Place  /  Dispatch

As Goes the South, So Goes the Nation

History haunts, but Alabama changes.
Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation

Mobile smells differently from Birmingham, milder. But the voices of Mobile are familiar. They drawl like we do. They don’t fill their mouths with a sphere of air like New Orleans folks. And there is the selfsame, self-conscious elegance. States have identities despite the arbitrariness of their borders. Perhaps that is part of what led Zora Neale Hurston to turn away from Alabama and claim only Florida. She couldn’t stand anyone putting on airs of any kind. She also did not think about Southern Black folks the way Murray did. Murray was insistent on our distinctively American identity. Hurston was always tracing the African.

Although Hurston was interested in the traces of Africa in the Americas, she did see a significant difference between the Africatown Africans and African Americans. The Africans never lost their homesickness. Implicitly she showed that Africans in Alabama, who built their own world—Africatown—were, if not literally like the rest of us, exactly who we were.

The echoing horror of slavery cuts both ways. We are often afraid to say what we know is true. The South is disaster and it is also miracle. Death and birth and rebirth and haunting ghosts at once. A new people out of old ones. There is no better metaphor for this than what happens sometimes in baby-foot Mobile Bay in the summer. Before dawn, crustaceans, eels, sea crabs, and fish, a mess of them, swarm close to shore, wriggling and near-naked. This is called a jubilee. And people joyfully come and scoop up the bounty. Feasts follow. There is a horrifying poetry. In the gospel music tradition, Jubilee is the victorious day when the saints gather. In Mobile Bay, it is a day when the fish are slaughtered by the hundreds.

A few live.

If you drive from Mobile to Birmingham, you can take the interstate, 65, which would bring you through Montgomery, the capital, the home of Rosa Parks, the site of the bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s onetime church. Or you can take local Alabama roads. The roads less taken are instructive. On another route, about an hour west, is a little-known place called Uniontown. It is in the Black Belt of Alabama, a region of double meaning: named for rich soil and the poorest people, slaves and later the barely emancipated Black sharecroppers and convicts leased out to do the hellish work of clearing land. The Black Belt is drier than the rest of Alabama. Yet thick forests remain even this many years after the wreckage that was king cotton. There are legions of cypress, oak, and loblolly trees, purple blazing star flowers, and all sorts of animals, especially the massive bucks that hunters pridefully kill.

Nearly two centuries ago, statesmen carved Alabama out of Mississippi, and then pushed out the indigenous—Cherokee and Creek—at the edge of bayonets. In swarmed the slavers hungry for cotton wealth in the nineteenth century. And that sensibility, although with some labor, still breathes.

The Black towns in the Black Belt are now dumping grounds—of fantasies and waste. In random assortment through the woods there are abandoned cars rusted to the color of dried blood, and stacks of old unwanted papers. But worst is what comes from out of state. Matter of fact, our nation has turned Uniontown, Alabama, into one of its trash cans, burying it in the refuse of thirty-three states. “Landfill” is too clean a word for what they do. And that’s not all. As part of Uniontown’s sewage system, liquid waste is spewed into the air to land on the hard Alabama clay earth. The town is showered in shit.

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