The Winding Back Roads of Southern History

This past summer, I went out to Arizona to see my Uncle David, my mother’s older brother who left Montgomery for Phoenix in the early 1970s, a few years before I was born. I hadn’t seen David and my Aunt Laurel in seventeen years, but the visit would still have to be a brief one. We arrived on a Friday, and my wife’s birthday was coming the next week, and moreover Alabama’s primaries were, too— and I wasn’t going to be out of town for either. Two days seemed like enough time to catch up, and for my two children to get to know them a little bit, but not enough to impose too badly.

While my kids and I were at their house that weekend, Dave and I mostly sat on the back porch by the pool, swilled cold beer in the dry heat, and swapped stories and observations about his Alabama and mine. Dave had come up in the 1950s and ’60s, during a wild-and-woolly time, while I am a product of the 1980s and ’90s, which had its own wild-and-woolly-ness. We covered quite a few topics in a short time, including our family and my work as a writer, and about the latter, Dave asked me something that I’ve been thinking about in the months since: You’ve spent a lot of time writing other people’s stories, he said, what about yours?

My story isn’t worth telling, I responded—except that I’ve made it my business to travel the winding back roads of Southern history. In the otherwise mundane life of a guy who stayed in his hometown and became a high school teacher, I’ve kept myself busy in this lazy place by looking for stories that people don’t tell. I know what’s in history books and what popular stories are told and re-told about Hank Williams, Bear Bryant, Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Wallace, but my concern has been the stories that aren’t being told. Nearly fifteen years ago, I took up the cause of an aging Montgomery artist whose fifty-year career had not been properly commemorated, then there was the cause of that forgotten protest poet from Birmingham who was blacklisted in the ’50s then returned in the ’60s as a counterculture hero. Mostly recently, that bent has connected me to the story of the now-little-known shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in 1975. Compared to these, I told Dave, my life story wouldn’t be very interesting. (I should note, in fairness, that he disagreed with me.)

One bit of my story that I can share is, as someone who has spent a lot of time with Southern history and culture, I’ve seen how pitiful generalizations are to those of us who pay attention and know better. Beyond Alabamians who don’t know our own history, outsiders have even more trouble seeing how Alabama can be “the Beautiful” when their all-interstate, urban-centered treks carry them to site after site of violence upon violence: slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement— ugly, ugly, and more ugly. Coupling that insistent focus of the South’s progressives with the constant and seemingly unending barrage of conservative malfeasance – which is sometimes bad enough to make national news – locals, visitors, and news-watchers alike are inundated with tales and images of a muck that stinks and rots under our feet, in our nostrils, and even beneath our skin. I, for one, am exhausted with that muck, and with one side’s vehemence that we all must swim in it all the time, and with the inane counter-insistence that the muck is gone, cleaned up, and doesn’t exist anymore.

However, twenty years into my deep dive into the neglected past of my home region, I wonder at how much of that muck has been lost or neglected, even in our storytelling culture. It baffles me how so few people know that, in 1957, there was a political effort in Alabama to abolish Macon County, or that Orangeburg, South Carolina was the site of a student massacre two years before the now-infamous killings at Kent State. (Maybe if Neil Young had written a song about Orangeburg, people would remember.) I also don’t know how we can remember Emmett Till, the “four little girls” in Birmingham, and the Scottsboro Boys, while forgetting other children’s names, like George Stinney. And as we listen to current news reports about the Supreme Court’s ruling on “partisan gerrymandering,” I don’t understand how the landmark case Gomillion v Lightfoot isn’t common knowledge.

In the South, we’ve dealt with difficult matters for our whole history. Of the present controversies that consume the attention of our media outlets and that pour through the fiber optics and into our twenty-four streaming services, many are old hat in the South. Hate groups— done it. Police violence— done it. Inordinately harsh treatment of the poor and destitute— done it. Gerrymandering— done it. Homegrown terrorism— done it. Gun violence— done it. Failed education systems— done it. Underfunded government programs— done it. I could keep going, but my point is: this current Dark Night of the American Soul is fueled by what we Southerners have long known as daily reality. While our approach to solving problems is not worthy of emulation, what might be is how we’ve chosen, in our own enigmatic way, to live despite those things. I can say that because I am one of the people who lives among and despite those things.

In his 1919 literary essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” which discusses the need to weigh history against innovation, the poet TS Eliot ended with this remark:

And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Where I feel fortunate, lucky, or even blessed is in my awareness of not only “what is dead” but of what is living now as a result of, and in spite of, what has died. While I appreciate my uncle’s idea that my story too has validity and importance, I see myself most clearly in the context of every Southern thing – including him and his life – that has led up to this historical moment when I have lived. Introspection and self-esteem are good, but only by understanding our lives and our culture, holistically, bad and good alike, will any of us know “what is to be done.” And the way I see it: more important than my story, even more important than the historic muck, is asking and answering the outwardly simple, though immensely complex question, what is to be done? 


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