I love my hometown. My family moved to Birmingham when I was ten, so I didn’t have much say in the decision, but I’ve made a conscious choice to stay here over and over through the years. I’ve 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 don’t look like me. Even though they don’t 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 don’t mind, in my better moments I do consider myself a Southerner.) Black and white, we live in such close proximity we don’t have the luxury to pretend the “other” doesn’t exist. It’s 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 “they” were often “happier” when 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 it’s 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.