If you regularly follow this blog, you know that when I started talking about Birmingham, I was a newcomer overcome with curiosity and enthusiasm. I couldn’t wait to go out everyday, to explore new city streets, to meet new people, to get to know Jones Valley and all that dwells within it.
About a year after moving here, though, somebody let the air out of my bloated boastings of Birmingham. “It’ll start to wear you down,” they said. “Birmingham will never show up for you in the way that you want it to.”
And that’s when I started struggling, as a local blogger and as a resident. I secretly began to doubt the reasons why we’d come here with our young family. I began to fear the future, believing this naysayer’s skepticism and just waiting for his premonition to play out. I started to build a wall around our little family, assuming that separating us from the pride and prejudice (that have for so long plagued Birmingham) would keep us safe and happy. The motivation to explore (and write about) Birmingham quickly began to fade as that all too familiar way of life (in Birmingham) set in.
The mind will play tricks on us, yes? What we see (or what we hear) isn’t always what’s there. But we’ll talk ourselves into it. We’ll invest in that silence of our own agnst-ridden aversions.
And so time went on and I began to dissect every social and economic issue. I blamed Birmingham for not being better, stronger, more dignified. I admit, I found myself taking my children to a park over the mountain, knowing full well there were equal, if not better, green spaces available just down the street from my house. But I wanted to know what it was like, where everybody that had “run from” ran to. I began to silently hope for an escape.
I began to believe that Birmingham would betray me…
…because, let’s be honest – Birmingham has betrayed alot of people. I’m not sure when it started. Perhaps it was onset from the city’s founding: disloyalty and dysfunction showed up in the smoke stacks and steel mills, it ran rampant and reached a bloody crescendo during the 1960′s, and it’s been a fixture at City Hall for decades. And in our own neighborhood, there’s been a flux of residents – first white, then black, now mostly white again and full of the trimmings of middle class life, though just a few short blocks away the landscape is massive blight and decay, left by over six decades of flight. As you pass over the railroad tracks (which was once Birmingham’s river and main blood line), you hear it. That haunting silence. It’s as if you’re standing on a bridge overlooking nothing, stuck between two opposing worlds.
Am I rambling? I’m sorry. I’m not sure what I want to say… but it’s on the tip of my tongue.
Earlier this week I had a long conversation with a new friend who is my age. He is a black professional who lives on the west side of town. He and I see differently on some key issues. We also find harmony in our passion for this city and for its future. We both have children, and we’re raising our families in the best way we know how. We’re both trying to have open, positive conversations as two individuals divided by race, in Birmingham. And somehow, with mutual willingness, we found a safe place to land for a moment, to look each other in the eye, to connect in a way that would enable us to be compassionate and understanding of each other. Within an hour’s time, the seemingly endless distance between our worlds shrank to a handshake. Without saying it out loud, we’d committed to traveling alongside each other as we both work in our separate ways to move Birmingham forward.
Last week I had a conversation with a fellow mother. She’s a black woman twenty years my senior. She lives not far from my neighborhood. She told me what I’ve heard so many times. “They won’t take you seriously because they see you and assume you’re ‘over the mountain’”. People assume I’m trying to “make things better to make myself feel better”. People assume I live a privileged life that maybe I feel guilty about, and so I get involved (at a distance) in order to sleep better at night. I get it. It’s happened here before. And let’s not blame those that have acted selfishly. We’re all victim to our own motives. But, just as one group of people shouldn’t be judged by “how things seem”, neither should I.
Perhaps around the time I started doubting Birmingham is about the time I really started listening. To people. To the ones who’ve been here, to the ones who are thinking about relocating here. To everyone who would talk to me. Especially as my interest has grown regarding our city schools, the need to speak with fellow parents and neighbors (from all parts of the city) is greater than ever before. And you know what? People talk, they do it every day. But they are talking to each other. The city has learned to exist with these bridges of silence between neighborhoods. We can survive as individuals if we just keep to ourselves, right? No, we can’t. We depend on the city we live in for our quality of life, and there’s no value in a community that segregates itself.
I keep asking people, “What can I do to get them to take me seriously, to just talk to me?” And when I ask this question, I’m talking about people in Ensley, in West End, in East Lake, from one end of Jefferson County to the other. For some reason, I’m identified by the color of my skin and instantly thrown in to a heap of stereotypical, preconceived characteristics. I’m silenced before I even have the opportunity to speak.
So, what’s the distance between white and black?
Measure the degree of silence in your own small pocket of culture and family and solidarity. Measure it by your eagerness to walk across those bridges that divide you from your neighbors. I believe silence is the greatest distance between our black Birmingham and our white Birmingham.
I suppose it’s different for everybody, and that’s fine. We’re all responsible for our selves. But if you run in to me out there in the Magic City, please don’t categorize me based on the whiteness of my skin. Please don’t assume that I have choices you don’t have, that I am granted an easier path or that I’m motivated with ill intent.
I’ve lived in Birmingham less than three years. And already I’ve paid for the scars of the city’s past. I’m happy to do so, as I respect our history and its importance in our culture. But mark my words: My children will not pay for our inability to move beyond race, distrust, and disregard. At least in the case of this family and those we find community with, the distance between black and white will be exactly how far we’ll have to go to cross each bridge. We’ll take all of you – every breed, every size, every fear, every failure, every language, every limp. Because what lies between these two opposites is *everything*.