“Who Are You?” is an ongoing series that asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.
When, back in early 2001, I got the job as Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama I was working at what was then called Southwest Missouri State University, in Springfield, MO, and I recall sending out an email to my friends and colleagues in North America and Europe, to let them know that I’d soon be moving. Many wrote back their congratulations, of course, but I noticed a curious thing: unlike my Canadian and European friends, many of my U.S. colleagues’ congratulations came with what I read as subtle qualifications, equivocations, maybe even an unwritten sigh or two. For, sooner or later, they’d write something like, “Alabama? Really?” or “Wow. Well, good luck.”
It seemed that while others had read the part about becoming a department chair or moving to a major state university, others couldn’t get past the part about moving to Alabama.
Maybe it’s just me, but I read those replies as laments — laments driven by a caricature of the state where I was moving to work. Now, 13 years later, I guess I’m an Alabamian (to whatever degree those who have been here longer than me will allow me to claim that identity, that is), for, other than having lived in my childhood town until I was 19, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my adult life. So I’ve got a few thoughts on how a certain idea of Alabama — one that is certainly not divorced from history but one which nonetheless is rather rhetorically useful today — helps others in the U.S. to feel rather good about themselves (not unlike how some of us in “the South” use Mississippi’s last place finish on some national lists to soften the blow of our own poor showing on those very same reports).
For, from my point of view — as a Canadian who came to the U.S. in 1993 for what was then only a 9 month teaching position, but which ended up turning into a whole career, at three different public universities (so far) — moving to Alabama wasn’t all that significant. By then I’d almost lost count of how many different cities I’d lived in, whether in Canada or the U.S.; and, besides, as a Canadian coming to the U.S. back then at least, the main difference seemed to be defined by the U.S./Canada border at Fort Erie/Buffalo or at Windsor/Detroit (the two where we would cross), rather than anything defined by boundaries within the U.S. itself. After all, despite an overwhelming number of pretty obvious similarities with Canada, once you crossed into the U.S. the health care system was different (“pre-existent conditions”?!), the gun laws were different (“Gun Control is a Steady Hand” said the bumper sticker on a truck in Knoxville), the banking and mortgage industries were regulated differently (did you notice that the 2008 real estate collapse didn’t hit Canada anywhere near like it did the U.S….?), the tax system was different (I thought government’s job was to redistribute wealth to the benefit of society…), the education system was different (property values linked to the quality of neighborhood schools? Seriously?!), and…, I could go on and on, of course. So although I’d seen “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) and certainly knew that crossing state lines could be hazardous, once I’d crossed into the U.S. then moving from Tennessee to Missouri and then to Alabama didn’t strike me as a big deal.
Sure, I’d not lived in Manhattan or Seattle or San Francisco, or any number of generally agreed upon cool or hip or whatever places in the U.S., but what counted as a difference to me, distinguishing my idea of home from this new place I’d moved to in order to pursue my career, was uniformly shared by all places in the U.S., suggesting that any local distinctions — no matter how significant they were to those who considered themselves connoisseurs of regional nuance — were of little consequence.
So you can imagine how I feel when someone (invariably an enlightened left-of-center type) asks me (as they actually have), “What are you doing at a place like that?” or when I hear their inevitable “What’s it like teaching Religious Studies in the south” question — as if the issues that we confront, such as the insider/outsider problem, are not present in pretty much every classroom and as if we all don’t have excellent students in our classes, regardless the region. You know, come to think of it, everywhere I’ve so far lived in the U.S. has, at some point, been described to me as “the buckle of the bible belt,” suggesting to me that there’s no belt, just buckle wherever you go. So how can the issues in my classes be any different from anyone else’s? I’ve been lucky enough to have lectured all over the U.S. and it’s not like my approach to the study of the category religion is somehow commonsense there but not here.
But I certainly “get” that there are things associated with some parts of the country that do stand out, even to the casual observer.
For example, I was born in 1961, so although I lived in Canada I was more than familiar with Time and Life magazine photospreads on what was going on in the U.S. south during the 1960s, such as this one documenting a harsh May 1963 response to civil rights protestors (taking place just prior to when I was first paging through those glossy American magazines, I realize) — a photo taken in Birmingham, AL, just an hour’s drive away.
To this day I admit it’s sobering to stop and think that I live right where much of this was all happening back then, those — I don’t mind saying — deeply troubling images that, for me as a little boy, were nonetheless exotically alien, happenings in someone else’s backyard, quite literally in a foreign land and thus a galaxy far far away. So yes, of course, how can one live here without taking into account the deeply complex nature of what “Alabama” signifies for many people today — and for good reason.
And on my own campus we have the (in)famous doorway to Foster Auditorium in which our then Governor George Wallace (pictured below, at left, with arms behind his back, looking a tad defiant, no?) stood, also in 1963, in order to try to prevent (and, because President Kennedy had federalized the Alabama National Guard, he failed) the first African American students from registering at the University of Alabama — a door not so far from my office and one that I routinely take visitors to see, either letting their own memories inform their act of standing in that very same spot or, for younger guests, framing it with reference to a particular scene they may recall from “Forrest Gump” (1994).
So with regard to the history of its civil rights movement, the state of Alabama in general, and even the University of Alabama in particular, are undoubtedly (and rightly) on the tips of most everyone’s tongues. But these issues go back further in time than the 1960s, of course; in fact, two of our faculty regularly do alternative campus tours with their students, in which they discuss the slave history to our own campus. (I’ve stolen the following pic from my colleague’s blog post on one such recent tour: a marker at our Old Biology Building.)
But all this being on the tips of everyone’s tongues is a curious thing, for by what I’ve learned, the pervasive beginnings and effects of slavery as an institution, and the socio-political issues being addressed by the civil rights movement, were hardly isolated to the state of Alabama or even “the South.” And here is where my analysis starts coming back around to the social effect of those laments that greeted the news of my move to Alabama: for although easily identified today as “a southern problem,” both were national, even international, issues that impacted and implicated many more people than just the ancestors of those living where I happen to now.
Such as this new story on how Wisconsin — yes, not Alabama but Wisconsin — is the worst state in the U.S. for black children:
Even the Canada I referenced above was hardly an idyllic, tolerant, inclusive setting; maybe for a little boy looking at Life magazine it seemed to be, helping me to feel safely set apart from (aka superior to) all those American problems down south, but looking back we were surely as deeply mired in much the same issues. While it wouldn’t take much effort to draw attention to longstanding (and still current) problems in Canada over not recognizing native claims and rights, just the fact that I can remember, also as a little boy, the first family moving into my neighborhood who had obvious ancestry from Africa should tell you all you need to know about the no less complex dynamics of race, identity, and immigration taking place in “the Great White North” (as we used to call it — never really catching the curiously racial overtones to the apparent reference to snow).
So if we start to see these issues as hardly local, then I’d hazard a guess that without decades of subsidy by way of coerced labor (i.e., what we know as slavery), we would not be wearing cotton much of the time today (i.e., what was slavery’s role in creating, by means of a massive subsidy of labor costs, what is now a worldwide industry? What does one make of the flourishing northern textile industry then, and the so-called Industrial Revolution that grew up around processing southern-grown cotton? Not to mention the still flourishing tobacco industry, the sugar industry, the…). So, instead of documenting, for example, the evils of slavery here, where it is relatively easily done, of course, why not find its strategically unaddressed traces in those enlightened places where people — to my way of thinking, at least — all too easily judge what it means to live in Alabama?
But doing this, making that deeply self-implicating move, by seeing our entire, shared, taken-for-granted socio-economic system as deeply implicated, from top to bottom, would require us to realize that we’re all in much the same soup, none of us all that removed from 50th place on any particular list — for issues of power, race, and place are found everywhere, making the luxury some have of thinking its only a problem here and not there something that’s bought at the price of seeing only others as the subjects of history. That is a luxury we do not have here — and I’m thankful for it. For it gives us little choice but to make sense today of the past that, like it or not, we’ve inherited.
So, while knowing that there’s a number of things here that I would like to see change (did you catch this important, recent national news story on the implicit re-segregation in my own city’s schools, or this follow-up report? But…, given how so-called “white flight” has been happening in almost all major American cities for 50 years, created de facto segregated cities [i.e., largely black inner cities and more affluent white suburbs], I’m unsure if the “Alabama” angle is what makes these most recent stories seem like news…) — as I would anywhere, believe me! — I also know that there’s a number of people here doing what I consider to be admirable things, such as stepping up and naming that which often goes unaddressed. In fact, a student in our own department did that, in a prominent way, just this past Fall and was among those who caught the attention of our University’s administration, prompting it to begin moving more earnestly toward living up to our own statements on race and inclusion. So more changes are now happening. Yes, it’s slow, frustratingly slow at times, sure, but Rome wasn’t built in a day either.
So while I certainly wish some things were otherwise — yes, I admit that I side with Neil Young over Lynyrd Skynyrd — there’s plenty of people here who make me proud to live in Alabama and to teach at the University of Alabama — sentiments that are especially apparent to me whenever I bump into those who live in no less complex places but who nonetheless feel competent to judge us, based on a convenient caricature that they think inoculates them from the effects of our shared history.
So there ya go: that’s what I’m doing in a place like this. And that’s who I am.