Thirteen Years of Unapologetically Eclectic Pack Mule-ing

Thirteen years ago today, I put up that first post. I had just finished a Surdna Foundation Arts Teacher Fellowship, which I used for the Patchwork project, and had been blogging that year about modern life in Alabama. So, with a phrase from a poem I wrote in 2002 – “pack mule for the new school” – I started my own blog. At that time, in 2010, I considered myself something of a writer and activist-educator, having taken part in a variety of committees and projects mostly devoted to reviving or sharing the history of the Civil Rights movement. Most of my student projects had also revolved around these subjects – bringing often-untold stories to a new generation – and that idea of being one simple, humble worker in the ongoing movement for social justice was what led me to that title. I saw myself as one relatively unimportant person doing humble tasks within the groundwork for social justice. My speciality: helping to create a more vibrant and more public recognition of the South’s actual history and current reality.

Yet, as the 2010s progressed, I began to notice the tenor of social-justice work was intensifying and becoming compartmentalized. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street applied a greater degree of urgency to the economic challenges coming out of the Great Recession. After the deaths of Trayvon Martin and others, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, took to the streets, and became prominent on social media. During those years, a growing LGBTQ movement saw a major victory in the 2015 Obergefell ruling. Among these societal changes, I noticed how my roles among local social-justice groups was diminishing. Since the early 2000s, I had worked mostly among older people (Boomers) seeking to enshrine the history of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. By the mid-2010s, the mantel had been taken up by groups and projects led mostly by younger people, who were seeking to reclaim the narratives: to have female voices telling female stories, to have black voices telling black stories, to have LGBTQ voices telling LGBTQ stories, and so on. While I had no problems with that new approach – in fact, I understood completely – it had real effects on my role in this work that I had been doing from my late twenties through my early forties. This new approach meant that the attitude toward me as a participant in social-justice projects became: Thank you for service, but your presence will not be necessary.

It took a while for that to sink in. But once I had fully recognized and accepted that reality, the name of this blog changed from “Pack Mule for the New School” to “Welcome to Eclectic” in June 2018. Later that year, I felt the impact of the new reality most sharply after the release of Closed Ranks in November 2018. Though local media gave the book some coverage, local social-justice groups showed no interest in it, even though it tells one of Montgomery’s most significant social-justice stories. By then, the once-regular invitations to join committees and other planning groups had all but stopped coming, and my own efforts to join in were usually met with indifference. Also, though this was completely unrelated, school system policies for field trips had become very stringent (out of fears about injuries and lawsuits), and the resulting inability to get my students out into the community all but halted what was left of my activist-educator work. The last of those student projects, Sketches of Newtown, was undertaken prior to and during the ultra-restrictive years of the COVID-19 pandemic. I could tell, as we tried to get that project done, that it would be the last one of its kind. 

Today, in the early 2020s, in a post-pandemic society, my role in our local community and my work with the history of the South have taken on a markedly different shape. I am no longer a public school teacher, and taking a cue from the social-justice groups that I described above, much of my writing work is now centered on being a GenXer telling GenX stories. Though I am still keen on issues of race, gender, identity, economics, education, and equity, it was time to accept my role as an ally to groups who want to tell their own stories, and to step aside gracefully and without complaint. For about a decade-and-a-half, I played many small roles in progress by working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum, and other institutions. I also played various roles in publishing books and educating young people. Since 2020, I’ve been focused on building two projects that suit my place in this new reality: Nobody’s Home: Modern Southern Folklore and level:deepsouth— for Generation X.

The only chagrin I have about what I see among current social justice efforts is this: the progress being made is disappointing. In Alabama, where I live, a conservative supermajority took over the legislature, the governor’s office, and the courts in 2010, and they are not going to be moved by public art, social media, symbolic gestures, and online shops. The Alabama Republican Party’s staggering disregard for solving glaring problems in schools, prisons, healthcare, poverty, and jobs will necessitate the successful implementation of substantive policy reforms, like restructuring tax codes, budgets, and criminal codes. A new generation of activists who intend to improve life here must learn the deepest truths of history and, with a fact-based understanding, carry forward what worked : community organizing, issue-driven politics, coalition building, voter mobilization, legal challenges, and reliance on institutional support to achieve goals. Right now, those elements are either woefully lacking or absent in an environment that is rhetoric-driven and compartmentalized. 

After all these years have passed – a lot has changed between 2010 and 2023 – my beliefs about this state, its culture, the South, and the answers to the problems remain pretty solid. We do need to excise and exclude the shysters, the profiteers, and the resumé-builders from the meaningful work of building a better society, but what we want can only come if we embrace inclusion and community, allowing contributions from all people of good will. The way I see it, all of us have to live together, so all of us should be involved in the giving, taking, cooperating, compromising, and creating. For now, I’m spending my energies in ways that I believe I can be useful: serving students as an educator, critiquing the ways that narratives have been used to craft beliefs and myths in the modern South, exploring the history of Generation X in the modern South, examining how movies have shaped the way that the South is regarded, recognizing and promoting young writers, and writing substantive histories that have not yet been written

If somebody were to ask me at this late date, why should I read your blog? For an independent perspective. I’m a liberally conservative moderate and a Southern Christian who isn’t Protestant. I am also among a distinct minority of Southerners with a graduate-level education. All in all, I’m a whole lot more likely write things you haven’t read everywhere else. That may not be the thing for folks who like single-issue politics with simplified platforms and agendas that rely on heuristics and stereotypes, but it’s the only way that works for me. 

Read More: BooksOn Life & EducationPoetryNobody’s Home 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.