Archives: Stories

Summer, 1967

First memory: Homewood, Alabama. Summer, 1967. I’m 8 years old. Whatever happened to me or around me between being born in 1959 and 1967 is lost to time. My three sisters and my mother are standing on the porch of our house, 1906 Mayfair Drive, waiting for my father. He’s called, apparently, and told my mother that he would be arriving home from work and that all of us should be outside to see him drive up. “He bought a new car,” my mother says. “He wants us to see it.”

She is not as impressed with the acquisition as he would have her be, I think. Could I have known that then, as an 8-year-old? It’s a stretch. But I feel like I did know that, that there was an imbalance between the intended effect and the effect he would achieve, and that this was a motif in their marriage, from the beginning of it to the end.

Daniel Wallace.

But she takes us all outside anyway. It’s hot, of course, the air is heavy and wet. The gnats cloud in front of my face like the blurry static of an old television set with bad reception.

My mother lights a Salem. Barrie, my younger sister, is standing in front of me, and Rangeley and Holly, my two older sisters, flank my mother. Everyone has dark brown hair except for Barrie, who is blond. Here we are, all of us waiting on the porch for my father to arrive in his brand-new car.

And arrive he does, leaning out the driver’s window of a sleek black Electra 225. He’s beaming. He waves, he honks. All of us run to the car and pile in. “Careful,” he says, laughing. “Careful!” All but my mother, that is, who is finishing her Salem. When she’s done with it, she sets it down in a concrete divot between two bricks and meanders to the car, slipping into the passenger side.

He turns to her. They lock eyes. And it’s so clear that this is not about him – the car, I mean – or about us, even though we’re all a part of it, his vision, to varying degrees. It’s for her, really. To him, it’s for her. Getting the car is another thing he’s doing to win the heart of the woman with whom he already has a mortgage and four kids.

“A deuce and a quarter,” he says, prompting a reaction he hoped would happen on its own.

She runs her fingers along the shiny black faux leather, soft and cool. “It’s nice, Dan,” she says. “Congratulations.”

That’s it. That’s all he gets. It’s nice. But she gets even less. Turns out the car is not what either of them was after all along.

Anyway, he drives us all around the block, and my parents were married for another twenty years.

After this first memory I have a lot of them. The world comes flooding in, and for the next 18 years until I leave for college most of my memories find their landscapes in Alabama: Homewood, Mountain Brook, Crestline, Avondale, Southside, Shelby County, Birmingham, Cullman, Montgomery, Gulf Shores. At this writing I’m just a few years shy of being half a century living away from Alabama, meaning I’ve had fifty years of life and stories and experiences that happened outside the Heart of Dixie. And yet almost every tale I’ve told takes place somewhere in Alabama. Even if I give the place another name, it’s always Alabama. It’s my permanent setting, my forever home.

Daniel Wallace’s most recent work, a 2023 memoir.

But the Alabama in my books doesn’t exist. The actual Alabama, the one you can visit, the one you can live in, or leave, the one you can hear about in the news, is a different animal altogether.

I vividly remember growing up believing that I was witnessing the end of a generational inheritance. That most of the bigots, the racists, all the know-nothings of the George Wallace variety – all those old people, you know – would have children, and those children would grow out of it. They would see the light. Embrace difference. Give everyone the same honest breaks. Stop using the Bible to justify hate. And just in general stop being ridiculous. Knowing what I knew then, seeing what I saw, how could they not?

But I was a kid. I didn’t know anything. A few months ago, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos created through in vitro fertilization and living in a freezer should be considered children. Really?

Really. Which is just to say that claiming a place, or being claimed by it, can be awkward. But it’s like family: it’s also beautiful. You make the best of it. It’s the only one you’ve got.

 

Daniel Wallace, a Birmingham native, is the author of six novels, two children’s books, countless short stories, and, most recently, a memoir, This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew. Wallace is a member of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame and has received the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer. He teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he’s the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English.

A year, then a life, in Alabama

I moved to Alabama in July of 2016 with a deadline. I’d just graduated from college and simply intended to try something new. I had been living in New York, the state I’d spent most of my life, with the exception of a teenage stint in southern Vermont. I was spent on the cold and ice and briskness of the Northeast and was curious, for a limited time, to explore another part of the country. When I was accepted into a year-long fellowship at Birmingham’s Jones Valley Teaching Farm, it seemed like the perfect chance to try 365 days in a new location.

Margaret Norman

The day I moved was my first time in the state and I was immediately struck by the bright fuchsia of crape myrtles in peak bloom, the clockwork afternoon thunderstorms, and the “how are you?” greetings from every passing person (many of whom I ignored before learning better). Three hundred and sixty-six days later, I was still here. And while I’d like to say it was only because Birmingham took me by surprise, the truth is that I fell in love. I met my now-husband only two months before my fellowship ended. Eight years later, this is still home.

But that first year in Alabama did surprise me in many ways, and set me on a journey of discovery. In the eight years since my arrival, I’ve fallen in love with Alabama and its stories hand-in-hand, step-in-step.

My interest in history had recently been cultivated through an oral history project I’d conducted as part of my undergraduate studies, examining my own family’s Southern history as Jews in the Arkansas Delta. In Birmingham, I got a job at a bakery, and spent that second year down South rolling baguettes and dipping my toes further into the historical waters. Thanks to a series of opportune ripple effects, I spent the next few years contributing to an archival project in the Florida panhandle, an oral history project at Red Mountain Park, and serving in the first class of Research Fellows for the Jefferson County Memorial Project, whose Core Coalition I am still proud to serve on. Today, I oversee the Beth El Civil Rights Experience, an endeavor that explores the intersections of Birmingham’s Jewish and civil rights histories. (And received an AHA Major Grant from the Alabama Humanities Alliance to make possible.)

This is a complicated history. When visitors take our tour they learn about Jewish action, inaction, and everything in between during Birmingham’s civil rights movement. They delve into the how and why of our story as a Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s. And we ask our visitors to reflect on where they stand in relation to issues that they care about in their own life, where they — where we all — could do better.

I’ve been continually impressed by the congregation’s willingness to be vulnerable and present an honest portrait of themselves, and I struggle with how I can shepherd this project as a transplant — after all, this isn’t my story. It is the story of many of my docents, who lead the tours; of my committee members who’ve shaped it; and of the community that has hosted and supported it.

This is what I love about Alabama. This is not a state without warts, but then again neither is New York. Here, my love for the humanities has been fostered by the commitment of citizens to understand, educate, and yes, do better, armed with the tools of history and dialogue. That’s not to simplify the situation; there are forces in our state pushing against those values right now. Yet I often describe Alabama (especially to those in my life who are confused about why I’m still here), as a place where people are truly, every day, trying to make this a better place for all to live.

I’ve grown to love the rhythm of life here: the February thawing, the lushness of spring, even the weight of the summer air. I’m raising my son here now, and sometimes it still strikes me as surprising that he will someday say he is from Alabama. But I hope he says it proudly, recognizing those in his community who have continually invested in it and pursued the truth of our past in order to make our communities stronger today.

 

Margaret Norman is a public historian based in Birmingham. She has spent four years as director of programming and engagement at Temple Beth El, where she’s overseen the Beth El Civil Rights Experience. Margaret is the incoming director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Birmingham Jewish Federation. She also currently hosts “Southern Jewish Voices” at the Levite Jewish Community Center and is an Alabama Jewish Folklife Fellow for 2023-2024.

We can become the freedom fighters of today

I didn’t always love Alabama.

Ashley M. Jones

I was born and raised in Birmingham, and until about age 22, I can say that I was in a love-hate relationship with my home state. Being born in a family that valued education, that valued cultural education, and that kept truth close, I knew the sins of Alabama’s past. I went to high school nearby Kelly Ingram Park and 16th Street Baptist Church. I could imagine myself at the end of Bull Connor’s hose if I’d been alive in 1963. I was fully aware of what a lot of folks don’t want to teach today, and yes, that truth made me feel something. I had the naïve belief that so many of us Southerners have when we’re young — if I can get out of here, everything will be different.

So I left.

When it was time for me to go to grad school, I chose to move to Miami, which, yes, is geographically more southern than Alabama, but its culture is nothing like the South. And it was incredible, don’t get me wrong, but being far away from home in miles and in spirit made me rethink my position on Alabama. I don’t have a pronounced Southern accent, but there is so much else about me which is quintessentially Southern. I love a slow pace — letting a day pass by as the ice melts in a glass of sweet tea. I love to hear the Southern twang in the voices of my family and friends. I love the way we season food, the way we say hello as we pass each other on the street. I learned, in my absence from Alabama, that yes, we had a history of injustice, but our legacy is of the freedom fighters and movement makers who always met the unreasonable and unconscionable acts of those who held power. I learned that no matter where I went in these united states that there would be the ghosts, or, in some cases, the fully breathing bodies of those same injustices. That the South is a convenient scapegoat for issues all states have to face.

Mug shot of freedom fighter and Alabama native, John Lewis. Jones wrote a poem about Lewis when he was honored as an Alabama Humanities Fellow.

So I came back.

There are many reasons I came back to Alabama. Yes, I wanted to be closer to my family again — they are my people, and it’s hard to survive 800 miles away from your people. I wanted to live somewhere where I could pay rent and buy groceries. I wanted the Alabama sky, the clouds which somehow seemed more beautiful as soon as I crossed the state line. I thought about my younger self — little Black girl who wanted to be a writer. Who wanted to be somebody. I thought I couldn’t do any of those things in Alabama, where dreams came to die. What I didn’t know was that a place is only barren if its people decide it is. We can pour into our communities and make them blossom. I wanted to show up for the people who had dreams like I did, and I wanted to show them that this place was a growing place, that we had a history to celebrate, interrogate, and learn from. That we could be a shining light to show the world what the South can do and be.

This is a hard time to be hopeful for so many reasons. It seems we’re confronted daily with the worst in humanity. The worst in our governments and in our peers. But I do have hope in Alabama because I know that the people are the real breath of this place. We can organize around goodness and make it so. We can hold our history close and celebrate the truth we can share with our children. We can hold on to those freedom fighters who fought valiant battles here in years past. We can become the freedom fighters of today by loving our Alabama, pouring into it, making room for everyone to live, work, love, and dream here.

My Alabama story is still being written, and I’m grateful for the chance to see its chapters unfold here.

 

Ashley M. Jones is the poet laureate of Alabama, founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, and associate director of UAB’s University Honors Program. She has frequently partnered with the Alabama Humanities Alliance, including as project poet for AHA’s video series and podcast, “Why It Matters: Black Alabamians and the Vote.”

‘You are not alone’

The 50th anniversary of the Alabama Humanities Alliance coincides with my own 50 years in Alabama. I grew up in Pennsylvania, went to school in Connecticut, and moved to Birmingham in 1974, right out of college, planning to stay for a year or two. I had no idea how Alabama would entwine itself around my heart and my life with the sweet strength of a honeysuckle vine.

Dolores Hydock.
Dolores Hydock. Photo by Hugh Hunter.

After years of Yankee winters, I loved seeing yellow bells in February. I loved sitting on the front porch swing on warm summer nights, listening to a cicada serenade or watching flashes of lightning from a faraway storm. I loved the way the light changes as springtime approaches, and everything is suddenly green everywhere. I loved the cornbread and angel biscuits and lady peas (though I’m still struggling with boiled okra…). But mostly, I loved the people I met, who showed me I could be a storyteller.

The story style I grew up with was nothing like the classic Southern style of “sittin’ on the porch, rockin’ and lyin’.” I grew up on the folk tales and fairytales that came to this country through Ellis Island, like my grandparents did. But the people I met in Alabama loved stories, all kinds of stories, and they didn’t ask me to tell stories their way, they invited me to tell my stories my way, and were open to it all: stories collected from real people, stories from history or literature, stories from life. People here know how to tell a story and — just as important — know how to listen to a story. There is a tradition here that savors the music of words and their power to entertain, inspire, and connect us to each other.

Ellis Island.
Ellis Island. Photo by Robert Jones.

Stories are woven into the fabric of life here in Alabama. I meet storytellers from all over the country who are amazed at — and envious of — the quantity and variety of adult spoken-word programming available in Alabama. That includes AHA providing a roster of Road Scholars who speak on a wide range of topics; a network of public libraries that offer full calendars of programs not just for kids and teens, but for grown-ups, too; literary clubs, study clubs, and book clubs that bring people together for fellowship, yes, but also for programs — something to think and learn and talk about. My early experience of telling stories here — with the variety of places where I could tell a story and the openness with which my stories were received — encouraged me to broaden my own understanding of what stories are and what stories can do.

Two pine trees joined together by a branch.
Two pine trees joined together by a branch. Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History.

There is not just one single kind of human experience, but if we hear different stories from different voices across different moments in time, we can begin to sense the larger story of what it is to be human. I once heard a wise storyteller say, “All stories have the same message: You are not alone.”

The stories that I and AHA’s other Road Scholars tell have that message, too. The people who show up in our stories — whether from history, art, literature, or current events — all have something to tell us about who we are in our shared humanity. My hope for the next 50 years is that all kinds of stories, from all sorts of voices, will continue to find a home, as I did, in this beautiful state of Alabama.

 

Dolores Hydock is a storyteller and actress who lives in Birmingham. She has served as an AHA Road Scholar since 2003 and currently offers talks on more than a dozen different topics — from Ellis Island immigrant stories to the history and culture of Alabama’s Chandler Mountain community.  

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

A way from home

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.

April Dobbins.

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?

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.

Mark Wilson, Ph.D.

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.

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.

Nancy Anderson, professor of literature; AHA Road Scholar.

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.