Farewell, Austin

Photo by Manuel Garza

Ever since I decided to leave Austin, I've tried to write a farewell devoid of anger and frustration, and every time I've had to move on to writing something else. A Facebook post. An email. A grocery list.

I'd rather write about the vestiges of the Austin I once loved. The man in a Santa suit riding a horse along Montopolis. Or the person pushing the "walk" button at a heavily trafficked East Side intersection — there was nothing special about him except he was dressed in a chicken suit, head to clawed toe. I'd rather write about what I will miss, those glimpses of the funky Austin I used to know.

I've had to fight to ignore the "love it or leave it" admonition invariably voiced by those who don't want to hear criticism of either Austin or Texas. I retired as a reporter for the Denver Post and moved to Austin to write a book about cooking with my friend Molly Ivins. Her friends and I inherited one another, so it was easy to stay after her 2007 death. I had wanted to live in Austin years ago, when I was still a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, but the Austin I wanted to live in then is now slip-sliding away.

My biracial daughter is leaving too. I'm heading West; she's heading East. She's equally frustrated. She's tired of strangers who engage in their own racial profiling. It was amusing when my daughter was in Sicily, where locals assumed she was Sicilian and asked for directions in a language she didn't understand. It wasn't funny while she was waiting tables here to have diners blurt, "My wife and I have been wondering all through dinner: what are you?" It's happened more than once. Her standard reply: "I'm five-foot-five. Enjoy the rest of your evening."

I never thought that in the 21st century I would be called "nigger bitch" in Austin, but it happened one night a couple of years ago when I inadvertently cut off a driver. To me, it signaled an ugly shift in the city's political and racial climate.

I won't miss those people. Nor can I stomach half-baked, so-called political leaders who seek to decimate civil rights gains achieved over five decades; who compare refugees to rattlesnakes; who deny funds for feeding children; who speak in codes. I need an ocean. An enlightened governor. Fresh air. The absence of an idiotic gun culture.

I will miss the wonderful people who continue to work on behalf of the disenfranchised: lawyers who do pro bono work; legislators who continue the Sisyphean task of bringing sense to the Texas House and Senate; women who fight for health care for all. I'll miss the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, activist musicians and one of the best public radio stations in the country.

I was heartened when University of Texas students rallied 'round good sense and decided to disrupt gun-toting knuckleheads who actually had the bad taste to attempt a campus re-enactment of a mass shooting. That UT students thwarted it with dildos and simulated fart sounds was reminiscent of the old Austin. May their social consciousness wax even as my enthusiasm for being here wanes.

When I read the governor's obnoxious pronouncement telling President Obama that Syrian refugees couldn't come to Texas, I immediately recognized the code: "We already have enough brown-skinned people here." This is the same guy who once reportedly bragged, "I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home." I suspect what he really meant was, "I sue the black guy and go home."

It's the same code used by the state's attorney general — the one under indictment for alleged fraud — as he continues his vindictive war against Roe vs. Wade; who fought to prevent babies born in Texas from getting birth certificates; who unsuccessfully fought same-sex marriage.

The pervading atmosphere of racial and religious bigotry has been a strong factor in my decision to leave. Yeah, I know, there's meanness everywhere. But Texas has perfected a special brand bordering on pathological. I see it in Louis Gohmert, one of Texas's more colorful congressional embarrassments; in the absurd pronouncements of his toxic legislative counterpart, Jonathan Stickland; in Molly White's anti-Muslim religious bigotry; in Karl Rove's craven political strategies.

There are still so many white people who don't know black history, literature or music. In order to climb the mainstream socio-economic ladder, we've always been expected to know a broad spectrum of "mainstream" history, literature and music — but those expectations are rarely mandated where knowing about blacks is concerned. I learned about Frantz Fanon, Phyllis Wheatley, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in my little segregated elementary school in St. Louis, but not so much in my desegregated St. Louis high school. Now comes a Texas State Board of Education that doesn't even want academic scholars to vet textbooks for inclusion or accuracy.

I'm tired of hearing about the reverse racism in Abigail Fisher's legal whine. I've passed this way before. Racism is racism. I'm terrified by what might happen with guns on UT's campus. I'm angered by silly people walking streets with assault rifles. I want a better grade of crazy. I want a state that welcomes, not rejects. I want an attorney general that advocates for those without a voice, not one already in serious trouble with the law.

So hello, San Francisco. I'll try not to look back in anger, but it won't be easy.

Ellen Sweets

Author, former Austin resident