In the last few weeks as I interviewed people in New York about their expectations about what I'll experience, several folks offered books, documentaries, and television shows where others followed a similar impulse.
I just finished reading Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The book describes Hochschild's many visits to Louisiana over the past few years investigating how citizens so harmed by pollution from major corporations could also be so against environmental regulations that could protect them. The narrative reveals a "deep story" of these citizens that unmasks underlying beliefs and perceptions, demystifying the seeming paradox. It's a great read and substantially altered the questions I have about life in these counties and how that life intersects with politics and citizenship.
Other friends and colleagues offered Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, the CNN program United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, and the great article from The New Yorker back in February 2016 "Who Are All These Trump Supporters?" by George Saunders.
I'm enjoying all these, but there are moments where they feel like a kind of academic or intellectual armor I'm putting on to prepare for... what exactly? Lunch? I think I'm more nervous than I'm admitting. I want to understand before my trip rather than using the trip to gain understanding. I'm treating my potential hosts as though they are a rarely interacted with society on some remote island and yet every person I speak to about the trip has a relative or high school friend who lives in a small town or they themselves grew up somewhere like this. These fellow citizens aren't "foreign" or unknown. They're the people we see over Thanksgiving. Perhaps the fact that we share so much with them and they still don't see things the way we do makes them even more mystifying.
Scott Illingworth is an Assistant Arts Professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and a freelance theatre director.