Category Archives: race

Sharing Space In The South

Version 2I love my hometown. My family moved to Birmingham when I was ten, so I didnt have much say in the decision, but Ive made a conscious choice to stay here over and over through the years. Ive only regretted it intermittently, usually in August or a hellish hot September.

I saw poverty at close range for the very first time on our journey south, and it struck me to the core. With the advantage of hindsight and more than forty years, I recognize the irony: coming from an affluent suburb in the Midwest, poverty was in fact all around me; I just never saw it, since I never left the elevated interstate highway on my journey from one enclave of privilege to the next.

Since then, traveling back and forth to the Midwest to see family (and satisfy my wanderlust) has given me lots of time to think. I am always happy to go north and west, and equally happy to leave. Overstuffed with family, memories and togetherness, driving east and south toward Alabama, I never feel quite at ease until I hit Memphis.

In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not. That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners. 

It took me years to figure it out: the Midwest is fairly homogenous and mostly light-skinned. I see people of color going about their daily lives just like me when I get back to the South. It feels good, somehow, to exchange a smile or a joke with people who dont look like me. Even though they dont look like me, they are somehow familiar, even comforting. In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not.

That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners. (I hope you dont mind, in my better moments I do consider myself a Southerner.) Black and white, we live in such close proximity we dont have the luxury to pretend the otherdoesnt exist. Its easy enough to celebrate racial harmony when the nearest black person is in a different school district. In the decades since desegregation, living elbow-to-elbow naturally creates friction.

As ten-year-old me went swimming in the newly desegregated Birmingham City pool in Crestwood, I was astonished to observe the soles and palms of the boisterous black kids surrounding me. They were a vivid pink, just like mine. It quite simply blew my mind.

That was one of the first in a long series of tiny epiphanies about togetherness and otherness. Instead of only thinking about things which make me separate, without really knowing it, I also began to store up observations about what makes us alike.

My fourth-grade class at Comer Elementary School had a single black student. She and I both kept to ourselves, I noticed. I invited her to my birthday party, and she came with the rest of the girls, uncomfortably dressed in her Sunday best. That day I was introduced to the sweet-savage Southern nicety that theywere often happierwhen left to themselves.I only gradually came to understand that my isolation was temporary and self-imposed, while hers was not.

This unceasing patter of seemingly insignificant observations has changed me. Often I feel certain they are a gift from God, a source of spiritual growth. Sometimes its inconvenient, like the realization that the lady who beat me to a prime parking spot deserves it just as much as I do. No matter what, seeing these commonalities makes my love for my hometown deeper, richer and at times, more difficult to reconcile with easy platitudes about race and racism.

Sugar stealing biker midgets and other hazards.

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(From Pizza Pie Chronicles, Pavo Magazine, 2010)

Okay, I’m a middle aged white woman. I look like somebody’s mother because I AM somebody’s mother. I don’t look the least bit mean or intimidating. Friends and even complete strangers (delivery customers) worry about my safety. Justifiably so, it seems. When we were trained, the manager assured us casually we’d be robbed sooner or later.

But I am a sensible person. It’s hard to rob a person in a moving vehicle. I trust my instincts and believe me, if I think it’s not safe to get out of my car, I won’t. Some nights have spooky moments. My phone loses reception in all the worst places. One street started off okay, nice little ranch-style houses, a streetlight or two. But before the numbers counted down to my appointed destination, the road petered out into gravel. The last streetlight was busted. My headlights illuminated further down the road, where the gravel ended and the red clay rutted track led uphill and out of sight.

Next to me was an old one-story house, with boarded up windows, sitting crooked on the lot like it’d been dropped there by an absent-minded giant. Oh, the rest of that road looked so dark. You know in scary movies where the audience shouts “Don’t go down to the basement! DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!” — I had those kind of vibes. And unlike the pretty young heroine in the movies, I paid attention to those vibes and whipped my little car around and headed back to the store.

The map for delivery drivers posted on the wall of the store has great swathes marked off in bold black: “NDAD”. It didn’t take long to figure out that meant “no delivery after dark.” I drink lots of caffeine and stay alert.

Of course some (or most) of the fear for my safety is based on the race thing, whether people are willing to admit it or not. So it’s ironic that my first brush with trouble would happen in the nice mostly white suburb on the fringes of our delivery area. I was delivering to a business, with the word “shop” in its name. I got there and across the street I saw what was clearly a biker bar. This shop, then, must be where those leather-clad hooligans got their bikes tuned up and decked out.

The owner of the shop saw me headed in with a load of pizzas and wings, and graciously held the door open for me. With a bad feeling in my gut, I saw the repair shop had a pool table. And a bar. And it smelled like liquor, and it was cloudy with cigarette smoke. I set the food down on the bar and turned around to get paid. A man in black leather came towards me waving a fifty. He was a little the worse for drink. I later heard this place has a rep for pretty good home brew. He actually looked like he was about to fall down.

He handed me money and I said politely (as I’d been trained) drivers weren’t allowed to take fifty dollar bills. He waved the money again and said I’d better take it, the extra $10 was my tip. So I took it and turned to leave, holding the now empty thermal bag. Really bad vibes practically turned the air purple. “Hey,” the drunk biker said. “I want that bag to keep my beer in.” His buddies stopped playing pool to watch a more entertaining game.

“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t sell it to you.” I know I sounded prim. I wanted to sound like a Sunday school teacher. I was clawing behind my back for the door knob. He interrupted me. “Sell me your hat. I want your hat.” His buddies laughed. This was fun.

“You can buy one at the store, sir,” firmly, a “don’t bully your classmates” tone. I turned and put my hand on the door handle.

“But I want some sugar. What if I stole it?” From behind, he reached up and put his forearm across my throat. A classic choke hold. But notice I said, “reached up.” He was short. I mean, really short, like five or six inches shorter than I am. It was kind of like a five-year-old in black leather and whiskers taking on a tenth-grader.

In the weeks that followed, I have thought of so many ways I WISH I’d responded. People have (of course) told me how I should have reacted. If I’d only bent my leg at the knee and raised my foot up sharply, there would’ve been a connection. I could have screamed and then extorted money from all the biker dudes. I probably could’ve copied some lame karate move from a spy movie and thrown him. That would have been real entertaining.

But I did none of these. I twisted loose and jumped in my car and drove away as fast as I could. I stayed mad a couple days, until I told the story to some friends. One of them positively howled. “Sugar stealing midget bikers!” I told him I was stealing that. And I can’t wait to go back. I know what to do now.