Where Are You From? Finding a Sense of Place
I was born in a suburb of Detroit into an unhappy family of displaced Alabamians. My father was a brilliant agricultural engineer who worked for Ford Tractor and who had served as the engineering officer on two destroyers in WWII. My mother was born into an Alabama Brahmin family down on its luck.
My mother’s father, a physician, had died in 1919 in a carriage collision with a train near Brewton while rushing to a yellow fever epidemic before my mother was born, leaving her mother to bring up two children. She became the town’s post-mistress, a position which she held for 40 years.
My father, on the other hand, was the son of a mail carrier, who delivered mail by horse and wagon in the rural areas of Monroe County, where To Kill a Mockingbird is set. They were a working class family, and my father and his two brothers were the first to attend university. During his boyhood, my father spent most of his time in the woods and along the rivers of Alabama and forged a love for the place he shared with me on our frequent visits.
This is only important because the “place” I grew up — Birmingham, Michigan — was a pretentious, all-white, upper-middle class suburb that relied on monoculture yards and manmade environment to replace the natural world it had displaced — about as boring, sterile and empty a social landscape as you can imagine. I felt removed from the place my entire youth. I continued to spend summers in Alabama and have fond memories of the cabin that belonged to my great uncle with its broad porch overlooking a wooded valley and rolling ridges in the distance.
I ended up at Michigan State and became heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. I was arrested in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Party convention and charged with a bogus felony — which I later beat only because of my privilege and access to a lawyer who donated his time to help wrongly accused demonstrators. But I spent three long days in the Cook County Jail, filled almost entirely with young African American men, and was finally bailed out by my now-wife, who accessed money donated by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
I was disillusioned with America and determined not to fight against the Vietnamese. I took a scholarship to the University of British Columbia in Modern Chinese History, and drove my old two-cycle SAAB west. We stayed in Canada for 40 years.
But after we retired we thought it would be nice (OK, and warmer) to be closer to our oldest daughter, who is the Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment Project and lives in New Orleans. It seemed like Fairhope, Alabama, a nearby town just outside of Mobile established in the late 1800s as a utopian community based on the one-tax principles of Henry George and a bulwark of progressivism in the Deep South, might suit us just fine. Although I had worked in First Nations communities and made 25 trips to West Africa, where I worked with African educators and development workers to devise community development training programs, we thought Fairhope might work for us. I knew it was the South, but my father and mother had grown up nearby, and I had a slew of cousins there. I’d spent some of my happiest years in Alabama. Sure, I hadn’t been back for a long time, but things had changed, right?
Maybe it would it would even feel like coming home.
Before we took up residence, we did do our research, including looking into the diversity of the community online — 20% black, we were told. Great — a town with a progressive past, nice climate, diverse population. Perfect.
But what they didn’t tell us was that the 20% was relegated into all-black neighborhoods, many not even in the municipality. Or that up until fairly recently a curfew kept African Americans of the street after dark.
They didn’t tell us that at least two of Fairhope’s early mayors were members of the Ku Klux Klan, or that the Fairhope Courier carried ads so you could order your very own Klan sheet and receive it in the mail.
They didn’t tell us that the churches were segregated or that blacks and white didn’t even share the same graveyards when dead.
They didn’t tell us that most local Black folks have never felt welcomed into the downtown and rarely venture down there, or that not a single black person had ever been elected to the town council.
They didn’t tell us that confederate flags still flew from flagpoles or that most Black community members had never shared a meal in a white home — or vice-versa.
No, they didn’t tell us that Fairhope was as segregated as South Africa before the fall of apartheid in 1994.
And I hated seeing “Keep the White House White” bumper stickers each day or standing next to a guy at Walgreens with a handgun strapped to his waist and a Confederate flag tattooed on his arm.
When working in Africa, people had showed me generosity and acceptance. Such kindness. While living in Canada, we valued the richness of the cultural diversity that surrounded us, the differences that made for a fascinating, challenging society that expanded our understanding of others, not narrowed it through fear, distrust and isolation.
And now this.
But I’m not the sort of guy that just goes along with the way things are. If something is wrong, I need to at least try to fix it. And there was certainly something wrong here. I met Rev. Henry Crawford when my wife and I were the only white people at the Martin Luther King memorial. I received the same gracious welcome when I attended the all-black church at Twin Beech, or when I walked my dog down Kirkman Street, an all-black neighbourhood. I knew people wondered what the hell I was doing there, but the fact is I got tired of looking at and talking with white folks all the time. It can get really, really boring.
I also knew the black community had a culture, a way of being in the world, that all of Fairhope could have learned and benefited from. They had stories we all needed to hear to understand the place where we lived and its real history. They had skills and knowledge not available in the white community. Apartheid is not a one-way street: it hurts the victimizers as well as those victimized by it.
And so we organized Black voter registration drives for the 2016 election, not only to help people who felt politically marginalized to gain a voice and become more engaged in the political and social forces that affect them, but also to come together as a single community, black and white, enjoying our differences and recognizing our overwhelming similarities. Refusing to let artificial barriers of color and tradition keep us from becoming the tolerant, progressive, integrated community Fairhope should be and could be.
And then the election. Trump’s rabid invective inflamed the racism barely below the surface at the best of times. My social circle shrank, and my ability to tolerate the rise of fascism — and I don’t use that term loosely — I saw all around me took an emotional and physical toll. In early 2017, we returned to Canada, settling in St Catharines, Ontario.
Is this home? Perhaps not. Perhaps I’ll never find the sense of place I so envy in others, that almost mystical attachment to the red clay of Alabama, the craggy outcroppings of the Canadian Shield, the green mountains of British Columbia. But in the meantime, it is a relief to live in a country, with all of its faults, that does not have the same tradition of slavery, unprosecuted lynchings, race hatred, desperate fear of the Other, gun entitlement and an ideology of abject selfishness, all of which can be — and are — used to appeal to the most base instincts of its citizens.
It’s good to be back.