Stories Category: My Alabama Story

A way from home

Author April Dobbins.

I spent much of my childhood hung up on where I lived, or rather, trying to explain to others exactly where I resided. My house was situated in an undefined gray area between tiny Alabama towns. The roads that I lived on didn’t have formal names; they were known by their postal route codes, all designated “Rural Routes” followed by a number. There was not an option for cable television because companies didn’t run cables out that far from town. For years, my parents had to drive me miles to where a school bus would pick me up because public buses also did not come out to where we lived.

Country living was rife with these inconveniences. I grew up thinking about home as an isolated, liminal space. I wasn’t going to run into anyone I knew because our house was its own castle, nestled between grand oaks and pines. Home was the equivalent of falling from the map, disappearing off the radar, like some strange science fiction thriller. It was Bermuda Triangle geography.

But my seclusion taught me the beauty of taking my time and listening to the world around me, and it distinctly shapes how I approach filmmaking and writing today. I spent my formative years taking in the beauty of birdsong, communing with nature, and being alone with my own thoughts. Alabama made me a patient person, and that translates to my work as an artist. I am an advocate of slow and thoughtful storytelling. I delight in meandering trajectories and narrative threads.

“The Road Home, Hale County.” By April Dobbins.

As an adult, my curiosity has taken me all over the world. For decades of my life, I thought that my going out in the world was going away from Alabama. But years ago, as I was taking in the towering, otherworldly orange dunes of Southern Africa’s Namib Desert, I realized that I am always seeking rural spaces akin to home.

At the time, I was on a nature walk with a Namibian guide. You might think there wasn’t much to see in the desert, a place I always assumed was barren by definition. However, scratch that sandy surface and you find all sorts of elusive wildlife. Beetles emerge from the dunes at dusk and dawn and stand on their front legs in a sort of handstand, letting the moisture from the fog collect on their bodies and trickle down into their mouths. Water is scarce, so this is how they survive. I told my guide about my family farm in Alabama, and my grandfather’s intimate knowledge of southern fauna and flora. I told him about catfish farming and Black farmers making a way in spite of decades of oppressive government tactics. Instantly, we started speaking a common language, one of people who were raised on the land.

“We are not so different,” he says. “You know what it is like to not have everything within reach. That is country living, but we make a way.”

“Yes,” I said. “We always do.”

For years, I thought that my upbringing was a disadvantage — a descriptor that I needed to work beyond. As a writer and filmmaker, I often attempted to overcompensate for my rural origins. In my youthful naivete, I believed that rural Alabama was void of true artistic refinement because that’s what the world taught me.

As a kid, I watched everything: westerns like Rawhide and Gunsmoke; science fiction like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone; and various comedies and dramas. Television was escapism, in a sense, but I was always confronted with distortions of the rural and Southern. Even then, I understood that the people writing and playing me on television were not from the rural South. But I could see myself as they saw me, and it was rarely a flattering portrayal. Seemingly harmless television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies reinforced this idea that rural folks only had streaks of ingenuity or inspiration by mistake, and even then, the end result was often tragic. We could only be brilliant by accident because our isolated upbringings meant we were backwards and limited by definition.

Jones family reunion, 1982, with April standing in front of her mother (who’s wearing a black, floral dress).

My artistic journey has demanded that I shake the shame of growing up in the backwoods. I am not the first artist to reckon with my connections to home in my work. For many artists, it takes a lifetime to come to resolution with the places that molded us. I will admit to years of struggling to uncover my own love for the rural South. Many of my formative experiences were tainted by slights directly linked to the color of my skin. I cannot write about the rural without writing about how it almost smothered me to death. It’s a difficult thing to be an artist in spaces that thrive on conformity, familiarity, and insularity.

It was only after extensive travel through Africa, Europe, and the United States that I could return to the South with new eyes. Leaving home freed me up so that I could truly see home. Immersing myself in the work of rural artists and writers further enlightened me. I will never forget how I felt the first time I saw William Christenberry’s photography. His work took the wind out of me because I could immediately see that he was one of us. He captured country spaces with care. Not only did he cast the rural with an insider’s gaze, but he immortalized spaces that were mere minutes from my house.

It was Christenberry who helped me see that I didn’t grow up “nowhere” as I had always imagined. Rather, I grew up in a place rich with beauty and tradition, and people were eager to see my world. Writers like Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston filled in what was missing from my school’s required reading list — stories that reflected the rural experience from Black women’s perspectives. There are traces of them all in everything that I do.

April Dobbins is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker from Hale County. Her documentary film project, Alabamaland, is an ongoing exploration of Black family farms. This essay is an extensive excerpt from Dobbins’ cover story in AHA’s 2023 issue of Mosaic magazine. Read the feature in full at alabamahumanities.org/mosaic-magazine-the-rural-issue.

Discover more essays from our ‘My Alabama Story series, celebrating 50 years of storytelling through the Alabama Humanities Alliance. 

When’s the last time you called your grandmother?

Author Mark Wilson, Ph.D.

If you are going to take a road trip through rural Alabama, I suggest you travel with Nancy Anderson, former Auburn University at Montgomery literature professor, because she packs great snacks — which came in handy one evening between library visits in Uniontown and Marion in Perry County.

Our Center worked with the county library on events as part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program, and that night we had two public program reading discussions on To Kill a Mockingbird. In addition to snacks, Nancy also brought along several translated editions of the beloved classic, well-received by participants, whose appetite for learning about the book’s influence was considerable.

Nancy Anderson, professor of literature and AHA Road Scholar.

Following a presentation in Uniontown, Nancy invited questions, the first of which was from a teenager, wondering about Nancy’s take on a particular character in the book. I don’t recall the character, but I do recall the young lady’s enthusiasm and interest. Then we traveled to Marion, the county seat, where Nancy gave the same presentation. Again, the invitation for questions, the first of which was from one of the town’s attorneys, a different generation from the teen, certainly another social background and status. But the EXACT same question about a particular character. Two people, worlds apart, same text, same curiosity.

Alabamians are interested, thoughtful people.

The only problem with that story is that it also illustrates missed opportunities, since the teen and the attorney were in different rooms, not sharing the same space, comparing concerns, creating something together.

Those rooms are hard to find, but they can exist. We’ve held a few opportunities in the past for college students to meet with Osher Lifelong Learning Program members at Auburn University to discuss issues of public concern, deliberating with one another and talking through various approaches to issues. I enjoy being a neutral facilitator for those types of interactions, helping people talk to, and with, one another — listening to learn, not just hearing to respond. Talking politics is dangerous business these days, which makes it all the more necessary.

 

David Mathews, Ph.D., among many other things, is an Alabama Humanities Fellow (2023).

Dr. David Mathews, former president of the University of Alabama and longtime president of the Kettering Foundation, is fond of quoting the ancient Greek definition of deliberation: “The talk we use to teach ourselves before we act.”

Talking about literature or talking through what we should do to make our communities and our state better places to live and work requires a similar disposition, allowing ourselves to be formed, and informed, alongside others in ways that we cannot achieve alone.

One night at an intergenerational gathering, we spent more than an hour in small and large groups discussing possible solutions to the challenges our country faces related to democratic representation, civic engagement, and more. After a while, members of each age group started asking questions of each other, curious to know how changes in technology, social attitudes, and economy have shaped their perspectives. I called for one last question from a retiree, and immediately a hand raised:

“I just need to know one more thing from the college students,” she said in a tone serious enough to regather everyone’s attention. “When is the last time you called your grandmother?”

I hope this year everyone in Alabama can find a way to a room with people different from themselves, talking and teaching their way to actions that will have meaning immediately and beyond.

 

Mark Wilson is director of the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University and secretary of the Alabama Historical Association.