When’s the last time you called your grandmother?

My Alabama Story | By Mark Wilson

#MyAlabamaStory #AHAat50 | January 18, 2024

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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.