Editorial: Elephant On A String by Ashley Thomas


I use my kids as an ice breaker for getting to know my neighbors. When I jog alone, no one looks and smiles if I don’t almost maniacally do it first. During this pandemic, the southern tradition of waving as you walk by has become distant because of heads hanging down in fear. It can be hard to get someone’s attention without hesitance. However, pushing three kids in a stroller elicits so many random outbursts of awe and questions, that a simple walk is a perfect way to community build. We’ve met JD, who surprisingly owns a horse farm close to our subdivision. There is Ms. Nikki, who is almost twice my age and looks three times better in her waist and hips. She loves couponing and checks on me when too much time passes between running into each other. We’re going to put together the first neighborhood gathering Stable Dell will have in the twenty years it’s existed, once covid times are over. Then there’s Ms. Allegra who has two gorgeous rottweilers and the sweetest smile. She always takes time to speak when she sees us turn her corner. Brother Dave was kind enough to share his CBD samples with me after seeing the obvious stress in my eyes one afternoon.


Sometimes my sons will scream instead of patiently enjoying the air and sunshine, while I try to bond a village over these invisible, enemy lines we’ve created between our blades of grass. We are doing well in our mostly black, lower-middle-class claim of the earth. Regardless, inhumanity continues to prevail.


We met my favorite neighbor, Mr. Rodney, at the top of the hill, when he almost hit us turning a black Camaro into his driveway.


Another day, he was on the front lawn of his house in a navy blue robe, house shoes, and black wool hat as we were trotting by. We both chuckled when I said he looked cozy. I love seeing my neighbors without pretension; in satin crowns of bonnets and scarves, basketball shorts, white ankle socks, and slippers. They are gorgeous, casually smoking morning cigarettes while sitting in garages with sleep in their eyes.


The kids crunched and crushed crackers in their stroller long enough for us to wade into the serious topic of our plight in empowering the psychology of our people. It‘a a necessity for our survival.


He asked me if I had ever heard of an elephant on a string. I grinned in immediate excitement expecting some sort of ancient folklore that would connect me to what feels like mythological roots at times. But, Rodney’s story was a contemporary one.


When elephants are forced into a circus, they are bound in the ring by clasping a thick chain to their tree-like feet as an audacious trainer whips and rewards them into domestication. They are brutalized in multitude per day to perform perfectly timed, choreographed tricks. They are numbed to chaotic noise, artificial light, theatrical smoke, abrupt human movement, sad clowns, Cheshire grins, and shouts that must echo aggressively around their giant, floppy ears. Spectators applaud to give thanks as atonement.


A chain is no longer necessary. Only a string is needed as a gentle, constant reminder of servitude, both for the elephant and its audience. The giant maintains restraint and abides by its new, unnatural role. Its history is lost.


She never knew she was the largest of her kind because she didn’t have to. As her captured self, she wouldn’t get the chance. Maybe she trades defeat for breath in knowing the day she changes her mind and reclaims her power could certainly be her last.


Rodney said, “Sounds like us, right?”


The baby started to cry, and we said goodbye with smiles and waves as we rolled down the hill towards our little, white home. I prepared dinner as my sons ran around the gut-punch of despair and hope in my stomach.

Photography from the final Elephant performance for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2016.