Exams over, I enter the reading phase for Difficult History

After finally passing my comprehensive exams, I am officially an ABD doctoral candidate and can devote myself full time to the dissertation. Stage One of my dissertation project is reading background material and forming a more specific plan for stages two and three: Field Research and Writing. Reading is conveniently cheap, since my fellowship funds don’t kick in until September or October. I hope by the end of the summer to have a fairly well thought out plan for my travels through Alabama, and to see old friends and make new ones along the way.

My prior studies of Alabama history have been limited to what all fourth and ninth grade students of Alabama public schools get, mostly stuff about Bienneville, Cassette girls, and how to season beaver and bear meats. My memories of those lessons so many years later seem cartoonish, so I’ve put together a small list of what seem to be seminal texts on Alabama history: Emma Langdon Roche’s Historic Sketches of the South (1914), Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama (1934), James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Alabama: The History of a Deep South State (1994), Wayne Flynt’s Alabama in the Twentieth Century (2004), and Dreams of African in Alabama (2007). I’ve also got a couple books of photographs and drawings, as well: Mobile: Photographs from the William E. Wilson Collection and Southeastern Indians Life Portraits: A Catalogue of Pictures, 1564-1935. Alabama: One Big Front Porch by Alabama’s preeminent storyteller, Katheryn Tucker Windham, rounds out my first round of reading. I have no doubt that these books will lead down the golden road of tangents that will lead me to more books, more stories.

As I set out on this journey, I am reminded of why I left the south in the first place—to develop a better perspective of my own Southerness. The choice was somewhat material: both the University of Alabama and the Ohio State University offered my generous financial packages for MFA programs in poetry. At the time, I was still very much entrenched in a kind of personal poetry whose only extra-personal extension was an inevitable setting of those poems in my particular experience of the South. I was afraid that other Southerners might call me out on any inaccuracies, that my South might not be universal to other Southerners, and that without anything else to compare it to, I might not even be able to discern what was Southern about my life and what was plain old North American. I chose OSU. All these years later, having spent almost the entirety of my adult life outside of Alabama, I return half in shame, toting a recent bankruptcy and foreclosure, to a land that is both familiar and foreign, whatever I half-knew about it having changed in my absence.

I have lofty goals for my project. I want to assert that Alabama and by extension Southern history is essential and formative of American culture as a whole. I want to transcend the political and personal in poems that are my best yet in terms of image, music, thought, and sentiment. I see my work over the coming year deciding the nature and path of my career. Will my manuscript be publishable? Will it help me get a job? Will it warrant a lifetime of professional writing and teaching?

And yet, this project is also very much about my personal connection to or disconnection from Alabama. I remember those same fourth-grade afternoons waiting for the bus after Alabama history and all of us saying how when we grew up, we wouldn’t live in Alabama, how we weren’t like the Alabamians we read about in history class, how we were so different we wouldn’t even be Alabamians. That was our fourth-grade attempt to be sophisticated and cosmopolitan, but now I see it’s no answer at all but an utter dodging of the question.

What does it mean when I say I am an Alabamian? What does it mean for me to again live in Alabama? I want to explore how our lived present is a marriage between our past and our future. I want to remember so I can move forward.

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