My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:
It’s still mild enough for the potted pansies and violas, left over from the winter, to flourish a little longer before the heat gets to them. They are joined now by the green and sprouting abundance of spring. In the midst of what is turning into an extended house hunt, opportunities to breathe deep and think hard are welcome in the ever-changing landscape of an assertive Spring.
Over the years, it has become my habit to plant declining Easter lilies in spots in my parents’ back yard. They have come back and bloomed over time to the point that the backyard flower beds have an ancillary “lily season” each April. A pink calla lily, a Mother’s Day gift to my mother from my brother’s family a few years ago, surprised us last year when it popped up amidst a pot of fading pansies. This year it’s sprouting again, in a pot all its own.
The dogwoods took their Easter cue and had their brief peak a couple of weeks ago. Red roses in the back have sprung forth while the rose bushes in front are taking their time. The crape myrtles and Rose of Sharon are revving up now for blooms throughout the warm season.
Out the back window, lavender wisteria cascades among the foliage down the mountain. Three fresh bird feeders await discovery by the many birds that come and go; so far, they’re being ignored. We’re trying to discover why the mourning doves, so plentiful in the past, have disappeared. Several cardinals have become regulars in their absence. A hummingbird feeder perches in a window, replacing the one that succumbed to old age several months ago.
More variety is available at the farmers’ markets that reopen and spring up everywhere. Strawberries now mark the procession of fruits that help to gauge the season. The lengthening of days and warming temperatures always give me a lift.
I try to be even more aware than usual of nature around me as I continue reading a new Library of America volume of three books by naturalist E.O. Wilson. I am not very science savvy, but I appreciate nature and always find Wilson’s explanations of the evolutionary processes all around us to be well-written and accessible. He explains a lot of what we’re seeing, if we will just pay attention.
Wilson, an Alabama native, is considered the world’s foremost expert on ants; his expertise seems equally astute on other flora and fauna of the world. He has been repeatedly named as one of the most influential scientists in history. Reading Dr. Wilson at the same time that I install a fieldstone and pea gravel walk in my parents’ side yard gives an added dimension of curiosity for every stone that’s overturned. Wilson is a formidable companion and guide to the wonders of the back yard and the world beyond.
A more nonsecular companion on the reading nightstand is one I just discovered. Recently, while writing a review of the latest collection of essays by writer Rick Bragg, I ran across a title that was new to me. Wooden Churches: A Celebration (1999) has an introduction by Bragg; the bulk of the book, however, is black and white photographs of (mostly old) wooden churches and services with literary excerpts from a long list of writers.
Since my annual Christmas card usually features a photograph of a wooden Alabama church, I was curious to see what this book has to offer. It’s a charming book to browse. Some of the photographs are familiar, by noted photographers, and others are more personal and obscure. There are several haunting old photographs of churches in the aftermath of Civil War battles.
Any period of life that involves real estate is a challenge. These days, while I’m neck-deep in house-hunting, the simple pleasures outside the windows, simple projects outdoors, and compelling reading are welcome distractions in brief interludes. Prospects of change become somehow less daunting in the views through other windows.
Outside the upstairs bedroom window, I see the upper branches of my Chinese cherry tree and beyond. It has become the place from which I preview the weather of the day and gauge the seasons as the sunrise moves back and forth across Green Mountain.
That cherry tree is the last of the blooming trees on this section of the street to show. The first blossoms of the season appear in the treetop just as the final russet blooms of the crabapple next door give way to its bronze-hued leaves. The cherry tree in a neighbor’s backyard is on a different schedule from mine and bursts forth with white blossoms filling the back guest room window just a couple of weeks before my Chinese cherry begins its stunning, short-lived moment of full bloom.
In the back yard, the young Japanese maple, introduced last year, is budding with promise and I sigh with relief that it weathered its first winter. The camellia finally went crazy in February with crimson blooms. A few rainstorms caused them to droop to the ground and the remaining camellia blooms, holding steady, will soon drop, too. Both wild roses in the back yard – the one that belonged to my grandfather and the one I foraged from a lake shore – are fully-leafed and will start to bloom by Easter. The recently acquired Peggy Martin “Katrina” rose is thriving in its pot, ready for a suitable place to start climbing.
I managed to strain my back on the second day of unpacking when I moved to this house years ago and the doctor ordered three days of bedrest. My bedroom had been the first room I set up so I closed the door and let it be my refuge while I got back in shape. During the day time, I would open the curtains and watch the activity of the birds in the trees and the traffic and pedestrians on the road beyond. It was the perfect place to read.
Over the years, I have observed robins busily building nests in the cherry tree, eggs hatching, and one year I happened to be home on the morning that the babies left the nest. I pulled up a chair and quietly watched. Within an hour, they were all gone and oblivious to me cheering them on.
When a deadly outbreak of tornadoes ravaged much of Alabama in April 2011, the storms took out the power grids and cell towers throughout a wide swath of north Alabama. My neighborhood was without power, internet, and phones for five days. The night sky was amazing with no power for more than fifty miles in all directions. There was a dusk to dawn curfew and my sleep was erratic. At all hours of the night, I found myself lying in bed and staring out the window at the empty dark landscape and the night sky above. An occasional utility truck or police car might pass and any unexpected sound would prompt shining a flashlight out the window, often highlighting the stop sign on the corner. It was much later when I worried that my bright flash of light might have shone into the windows of the houses over in that direction.
Over time, the pattern was established of a retreat to the bedroom and the window whenever a break was needed. Nowadays, I am in the habit of opening the curtains first thing in the morning and reading as the sky goes from dawn to daylight and I prepare to face the day. Reading before rising seems to bring clarity to the day.
This week, I am busily packing to move to another city in a few days. The town I’m moving from after eighteen and a half years has never felt like home, but this house – with my books, and art, family mementos, and “stuff” – has.
And the view from my window has sustained and fortified me through all times and challenges. This morning, outside the window, the first hints of pinkish blooms on the cherry tree are beginning to show.
Back when I thought I should at least feign an interest in the writing of Ayn Rand, I heard architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) utter the following line of dialogue to Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) in King Vidor’s overwrought film version of Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949):
“This is Alabama marble – very high grade, very hard to find.”
I watched The Fountainhead many years ago, and I suspect that quote was my first inkling of the quality of Alabama marble. It is usually referred to as “Sylacauga marble,” for the Talladega County town in which the vein of marble is focused. The seam is thirty-two miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 400 to 600 feet deep, runs from the Coosa River to near the town of Talladega and is the longest marble deposit in the world. 500 million years old and 98% calcium carbonate – Sylacauga marble is considered one of the purest and whitest in the world and is often compared to Italian Carrara.
Edward Gantt was the first entrepreneur to develop marble quarries in the Sylacauga area in the 1830s. One of Gantt’s abandoned quarries is open for public view. At the Gantt’s Quarry Overlook, 10-ton blocks of marble line the viewing platform. White mining roads wind through the grey chasm and down to the greenish water filling the abandoned quarry floor.
Italian sculptor Giuseppi Moretti began to use Sylacauga marble while in Alabama designing Birmingham’s mammoth cast iron statue of Vulcan – Roman god of fire, metalwork, and the forge – for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Moretti and partners opened marble quarries around Sylacauga in the early 20th Century.
Moretti’s first art sculpture from Sylacauga marble was his Head of Christ, which was displayed in St. Louis in 1904 along with Vulcan. It is a sculpture for which Moretti claimed great pride and which travelled with him for the rest of his life. He expressed a wish that the Head of Christ would be displayed eternally in Alabama and it can be seen today at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Abraham Lincoln, on view in the U.S. Capitol, is carved from Sylacauga marble. Sylacauga marble is prominent in the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, the United States Supreme Court Building, and other notable architecture and art throughout the United States.
More prosaic uses for marble include as a soil additive, as a whitening agent in paint and paper coating, and as an antacid (think Alka-Seltzer and Tums), among other things.
Sylacauga marble is having a renaissance for artistic applications as evidenced in outdoor installations throughout downtown Sylacauga. Sylacauga Emerging by Alabama sculptor Craigger Browne is an impressive work in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. It depicts a worker carving himself out of a block of marble. Nearby is Don Lawler’s Falling Star, commemorating the Hodges Meteorite, which crashed through a farmhouse roof outside Sylacauga in 1954, striking Ann Hodges, asleep on her couch.
If in the Sylacauga area, keep a watch for numerous examples of the pristine marble that is native to the region. Chances are, you’ve already seen it or used it in other places.
In December 2019, my alma mater, and the university my father proudly served until his retirement, dedicated a statue and installation on the Black Warrior River, which flows on the northern boundary of the campus. The University of Alabama gifted a statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of knowledge and wisdom, to the city of Tuscaloosa in honor of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial. The 30-foot statue stands on the edge of the river in the park at Manderson Landing. Leading up to the mirrored pedestal on which Minerva lands in a silvery splash of water is a bronze outline of the river set in a concrete walk and punctuated with a timeline of significant moments in the city’s history. The history timeline is presented alongside the river’s circuitous path from Tuscaloosa to Demopolis.
Sculptor Caleb O’Connor created the Minerva statue and Craig Wedderspoon, who directs the sculpture program at the University, designed the timeline walk.
When I was a student at the University, Manderson Landing was a dirt parking lot on the side of the river. River Road (now Jack Warner Parkway) followed the path of the river from the community of Holt to downtown Tuscaloosa. During my time in Tuscaloosa, I was struck by how little the town interacted with its river. For a time, I lived at Rose Towers, which was the northernmost building on the campus and the nearest to the river. From my 11th floor window, I could see the river’s path all the way to downtown but, other than towboats and barges, human activity on the river was basically non-existent.
Rose Towers was imploded years ago and fresh new-ish student housing predominates on the north side of campus. The riverside has been developed from town to the campus with commercial interests, a farmers market, walking trails, and abundant park lands. Campus enrollment has doubled since my time there and the campus itself is packed with new roads, new campuses, new buildings, and never-ending construction.
Overall, the campus is more beautiful and maintained than it was in my time, but the various fraternity and sorority rows are even tackier and more obscene than they were “in my day.” My pride in the campus wilts a little when I have to pass through the overblown houses of the ostentatious panhellenic ghettoes. My disgust with that element of college life dates back to my pre-college days and it seems to grow more intense rather than mellow with time. (In the summer before my freshman year at the University, I received a recruitment letter from the Interfraternity Council; I corrected the grammar and spelling and sent it back. They never bothered me again, which was my intent.)
But I was in town this time to visit Minerva and the river. A visit was planned soon after the dedication, but the lost year of 2020 put a halt to the plan.
The goddess of wisdom adorns the seal of the University of Alabama. I must admit that, through my undergraduate and graduate school years, I was always led to understand that the goddess on the seal is Athena, the Greek original for Minerva. The origin stories and realm are the same, but in the years since I left Tuscaloosa, Athena has apparently been transmogrified into her Roman persona.
Works for me, I guess …but I have always preferred my Greek mythology to the Roman appropriation. Even so, I am proud of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge and metalworking, who is the symbol for Birmingham. I know that his Greek predecessor is Hephaestus, but the name Vulcan seems to wield more power.
O’Connor’s Minerva is a stunning addition to Tuscaloosa’s riverscape. She is a modernized creation with flowing hair replacing the traditional helmet. Luminous raiment flows against her taut and powerful body. She appears to be landing in water after a flight and her right arm releases an owl into the firmament. The sculpture is not monochrome; a subdued and powerful mix of hues captures and plays with the light, giving the form an even more changeable and human presence. She is inspiring and spectacular.
Minerva’s mirrored and curving pedestal emerges from the rocks of the landing and provides added luminescence to the goddess who towers above the river to anchor the north side of the campus. Wedderspoon’s history-laden walkway provides historic context and a sense of place to a dramatic interlude in the local landscape.
For an alumnus of the University of Alabama, who has begun to feel a sense of distance from the place, the inspiring monument at Manderson Landing has reignited a sense of connection and community that I found on that campus all those years ago.
Based on years past, I should be a couple of hours away from my annual December getaway to Point Clear on Mobile Bay as I type this sentence. A couple of months ago, I optimistically booked a room at the Grand Hotel for December 13 through 18. I knew I might have to cancel, but I wanted to be ready just in case things had changed by now.
When I booked my room, the resort was still dealing with damage from Hurricane Sally in September. I have been exceptionally conscious and careful during the pandemic and was impressed with the safety protocols the resort has in place. My plan was to stay close to my room, reading and writing, to take regular walks around the grounds and community, and to have room service and takeout. It seemed to me to be a responsible way to get a break and finally to celebrate my retirement.
As the dates got closer and the news reports grew more grim, I realized that the responsible thing is to cancel for the time being. The world around us and people depending on us make it feel imperative to take a stand. And, as my friend Deborah says, now that I’m retired, I can go down any time I please … once the health crisis has passed, anyway.
It will be the first time I have missed the December escape since 2005 – the year of Hurricane Katrina and its extensive damage to Mobile and Baldwin Counties.
Even as I entered my cancellation, the music and memories of Baldwin County and Mobile Bay invaded my thoughts. I think about downtown Fairhope, the intersection of Section Street and Fairhope Avenue, and the light-bedecked trees along the sidewalks. The planters, hanging from the light posts, complement the plantings of poinsettias and pansies in the ground-level beds.
I think of the Camellia Café, Dragonfly, Panini Pete’s, the Wash House, and other places to grab a great meal. I think of Market by the Bay and its abundance of fresh catch seafood.
I think of drives to lonely overlooks across the bay, to Magnolia Springs, and to the search for bags of fresh local pecans and satsumas.
At the Grand, the gentle surf grazes the docks and, beyond the marina, the lights of Mobile, across the bay, glisten beyond the traffic of the causeway.
The Grand sunset, usually spectacular, will still be there when I return. And, upon that return, I think I will cherish the place more than ever.
For now, I slowly and surely prepare my house to sell and keep my eyes and ears open for possible places to move in Birmingham.
To stay grounded, I read as much as possible. After reading stacks of magazines, a few books, and news articles, I have found comfort and solace in reading a couple of very good cookbooks. Sean Brock’s second book, South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, is as thoughtful and thorough a consideration of Southern foodways and contemporary thought on the subject as one might find. Kelly Fields’s chatty The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread is as inspiring as one might expect from the dedicated and well-travelled James Beard Award-winning pastry chef.
I feel grateful, as I read these books on food, to have spoken with and experienced meals prepared by both of these chefs. I first had Brock’s food at an unforgettable dinner at Alabama Chanin’s factory in Florence. I met and broke bread with Fields at two dinners at the same place. Her New Orleans bakery and restaurant, Willa Jean, is a singular New Orleans experience.
I am also, grudgingly perhaps, becoming more susceptible to the necessity of streaming video. I have even fallen prey to the New Age-y call of calm.com, and especially its hypnotic video series, “The World of Calm.” My most frequent stream, however, has been the Spike Lee-directed concert movie, David Byrne’s American Utopia, which is a most hopeful document of our country and its current situation. I have lost touch with how many times I’ve watched it already.
To satisfy my former habit to watch a movie in an honest-to-goodness cinema, I have been able to venture to Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center in the basement of the Pizitz building in downtown Birmingham. The not-for-profit indie theatre limits each screening to twelve patrons in well-spaced seats in a 100-seat theatre and I have enjoyed welcome escapes there to view films like On the Rocks and Mank. Each visit to Sidewalk Cinema makes me more anxious to move back home to Birmingham when the time is right.
Holiday season 2020 is a unique and memorable one. Perhaps it has made us a little more aware of the pleasures of the simple things. Be safe as we move into a promising new year.
There are so many things happening right now. I am excited and anxious about the election, but friends in the Midwest are seeing major snows earlier than anticipated and wildfires, beyond biblical proportions, are ravaging the West. To the South, and nearer to me, Zeta percolates in the Gulf.
And then there’s COVID. I don’t really have the “fatigue”; I have just run out of things to say. As I said, I am excited and anxious about the election.
A day or two ago, I made my annual reservation for my December getaway in Point Clear on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.
I asked my usual contact, “How’s it going down there?”
“I’ll let you know when Zeta has passed,” she responded.
My regular room choice is closed post-Sally, awaiting carpet replacement, but I managed to snag an almost identical room still available for the Christmas season.
My checkbook howls, but my spirit soars. December in Point Clear has become an annual rite of renewal.’
In the long list of things to ponder, a last look at the season now coming to a close has captured my wandering attention,
The indoor plants were moved indoors a few weeks ago and the outdoor annuals were committed back to the earth. A peace lily, that had been given up for lost in the summer, decided to sprout a week ago and I am trying to coax it along. Most of what was left, though, was left to fend for itself. I thought I had washed my hands of it all except for the raking and maintenance of the debris.
Over the past week, all of that was turned asunder.
I returned home to find a single gardenia in full bloom. My potted gardenia is temperamental in the best of times and never blooms beyond early summer, so I still ponder what inspired its late-October solitary flourish. Even so, the silky sexiness of a gardenia is hard to beat.
My Granddaddy Harbison’s heirloom rose, which has to be at least a half-century old and is now spread over gardens across the South, had a final burst of blossoms that are both spectacular and later than ever.
A couple of months ago, only the forget-me-nots had flowered from several packets of seeds sent to my mother with a charity solicitation in the Spring. When I got home a few days ago, the marigolds from that same set of packets had decided to take their turn. Those few blooms epitomize the shades of Autumn without the aid of the more predictable chrysanthemums.
It is truly time to cut back the purple hearts that thrive next to the front door. This late-October, however, they are far too exuberant to thwart just yet, and I will encourage them to bloom as long as they like.
Please, whatever you do, VOTE on November 3. Every vote matters.
I saw Joan Baez don a grey Confederate soldier’s cap, probably picked up at some local tourist stand, to sing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at a pop-up concert in Mobile. It was April 1976 and the event was one of the two Mobile performances of Bob Dylan’s legendary “Rolling Thunder Revue.”
I skipped a final exam to be there.
The song is poor fictional Virginia farmer Virgil Caine’s lament about his plight at the end of the Civil War. The song, written by a Canadian musician, was not perceived as “racist” at the time. But I doubt that Baez could comfortably perform the song in a cheap Confederate soldier’s cap in 2020; I would have a difficult time applauding it now – with all of the baggage it has come to contain. Even so, it is an undeniably great song and Baez gave an indisputably great performance.
At a time when we are trying to become an anti-racist society, we are challenged to become more conscious of race than at any time in my existence. I learned early on that it is rude to label people based on their race and ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation. Now it is demanded.
White Southerners have often been accused of “living in the past.” I’m afraid we’ve reached a time when the entire nation is living in the past and we’re too paralyzed to move forward.
I taught at an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for the last eighteen years of my career before retiring in May. On occasion, a student would find out I was from Birmingham (mostly – my family moved around a lot) and ask me what part of town. I would answer that we lived in “Green Acres” during my elementary school years and those familiar with the city would jaw-drop and say, “Journey, you’re from the hood!”
Green Acres was not called “the hood” in the ‘60s when I lived there, but times and places change. If I wanted to really blow my students’ minds, I would mention that my dad graduated from Ensley High School.
During those years, Green Acres was an all-white school. It was almost a decade after Brown v. Board and Birmingham city schools were still in the process of integrating. The city had operated its schools on the principle of neighborhood accessibility and, while there were communities of color close to Green Acres, the nearest were in the county – not the city – school system. More diverse parts of the city – especially closer to the city center – were more quickly integrated, but the regrettable “white flight” to the suburbs was gaining steam.
In the interesting time in which we are living, I find myself looking back on my early years in the still much-segregated South. I may have been in the city that Martin Luther King, Jr. declared the “most segregated city in America” in 1963, but, even then, I found the claim somewhat dubious; it was what one might expect from an Atlantan.
I was never oblivious to the struggles going on in my city and around the country. George Wallace was our governor and Bull Connor was wielding his power in Birmingham and forging sores the city has not yet been fully able to erase.
I was in elementary school when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen. That was the same year that Wallace was grandstanding in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to symbolically block the entrance to Black students. It was the time of the Selma marches; the third effort made it beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge and captured the imagination of the world when it reached the Alabama Capitol steps.
I was not “raised” by a Black woman, as some of my friends claim they were, but Black people were ubiquitous wherever I went in the city. Neighborhoods were still considered segregated, but if you walked through the opening in the shrubbery in my Grandparents’ Harbison Fairfield Highlands back yard, you were in a Black community. My grandfather and I would take his dogs for walks through that neighborhood where he seemed to be on a mutual first-name basis with all of the people we met.
My Grandparents’ Journey house was in the shadow of U.S. Steel’s Ensley Works. Their neighborhood was considered segregated, but directly across the street from them were blocks of houses entirely occupied by Black people. The idea of segregation on that street was more of a ludicrous technicality than a reality. Also, my Grandfather Journey was less “neighborly” than Granddaddy Harbison.
Kiddieland was a small amusement park in one corner of the old state fairgrounds in Five Points West. I remember one Saturday at Kiddieland, I got to the coveted first row of the modest roller coaster. Mother and Dad were sitting the ride out so I had the seat to myself until the ride operator put an African American kid about my age in the seat next to me. I looked over and smiled and said “hey” before the ride took off. My seatmate remained silent until we were about to climb the first rise; then he looked over at me and said, “You soda cracker!” Ruined my ride.
On many days, when I was still pre-school age, Mother and Grandmother Harbison took me shopping. On one of those days, at Goldstein & Cohen, a department store in downtown Ensley, Mother was trying on dresses while I was waiting and hanging out in the women’s department. I got thirsty and took a drink from a water fountain. A sales clerk quickly moved in and scolded me; I had apparently drunk from the “wrong” fountain. My mother, hearing the kerfuffle, rushed out, still buttoning her dress, grabbed my arm, informed the sales clerk that she would decide when her child needed discipline, and took me out.
In those years, my father’s office was in downtown Birmingham, at 20 S. 20th Street. He worked for a national company that manufactured and sold printing equipment. As I quickly learned, everybody – on whichever extreme of the political spectrum – needed printing presses to get their messages out. Dad’s territory included churches and schools, department stores and groceries, political and activist organizations, newspapers, and government offices.
I remember one time driving in the car with Mother to Dad’s office. On a downtown street, we were met with a Civil Rights protest coming toward us from the next block. Mother muttered “March,” deftly maneuvered the car down the next block, and we arrived at 20 S. 20th Street without delay.
In the summer months, when school was out, Mother and I would occasionally accompany Dad around central Alabama as he made his calls. I especially remember one trip when Mother was not along – either because she was pregnant with my brother or because she was home with the baby.
Dad’s calls took us to his usual clients – small town printers, newspapers, and churches, schools, colleges, etc. In Sumter County, he called on a print shop housed on a farm. It was a Black-run operation and Dad probably told me its name, but all I remember now is that he referred to it as some sort of “separatist organization.”
Years later, I learned that the earliest incarnations of the Black Panther Party were in Alabama in 1965 with Stokely Carmichael’s leadership of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. I still try to connect the possible dots between that and my Dad’s clients in Sumter County.
The main reason that summer day with my dad stands out is for his final sales call of the day. After leaving Sumter County in late afternoon, we went through Tuscaloosa on the way back to Birmingham. There, in early evening, Dad made one last business call on a business called Imperial Press in a tight two-story building on the main street of downtown Tuscaloosa.
As we pulled into the parking place, Dad said, “It’s called Imperial Press; it’s a front for the Klan.”
Not only was it a front, but we entered the place to be greeted by Bobby Shelton, the “Grand Wizard” (what a silly organization; what pathetic, silly titles and costumes).
I couldn’t wait to get away, but I sat patiently in Shelton’s office while my dad conducted his business, just as he had done at every organization we visited during the course of that day. I looked at framed signed photographs inscribed to their “friend Bobby” by prominent politicians of the time.
Dad was a salesman and all of these diverse characters were his clients. As we drove back to Birmingham, I expressed my pre-teen repugnance and embarrassment at meeting the Klan. Dad asked me how I felt about the Sumter County “separatists” (I still wish I could remember the name of the group) and I told him they seemed “nicer.” “Did they seem ‘nicer’,” he asked rhetorically, “because they were a different race and you didn’t feel embarrassed by them?”
My dad was no Atticus Finch, but he was a good man who often gave me perspectives that I have clung to for life.
In 1973, I was a freshman at Alabama when I watched Gov. Wallace crown Terry Points as the first African American Homecoming Queen at the University. Soon after, Sylvester Jones, my classmate at Birmingham’s Shades Valley High, was elected the first African American Vice President of Alabama’s SGA. In my senior year, Cleophus Thomas, a friend from the University’s Program Council, was elected UA’s first African American SGA President. (I had run against Cleo, a sorority girl, and an umbrella-pilfering frat boy on the platform of abolishing SGA, a principle I still believe in.)
In 1988, shortly after midnight on a June night, the 25th anniversary of Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, my friend Clay and I climbed to the balcony of Foster Auditorium to commemorate the anniversary. It’s odd that none of these events seemed to have happened in as quick succession as they did. It all felt like distant history from June 1963.
Decades later, in a classroom at the HBCU, a student asks me once again where I’m “from.”
“Birmingham,” I answer for the umpteenth time.
Her eyes squint and her mouth wrinkles into a sneer. “You’re not really from Birmingham.”
I start to respond, but realize that she has decided the only way to legitimately be from Birmingham is to be Black and from Birmingham.
A student who knows me leans to her and says, “His dad graduated from Ensley. He’s really from Birmingham.”
I decide to let the whole exchange hang there. But it still bothers me: I’m not sure I truly belong anywhere.
Diane McWhorter, a writer from the privileged Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carry Me Home, in 2001. Her journalistic research and documentation about the Birmingham campaign of the Civil Rights movement are impressive. McWhorter makes the mistake, however, of putting herself and her lily-white upbringing into the narrative by weaving in a shaggy dog story about her father’s conjectural involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (almost certainly a fictional conjecture).
McWhorter leveraged her book into a career of sorts, commenting on race relations in the South whenever someone wants her point of view. She presents herself in Carry Me Home as an ingenuous Mountain Brook girl, somehow oblivious to what’s going on just a few miles over the mountain from her house.
McWhorter is only a few years older than me.
When I read her book, I kept thinking, if you were growing up there and then, How could you not know?
Traveling up I-65 from Birmingham with a friend a few years ago, we passed a billboard for the Jesse Owens Park and Museum (www.jesseowensmemorialpark.com) in Oakville, an unincorporated community in Lawrence County, Alabama. My friend, who is from Ohio and was a college track athlete there, said, “What is a Jesse Owens museum doing in Alabama?”
“He was born here.” My friend didn’t know that; I guess a lot of people don’t.
James Cleveland Owens (1913-1980), who later became famous as “Jesse,” was born into a sharecropper family in Oakville. His reputation began to be made when the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, and Jesse became a high school track star before becoming a star college athlete at Ohio State. At a Big Ten meet in Michigan in 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied a fourth in a seventy-minute span.
The primary Owens legend was born from his participation in the 1936 Berlin “Nazi” Olympics where he put the lie to Hitler’s assertion of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals and establishing an Olympic long-jump record that stood for over a quarter century. Ironically, the best visual documentation of Owens’s Olympic triumphs is seen in Olympia, German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics.
The Oakville park is a bucolic place, with views of farms in the near distance, athletic fields, and places for picnics and reflection. The museum has an impressive timeline, film, and interactive displays with artifacts and details of the life of Owens.
A sand jump pit borders one of the walkways so that aspiring athletes might compare their skills to Owens’s 26 ft. 5 ¼ in. Olympic record.
Of most interest to me is the recreation of the Oakville sharecropper’s house where Owens was born and grew up prior to the family’s move to Cleveland. A narration of the house is available, spoken by Owens’s brother, Sylvester.
Jesse Owens was the youngest of ten children – all of whom shared a pallet in a small room next to the main room. The main room also held the bed where the parents slept. The back of the house is a long room with a sparsely-furnished kitchen on one side and a wooden table and chairs on the other.
An Owens statue, by Birmingham-based sculptor Branko Medenica (www.brankoart.com), stands between the house and the museum. It shows Owens symbolically breaking through the Olympic rings. The statue was unveiled on the day in June 1996 when the Olympic torch, carried by Owens’s grandson, passed through tiny Oakville on its way to the Atlanta Olympics.
Local tomatoes are prolific in this mid-summer early August as I gratefully accept all offers from friends and neighbors. There may be a glut of home-grown tomatoes right now; they will – like the summer – disappear soon enough, and much too soon for my tastes.
Not long ago, not having a fresh tomato on hand, and sort of craving tomatoes, I made the mistake of buying one on a whim at the grocery store. It has been years since I purchased a supermarket tomato and I was shocked anew at the lack of taste and the plastic consistency; I was reminded why I swore off supermarket tomatoes in the first place. After a couple of bites, I threw the pretender out and waited for a farmers’ market or a kind friend to come through. I never had much luck growing tomatoes on my own.
Fortunately, tomatoes have been coming from all directions in the past few weeks and I haven’t wasted a single one. Salads, tomato sandwiches, and sharp acidic sauces are the order of the day and, for many meals, a tomato sandwich or two suffice.
After the first frost, I may use good canned tomatoes – preferably Italian San Marzano, as needed, for recipes and sauces, but the authentic taste of a fresh locally grown summer tomato, still warm from the plant, is the epitome of summer southern comfort.
In the ascetic summer of 2020, simple home-based pleasures like fresh tomatoes take on added significance. I’m grateful for my retirement; this fraught fall semester of teaching would surely have done me in.
I recently read a piece about Ernie Pyle, the iconic World War II war correspondent who was a casualty of the war in Japan in 1945. In a dispatch during the war, he wrote: “Someday when peace has returned to this odd world, I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”
Tonight, a full moon is just appearing through the trees over Green Mountain and I understand Pyle’s longing — a longing that is in most of us, I suspect. Pyle expresses the opportunity to return to something loved, something missed, something yearned for. The idea of “normal” is toppled, but we try to make amends.
In 1989, Norman Rene’s Longtime Companion, with a script by Craig Lucas, was the first theatrical film to address the AIDS crisis. In the final scene, three friends who have survived the initial onslaught of the virus – before it was quite understood – are walking along a lonely Fire Island beach. They are musing about what it will be like when a cure is found.
Willy, Campbell Scott’s character, says, “I just want to be there,” cuing a fantasy sequence in which hundreds jubilantly flock to and party on their beach. The three stalwarts are reunited with their old friends who have succumbed to the (then) mysterious virus. As abruptly as it began, the fantasy ends, and the three figures are left once again on the beach, alone.
Ronald Reagan’s denial of the AIDS outbreak during his presidency, in the early years of that particular pandemic, calls to mind the current self-serving denial of the Oval Office’s current occupant. I cannot change the world, so I will try to nurture myself with its bounty and trust the doctors to see us through. And I will vote come election day.
I just want to be there.