In late June, at the Alabama Humanities Foundation’s SUPER Teacher Institute on “Sense of Place” in Alabama, I was among a group of teachers and scholars who spent one of our weeks away from the classroom examining our state’s culture. Using a historical lens to survey literary and artistic creations both by and about Alabama, the institute’s scholars pointed out the realities, shared their insights, made noteworthy remarks about what all of it should mean. But there were two of those insights that really stood out to me.
The first came from Dorothy Walker, director of the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, who reminded us that historical preservation is not about reviving the past, but about remembering it. The way she put it: Noah didn’t take every animal into the Ark, but he did save two of each kind. In similar fashion, we don’t necessarily need to save every single thing from the past, but we do need to save indicative examples so that future generations have those connections to the past that allow for cultural continuity.
The second came from Randall Williams, editor-in-chief of NewSouth Books, who was talking to our group about his collection of Alabama slave narratives, Weren’t No Good Times. As he was introducing the narratives themselves, Williams remarked that he was among the last generation of Alabamians who had picked cotton by hand, working all day in the hot sun, not because he wanted to get out there to see how it felt, but because he needed the money.
Williams’ remark cut me deep, and I had to ask myself, how could I, as a man who has never picked cotton all day in the hot sun, ever teach my millenial students what it means to pick cotton all day in the hot sun, something that generations of Alabamians – white and black – did every year from the early 1800s through the late 1900s? I struggled with that question. And I struggled with it some more. I have devoted much of my time, as a writer and an editor and a teacher, to helping others to understand Alabama’s past. But I had to wonder whether I understand it.
No, I concluded, I don’t, not completely. Because I never lived it. Yet, that can’t be held against me. Even if I were to cast off my college degrees and my teaching job, cast off my wi-fi and my air-conditioning, cast off my store-bought clothes and shoes, and move out to the country to farm cotton with a mule and live in a two-room shack . . . I still wouldn’t understand completely. Because the times and the culture have changed; the laws, the markets, and the economy have changed; and because I would always have a privilege that all those generations of families on those cotton farms didn’t have: I could give up cotton farming and go back to my nice, comfortable life.
I have long heard older generations speak with pride (and humor) about the hardships of bygone days: loading firewood into a potbelly stove, drawing water from a well, pulling feathers from a dead chicken, walking barefoot in the woods. (In fact, one of my favorite essays in I’ll Take My Stand is Andrew Lytle’s “The Hind Tit,” in which he forcefully extols the virtues of “agrarian” living over participating in the modern “money economy.”) However, going back to the old ways isn’t all appealing. Not too long after that teacher institute, I was reading CD Bonner’s I Talk Slower Than I Think, and in one of the vignettes, he explained that the first chore he ever had as a young child was emptying the chamber pots into the outhouse every morning. That part sounded terrible.
No, I never picked cotton by hand, never started a home-fire before dawn, never milked a cow as the sun was coming up. I was raised in Montgomery, Alabama from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, with indoor plumbing and air-conditioning. I’ve never killed an animal out in the yard to carry inside for my mother to cook, and I’ve never drawn water from a well. I spent my youth riding my bicycle on paved suburban streets, drinking from people’s garden hoses without asking, reading books from the public library, watching Saturday morning cartoons, and playing front-yard football. The closest I got to that old country way were periodic camping trips when we cooked dinner on a Coleman stove. And you know who decided that I would grow up that way? My parents and grandparents, who had experienced those old ways and had given them up— willingly!
My generation – Generation X – came up in a world of relative material comfort, but that lifestyle was chosen for us, so I ask: if toting water from the well was better, why weren’t we still doing it when I came along? I’ve never picked cotton because I needed the money— but I did cut plenty of grass because my parents wouldn’t give me any.
Over the years, I’ve helped out in various ways with Civil Rights commemoration projects, and one of the refrains that comes up is: “Look back! March forward!” Those older generations who participated in the movement are right that we must look back. But we must also march forward. Like Dorothy Walker said, it has to be about remembering, not reviving. I respect the hell out of the people who used to work so hard to accomplish basic daily tasks, but I also won’t be sorry that I didn’t live that way. As a matter of fact, even these extreme-green types, like homesteaders and tiny-house seekers, pack modern conveniences into their supposedly back-to-basic lifestyles. And when I see that, I know what our current culture’s attitude is: Look back! March forward! It’s wise to embrace the best of the old ways, while also preferring the new ways that work better.
An understanding of the past and acknowledgment of the hard work of our forebears is vitally important to our culture. We don’t need to be a culture of eye-rollers when older people describe their struggles. When Randall Williams made his remark about picking cotton, instead of getting defensive, I thought a lot about the point he was making. In Alabama, we especially don’t ever want to lose our connections to that rural farming heritage. I definitely want to know about the lives that my ancestors lived on small farms all over Alabama’s Black Belt. But . . . I also have no intention of trying to get back there completely, to a way of life that they left behind on purpose.