[Title borrowed from An Education, a movie that, in retrospect, I was probably a bit too critical of in a guest review for Bitch Flicks. It is, as I admitted, a fine movie, and for a movie that presents itself as something of a feminist critique of culture, I think it pulls some punches it really could have landed, but I wonder if that that intellectual disappointment makes the film any less of a decent movie. Regardless…]
My own argument worth rehearsing is one that I’ve been playing over in limited variation in my head since I began my project. Sometimes I ask myself what right have I to write about the things I’ve chosen as my subjects. Sometimes I interrogate my intentions and purposes. Often I wonder about what it means to be a white woman today who’s become so fascinated with a form of ritual violence that was most frequently visited on black men of the past.
I always fall asleep before reaching any lasting, singular conclusion, and rarely do I pose the question to myself simply: Why am I drawn in my exploration of Mobile history to some of its ugliest, most horrific manifestations?
I’m tempted to blurt Quentin Compson style, “I don’t hate the South. I don’t hate it.” But what’s that got to do with the price of tomatoes?
Now, having driven through four gorgeous Southern states today, what I want to answer is this: I think America is an infinitely fascinating place and that Americans are a terrifically interesting people. I am enthralled with how we became the people we are and, to borrow from Faulkner again, Mobile is “my postage stamp of native soil.” I am, of course, curious as to how all this may or may not have shaped me, my family, and the Mobile of today, and I remain convinced that Mobile’s history is not isolated from but indicative of issues of race and history that shape all of America.
* * *
Part of my deliberate decision to leave Alabama for graduate school was to put some physical distance between me and home so I could better see what was home really is. I felt strongly I needed that distance, as up to that point I’d written mostly about my own tiny life, and I couldn’t always tell what about my life was particularly Southern or generically American or just idiosyncratically my family’s. I wanted to open myself to changes I knew I couldn’t then envision, and moving that far away to another region seemed like a pretty good start. Part of what I ended up learning is that the South is connected to the rest of the country and the world in ways I’d never really thought about. Foods I’d enjoyed my whole life were suddenly filed under “ethnic” in the international aisles of Ohio supermarkets, Columbus and Cincinnati connected to the South through the culture that African-Americans brought north with them on the Underground Railroad and in the Great Migration.
What are my feelings about being from the South? In Quebec and Ohio, heck even in South Carolina, I encountered some pretty cartoonish misconceptions about Alabama and first grew to defend my home state and then, as the years passed and my first-hand experiences of home grew further away, to wonder myself at what South really is, such that by the time I moved back to Alabama last August, I felt something like a foreigner and was, again, unsure of the accuracy of my perceptions of home.
I’m not sure of how to explain it, but I feel this need to figure out for myself what my own connection is to this place, what role it’s had in making me, what role I might have in making it. My first understanding of myself as an Alabamian came, I think, in fourth-grade Alabama history. I remember in odd specificity the Cassette Girls and the difficulties the French faced in adapting their cuisine to the gamy meats available here. Of slavery and the Civil War (pretty much all discussion of race was limited, if I remember correctly, to the far distant past of the Civil War, with next to nothing being made of more recent history), what I remember isn’t from our textbook but from conversations I had with classmates on the playground, either at P.E. or waiting for my mother to pick me up after school. I remember sitting atop what I can only describe as a rusting exercise tower with a black classmate, a girl whose face, hair, and red shorts I remember, but not her name. We talked about the difference of our skin being nothing “cause we’re all red under our skin where the blood flows.” I remember a boy with girlishly long finger nails who told me matter-of-factly, “I’m a nigger. You’re a honkey. That’s just the way it is.” I remember announcing to a white girl named Athena that when I grew up, I’d move to California or Alaska and get as far away from Alabama as I could because I ain’t like them whites that owned slaves. In my memory, it feels as if everyone agreed: Yes, we are not this place, and dammit, we’ll leave to prove it, but maybe it was my own private fascination. I remember “white” and “black” as being just as primary to identification as “girl” or “boy,” that to leave them out when talking about a girl or boy was to be deliberately vague and ambiguous. I remember “white” and “black,” as being such powerful master signifiers that there was discussion of whether or not the Vietnamese who’d moved to the area as refugees after the war were white or black, and it was finally decided that they must be white. I remember volunteering to read announcements for Black History Month and being told I couldn’t because I was white. I remember wondering even how you could tell whether dogs were white or black, not their fur which could be any color, not even their skin that with the hair pulled tight away looked almost iridescently blue, but that somehow dogs owned by blacks and whites must themselves be inherently different in the same what that what make white and black people different seemed to be more than just skin color, which even to my ten-year-old way of thinking seemed too simple and too stupidly superficial a thing to have such an importance placed upon it. Skin color? That’s all? There’s gotta be more to it than that. But what? But what? I swear I remember asking my parents what made whites and blacks different, and maybe they’d say something about melanin, and I’d say, “I know, but I mean, what besides skin?” Because clearly it was more than skin, but also if it was more than skin, maybe the color of your skin didn’t actually make you white or black but something else did. What was it that really made us as different as we were taught? What did we know of who we were? We were eight, nine, ten-years old. It was all a mystery. We repeated what we heard teachers and our parents say. We tried to make it all make sense in our own childlike ways, but it never quite did.
Now, I believe that what makes us different isn’t our skin or even ourselves: it’s hegemony, I’ve learned in my studies, that which “supposes the existence of something which . . . is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the substance and limit of common sense for most people under its sway.” It is, I think, to put it more simply, history. History made us different. History made these relationships that we were born into.
Much is made about how in America we get to choose who we are. Isn’t that the American Dream or part of it or a version of it? That everyone has the opportunity to remake his- or herself according to his or her own vision? While I believe that perhaps not enough is made of how the opportunity to reshape one’s self is not equally distributed among individuals, I nonetheless think that this idea that we as Americans get to choose who we are is important. Certainly we have some choice in how we see ourselves and in what kind of a people we want to be as we move through time. Moving back to Alabama, with my hard-earned decade of Ohio graduate studies, it is necessary that I engage what my personal choice to move back to the South means, besides being close to my family and being able to find food like what my Mawmaw cooked so readily available. I don’t know that I can reconcile the things I love about the South with the parts that horrify me. But I can’t not try.
Maybe I should just chalk it up as navel-gazing at a regional, historical scale. I’m not good with the answers, but asking the questions feels like a meaningful start.