Sweet Home Alabama?

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I have a complicated relationship with Alabama because Alabama is a complicated place. Though I’ve lived less time there than anywhere else in the world that could be considered home (fall of 1993 through spring 1997 and only two summers, ever), it is also the state where I went to high school and where my parents live and where my father is from. I love driving from Atlanta (another location that is home for similar life and family reasons) to Huntsville, Ala., because the route my family often takes is very scenic and because I love seeing the “Alabama the Beautiful” sign as you cross from Menlo, Ga., into Mentone, Ala., on Georgia State Road 48 that becomes Alabama State Road 117. Alabama, actually, is quite beautiful.


But the state isn’t just its lands; it is also its people and its history, and Alabama is a state fraught with the worst of both. When outsiders think of Alabama, many think of racist white people, slavery and all-around, good ‘ol American racism, and they aren’t entirely wrong. I lived in northern Alabama, home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and less popularly known Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research park in America (and the fourth largest in the world), specializing in research and development in a vast array of industries, from aerospace to biotechnology. It is by far the most educated part of the state and no other part comes close and yet, Confederate flags are never far away and cotton fields decorate the fringes of the city. Huntsville is still in Alabama, even if it doesn’t have the same “feel” as what people think of the rest of the state.

Still, I like it there. I like being at my parents’ house and listening to the outdoors. They don’t live in the red-clay outdoors of my father’s youth but in a city that still manages to quiet down in the evenings. I love visiting my father’s childhood town, where I used to play with my cousins and walk for miles a day just to go get something from the actual, factual country store, just to walk miles back to the house because we had nothing else to do and all of our time was ours.


Time has always moved slower in Alabama to me, no matter what part of the state I’ve been in. And that’s always been a good thing. My family is all through the state, from the north to the south, the east to the west. We are Alabama, but the good parts. Not the parts that hate black people and bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham or the reason Montgomery had to hold a bus boycott or Bull Connor and his ilk or the people who made Bloody Sunday a part of civil rights history in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

And we’re definitely not the people from Alabama who decided that a woman has no right to her own body. I’m not surprised that Alabama passed into law HB 314, the “Human Life Protection Act,” a measure banning nearly all abortions in the state except in cases where the mother’s health is in peril. The super conservative government of the state wants to take down Roe v. Wade because why should a woman make a decision for her own life? I’m not surprised the state of Alabama is happy to take on that battle.

This is a state where judges (and future state chief justices) fight for the right to post the 10 Commandments in courtrooms despite the separation of church and state being a tenet of the very Constitution white people love so much. The right to bear arms? Absolutely! It’s in the Constitution. The stewards of government respecting the rights of its citizenry? Eh...as long as it doesn’t impede on the desires of those stewards. In Alabama, Jesus is white, the only religion is Christianity, and we’re all Baptists or Methodists. And the Bible says thou shalt not kill. So you shalt not—unless the people you kill don’t deserve the same rights you have, which is almost nobody but white men in power, apparently. In Alabama, the female governor signed away her own right to choose her own destiny. In Alabama, who is entitled to rights is a moving target for everybody but white men in power. Even the rights of their wives are up for debate.

In Alabama.

My nephew is a junior at the same high school in Madison, Ala., that I graduated from. At this point next year, he’ll be a few weeks away from graduating and beginning a new chapter in his life. I want him so far away from Alabama that he’ll lose his accent. I want him to get out and experience life in new places. He wants to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, and though his top choice, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, has one of the best medical schools in the country, so do others. I’d love for him to go to an HBCU like Morehouse College (for obvious reasons) or Howard University (because it’s in Washington, D.C., where I live). I’ve asked him to research and apply to at least one other top-tier school because his grades are amazing and many of those schools can relieve your whole financial burden pending household income. He’s thinking about Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.


Mostly, though, I just want him to leave Alabama. It’s not only because I want him to experience life; it’s also because I want him to try out a place where the state hasn’t spent its entire existence trying to tell everybody who isn’t a white man that they don’t matter. I know many southern states fit that bill, and even though Georgia isn’t much better (I know), as we say in the A, once you leave Atlanta, you hit Georgia. And he’d be in Atlanta with family. I just want him to be in a place that loves him more than Alabama will ever pretend to. That might not be a totally fair reading of the state, but I’ve read a lot of books and I’m not that far off.

And yet I still have told a family I know who is moving to Huntsville that it’s a nice place, in Alabama. I love the state and always will, but a large part of that love is personal nostalgia and my own family history. It might be Alabama, but to me it is also Tuskegee, Alabama A&M, Miles, Stillman and Oakwood. It is Muscle Shoals. We roll big body ’Lacs and Caprices. And red dirt and Mason jars. And like much of black history in America, it’s full of survival and overcoming injustice. It’s a hotbed of the civil rights movement. It is Chambers County and the town of Five Points, where my family is from. It’s Madison. It’s my best friend and where he met his end, but also his mother and son. It’s my family and the lives they’ve carved out successfully and happily. It’s love. But the hate part is ingrained in the fabric, too.


And again, Alabama is beautiful. I’d wager that all of us from there who have sat on a porch or ruined a white shirt in the red dirt or driven through the state from Huntsville to Mobile would say the same. It’s ours. Even if everybody else thinks Alabama is a place to go and die at the hands of some KKK member, we know that’s not true. We also know that it isn’t a state for everybody, including some of us. It’s not a state for me and hasn’t been in the 22 years since I left. I enjoy visiting but Alabama has often been quite clear that I don’t belong there long term.

Because just as much as I love seeing that “Alabama the Beautiful” sign on the way in, something almost always happens to ensure that I’m equally excited about seeing that Georgia sign on my way out, reminding me that Georgia’s (or anywhere else for that matter) on my mind.


I have a complicated relationship with Alabama because Alabama is a complicated place.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.

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It seems perverse that Huntsville is an oasis of comparative reasonableness in the midst of the rest rest of Alabama, due in large part to the influx of former Nazis (literal ones from WWII Germany, not faux play-acting American ones). Yet, here we are, and so it is.

For those interested in reading more:

We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program by Richard Paul, Steven Moss. I have read this one.

German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era by Monique Laney. I have not yet read this one.