nebraska: 1. Runzas! 2. Malcolm X. 3. The fact that when it came time to found a major civic/philanthropic organization in Omaha, they just took the word Nebraska and said it in reverse (reputedly because of one grumpy dude who was like “everything in the state’s gone backwards,” which sounds like something a grumpy Nebraskan would say) so now there are all these things scattered around Omaha named “Ak-sar-ben.” That’s silly. Honorable mention: the electoral college is an absolute garbage idea but at least Nebraska does a weird version of it, which means that Omaha specifically may decide the whole election.
Nevada: 1. Sarah Winnemucca (and yes, her legacy is complicated, but historical white men are allowed to be celebrated in spite of, ahem, “complicated” legacies so surely let’s afford the same dignity to Indigenous women). 2. Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn. 3. Guy Fieri and the intense, unironic feeling of joy and peace I feel every time I hear the words “We’re rollin’ out to find America’s best…”).
New Hampshire: 1. That folksy tradition where that one tiny town gets to vote first (and yes it works better because it’s called “Dixville Notch"). 2. The Mount Washington Cog Railway 3. Jigger Johnson (WHO IS JIGGER JOHNSON? I’M GLAD YOU ASKED!).
New Jersey: 1. Diners (also, drive-ins and dives— see “Nevada” above). 2. Springsteen, of course (and specifically, the fact that Chris Christie’s intense love for the Boss remains hilariously unrequited). 3. The 1835 and 1913 Paterson textile strikes. Honorable mentions: Sack O’ Subs.
New Mexico: 1. Leslie Marmon Silko. 2. The never-ending reservation country rock touring circuit. 3. Burgers with green chile, carne adovada with red chile, huevos rancheros with Christmas chile (those are, by the way, the definitive correct answers to “green or red?” and I will not be taking any further questions at this time).
New York: 1. The Niagara movement. 2. The 1964 NYC student desegregation strike. 3. The phrase “you know, in this movie, New York is almost like a character…” (by the way, the greatest film in which that’s the case will always be The Muppets Take Manhattan and again, I will not be taking any further questions at this time). Honorable mention: Rick James’ gravesite in Buffalo, which rules in the exact way you would expect it to rule.
North Carolina: 1. People who refer to Duke as “The University of New Jersey at Durham.” 2. Nina Simone. 3. Mini-golf, which, no offense to “airplanes,” is the most important North Carolina invention.
North Dakota: 1. The Standing Rock protests. 2. Louise Erdrich. 3. The North Dakota Tourism Bureau’s deep abiding faith in their one-note “keep reminding people that actor and professional handsome person Josh Duhamel is from North Dakota” marketing campaign.
Ohio: 1. “Tipp City” by The Amps, which should be the official state rock song of Ohio (that’s not a slight on “Hang on Sloopy,” which is also a great song). 2. Multiple iconic meat-based, chili-adjacent hot dog toppings (Skyline in Cincinnati, Tony Packos in Toledo). 3. Everything that Hanif Adurraquib has ever written.
Oklahoma: 1. Clara Luper. 2. Russell Westbrook. 3. The Muskogee Nation winning Sharp vs. Murphy (also: if you aren’t fascinated by everything related to the state of Oklahoma, read Boomtown by Sam Anderson).
Oregon: 1. The Rural Organizing Project. 2. Chief Joseph 3. The fact that, in spite of both the cheap jokes and justifiable criticism, Portland has a lot of wonderful stuff and pioneered some good urban policy and if you grew up in the Northwest and you’re older than 30 you remember when it was simply a down-on-its-heels lumber town with a big drug problem so, you know, lay off on the Portland jokes for at least a beat.
Pennsylvania: 1. Not one but TWO quirky linguistic subcultures (Yinz-ers and Jawn-ers). 2. Not one but TWO truly exceptional convenience store chains (Sheetz and Wawa). 3. The Freedom House Ambulance Service. Honorable mention: The scene in Creed where he runs through North Philly with the motorcycle and ATV kids.
Rhode Island: 1. Coffee milk. 2. That time the Fort Thunder art collective built a secret apartment in the Providence Place Mall. 3. The absolutely perfect sub-headings on Buddy Cianci’s Wikipedia page (under “Mayor of Providence” there are two sub-heads: “Arts-Friendly City” and “Operation Plunder Dome”). To be clear, I am not DEFENDING mobbed up deceased politicians. I am merely celebrating particularly artful Wikipedia articles about mobbed up deceased politicians.
South Carolina: 1. Septima Clark. 2. Zion Williamson. 3. The Waffle House scene in Parts Unknown’s Charleston episode.
South Dakota: 1. The occupation of Wounded Knee. 2. The Corn Palace. 3. The town of Doland, where my parents met and fell in love and where in, spite of there not being much town left, there is still a memorial to its proudest native sons— Hubert Humphrey and Dennis and Duane Koslowski (the latter pair were twins and Olympic wrestling champions, the former, sadly, never won an Olympic medal).
Tennessee (I’ll just say this off the bat, Tennesseans on every side of the Grand Division are going to hate and be mildly insulted by these choices but they are all made earnestly): 1. The Sunsphere in Knoxville. 2. The Bass Pro Shop in the Pyramid in downtown Memphis. 3. David Berman’s relationship with the Tennessee Titans.
Texas: 1. H.E.B. (the best grocery store in America). 2. Selena (the most important solo artist in American history). 3. Dazed and Confused (the best high school movie in American history). Honorable mention: Mike Jones’ phone number (281-830-8004!!).
Utah: 1. Salt Lake City (low key the most culturally fascinating and confounding city in America). 2. The Wasatch Mountains (as a Montanan I don’t say this lightly, but they’re legitimately the most beautiful mountain range in the Lower 48). 3. Crown Burgers.
Vermont: 1. Bernie Sanders’ old public access show. 2. The fact that Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream is packed with so many “mix-ins” because Ben has no sense of smell and almost no sense of taste. 3. Ida May Fuller (the nation’s first Social Security beneficiary).
Virginia: 1. Missy Elliott. 2. The first electric streetcar (in Richmond) 3. The huge amount of political power that Black leaders built immediately after Reconstruction (which was, tragically, so threatening to whiteness that it led to Jim Crow, but still stands as an example of the promise of American Black self-determination).
Washington: 1. The Sonics! (the garage band). 2. The Sonics! (the basketball team); 3. The Sonics! (the fast jets, which were once made here and which are cool).
West Virginia: 1. Tudor’s Biscuit World. 2. Bill Withers. 3. The miners who stood up against the gun thugs at the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Wisconsin: 1. Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialist Mayors. 2. The Ojibwe’s legacy of land stewardship (which in turn inspired Aldo Leopold, thus birthing the modern conservation movement). 3. The tumultuous relationship between former Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles and former Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings (commemorated in song!).
Wyoming: 1. King Ropes and Saddlery in Sheridan. 2. Ok, you ready for this list? The nation’s first woman voter, the nation’s first woman bailiff, the nation’s first woman juror, the nation’s first woman governor, the nation’s first state or territory to offer suffrage, the nation’s first town governed by women (Jackson), the nation’s first woman justice of the peace. 3. The “Black 14” protests at the University of Wyoming.