In honor of this week’s 60th Anniversary of the US Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which declared that segregation in United States public schools is unconstitutional, I am pleased to publish this guest post from writer Nancy Dorman-Hickson. The setting is Birmingham, Alabama.
People of conscience, especially those of color, once shivered at the images conjured by the city’s name. They cringed at television footage depicting police letting loose vicious hounds of hell on peaceful protesters. They watched in horror as water from powerful fire hoses mowed down innocent men, women and children, blasting them indiscriminately across Kelly Ingram Park like bits of wind-blown trash.
Birmingham. For most outsiders, the city represents the entire Deep South and all of Alabama, arguably the deepest of the Deep South states. For many years, having ties to Birmingham was a blood-red brush with which to be painted.
Called “Magic City” because it mushroomed overnight into an industrial metropolis, the central Alabama town earned a darker, second name—Bombingham–when Klu Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls whose only crime was attending Sunday school.
Martin Luther King, Jr., invited to Birmingham by local activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, was detained for trumped up charges when he crossed its borders. The city’s notoriety only grew when King penned his widely hailed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
In short, a wealth of damnable history condemns the place I call home.
Yet, because of the city’s indefensible acts of bigotry, change was wrought. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 occurred when Americans could no longer ignore the clear choice between right and wrong, good and evil, brought home so starkly by the bigotry in Birmingham.
Today, the same city sets its sights on transforming the world’s perception of it and its sins of the past. It’s embracing the pivotal role it played during those vile and violent times by honoring the movement’s local heroes and their acts of courage. Birmingham’s new tag line sums up its new direction: “The diverse city.”
Throughout 2013, Birmingham hosted a roster of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of America’s Civil Rights Movement. By embracing its heritage, good and bad, the city hoped to demonstrate how far it had come since those dark days. Indeed, the Birmingham Pledge, a written commitment to fight racism and prejudice, is now used in programs in all 50 states and more than 20 countries.
Through a plethora of year-round events–held in the city’s Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other iconic sites–and involving music, theater, film, art exhibits, parades, and storytelling, Birmingham positioned itself as the place where freedom rang and where brave men and women were judged, as Martin Luther King prophesied, not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It is a move forward that makes this Birminghamian hopeful my city and its sins are truly on the road to repentance.
Before freelancing, Nancy Dorman-Hickson was an editor with Time Inc.’s Progressive Farmer and Southern Living magazines where she earned praise from Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Naomi Judd and Anne Rice. She co-authored a bestselling memoir, Diplomacy and Diamonds, with Joanne King Herring, portrayed by Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War. She’s served as a newspaper editor, a college instructor, and a public relations professional. She’s the wife of a professor and mother of twin son and daughter. A Mississippi native, she’s lived in Birmingham for more than two decades where she is on the Greater Birmingham Ministries board.
I didn’t look at an Alabama map when I selected books set there for my Andrea Reads America project, so I didn’t realize until I started reading that two of my three picks took place on the coast. Boy did they make me miss home. All that talk about herons, and shrimp, and the salt marshes took me right back to the coast of Georgia. Only – and I never knew this until I read these books – in Alabama they don’t call it the marsh, they call it the bayou. Even though Georgia and Alabama share a border, even though geographically they are neighbors, I never once heard anyone call our marsh the bayou growing up in Georgia. I guess it’s because we were on the Atlantic, colonized by the English. We don’t have the French history of those Gulf coast states. I always associated bayou strictly with Louisiana, but the Cajun and Creole sensibilities must stretch along the marshy shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico.
I was pleased that all three picks for the inaugural state of this tour – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, and Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray – evoked Alabama landscapes, mannerisms, dialects, and the racial frictions inherent in all Southern states. Now, as I move forward into the unknown, the exotic, the slightly terrifying state of Alaska in winter, I’m glad I started someplace familiar.
Novel: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper (Nelle) Lee, born 1926 in Monroeville, AL
Setting: 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, northeast of Mobile
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer Prize winner, Southern Gothic
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird takes place in 1930s Alabama, in the small town of Maycomb (based on Lee’s home town of Monroeville). In addition to being a wise work of fiction in its own right, with iconic characters, racial struggles, and a funny, refreshing childlike point of view to gently show us, as adults, to be alert to our hypocricies, To Kill a Mockingbird does a fine job of setting us smack in the middle of the small town South. Lee accomplishes this not just through a story of racial tension and prejudice, but through dialogue, scene descriptions, and my favorite device of all, which she writes masterfully, dialect. Since I’ve written about To Kill a Mockingbird several times on my blog, I’ll change it up this time and leave you with some my favorite quotes for making you feel like you’re in Alabama:
“North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”
“The class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms.”
“That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him you hear?”
“The usual crew had flunked the first grade again, and were helpful in keeping order.”
“If I had my ‘druthers I’d take a shotgun.”
“In Maycomb, grown men stood outside in the front yard for only two reasons: death and politics. I wondered who had died.”
Novel: Forrest Gump
Author: Winston Groom, born 1943 in Washington, DC, and raised in Mobile, AL
Setting: 1960s-1980s Mobile, AL, the world, and outer space
Categories: Humor, Southern fiction
Before I say anything else, I have to say this: Forrest Gump made me laugh so hard I cried. Written by Winston Groom, Forrest Gump paints a portrait of contemporary Alabama from the point of view of an idiot savant. I grappled with whether to include this as part of my project because technically, Forrest Gump does not take place wholly in Alabama. In fact, most of the time Forrest isn’t in Alabama at all. He fights in Vietnam, where as he tells us, “Somewhere in all this, I got myself shot, an, as luck would have it, I was hit in the ass.” He travels to Washington, DC, an island in the South Pacific, Indiana, China, Hollywood. But even though he travels the world (and outer space) in the novel, I’m keeping Forrest Gump as an Alabama read because Forrest, through his dialect, his harmonica, and his Southern manners, carries Alabama everywhere he goes.
Whether he’s rasslin’ in Indiana or playing ping pong in China, Forrest is a walking representation of his Alabama roots. In every country, and even in space, Forrest recollects his aim to get a “srimp boat,” and every time he does, we’re back on the bayou. When his spaceship crash lands on an island of cannibals, and savages are banging on their hatch but Major Fitch wants to pretend nobody is home, Forrest displays classic Southern hospitality by saying, “It ain’t polite not to answer the door.”
But more than anything, in addition to the fact that it contains genius commentary on the way we view “idiots” and how stupid the rest of us really are, I wanted to keep Forrest Gump in my version of the Alabama canon because of some of the final passages. A lot of non-Southerners might not get the South, might find it charming but backwards, like Forrest appears to be when really he’s quite deep. But Winston Groom gets it. In our rare glimpses of life on the marsh, he captures the lowland perfectly:
“They was a nice breeze blowin off the bayou an you coud hear frawgs an crickets an even the soun of a fish jumpin ever once in a wile.”
In that sentence, and in the final pages, Groom captures what it’s all about, what Alabama, and the whole of the Southeast coast, are all about. Why those who visit are enchanted by it, and why we who know it crave it, and are ever questing to get home to it.
Novel: Train Whistle Guitar
Author: Albert Murray, born 1916 in Nokomis, Alabama
Setting: 1920s Gasoline Point, Alabama, just north of Mobile
Categories: African American fiction, Southern fiction
Set in 1920s Gasoline Point, Alabama, a fictitious town based on author Albert Murray’s hometown of Magazine Point, Train Whistle Guitar is a coming of age story of Scooter, a young black boy who with his friend Little Buddy, learns about life by hopping a train, wandering the woods, listening to grownups at garden fences and fireside circles, hiding underfoot at the barbershop, or perching in trees at night to watch dancing in the jook joint. In each of these settings, Murray not only captures the feel of African American kinship within a small town in the South, but what to this white woman is the foreign experience of children who are raised not just by their parents, but by an entire community. Regardless of blood relationships, all of Scooter’s elders in Gasoline Point play the role of Auntee or Uncle, as when their train-hopping guitar idol, Luzana Cholly, sat Scooter and Little Buddy down for a talk when he found them trying to jump a train:
“That was when we found out what we found out directly from Luzana Cholly himself about hitting the road, which he (like every fireside knee-pony uncle and shade tree uncle and toolshed uncle and barbershop uncle since Uncle Remus himself) said was was a whole lot more than just a notion.”
This was perhaps my favorite element of Train Whistle Guitar, this entrée into a childhood unlike my own, where a people shared a common history, a common struggle, that brought them together into a community that was so tight-knit the barbershop men made decisions about when young boys were old enough to hear man talk. This sense of community-as-family made me think of one of the most memorable pieces of parenting advice I’ve heard: it’s important that children have adults in their lives they can turn to and trust for perspectives beyond Mom’s and Dad’s.
While Train Whistle Guitar certainly has moments and undercurrents of racial tension, the book was gentle and showed love instead of hate, eagerness instead of anger. And while Murray is skillful in evoking the Alabama bayou and the thickets that skirt it, my favorite passages are from the jook joints, places I’ve only come across in African American fiction:
“Stagolee moved over to where the piano was and put his fruit jar [of whiskey] on top of it and stood clapping his hands and snapping his fingers with the women around him doing the shimmieshewooble and the messaround.”
Murray’s language is alive with rhythm and swing, and he was able to show me an Alabama I would never have access to without him.
Books I’ve read and recommend: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington (nonfiction; for more on this and other Appalachian books, see Literature Capsule: Appalachia)
Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read: Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg (nonfiction)
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.
I’m reading Forrest Gump. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out in 1994, I’ve never read the book, and I haven’t gotten anywhere near the part where Bubba tells Forrest about shrimp:
“Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.” – Bubba in Forrest Gump (the movie)
In fact, I have no idea if that scene even happens in the book [ed. note: it does not], but just being on the page with Forrest, and hearing his voice, and seeing the name Bubba in chapter 3, I remember the movie. And now I’m thinking about seafood. I’m thinking about the shrimp boats of my Georgia childhood, and the crab traps baited with raw chicken, and the fishing poles sticking up from our boat’s white rod holders, and the cast nets that you held the weighted skirt of in your teeth while you got your hands in the right position to spin the white web out over the water. I’m thinking about seagulls squawking and dolphins chittering behind shrimpers, waiting for them to pull their nets in, about the sound of blue crab legs scuttling in the bottom of a white plastic compound bucket, about that dock under a bridge on Wilmington Island where Mom would buy shrimp fresh off the boat.
But mostly I’m thinking about oyster roasts and crab boils and red hot skillets for blackening Dad’s caught-today grouper, and fresh fish on the menu at riverside restaurants, and watching Mom drop blue crabs into a huge pot of boiling water, and then pulling them out as hot and red as a bad sunburn.
My husband and I have moved around a lot, sometimes near the ocean, and sometimes not. We wintered in Maine one year and took full advantage of the lobster fishery there. I remember lobster rolls from a roadside stand on our way to somewhere; I don’t remember where. I only remember seeing the stand under a bridge. The light was beautiful that day – slanted and yellow warm against a crisp winter sky. And I remember lobster chowder at a shack on a rocky jetty that jutted into a wild January sea. Angry icy waves crashed against jagged stone, and we sipped steaming hot chocolate and slurped thick lobster stew as wind and water raged outside.
We weren’t so lucky in Minnesota, though. Minnesota is the farthest from ocean I have ever lived, and it wasn’t until we planted ourselves there that I fully appreciated what in meant to be landlocked. We wanted oysters one night, and I drove to every grocery store in a five mile radius hunting for them. I ended up at the fancy market, the expensive one – Byerly’s – because that was the only place that carried them. When I finally spied oysters on ice at the seafood counter, I wanted to buy – how many? I only knew them by the bucketful – and the oysters were a dollar apiece. I stood there a full minute in sticker shock before I finally bought the six individuals they had. My husband and I got three oysters each. Growing up we had cooked piles of them, mountains of them, filled five gallon buckets with hot oysters and tossed them in a steaming ridge along 6-foot newspaper-covered tables, over and over again. Neighbors stood around those tables with their oyster knives, shucking and slurping and dashing with tabasco, tossing oyster carapaces like peanut shells. Piles of them. And in my little bag in Minnesota, I had six.
But there, in the middle of the country, in the cold heart of winter, more than 1000 miles from the nearest brackish water, eating those oysters was like eating slippery morsels of almost-solid ocean: saline, lusty, and warm.
They weren’t the best oysters on earth, nor is any of the seafood we can get where we live in Virginia, so we don’t eat it often. By the time marine fare makes it through the hills, it is no longer vibrant. It has lost its vitality. We have no idea where it came from, who caught it, how many times it has been frozen. The only fish we can afford are sad and soulless. They taste like silt from the farms they were raised in, or are dyed to look more vital, more alive.
I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten shrimp every way that Bubba describes it, and shrimp isn’t even my favorite seafood. In fact, it’s probably the seafood I care least about. I’d rather have blackened grouper that my dad caught offshore, salty and sunburned for his efforts, standing over hot coals at the end of the day, waiting for the cast iron to glow before he throws in those succulent filets coated in butter and cajun spice to sizzle and sear. Or I’d love some crab-stuffed flounder, or crab au gratin made from blue crabs my brother and I caught in our creek. Or, Mahi-Mahi Dad caught on vacation in the Florida Keys, or spiny lobsters we tickled out of crevices during lobster season down there.
But now that we live in the mountains in Virginia, even though they’re not my favorite, even though they aren’t grouper, or Mahi, or lobster, or blue crab, I’d take a pile of shrimp. Or even just three apiece, if they’re fresh.
Forrest Gump: A novel by Winston Groom. Six foot six, 242 pounds, and possessed of a scant IQ of 70, Forrest Gump is the lovable, surprisingly savvy hero of this classic comic tale. His early life may seem inauspicious, but when the University of Alabama’s football team drafts Forrest and makes him a star, it sets him on an unbelievable path that will transform him from Vietnam hero to world-class Ping-Pong player, from wrestler to entrepreneur. With a voice all his own, Forrest is telling all in a madcap romp through three decades of American history. (From the paperback blurb)