Here’s a link to my latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. Bobby Mathews knows his noir.
Here’s a link to my latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. Bobby Mathews knows his noir.
“I, Too, Am Alabama,” an eye-opening retrospective of the transcendent art of Thornton Dial, is currently on-view at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts on the UAB campus in Birmingham. Thornton Dial (1928-2016) is often lumped with groups of artists referred to as “outsider,” “self-taught,” “primitive,” or “folk” artists. The Abroms-Engel exhibition prefers the label “vernacular artist” and clarifies that Dial’s artistry holds its own with mid- to late 20th-early 21st century contemporary artists of many styles.
Over the years, I have usually viewed Dial’s art alongside other of his contemporaries in the vernacular art movement. His importance was clear in those earlier shows but walking into large galleries surrounded by nothing but Thornton Dial’s work in a variety of media makes it clear just how significant his artistic vision is.
An Alabama native, Dial was born in Sumter County and spent most of his life in Bessemer, outside Birmingham. He worked as a metalworker at Bessemer’s Pullman-Standard plant until it closed in 1981, after which he focused on his artistic output. Dial’s first solo art exhibit was in New York in 1993 and marked the beginning of his rise to recognition in the art world.
“I, Too, Am Alabama” derives its title from the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too” and its famous final line, “I, too, am America.” In the current show at Abroms-Engel, the curators, Paul Barrett, assisted by Tina Ruggieri, have assembled a large collection of Dial works from various sources and in various styles. Large hanging works are dominant, but there are sculptures, works on paper, and smaller works scattered throughout the exhibit.
Most of Dial’s work, and something he has in common with other vernacular artists, consists of elements of assemblage. His incorporation of found objects includes toys, metals, cloth, plastics, shoes, gloves, tree branches, gravel, rope, carpet, soda bottles, hickory nuts, and myriad other objects. I think that one of the elements that makes this work most striking to me is that these found objects are most often embedded within layers of paints – enamels, spray paints, oils. These painted coatings transform the artworks from found to finished.
In “Fairfield,” for example, a found patchwork quilt is merged onto a canvas, flanked by two shadowy quilters, one of whom looks squarely at the viewer. “Separation,” a muted abstraction, is beautiful to gaze upon as other, smaller, suggestions of words and images appear among its various fragments. The complexity of works like “Nobody Know What Go on Behind the Jungle” and “How Things Work: The Parade of Life” demands extended and repeat viewing and, still, obscured images emerge each time.
Dial’s work addresses social issues and history, especially the history of Blackness, civil rights, and the concept of otherness in the United States. His recurring motif of the tiger is a symbol of survival. The viewer must ponder these works to find intrinsic messages. With Dial, an agenda never supersedes his artistic agency; these are, first and foremost, masterful creations of an assured individual vision.
“I, Too, Am Thornton Dial” will be on view at Abroms-Engel until December 10. A companion show of Dial’s works on paper is at Samford University’s School of the Arts Gallery through December 2.
Aldridge Gardens, a 32-acre public garden in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, surrounds a lake on property that was once the home of Kay and Eddie Aldridge (www.aldridgegardens.com). I first knew of the Aldridge gardening family through Aldridge Garden Shop and Nursery, a great source for plants that was located for decades on Red Mountain, across from the entrance to Vulcan Park.
Eddie and his father, nurseryman Loren Aldridge, discovered and patented the stunning “Snowflake” variety of oak-leaf hydrangea that is now popular throughout the South and beyond. Aldridge Gardens is a perfect showcase for the Snowflake and dozens of other varieties of hydrangea, azaleas, and other flora. Sculpture is placed throughout the garden, and a Veterans’ Memorial Arbor and Pentagon Plaza are located at the far end of the property, recently accented with fading wisteria dripping from the arbor.
The Aldridges first saw the property when they were on-site in the ‘60s to plant three magnolia trees for the Coxe family who lived there at the time. They saw the potential for a public garden on the site and Eddie Aldridge’s dream for a “garden of destiny” was born. He and Kay bought and lived on the estate in the ‘70s and negotiated the transfer to the city of Hoover in the ‘90s with the understanding that the grounds would remain a public space in perpetuity.
A half-mile trail goes around the lake and separate paths diverge into other areas of the garden, along with woodland trails through an urban forest and alongside a meadow. Some areas feature gardens dedicated to specific plants. On a recent May morning, I spotted six tortoises sunning themselves on a fallen tree that was partially submerged in the lake with other tortoises coming and going around them.
The Gardens are off a bustling road and near a busy interstate, but after a few minutes on the grounds, that noise seems to fade away as birdsong and quiet streams take focus. On a sunny day, the dappled shade creates contrasts in light that glimmers from the water and profuse foliage all around. Honeysuckle creeps up among other plants and the perfume of jasmine permeates here and there. Snowflake hydrangeas are predominant, however, in their Aldridge Garden’s home-place.
Aldridge Gardens is just one of many splendid and occasionally unexpected green spaces to be found in the Birmingham area. Having it three miles away from my house makes it ideal for a quick getaway while running errands. Two Snowflake hydrangeas in my backyard, acquired last year to celebrate my move back to Birmingham, are doing just fine and provide a hint of the nearby gardens on days when I can’t get away. The snowflakes have not quite peaked yet, but they are magnificent nevertheless and give promise for a lush summer to come.
I got a brick for Christmas. And it was one of the more meaningful presents I received.
It was a brick from the ruins of the demolished Ensley High School, my father’s alma mater, on Birmingham’s west side. The building held its first classes in 1910 and closed at the end of the 2005-2006 academic year. A fire gutted the abandoned school in 2018 and its final demolition began in 2021 to make way for a multi-use complex.
Grover Journey graduated from Ensley in the early 1950s and was student body vice-president in his senior year. Mother and I always marveled that, wherever we might be, Dad could sniff out an Ensley grad from his era.
Listening to Dad’s stories, I always had the impression that their bitterest high school rivals were in Woodlawn, across the city on the east side of town. The Woodlawn community is having a resurgence these days and Ensley, which went into a rapid decline when its steel mills closed in the ‘70s, is now looking forward to its own renaissance. It has a long way to go. Dad’s boyhood home is one of only two houses still standing on the once crowded block where he grew up and met Mother.
Along with the pink-ish tan exterior brick, my special Christmas gift included a well-worn and annotated copy of Shakespeare’s King Henry the Eighth from what was once a voluminous Ensley High School Library. The card in the book has signatures of withdrawals dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. A student named Charles Ingram checked it out seven times in succession in 1956. My mother also received a brick and a Shakespeare volume and I now worry about the fate of all of the other books from the EHS Library. I’m hoping there is an effort to preserve them.
That precious Ensley High School brick now joins another brick from a long-gone Birmingham landmark. The Tutwiler Hotel, opened in 1914 on Twentieth Street downtown, was the grande dame of the city’s hotels until it closed for good in 1972. It was imploded in 1974. The implosion did not go quite as planned; one part of the building crumbled to the ground – I remember watching it live on television – and another part stayed up and was eventually demolished by more conventional methods.
Not long after the demolition, I made my way through an opening in the fence at the construction site and grabbed a brick as a keepsake of the place. It has now been with me spanning six decades and many moves. In fact, I am looking at it as I write these words.
The Ridgely Apartments, near Linn Park and a few blocks from the old Tutwiler, were refurbished and re-christened as the “Tutwiler Hotel” in 1986. The Ridgely building was actually built a year earlier than the original Tutwiler with the involvement of some of the same developers and architects, so I guess it’s a fair enough trade-off if the original had to go. I’ve stayed there a few times, but when somebody tells me they are staying at “the Tutwiler,” I am quick to point out that there was once a grander, “real and original,” Tutwiler.
Preservation efforts in Birmingham have never fully recovered from the loss of Birmingham’s magnificent Terminal Station in a 1969 demolition. The building’s elaborate Beaux-Arts design featured two 130-foot towers and an elaborate dome covered in tile and a decorative glass skylight. Its loss opened eyes, spurred other cities’ preservation efforts, and made Birmingham preservationists more tenacious.
Birmingham’s Southern Research Institute (SR), an affiliate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), has dealt a blow to Birmingham preservation with its acquisition of and plans to destroy Quinlan Castle, a medieval-inspired, stone-clad former apartment building on a rise in Birmingham’s Southside, built in 1927.
SR’s CEO, in a sketchy, badly-composed justification of the institute’s decision to demolish the building, describes the proposed bland replacement building as a “castle for the 21st Century.” He also has the bad taste and gall to cite the collapse of the Surfside condo in Miami as a motivating factor for the decision to destroy the castle.
Nobody is fooled. It is clear to anyone who knows that building that it could never have become a research laboratory and I’m not sure why Southern Research has to use that ruse as a justification for the demolition of a historic element of local urban architecture. UAB and Southern Research have the clout to do about anything they care to on the Southside. UAB already blighted part of the Southside skyline by erecting an eyesore – an oversized parking shed that they refer to as the football team’s “practice field.” So I think the big question for many of us now is why the SR expansion has to happen on the Quinlan Castle site.
In 1990, when I was moving to Birmingham to take a theatre job, my apartment hunting began with Quinlan Castle. It was already pretty run-down, and closed a few years later, but the charm of the building was intact and it had mighty potential. The small apartments, which would have been quite snazzy in the Roaring ‘20s, opened onto a central courtyard. There were even cannons in a couple of the turrets along the crenellated roof. It would have been perfect for me as a college student, but I had moved on and opted for a more modern abode up the mountain. Still, the castle gave me a smile each day as I passed it on the way to work.
I went to Quinlan Castle around Christmas, just to see if it is still standing. As of a couple of weeks ago, it’s still there. A part of me hopes that cooler heads have prevailed and that SR is considering other sites for its “21st Century castle” of innocuous sterile labs.
If you’re in the area, go over to 2030 9th Avenue South and pay homage to another endangered part of Birmingham architectural history while it still stands.
A favorite memory of the day after Thanksgiving is of my parents taking me to Pizitz department store in downtown Birmingham and taking the escalators to the sixth floor and Santa’s Enchanted Forest. The memory of that tradition that stands out most for me was probably in the mid ‘60s. The line wound through cheerful displays of reindeer, winter scenes, and elves at work in their workshop. At the end of the path, Santa on his throne was there to greet all. After Pizitz, we trekked across the street to check out the holiday windows at Loveman’s and went a few blocks north to see the city’s newly-lit Christmas tree in Woodrow Wilson (now Linn) Park. Finally, my parents took me to a book store on Southside and treated me to a book of my choosing. In this particular memory, it was a Dr. Seuss book.
Pizitz is now a residential building where I go to see indie films at Sidewalk Cinema and to grab a bite in the expansive food hall. Loveman’s long ago became a children’s science museum. But I never go to that part of town without remembering that one special night after Thanksgiving.
I thought of Santa’s Enchanted Forest this week when I took my mother to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center for “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” People of all ages wandered through the three rooms of the event and I realized, as I watched kids scamper around, that a memorable holiday experience was being created for a lot of people that night.
One of the odd cultural touchstones of this second year of pandemic is the fact that about half a dozen “immersive” shows inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh have sprung up and been attended by enthusiastic responses wherever they landed around the world. The iteration playing in Birmingham through January 2 is the creation of French-Canadian Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio. A Monet immersion is beginning to make the rounds and I understand that a Frida Kahlo event is in the works for 2022.
The art of each of those artists seems ripe for the sort of trippy experience I witnessed in Birmingham. The “Beyond Van Gogh” immersion begins with a line moving through a room that serves as a primer for Van Gogh, with panels providing capsule synopses of the artist’s often tortured life, interspersed with comments that include quotes from letters between Vincent and his brother, Theo. The viewer then enters the “Waterfall Room,” which seems to be there primarily to acclimate the audience to the main room. Vertigo is a real risk as the flowing abstractions move down the wall and across the floor. I realized that I needed to be careful about looking down.
The main room, which the publicity bills as “masterpieces … freed from frames” is the reason for the experience. Scored to instrumental music, with an occasional voiceover, the room has projected images flowing across all walls, on three tall triangular pillars in the middle, and over the floor. Some projections are reproductions of Van Gogh’s work but much of the event is flowing abstractions and layering of images from line to detail to color to a recognizable painting. When we entered the room, almond blossoms covered the walls and floor; some of the flora was static while other petals floated gracefully all around. It was a breathtaking moment to enter.
The audience is free to move around. Several sat on the floor. Some moved constantly, others stayed in one place; cameras and selfies were abundant all around. The experience is truly beautiful and mesmerizing in many ways. As I get older, I am more drawn to contemplative experiences, art that frees the mind to wander and find connections. Several dozen people of all ages were in the room and it seemed that each viewer was having a singular experience.
The musical score is often soothing, often soaring, and generally adds to the grandeur of the experience. There is, for me at least, one jarring exception: A lovely instrumental version of Paul Simon’s “America” plays in conjunction with the almond blossoms and beyond. That song is so familiar, at least to a Boomer like me, that I found myself humming along and distracted. Why I thought is “America” part of a Van Gogh exhibit? I still haven’t figured it out.
There have been snarky reviews and comments about the various Van Gogh immersions by art critics around the country. (I’ve written a fair amount of critical essays and reviews through the years and I know snark when I see it; I have perpetrated it on occasion.) The reviews seem to feel that the public domain status of Van Gogh’s work is being exploited and that the various immersions cheapen the work. They don’t think the works’ complexity is given its due or something like that. They don’t think it educates enough – or something like that.
Mainly, however, the snark seems to be aimed at the audience: They take too many selfies; they miss out on the true experience of viewing the works in a museum. There are children running around. It’s all just too “commercial.” The producers make a bald-faced appeal to the audience, especially the “influencers,” to take photos and spread the word. The gift shop is offensive … Or something like that. I saw one article that even told readers which museums they could go to and see the actual works represented in the immersion. That piece was by a New York writer.
I get their righteous snark. I really do; there were moments during the event when I felt that I was being a little bit suckered. But they miss the point. These enterprises are clearly commercial and are buoyed by the entertainment aspect of a necessary and mostly pleasant escapism inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. All audiences do not necessarily have the access to the authentic art of Van Gogh that a New York audience might. And I suspect that the majority of the audience for an “immersive” art experience already has at least a basic knowledge of the art they’re being immersed in; that’s probably why they bought the ticket to begin with (and it’s not a cheap ticket). Others, who may not know the work but are drawn in by the enthusiastic word-of-mouth, may be inspired to learn more after the experience. As for the children, I was amazed at how well-behaved they were. And I was delighted when something would happen that would stop them – wide-eyed and gaping – in their tracks.
My mother, for one, left the experience “a little sad.” Viewing the work, and watching the audience response, she found it sad that Vincent did not live to experience the acclaim he achieved in his post-mortem.
These immersive experiences are certainly destined for oversaturation and for the waning popularity of audience-pleasers of the past like Cirque du Soleil and Riverdance. But, for now, they are achieving their goals and providing an interesting footnote and diversion for our need to readjust and recalculate in the face of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to fade away gracefully.
In Act Two, scene nine of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, True West, a mother returns home from her vacation and announces to her son that “Picasso’s in town.” Her son replies that “Picasso’s dead, Mom.” The mother insists, replying, “No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum.”
In the final weeks of 2021, at least, Vincent Van Gogh is not dead; he’s visiting Birmingham’s convention center and he’s providing a pleasant and enjoyable hour or so of community and escape.
REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blasted through the Alabama Theatre near the start of the Opening Night festivities and screening for the 2021 “Homecoming” chapter of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. It was labelled “Homecoming” because the festival was returning to its home in Birmingham’s downtown theatre district after exiling itself to drive-in screenings for the 2020 pandemic version.
When I preordered my pass for the festival, I was not expecting the upsurge in Covid outbreaks and the “break-out” cases of fully-vaccinated people that have plagued the second half of the summer. Also, Alabama – embarrassingly – has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. As my great-grandfather McCarn, who was an old-time country schoolteacher in Cullman County, allegedly said about some of his students, “You just can’t beat sense into these stupid people.” (And Grandpa taught school back in a time when you could try.)
But the good people of Sidewalk have been conscious and responsible throughout the time of Covid and, when screenings resumed at the Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center late last year, I felt safe each time I attended. For this year’s festival, proof of vaccination or a current negative Covid test, diligent masking, and lowered seating capacities made the event feel as safe as it could be in our current moment.
Fittingly, the Opening Night movie was Television Event, a 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not the actor) about the making of the 1983 made-for-television movie, The Day After. Opening Night at Sidewalk is often something frothy and light-hearted – a respite, perhaps, before the usually more serious fare of the festival weekend. This year the programmers chose a heavier appetizer.
The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, is a drama about a nuclear attack and its impact on the town of Topeka, Kansas. Daniels’s documentary explores the fear during the Cold War era and the controversy and politics surrounding the production. Younger audiences can’t comprehend what those years were like for Baby Boomers who grew up when “duck and cover” school drills for nuclear attacks were almost as common as fire drills. The film reminds us that a large portion of the U.S. population expected nuclear war within the decade. I remember seeing spray-painted outlines, representing vaporized bodies, drawn on the sidewalks at the University of Alabama to commemorate the anniversaries of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.
One hundred million Americans watched the ABC broadcast of The Day After when it premiered in November 1983. Television Event makes much of the fact that such a communal television experience can never happen again. The documentary implies that the film might even have influenced Reagan’s decision to pursue nuclear arms limitations with the Soviets.
The screening was followed by a made-for-Sidewalk panel moderated by AL.com’s Ben Flanagan and including broadcast journalist Ted Koppel and the director, Nicholas Meyer. Among the more urgent comments made during the panel were Meyer’s suggestion that, with the rise of terrorism, the nuclear threat is as bad as it’s ever been and Koppel’s assertion that cyber-attack is an even greater threat than nuclear to national and world security in our present time.
The eye-opening Opening Night screening was also entertaining and lived up to Creative Director Rachel Morgan’s promise to scare the audience. It was good to be back at the Alabama Theatre in an ongoing search for somewhat “normal” experiences in 2021.
I have a tendency to watch mostly documentaries at Sidewalk and 2021 was no exception. Ailey, directed by Jamila Wignot, provides an intimate portrait of the celebrated choreographer and stunning archival footage of performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Ailey was screened at the Lyric Theatre and, in its introduction, the audience was reminded that we were the first audiences in the Lyric since March 2020. Dancer Germaul Barnes, in a moving and dramatic pre-screening tribute to Ailey, encouraged the audience to look around at the people around us. It was a reminder to be in the moment.
The Capote Tapes, directed by Ebs Burnough, revisits the life of the twentieth-century writer with new audio from George Plimpton’s interviews for his 1997 oral biography of Capote. The film focuses on the many scandals and broken friendships that attended Capote’s final legendary but unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.
The homegrown documentary, Socks on Fire, directed by Bo McGuire, chronicles a family drama. McGuire, whose writing and voiceovers in the film are impressive, directs a vivid and imaginative rendering of the squabble over his beloved grandmother’s estate – centered on homophobic Aunt Sharon, who changes the locks, and drag queen Uncle John, who assumes he will continue to live in his mother’s house.
Socks on Fire takes place in Alabama and earned the best documentary prize at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. McGuire tells his family’s story with humor, love, and energy. The film itself is a creative log ride; in case that was not enough, McGuire’s animated introduction included live performances by three drag queens on the Alabama stage (well, two drag queens and a third act, “Saliva Godiva,” whose frenzied performance seems to defy any known label). One performer, Queen Brown Suga Spice, seemed to have a couple of praise dancers as back-up. As the ladies performed, runners passed the hat around the theatre to collect tips from the audience.
In his introduction, McGuire again made the point that seemed to be a theme for this 23rd edition of Sidewalk. He stressed the importance of the communal audience experience that is central to the filmmaker’s art. Being back together in actual theatres in downtown was a reminder of how much has been missed over the past year and a half.
In earlier years, I would try to see how many screenings I could squeeze in on Sidewalk weekend. Nowadays, I curate carefully and take time to savor the experience. Sidewalk 23 did not disappoint.
On the first morning waking up in my new house, I opened the upstairs bedroom shutters to a foggy warm morning. A family of deer grazed on the pine-forested hill just beyond the back yard – at eye level, maybe thirty feet from the window. A solitary cardinal perched on a branch of a mimosa, his bright red plumage dazzling against the frond-like leaves and feathery pink blossoms of the mimosas climbing the abrupt hill toward the pines.
I took it all as a good omen after retirement and a challenging fifteen months of social distancing culminating in an exhausting move. I decided to get my camera and take a picture; by the time I got back, they were all gone.
In the current crazy housing market, my house in north Alabama sold in one day with multiple offers. Then, I became the “buyer” and was quickly schooled on how challenging it is to buy a house these days.
I started out with high hopes of finding a place downtown or on Birmingham’s Southside, where I had last lived in an apartment on Red Mountain overlooking the city. It was a small and inexpensive apartment with a priceless view.
I always answer “Birmingham” when I’m asked the inevitable Southern question, “Where are you from?” Some may argue with my answer since I wasn’t born in Birmingham; I don’t know anybody born on an army base who considers the army base their home town, and we left the army for Birmingham when I was about a month old.
Birmingham is where my grandparents lived and where we spent our holidays when I was growing up. With frequent moves while I was growing up, and even more frequent moves for my career, I have lived away from Birmingham more than I have lived in the city, but this most recent move feels like a homecoming after twenty-seven years living in other places.
My house hunt started in the city and gradually moved farther south. The downtown and Southside places in my price range were usually too small and the ones I liked were gone before I could make up my mind. I looked at a twelfth-floor flat in a historic skyscraper in my idea of a perfect location in the central city; I loved it, but realized that I needed to have at least a balcony close by.
My realtor was patient and, more importantly, he was calm. Our search spread to townhouses south of the city and things began to look up as I found places with manageable and sufficient space for my “stuff” and enough outdoor space to satiate my need to get my hands in the dirt, plant some herbs, and have a place to sit in the sun.
When I found a townhouse looking out onto a tranquil park sloping down to the Cahaba River, my perspective changed and I decided I wanted a place near the river. Another place, with a terrace looking down at the river, shored up my resolve. Both were grabbed up before I could make an offer and my realtor assured me that the right thing would come along at the right time.
We scheduled a tour of the house I bought on the first morning it was on the market and made an offer on the spot. These are things you quickly pick up if you are a buyer in the current housing market. Later that day, I was surprised to learn my offer was accepted (you must also prepare yourself for disappointment if you are a buyer in the current housing market).
This house is not on the Cahaba, but the river is less than a half mile away. And it has those lovely woods behind it. I had told my realtor that I wanted to either be in the middle of things or in relative seclusion. I got the latter. I can hear traffic from an interstate when I’m in the front yard and one billboard pokes up above the trees in the distance. Downtown Birmingham is just a few minutes away, but the place itself seems remote and peaceful and surprisingly secluded.
I hosted my family for Independence Day, so the place has been given a social trial run. One morning I decided to work on plants for the walk leading to the front door. Thumbing through a book on New Orleans gardens with my morning tea, I felt fortified to tackle some pot gardening and headed to a nearby nursery.
There’s still a big “to-do” list to complete, but now that I’m no longer coming in to a stack of unpacked boxes and furniture to be rearranged, and now that my books are all organized neatly on the shelves, coming in has started to feel like coming home.
Last night, as I drove into the neighborhood, five deer stood watching from the side of the road. As I passed, they disappeared behind a house and up into the woods. Once again, there was no camera close by.
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?
“Calling Planet Earth – I am a different order of being …”
So says Sun Ra in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.” I was inspired to view the movie by Richard Brody’s recent spectacular review in the New Yorker, a review that is arguably as thoughtful and well-crafted as Mugge’s film itself.
Mugge’s hand-held cameras sometime follow Sun Ra around in random sequence; sometimes the musician walks ‘round and ‘round the camera. Occasionally, Sun Ra leaves the frame as the camera stops to ponder some detail in the room. In one memorable sequence, the camera is stationary, focused on a cityscape, as Sun Ra walks back and forth, in and out of the camera’s view, giving his thoughts on what is important to him as an artist of the universe.
He has a lot to say. “They say that history repeats itself,” he says, “but history is his story; it is not my story … Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?”
Sun Ra was a son of Birmingham. Born Herman Poole (“Sonny”) Blount, he was a prodigious musician at an early age, playing Birmingham clubs. In the 1930s, he spent a year as a music education major at what is now Alabama A&M University.
Somewhere along the way – and the accounts vary – he had a transformative experience that convinced him that he had been transported to the planet Saturn and returned to planet Earth in a space ark to spread a new and forward-looking philosophy to the delusional Earthlings. He legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, began to call his band the “Arkestra,” and the living myth was born. Sun Ra had the privilege of largely creating his own mythology while arguing for a “mythocracy opposed to your theocracy and democracy.”
He is critical of human inhabitants of Earth, arguing that “Man has failed – spiritually, educationally, mentally.” Standing in front of the White House, Sun Ra says that “you can’t have justice if you penalize people for doing wrong and don’t do anything for them if they’re doing right.”
Sun Ra’s philosophy often makes sense and shows an acute wisdom; occasionally, it might seem a little absurd. Either way, one should always watch his eyes. He seems conscious of exactly what he’s doing and saying and playing all the time, no matter how outrageous it may seem in the moment. It has been observed that sometimes Sun Ra felt that too many musicians take themselves too seriously; his music and philosophical observations seem to be both a response to his innate intelligence and a reaction to taking oneself too seriously.
In an early sequence of the film, vocalist June Tyson sings of Sun Ra as “the living myth, the living mystery.” Those words “myth” and “mystery” recur often throughout Mugge’s portrait of the man. Sun Ra is little known outside certain circles, but he retains a devoted following and immense respect among serious jazz aficionados. I was surprised when two novels I read recently featured cameo appearances by Sun Ra.
Mugge’s film does not deal with biography. It is most concerned with Sun Ra’s present, around 1980. Much of the film is shot in Philadelphia environs and clubs and in the communal rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood where Sun Ra lived with much of his band – a band that taps into his musical vision and his taste for wild and outlandish garb and adornment that appear to be a fusion of the Space Age, Egyptian Africana, and psychedelics.
When I was first exposed to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music, sometime during my college years, I didn’t “get it.” Much of it sounded like untamed cacophony with minimal focus or forethought. Over time, the more I listened and got to know musicians with an interest in jazz, the more I appreciated Sun Ra.
“A Joyful Noise” lends credence to testimony of Sun Ra’s virtuosity. Saxophonist John Gilmore, a long-time member of the Arkestra, comments that he finds Sun Ra’s technique “… ahead of Bird and Monk” and later evokes Charles Mingus, too. Sun Ra’s knowledge of intervals and harmony, he says, are so “highly advanced” that he decided to “stop” and devote his career to the Arkestra. He stayed with Sun Ra from the 1950s. Gilmore led the group after Sun Ra’s death, and until his own death in the ‘90s.
Gilmore is one of many examples of the quality of musician Sun Ra sought and attracted. At one point in the film, Sun Ra states that he chooses musicians who believe in “arkestration, precision, and discipline.” In rehearsals captured by Mugge, Sun Ra is a diligent and precise task-master. His musicians – in rehearsal and performance – show both attention and awe. Sun Ra’s choreographic conducting in performance appears surreal and spontaneous while simultaneously controlled and conscious.
The concerts feel trance-like – in observation of both the musicians and the audience experiencing the music. In his lifetime, Sun Ra was called a “catalyst.” “A catalyst,” he says, “changes everything, but remains the same.”
I don’t always understand Sun Ra and his music, but I always enjoy the effort.
The title of Mugge’s film comes from a story Sun Ra tells in the documentary. When he and members of the Arkestra lived communally in the Philadelphia rowhouse, they would rehearse any time – day or night – that Sun Ra had the urge to create. Once, when the police came to the door in response to a complaint, they told Sun Ra that neighbors had complained about the “music.” He informed them that he wasn’t playing “music” – “I was making a joyful noise – that’s what the Bible said.”
Sun Ra had strokes in his final years and was brought back to Birmingham to be cared for by family members. He died in 1993. I was surprised to learn that he is buried at Elmwood, the 120-year-old Birmingham cemetery where my father is buried. Out of over 130,000 plots at Elmwood, I discovered that Sun Ra happens to be buried in the block just across the way from my father.
Occasionally, I spot license plates in Elmwood from far-flung places with people looking around for something in that vicinity. Occasionally, those people look like forward-thinking musician-types. If they’re looking for Sun Ra, I am happy to point out the place where his Earthly remains are resting.
A few weeks ago, before stay-at-home orders but when it was evident that this thing was not going to disappear quickly, I checked to see if a local restaurant that I go to regularly was still open. It was Tuesday and it is my habit to have dinner there on Tuesdays. My friend Christina was usually behind the bar on Tuesdays and there was a coterie that often showed up for dinner at the bar on Tuesday.
I checked in to see if Christina was there and, after telling her I might not show up, I thought long and hard about my decision to go out. I decided to drive over and check out the restaurant’s parking lot. It was almost empty so I parked near the entrance and walked in to be greeted by familiar staff and a room full of empty tables, judiciously spaced a suitable distance apart.
A couple of customers were sitting at the bar; Christina looked up in surprise as I walked in. I took a seat at the far end and kept my distance. Before long, the other Tuesday night crowd arrived – “to show support,” one said – and we dined at the bar in an otherwise empty restaurant. A few people phoned-in take-out orders and began to filter in and out.
One couple in the small gathering had recently seen Diana Ross in concert, someone else began to softly hum something, and, before long, we were all singing Diana Ross in the almost empty restaurant. Inevitably, “Stop! In the Name of Love” began, everybody knew the moves, and we sang full-throttle. The chef came out and suggested to Christina that we keep it down so as not to disturb the other customers. There were no other customers.
Nobody said so that night, but we all knew that this would be the last outing for a while. Two days later, Christina texted me: “Dine in is shut down.”
Pepper Place, my favorite farmers market, located in downtown Birmingham, has converted itself to a Saturday morning drive-thru. I placed and paid for my order online, drove to the market site on Saturday morning, was directed to the stations of the farmers I had purchased from, popped the trunk open, my produce was deposited, and I drove away. The Pepper Place Saturday market has always been a great place to linger and people-watch; now it’s back to its basics – providing fresh, locally grown farm products to a grateful clientele in a safe and efficient manner.
On the way back from the market to my parents’ house, I swung by Five Points South. There was the usual component of walkers and runners and dogwalkers and the homeless, but store fronts were shut tight and the place, where I have spent so many enjoyable moments with friends, seemed desolate and somehow forsaken on a bright Saturday morning.
In Five Points South, across from Highlands Methodist and Frank Fleming’s “The Storyteller” fountain, “Brother Bryan” prays quietly in front of a bar and grill – in a location that has seen a multitude of restaurants and bars come and go. James Alexander Bryan (1863-1941), the long-time pastor of Birmingham’s Third Presbyterian Church, was noted for his selfless ministry to the poor, homeless, and destitute. A city park and mission still bear his name and the statue in his honor has been a fixture in the city as long as I can remember.
In good times, he is there almost hidden among the revelers and restaurant clientele; he’s there in bad times, too.
Leaving Five Points South, I was in Homewood, a Birmingham suburb just over the mountain from the city. Homewood’s main commercial district was quiet, but that community has a lot of kids on bikes, families in front yards and on porches, runners and joggers and dog-walkers almost anytime, and the current times are no exception. Traveling down Homewood’s Broadway, I found myself behind a gelato truck, its happy jingle blaring.
In my parents’ neighborhood, stuffed animals began to appear in windows, on porches, and in trees and shrubs – inspired by the world-wide trend of the “teddy bear hunt” to provide a distraction for children. My mother was the first on her street to put a stuffed animal in the window and I awoke one morning to the delighted shrieks of a neighborhood toddler on the sidewalk outside who had just made his spotting. Within a couple of days, most of the neighbors had stuffed animals hidden somewhere on their premises, too.
Over my alleged “spring break,” I began to catch murmurings that this remote teaching thing might last until the end of the year. The specter of teaching for nine more months in a way that is anathema to everything I believe about education – especially as a performance instructor – haunts me.
Arriving back at home on Sunday evening, I was pleased to see that the irises by my front door were bursting into bloom and the wild potted rose that I have been training over my back fence and gate was showing its first tentative blooms of the season. I sat in my yard and enjoyed the beauty of the season and the nearly full moon that was just beginning to show in the pale sky.
The next day, I submitted my letter of intent to retire. My retirement will go into effect on June 1.
It has been a horrible year so far. But pay attention to the nature around you. It has been a beautiful spring, hasn’t it?