We can become the freedom fighters of today

My Alabama Story | By Ashley M. Jones

#MyAlabamaStory #AHAat50 | April 9, 2024

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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.”