A Look Back at “Patchwork: A Chronicle of Alabama in the New South,” part one

I can’t believe that it has been ten years since Patchwork: A Chronicle of Alabama in the New South. The project was funded by an Arts Teacher Fellowship from the Surdna Foundation and entailed a nearly a years’ worth of travel, interviews, readings, and news-watching to learn more about my home state of Alabama. During its fifteen-year timeframe, the Arts Teacher Fellowship, which was later renamed the National Artist Teacher Fellowship, provided funding for arts teachers to explore a subject, practice, or art form to then take back into the classroom. For me, that meant enhancing my knowledge of the controversial and problematic place where my students and I live. Readings in major state histories gave me a better sense of our past, and travels took me to see new things that were happening, new projects or businesses or people who were taking Alabama in a different and hopefully better direction.

My self-assigned reading list was thorough but admittedly not flawless. The four books I read were the multi-authored Alabama: History of a Deep South State, Wayne Flynt’s Alabama in the Twentieth Century and Poor But Proud, and Frye Gaillard’s Cradle of Freedom. These books constituted a broad overview from territory days through the 1990s, a thematic overview of the century we just ended, an examination of poor white culture, and a narrative of the state’s Civil Rights history. In addition, I also followed news alerts with the keyword Alabama, which was lively since the years 2009 and 2010 had national championships for both Alabama and Auburn and had Gov. Bob Riley going buck-wild over gambling. (The major work that I chose to leave off my list was Albert Pickett’s 1851 History, because my project was forward-looking and my time was limited.)

Starting out in August 2009, my travels kept me close to home. I spent some time back in my old neighborhood, which had changed dramatically and become somewhat dilapidated, and in Montgomery’s downtown, where I passed some time as a kid. I also wandered around in eastern Alabama, near Lake Martin, where we spend a lot of time. On those trips, I went off the usual track to see what was else was around there, including going further north than I usually do, through Alexander City to the mythical community of Peckerwood. There wasn’t much there, but I still had to see it for myself.

September got me into the thick of it. Traveling into Alabama’s Black Belt, in the western part of the state, was a natural first choice, since this region is heavy with history that affects me daily. This time, I made a loop through Selma, Newbern, Greensboro, Livingston, Thomaston, and Burkville. The formal interviews for this trip were with Andrew Freear, director of The Rural Studio; Joe Taylor, editor and publisher of the University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press; and Barbara Evans, an activist and organizer of the annual Okra Festival. Though these two- and three-day trips were a little bit strenuous, they were far beyond worth-it, allowing me to see parts of the state and meet people I might not have otherwise.

To see some of the images from that trip into the Black Belt, scroll down.

Butterflies in downtown Selma


Rural Studio students and their skate park

Beautiful blue skies in the Black Belt
Joe Taylor of Livingston Press
At the Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston
Barbara Evans’ Civil Rights museum and art gallery Annie Mae’s Place in Burkville

Coming next: Part two, containing a retrospective of the early months of 2010.

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