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Bama Bones: A Black Southerner Talks Place & Creativity

Bama Bones: A Black Southerner Talks Place & Creativity

By Trudeir Harris

Words sing to me. And I am responsive to the tunes they want me to create. Sometimes they evoke the blues, sometimes they call forth a rousing gospel, and sometimes they’re just sheer harmonies of celebration. I hear patterns or rhythms for sentences in my head, and those rhythms find their way onto my computer screen, or, when I am traveling, onto my note pad. Words sing to me, and I am a devotee of their songs. It is the singing power of words that enabled me to articulate what it means for me to move from being a black person living in the South to being a Black Southerner. The words sang a song of family history, one rooted in Deep South Alabama, and they dared me to claim that history in spite of Alabama’s uncomplimentary history in race relations. Words sing to me in my study, elsewhere in my home, or when I’m a long way from home. They always let me know that I have Alabama in my bones.

On one of the few vacations I’ve given myself, I traveled to Guadeloupe in 1993 with Citizens for International Understanding. There, on a boat between a larger island and a smaller one, I came up with the title for a book project. “This Disease Called Strength,” I called it, and I wrote that phrase on my passenger ticket. It was intended to examine literary portrayals of the almost superhuman qualities of strength in black female characters, and it was inspired by my meditation upon my mother’s labor as a domestic worker in Tuscaloosa and Greene counties, Alabama. Eventually, “This Disease Called Strength” morphed into Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature, which Palgrave published in 2002.

Informed by my growing up in Greene County and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ideas come to me in various places and spaces, and I usually don’t need a “room of my own” to be creative. I compose in the shower, when I’m riding exercise bikes at the YMCA, when I’m out walking, when I’m stuck in traffic, just before I fall asleep at night, and a host of other spaces and conditions. My living room and kitchen join the parade of spaces that inspire creativity, for my mind can drift from boring television shows to the excitement of new mental exploration, and, unless I am reading the newspaper or something else at the breakfast table, I find that space particularly conducive to new ideas and to new approaches to evolving ideas.

Outside the arena of my personal senses of space, I bow to the fact that I live in Tuscaloosa, in the state of Alabama, and that a large portion of my creativity has been bound up with that particular space. My memoir, Summer Snow: Reflections from the Black Daughter of the South, would not exist if it were not for Tuscaloosa. I, like many Southerners, identify with and allow various territories south of the Mason-Dixon line to define—at least partially—who we are and how we perceive the world. We celebrate certain sites as places of family origin, and we honor other sites, such as homeplaces and cemeteries, as places of family memory. We cherish land—terra firma—and credit it with inspiring our creative imaginations, and we become possessive when others malign or under-appreciate our precious spaces. I write in Summer Snow about my annoyance with persons outside the South who, over the years, wanted to sympathize with me because I was born and bred in the South, a condition that they considered primitive, bordering on the repulsive.

I join Langston Hughes when he asserts in his poem “One-Way Ticket,” “I pick up my life/ And take it with me.” So, Tuscaloosa, Alabama has gone with me to Harvard, to Italy and the Bellagio Center owned by the Rockefeller Foundation, to Spain (my favorite of all countries to visit), and to the other twenty-one countries and forty-five states with which I have notched my travel belt. In 1981, I was selected to become a Fellow at the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe and Harvard. I joined forty-one other women in a space that Anne Sexton had made famous for having taken her Bunting stipend and spent it on a swimming pool. There, in the hallowed halls of Harvard, I concluded that the atmosphere was just too much un-like home. My mental Tuscaloosa, therefore, was my balm against elitism, against the parade of academics who would have given their children to be on the faculty at Harvard, and against the hordes of Harvard terminal degree holders who worked as dorm masters or held other positions on campus for which they were eminently over-qualified—just so they could say that they were a part of Harvard and the mystique that it engendered in such devotees.

Me? Well, I just considered myself an out-of-place cotton picker who looked forward to returning to the South as soon as my two fellowship years ended. My longing for home intensified as snow storms dropped six to eight inches in the wee hours of winter mornings, and there was no relief for days. So, in the midst of that un-inviting environment, the city of Tuscaloosa, the state of Alabama, and the region of the South served as my warm spots. I even took to writing poetry about my longing for these southern spaces. On February 25, 1982, I penned the following, entitled “Irony”:

Who would have thought that a cotton-picking,
Watermelon-eating colored girl from Alabama
Would one day become a Ph.D. and a ‘fessor,
And sit in the hallowed halls of Harvard
Wishing for the sight of cotton and the taste of watermelon?

In the frozen North on March 3, 1982, I remembered and wrote about an aunt who lived across the street when I was growing up in Tuscaloosa. It’s titled “Aun’ Nance Ann”:

She would lean across her porch railing
And cry out to me,
“Sit according to your family”
When she found me gap-legged,
Carelessly sprawled,
Flaunting nature in her face.
Of course I was too young
To know what she meant,
Or to care overly much.
But, through high school and college,
And Grad school,
Through six years in one job
And three years in another,
Through travel to many states
And several foreign countries,
My distant aunt’s notion of family
Echoed in my mind,
Like the sound of a good morning holler
Chasing itself
Over the cotton fields of Alabama.

I liked the directive “Sit according to your family” so much that it eventually made its way into Summer Snow.

I guess March 3, 1982 in Cambridge, Massachusetts was kind of a down day for me, because I also wrote this:

Growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama meant
Picking cotton for three cent a pound in the fifties,
Watching police chase drunk drivers down gravel roads and praying more speed to the drunks,
Having a nine-year-old neighbor who thought washing collard greens meant using Octagon soap,
Babysitting for white women whose husbands actually drove you home without making passes,
Going to the neighborhood store six times a day for everything from loose cigarettes to kerosene,
Walking barefoot in the summer and not getting hook worm,
Finding shade under the rear of a house which hunched forward like an aging witch,
Picking beans and potatoes and squash when your friends were playing games,
Cutting grass and accidentally hitting your baby brother with a sling blade when you wanted to show the boys next door what an amazon you were,
Listening to blues on sunny Saturday afternoons and hearing the lonesome sound of train whistles in the lyrics,
Being forced to wear high-top black “buddies” to school the one day you had to stand on a chair and decorate the bulletin board,
Seeing a Goodfellow truck pull up to your door on Christmas Eve and realizing they had not made a mistake,
Being aware of poverty and lacks but knowing the treasures of mind, reputation and imagination were most valuable of all.

I share this not in some vain attempt to validate myself as a poet, which I decidedly am not, but because many of these ideas and reflections made their way into Summer Snow. Interestingly, I did not review these poems before composing Summer Snow back in 2001. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve looked at this work more than once or twice in the thirty years since leaving Harvard. The point is that my southern spaces and experiences occupied my head and made it impossible for me ever to be transformed into a dysfunctional northerner.

At the Bellagio Center in Italy in 1994, I reflected upon Alabama and Tuscaloosa as I drafted a book about porch sitting and storytelling. That volume, The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller’s Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan, appeared from the University of Georgia Press in 1996. Prior to publication, I had presented the chapters as the Lamar Memorial Lectures at Mercer University. Focusing on southern porches and the power of storytelling from a literary perspective led me back to Tuscaloosa and the porches that I had sat, listened, and learned on as a child. In Bellagio, therefore, I conceived and completed the essay titled “Porch Sitting as a Creative Southern Tradition,” which is one of the chapters in Summer Snow. Tuscaloosa and southern traditions kept me mental and creative company in Italy, and I have since had countless occasions on which to remember that transplantation of space as I have read from that volume.

In another essay, I want readers to transition from the sweetness of the porch to seeing the invasion that I described in “Would you go out with a white boy for five dollars?” I want you, the reader, to see me, a twelve-year-old black girl in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, walking home from an elementary school PTA meeting. I want you to see the car driven by a young white man come alongside me, and I want you to hear his question, “Would you go out with a white boy for five dollars?” I want you to see the privilege that he had by feeling free to drive into a black neighborhood in the early 1960s and extend that invitation. But I don’t want you to back away from what that encounter suggests. While I quickly responded “No” to his question, that is not where I want readers to pause. I want you to deviate from the usual pattern of contemplating race relations—that is, by mostly being silent—by reflecting at length upon the history and pattern of interaction that led to that encounter. I want you to think about black girls and women being at the sexual mercy of white men in the South. I want you to stare that monster down and understand what it means even today in thinking of mixed race children, or of stereotyping black women as overly sexually active, or of suggesting that white men came into black neighborhoods because black women encouraged them to do so.

I want readers to realize that black women were indeed victims in most of the instances of sexual exchange between white males and black females in the South, from slavery through the 20th century and perhaps even into the 21st century. As a twelve-year-old, I barely knew what sex was, let alone had the ability to tempt a white guy in that way. Before we can ever truly understand how blacks and whites interacted in the South and what we need to do to achieve the true integration that we have not yet achieved, there has to be some truth-telling. Part of that truth-telling is that, yes, indeed, white men found black women sexually attractive, pursued them in clandestine as well as open ways, mostly exploited them, and sometimes prized them. It would help us to understand better black middle class cultures throughout the South, many of which are based on the skin color donated by white males through black women. It would help us to understand better the quadroon balls that occurred in places such as Louisiana, or the tradition of placage that developed between white males and white/black women in which lighter skinned black women legally classified as black formed romantic partnerships with white men, were given homes and were well taken care of, as were any children born to these exchanges. It would perhaps help us to understand the category listed as “mixed race” that is currently all the rage in our society. As far as I can tell, just about all Americans are mixed race, and especially is that true of those of us born, bred, and living in the South.

In the fall of 2003, Summer Snow was selected to inaugurate the One-Book, One-Community Reading Program in Orange County, North Carolina. Community members were given until April of 2004 to complete their readings, and then a series of community discussion sessions were scheduled. I attended many of those, including one for a neighborhood reading group. I spent more than two hours in a session with mostly white Southern readers, a couple of Europeans, and a couple from Jamaica. Of all the material in the book, they were most interested in discussing hair. I had discovered quite some time ago that the essay titled “The Ubiquitous Hair” was a point of entry for lots of non-black people in discussing Summer Snow. So I commented on black hair care, the politics of black hair, and the intragroup responses to various hairstyles. Finally, it came. One white woman in the group asked if she could touch my locks (I had dreadlocks about 15 inches long at that time). Now, if you’re going to put an essay on the reading market that can provide one of the points of entry to discussions across racial lines, you can’t say no. So, right there in the meeting, this woman came over and played with my hair. At least she asked. Several folks have just sneakily grabbed a lock and felt it, including a woman at a conference I attended in 2001. The problem was that I moved while she was holding the lock, so I became aware of what was happening. It turns out that it was someone I had known for years, someone who was just curious about black hair.

Curiosity. Black and white folks in the South and elsewhere have been curious about each other for hundreds of years, but they seldom have opportunities to satisfy that curiosity. If Summer Snow enables some readers to do that, then let the prose sing its songs to them.

We’ve also been curious about each other’s religions in the South. In one of the One-Book, One-Community discussion sessions that I attended in Chapel Hill, a white female participant became rhapsodic about her experiences in a black church. As she went on and on about the music, the preaching, and the great interactions among black church members, her narrative gave me pause. She ran a risk, I cautioned, of romanticizing black church experience. She was not taking into consideration the depth of potential disagreements and other problematic interactions that might occur in such churches. I, on the other hand, related my feelings about white churches when I was growing up in Tuscaloosa. I was convinced, I told this audience, that white people did not/could not believe in God. They could not possibly serve the same God we black folks did and treat us the way they did. After all, if the ancestors of these white folks had used religion to justify enslaving black people, how could they possibly be doing the same thing in church that we were doing on Sunday morning, that is, praising God? So I grew up being really curious about what they did in their huge church structures on Sunday morning. I didn’t get an answer for the longest time because I did not venture inside one of those churches. The first time I actually attended a “white” church was as an adult and with a friend. I was amazed that, in Sunday School, these folks were discussing literary works instead of the Bible. But, hey, at least it was a glimpse at the other side.

In my own church in Tuscaloosa, we were busily singing, praying, and worshipping God as best we knew how. And that provided moments of reflection for me as well. I remember church and church membership as forms of initiation. You were a sinner as long as you were out of the church, and you were saved when you rose up from the mourners bench some revival night, told your “travels,” and declared that you believed in God and had been saved. I wanted readers to relate to that insider/outsider experience in the way that Langston Hughes recounts a similar experience of leaving the mourners bench and becoming a member of the church.

And I want readers to understand the extent to which church was a social institution in African American communities in the Deep South. I joined the choir and sang in it—even though I can’t carry a tune in two buckets—because it gave me the opportunity to be out of the house with my neighborhood buddies when we went to choir rehearsal or traveled with the group. And to debunk the stereotype that all black folks can sing, I wanted to recount an incident in which black folks were hard on black folks because they couldn’t sing, which is what I do in “Make A Joyful Noise.”

To show that there can be humor in the church as well as the seriousness that my group discussion participant observed, I recalled an incident in which singing provided the basis for humor:

“‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.’ In the kind of democratic churches in which I grew up, injunctions such as this were easy to follow. This one means that, in church on Sunday morning, you should holler at the top of your voice—whether you have a recognized singing voice or not. People were kind and overlooked your screeching, because they never did know whether they were standing next to someone who was truly in the spirit, or if they were harboring the next Aretha Franklin. So, some folks sang and everybody else hollered. We liked to think of it as being in that great African tradition in which it is believed that everyone who has a voice can sing. No Juilliard School of Music. No singing at the Met. Just folks, down home, singing for the sake of praising the Lord.

Some of my earliest exposures to making joyful noises were the songs with which the church deacons would begin each Sunday's worship. One of them would sing the first line of a song by himself, rather rapidly, then the others and the entire congregation would join in singing the same line at a tremendously slower pace. This was called lining out hymns and apparently emerged from the period in which songbooks were not readily available. A song leader would therefore 'line out' the song line by line or verse by verse. 'Shall I be carried to the sky on flowery beds of ease? No, there’s a cross for every one, and there’s a cross for me.' Many of the songs so lined out were referred to as 'old Dr. Watts,' after one of the most famous songwriters. Indeed, the deacon who lined out the song might hold a tiny book (no more than two inches square) to which he glanced occasionally as he sang through the lines and verses.

When I was old enough to try to participate in this process, I had two problems. First, I could barely understand what the solo singer was saying; cadence and pacing were challenging to say the least. Second, the slower pace of the congregational response to the lined-out line was even more challenging. I always seemed to be a phrase or word ahead of where they were. I began to feel that this was some kind of fraternity into which I would never gain entry (and the secret-looking little book didn’t help). It wouldn’t do to ask somebody what people were singing when—that would be admitting that you were somehow not of the fold. I was well into my teens before I could hear and sing those songs correctly.

You could move from that mass of congregational singing on Sundays to the select groups of the various choirs. It was still a matter of singing or hollering. I liked going to church and participating in all its activities, so I joined the junior choir shortly after I was baptized at thirteen. Baptism occurred after I had graduated, so to speak, from the mourner’s bench, that first pew in the front of the church to which non-members are encouraged to go during revival meetings. From Sunday through Friday night a visiting minister would preach his heart out in an effort to get young folks to come into the fold of the church. I got up from the mourner’s bench on a Thursday evening in September 1961. I didn’t see a great vision or encounter a Jesus who lifted burdens from my back, but I did feel as if I could live within the strictures of the church. Besides, it provided the opportunity for me to join the choir.

Let me be clear. The fact that some of us hollered was no fault of our musical director. She was a talented and devoted musician who did the best she could with the lesser talented and far less devoted twelve-to-eighteen-year-olds over whom she presided. As far as directing goes, Mrs. Brown directed her heart out and, in that great tradition of younger choirs that grace so many African American churches, we sang our hearts out—as best as talent and immaturity would allow. We were challenged to learn new songs, and we did. And we sang them with great gusto.

Of the fifteen or so of us who made up the junior choir, I was the only participant from my family (my siblings didn’t even pretend they could sing). The Cannons, however, would have five or six of their stair-step daughters singing in the choir at any given time. Polite and well-mannered, these girls could at least carry a tune. Their problem, therefore, was not lack of talent. It was giggling. One or the other of them was liable to start giggling—sometimes with good reason and sometimes just for the heck of it—in the middle of a song in church on Sunday morning. If the offending one were lucky, she could get back into serious singing after a few titters. Mostly, they were lucky. Then came a fateful Sunday.

We had prepared for that Sunday by learning a new song. It was fast-paced and, when learned, brought that surprise of accomplishment that follows reciting a complicated tongue-twisting rhyme four or five times in succession. The words and phrases were simple; the trick was to remember to put them in the right order. It was an old spiritual about how the newly converted feel after their transformation is completed through baptism:

Ducked in the water
Come up shouting
No more doubting
He will hear us
And be near us
We’ll be given
Bread from Heaven
He will feed us
Until we want no more

Simple enough. Unless you got the lines out of order and threw somebody off. The singing was so fast that it would be difficult to recover. Anyhow, Joan Cannon forgot some of the words and started saying things like “peas and cornbread/ taters and maters” (potatoes and tomatoes) and practically turned the choir out. Although most of us contained ourselves and kept on singing at this break-neck, breathless pace, Joan’s sister April couldn’t control her giggling and burst out laughing. Right in the middle of what was supposed to be an uplifting praise song. There she was, cracking up while standing up, then sitting down in the middle of the song, and continuing to laugh uncontrollably. It was, in the vernacular of the day, 'a scanless.' And Mrs. Cannon was indeed scandalized.

It’s hard to apologize for bursting into laughter during church service, especially when you are in the middle of singing one of 'the songs of Zion.' Mrs. Cannon grounded April for a week and refused to let her sing in the choir for the next two months. Poor April was so tickled by it all that she could never get in the proper frame of mind to feel as if she were being punished. (But then, how does one punish someone for being, as they determine it, 'disrespectful' to God? After all, couldn’t laughter be considered one of the 'joyful noises' that God might find pleasing?) All anybody had to do to get April laughing again for the next several weeks would be to mention those 'taters and maters.'" (Summer Snow, pp.74-79)

I also wanted the words in Summer Snow to sing a song of common humanity in other arenas, and, since the book is really my mother’s book, I focused on her six years in a nursing home in order to make that point. It was fascinating for me to visit my mother in that facility. It was an integrated nursing home housing 260 clients, most of them white. Most of the direct care workers, however, were African American. Over the years, I saw racism raise its ugly head as elderly white men and women cursed out the young black women who were insisting that they take baths, or eat their meals, or refrain from some disturbing behavior. It is a noteworthy observation when someone who has been raised in a prejudiced, segregated society all of a sudden finds himself or herself in the care of someone upon whom he or she has looked down for decades.

On the other hand, there were a couple of white direct care workers who assisted my mother on occasions in that environment, and they were absolutely wonderful with her, just as wonderful, in fact, as the young black women who thought of themselves as my mother’s grandchildren. Anyone who has had a relative housed in a nursing home can identify with the plights of persons so institutionalized, and perhaps Summer Snow goes a small way in encouraging those individuals to be more watchful of those relatives. Care may be provided, but it is more consistently provided if watchful eyes keep tabs on the elderly.

We will mostly grow old and become elderly. We will—or are already—in need of someone to provide some kind of assistance for us. We will, if we live long enough, perhaps experience the depression of aging that a friendly face or word can alleviate. So, while I sang the blues in that essay on the nursing home, I did so with the understanding that the blues can, at any minute, be transformed into a rousing gospel song. That gospel of understanding is the song for which I strive.

I am asked, again and again, before folks have had the chance to read the last chapter, why my memoir is entitled Summer Snow. Well, I say, it’s about being black in the South. Lots of black folks lived and live in the South, but throughout the history of their presence, not many of them claimed being Southerners. It’s sort of like being a Baptist in Alabama as opposed to being a Southern Baptist in Alabama. So, for black folks to claim Southernness, I argue, is about as rare as snow falling in Tuscaloosa during dog days—thus Summer Snow. I am a Southerner; I claim Southernness. As I have explained again and again, that does not mean that I am going to go out and participate in Civil War re-enactments. Nor does it mean that I approve of the Confederate flag flying in various places in the South. It does, however, mean that I like living south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River. It means that I defend the South against outsiders who want to make it and Southerners look like we’re the worst part of the country. And it means that, when I retired, I returned to Alabama instead of moving to Arizona or Florida. It’s also about comfort levels. Again and again, I find that I don’t want to freeze my butt off in Chicago or New York, or deal with the pristine, static beauty of California.

Generally, I can say that, throughout my career, no matter where I have lived, the city of Tuscaloosa, the state of Alabama, and the region of the South have informed what I have written and what I have done, whether that was in Spain over the several years that I have traveled there, in Brazil in 1995 and again in 1999, in South Africa for a semester in 2006, in Atlanta for three years between 1993 and 1996, or in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for almost thirty years until I returned to Tuscaloosa in 2009.

Now, the state of Alabama and the South inform my writing yet again in my latest book manuscript. This is a project that I started more than ten years ago, when I was still in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, in the fall of 2000, I taught a seminar to first-year students on Martin Luther King’s influence on African American literature. The neophyte students were a couple of generations removed from Civil Rights activity, and they were mostly without substantive knowledge of the period. So, we set out to explore everything we could about King, the sixties, and African American literature. We read Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years. We divided into groups that did a variety of things. Some focused on Chapel Hill and the archives of Civil Rights activity there. Others focused on the music of the period and created websites and produced CDs containing some of that music. Others dramatized events of the movement and made films of their dramatizations. There were also projects on the women of the Civil Rights movement and, of course, how African American writers had portrayed King and the movement in literature. I deemed the latter explorations rich enough to shape a larger, book-length project. I was especially drawn to the fact that, though King was born in Atlanta, most of his significant early Civil Rights victories occurred in Alabama. Those included the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the marches in Selma, and the Birmingham campaign. His iconic epiphany, to which his biographers refer again and again, occurred in the kitchen of his home in Montgomery early in 1955 (when King believed that God told him that He would always be with him). It is striking that none of King’s major Civil Rights victories took place in his home state of Georgia; indeed, one of his major embarrassments was the Albany campaign.

So, just as Alabama dominated with King in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps it is appropriate that a scholar from Alabama should focus on King in the second decade of the twenty-first century to unearth the extent to which he is incorporated, rejected, conceptualized, re-conceptualized, reified, or iconic in African American literature. Charles Johnson, prize-winning author of the novel Dreamer (1998), which is about King and a King doppelganger, wrote a short story about King in Montgomery. It is titled “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” and uses King’s late-night exploration of the contents of his refrigerator to examine King’s philosophy of the interconnectedness of all human beings.

I will put the finishing touches on that book manuscript this summer. It is titled Martin Luther King, Jr.: Heroism, and African American Literature, and it seems appropriate that I am finishing it up on Alabama soil, the territory that has meant so much to Dr. King and me. Just as he found his call to destiny in Montgomery, I found my calling shortly after exiting the cotton fields in Greene County, Alabama. Although I could barely tell you what the cotton planting and picking season is these days, my family history and experiences in a culture that had Alabama agriculture as its backdrop have shaped me into the human being I am today. I am a Southerner in spite of myself, and no matter where I have traveled or what I have encountered, I always wend my way, imaginatively, back to the territory of my birth.

Words sing to me, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the South are their muses. Always, I am responsive to the tunes they want me to create. It is the singing power of words that enabled me to articulate what it means for me to move from being a black person living in the South to being a Black Southerner. It is the singing power of words that keeps me engaged as a scholar, teacher, and writer. As long as the words sing their Southern tunes, I will happily be the instrument upon which they can shape their bluesy, “Bama” songs.

(Photo by Dan Sears-University of North Carolina News Service)

Trudier Harris delivered this lecture on May 15, 2013, the National Press Club in Washington as part of American Women Writer’s National Museum's 50-state project to showcase women writers from each state.