Sunday, July 6, 2008

Close-kinded



GEORGIANA, ALABAMA - July 6 -- We had been walking on the back roads of Alabama for about an hour when we met 30-year-old William. He yelled, ‘Ya’ll want some water!’ from the front porch of his country, roadside trailer. Before no time at all, Brian and I met his entire family, siblings, parents, kids, and even the dogs – Tank and Lil’ Man. If William had been wearing a t-shirt, there would have been no way for me to notice the confederate flag tattooed on his chest. The emblem also appeared on his friend’s hat.

If Brian and I had been black, I don’t imagine we would have been offered hamburgers, ice water, an atlas, or even the forty dollars William slipped Brian as we were leaving. ‘Those n****r’s down there are crazy, they’ll be drunk on the corners,’ William said as we told the men of our intended route, which was through an area called Butler Estates. We’d supposedly be offered crack and have guns pulled on us according to William. In a bit of a daze due to the confusing events, we accepted their offerings and forged on. The bills felt strange in our pockets, almost like drug money. We walked down the road a few minutes, discussing our most recent encounter and how uncomfortable it made us feel when we saw Terry, William’s friend, screech by in his bright-green Mustang. He delivered extra BBQ wrapped in aluminum foil that William wanted us to have. The kindness by these close-minded people baffled us.

I heard music playing in the distance. As we approached the beat, I saw a sign reading Butler Estates. Across the street was a party of all ages at a Baptist Church. Extra cars had to be parked on a grass field to accommodate the huge crowd of people celebrating the Fourth of July. We were not offered crack, but instead asked to join in on the fun by a group of teenage girls near the entrance and then given a couple of ice-cold sodas from a man who told us, ‘Happy Fourth of July.’

Exhausted at a gas station later, we took a break. A white man walked out of the gas station towards his car then turned around and handed me a wrinkled up $20 bill. We asked why he was giving us this money. His reply, ‘Helping out white folks.’

It was hard to wrap my brain around the situations that had happened during that day. On one hand, these men seemed like nice people, offering food, water, money, etc. On the other hand, the generosity was tarnished by their ignorant racism, adding fuel to a fire that’s been burning far too long. Throughout three days of walking rural Alabama, we have done our best to keep an open mind. My intention is not to contribute further to southern stereotypes, but it would be dishonest to neglect the events we’ve been a part of during our time in Alabama. On the flip side, more people have honked and waved to us in this state than any of the others, which is nice.

***

We used the money from the two men for a hotel room that night since all potential camping land was marked NO TRESPASSING and a storm was moving in quickly. Bates Motel from the movie Psycho would have felt like an upgrade. We should have known we were in for a unique experience when the motel owner came to the counter with a parrot on her shoulder. The door to our room was pink and the outside walls were painted purple. Inside, nails stuck out of the walls, cigarettes had burned holes in the comforters, dogs had eaten parts of the towels, doorknobs didn't existed on the bathroom door, and only two out of five light bulbs were working. The picture of snow-tipped mountain ranges that hung above the beds was drastically out of place, but fitting at the same time. Brian and I watched the Fourth of July fireworks from a TV that wouldn’t stop flickering. We joked how it felt like we were beneath the New York sky when we couldn’t have been further away.

***

The following night, Brian and I found ourselves taking shelter from a thunderstorm under a garage belonging to the Alabama Forestry Commission. The potential for a forest fire was so small that we were all alone next to the equipment, nobody else was around . Walking had concluded for the day and as a result. We called the police station asking for permission to pitch our tent nearby the shelter. We were hoping for a little southern comfort, but the answer was short and sweet, ‘Nope, ya’ll gonna have to move on through to the next town.’ The problem was that in order for us to move on through, we’d have to complete a full day of walking in one hour. This was not a possibility so Brian and I slept on a clearing of grass near the side of the road. Inside the tent, my skin stuck to itself from the humidity while twigs dug into my back. The locusts had no snooze button and kept me awake while I tried finding a way to look at Alabama in a positive way, but I fell asleep before that happened.
-DC

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Such a vivid description of the paradox that is the south - southern charm and hospitality and yet vicious and persistent racism. To be sure, racism doesn't exist only in the south. But the southern version is quite unique.

Thanks for writing about your experiences. Unfortunately, your stories aren't new. Peoples of color, especially Black people have experienced and told these stories for far too long. Yet so many people won't allow themselves believe that things like this happen in the United States of America in 2008. Your writings remind us all that there is much work yet to be done.

Keep up your righteous work.

daniel z

Cat said...

I was reccommended to your blog by none other than Matthew Kyhnn, a fellow expat. I followed Brian's blog simply because I needed my own inspiration, and following you two across the country has confirmed by suspicions that I don't need to be abroad to have an adventure. I'll be following you as I head back to Spain later this summer for another school year abroad. While my writing (even with a journalism degree) is not nearly as eloquent, you can catch up with me at http://olivaresbound.blogspot.com. Denny, I think you may remember me...I, too, get coded "unable to contact."

Erin Bernstein said...

You guys are there to open their minds, not just accept the kindness, right? :)

Perhaps it's paying it forward...they give you barbecue and some money, and you return the favor with a bit of education.

I'm proud of you guys for your good hearts and open minds. Sound like the 4th was an adventure in itself.

Erin

P.S. It's July 6th. Alanna will be upset if she doesn't get her shoutout ;)

Lauren said...

Well, Daniel beat me to my comment:

"So many people won't allow themselves to believe that things like this happen in the United States of America in 2008."

It's so true...and actually kind of scary that more people don't recognize that. Good thing you're there for that extra reminder.

Thanks for sharing.

Lauren

Dan from Iowa said...

Great update Denny. Very candid and heartfelt, yet restrained and thoughtful. Also, found the Bates Motel reference quite humorous! Trust me, there’s more than a few of those in Iowa too!

Tracy from Auburn said...

Hmmmm...not sure how to respond here. Jaded view to say the least.
I met you in Auburn, Alabama at the end of June. Just now getting a chance to check out your blog. While I am sure your portraits of those men are exact, Alabama is much more than that. I have lived in Auburn or Huntsville, AL for most of my life, and I have never witnessed racism like you described. Well, I take that back. I was on a mission trip in New Jersey and saw something similiar to what you have described. Point being, racism is everywhere. I hate that you got such a bad taste in your mouth from a state that I love. Our views of Alabama are obviously different.
I wish you the best on the rest of your travels.