Alabama’s History Haunts, But It Also Instructs

BIRMINGHAM, AL - DECEMBER 12: Voters head in to cast their ballot as the doors open at a polling station setup in the St Thomas Episcopal Church on December 12, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama voters are casting their ballot for either Republican Roy Moore or his Democratic challenger Doug Jones in a special election to decide who will replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In an essay for Harper’sscholar and writer Imani Perry tells a textured story of Alabama that moves through time and critical places throughout the state like Mobile, Birmingham, Selma, and Uniontown. “Alabama changes,” writes Perry. The author, an Alabama native, mourns, yet finds the space for hope. She predicts what recent, local events—such as Doug Jones’ black voter-powered fall 2017 Senate victory, or the opening of the nation’s first lynching museum—could mean for the whole of America, if we pay attention.

If you drive from Mobile to Birmingham, you can take the interstate, 65, which would bring you through Montgomery, the capital, the home of Rosa Parks, the site of the bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s onetime church. Or you can take local Alabama roads. The roads less taken are instructive. On another route, about an hour west, is a little-known place called Uniontown. It is in the Black Belt of Alabama, a region of double meaning: named for rich soil and the poorest people, slaves and later the barely emancipated Black sharecroppers and convicts leased out to do the hellish work of clearing land. The Black Belt is drier than the rest of Alabama. Yet thick forests remain even this many years after the wreckage that was king cotton. There are legions of cypress, oak, and loblolly trees, purple blazing star flowers, and all sorts of animals, especially the massive bucks that hunters pridefully kill.

Nearly two centuries ago, statesmen carved Alabama out of Mississippi, and then pushed out the indigenous—Cherokee and Creek—at the edge of bayonets. In swarmed the slavers hungry for cotton wealth in the nineteenth century. And that sensibility, although with some labor, still breathes.

The Black towns in the Black Belt are now dumping grounds—of fantasies and waste. In random assortment through the woods there are abandoned cars rusted to the color of dried blood, and stacks of old unwanted papers. But worst is what comes from out of state. Matter of fact, our nation has turned Uniontown, Alabama, into one of its trash cans, burying it in the refuse of thirty-three states. “Landfill” is too clean a word for what they do. And that’s not all. As part of Uniontown’s sewage system, liquid waste is spewed into the air to land on the hard Alabama clay earth. The town is showered in shit.

Uniontown is 90 percent Black and nearly all poor. A fact of modern living is that the least valued carry the heaviest burden. They’ll die first, at least that’s what the wealthy are banking on. And the dead are killed once again. The graveyard of generations of Black Uniontown residents, since before the Civil War, stands right outside the landfill gates, where descendants worry about the graves being disturbed, despite the corporate promise to treat the departed with respect. It has become harder to honor them. And, in truth, we are all probably somewhat ashamed to face them.

Alabama’s tough earth is either black or red, like what is found in much of West Africa. In preparation for a lynching museum in Montgomery, helmed by the civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, jars of Alabama earth have been collected from the sites of lynchings all over the state. Lined up, they are a hauntingly beautiful array of colors, from jet black to rust and copper. The red clay soil of Alabama, a form of ultisol, is produced by intense weathering, season after season with no new soil. My grandmother’s grandmother, like many old-time Black Southern women, used to chew and swallow that dirt—a mineral-rich taste that strengthened weak blood. Change the joke, slip the yoke, then they find a new yoke. Propose strangulation by trash and shit when the ropes will no longer do, and everyone, even the holier-than-thou North, will pitch in with their leavings. That is what the nation does to my state.

Except for on the King holiday weekend in January. And then the ossified sculpture of Alabama is brought out, shiny, stoic, and noble, and broadcast nationally. It often takes the form of a symbolic ritual of civil rights memorialization in Selma, Uniontown’s neighbor, especially during election cycles. The candidates theatrically walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a celebration called the Jubilee, in remembrance of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. But there are no weapons aimed at them, there is no Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam.” There are self-congratulatory crowds announcing, “Look how far we have come,” and, holding on, gripping, are organizers trying to find a way to use the iconography, to reshape it as a weapon for freedom. Alabama organizers have literally never stopped fighting. But the nation’s eyes haven’t thawed enough to see it.

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