“Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?” -Walt Whitman
Sometimes it’s just better to hear it from a stranger.
A few weeks ago I posed this question: Is Birmingam worth fighting for? The response was overwhelming, and readership on my blog launched to a level I’ll most likely never see again. For better or for worse, I suppose that particular post resonated with a broad range of people. Over the next few days, I received a number of emails from people I’ve never met. They shared their own stories of uncertainty and frustration. Some argued against my comments and others expressed gratitude for speaking up on issues that, in Birmingham, appear to be so often withheld.
As a blogger, it’s my priority to connect with my community. As a resident of Birmingham, having an active voice allows me the opportunity spark dialogue between otherwise strangers. I believe our city needs some honesty, understanding, and insight. But don’t look at me – It takes a village, right?
Each and every one of those messages meant a great deal to me, although one in particular shook me to the core. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that those are the words I was asking for. I’m forever grateful that this complete stranger took the time to write such a thoughtful and informative message – one that I so desperately needed to hear.
With the author’s permission, I’m happy to share that message with you now. (For context, I encourage you to read the original post. Jump here for the link.)
I apologize in advance for the somewhat lengthy nature of my remarks and I hope you have the opportunity to read them some day.
I am no expert on race relations but as a life long African-American resident of the Birmingham Metro I would like to attempt an answer to your question: “Is Birmingham Worth Fighting For?”
In order to do that I must first list a few things that I believe are of the utmost importance to remember:
1.) No one blames you.
It is one of the unfortunate facts of American race relations that rather than viewing the fight against racism in universal terms many of us from all walks of life succumb to the all too human temptation to see total war. Blacks vs Whites.
The truth is we were never foes. While it is true that historically many (indeed most) white Americans bought into the pseudo-scientific folk wisdom of racism there have always been people of good will of all races, colors, and creeds. The NAACP was founded by a diverse group of people committed to human equality from Ida B. Wells (a daughter of slaves and anti-lynching crusader) to Henry Moscowitz (a Romanian born political activist) to Mary White Ovington ( a white suffragette from New York) to W.E.B. Du Bois (a mixed race scholar with roots in France, the US, Haiti, and West Africa).
This close relationship has always been present and even an old soldier like Tyrone Belcher (his wisdom or lack thereof on school board matters not withstanding) knows this well. You can rest assured that when he proclaimed his defiance he did not have you in mind as his enemy. Which brings me to my next point.
2.) We all see color.
Certainly we Americans despite our age and our backgrounds cannot escape one of the foundational marks of our national character. It pains me to say that you and I will know each other as black and white until the day we die. It pains me even more to say that our children will too. We will constantly struggle against the culturally imprinted temptation to judge each other by our physical appearances, our vocal cadences, our names, every aspect of ourselves that has been scarred (as you put it well) by the battle that we were born into. Centuries of madness will not be erased by a generation or two’s slow climb towards sanity.
3.) Color Matters.
When Belcher lashes out, when African-Americans give voice to the fear that once again they might be robbed of their agency and the ancient rule be in some small way reinstated you are right to appreciate their scars. We must also remember that the struggle for equality is not over, there still exists the default assumption of American race relations, the singular observation that made Du Bois a sociological pioneer. To be black in America is, to a large degree, to be viewed as a problem. Not a person with a problem but as an embodiment of a quandary and some of our fellow Americans still have solutions to that problem which are not rooted in the foundation of respect.
With that said I offer my answer:
Birmingham is its people and people are always worth fighting for.
No amount of pain or suspicion of the state’s motives justifies continuing to subject the children of Birmingham to an educational experience that bars so many of them from truly engaging in the wealth of opportunities that many of our ancestors of every race fought so long and hard to offer to their children. They deserve better. This city with its storied history and its brilliant, caring, compassionate people deserve a chance to be every bit the Magic City we all know it can be.
They are the true winners if we continue to stand and fight against the wave of contempt, cynicism, and apathy that threatens to overwhelm us daily in this city.
If not then there is no doubt who the losers will be: Those brilliant people, those children, each and every person who believed that love was a possibility in a place that has seen so much hatred.
You don’t have to wait for Birmingham to let you in. The truth is you are as in as any one of us. When the black citizens of Birmingham see their children hampered by mediocrity in their education and chaos in administration nothing about this says “This is my home.” When we see crime and violence and decay all around us there are none who take consolation in saying that we have won this prize to ourselves, wrestled by force from white enemies bent on our subjugation.
We are all of us outsiders in a city of strangers. DuBois in his seminal work “The Souls of Black Folk” placed a question in the mouths of black children of his era: “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?” This question is still being asked in every corner of Birmingham. If anything if you find yourself asking this question you are even more of Birmingham than you think.
The truth is that in the life of our city ownership will not be passed down gently with a smile and a caring embrace. Our soil is too red with iron and with blood to make Birmingham a gentle place. Birmingham must be grasped firmly by those who determine to hold it. It must be encircled by those who care for its future and the future of its people and brought step by step and school-board meeting by parkside protest back home to the people who love Birmingham and wish it well.
I thank you for you efforts in the regard. I encourage you not to grow weary in doing good, for (to borrow a phrase) “in proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Alesis is a recent graduate from UAB. Having been raised in the Burstall neighborhood of Bessemer, she now resides in Highland Park. Her favorite thing about the Magic City is the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. ”I like the peace there,” she says.