I’m a Southerner. Like most of my fellow military brats, I spent a considerable amount of my youth growing up in Europe (in my case, Frankfurt, Germany), but I was raised by two black Southerners—my father and stepmother—and during the summers, I split time between Michigan (where my birth mother lives; I hate making these distinctions, but it is important for context) and Five Points, Ala., and Atlanta. My familial reference points were largely Southern, and the traditions in which I was raised were all Southern, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
When we moved back to the States for high school, we moved to Madison, Ala. It’s a suburb of Huntsville, a city in northern Alabama, about 100 miles north of Birmingham, and home to NASA’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center and Space Camp. While Huntsville likes to paint itself as being a bit more progressive, it’s still Alabama and still largely white, and that means I grew up with all of the symbolic memorials to the Confederacy, backward Southern ultraconservatism and remnants of slavery. Everybody is nicer down South—I absolutely believe this—but pleasantries are just that. Racism is still alive; they don’t even be concealing it.
I’ve read in a few places where black folks say that we all remember the first time being called a nigger. I actually don’t. And I’m not saying I was called a nigger so frequently that all of the times ran together, but I honestly have no recollection of the first time. Some shit just ... happened sometimes.
I do, however, remember the time that white woman locked her car doors when my best friend and I parked next to her at Madison Square Mall (RIP), EVEN though her windows were rolled down. I do remember being referred to as a “colored” once in Sears. It was nothing to see a Confederate flag on a license plate or T-shirt of a schoolmate. It didn’t set off any alarms or anything.
You know what else I grew up around and honestly NEVER paid one iota of attention to? Cotton fields. We used to drive to Atlanta often to visit family. It’s roughly a three- to three-and-a-half-hour drive from Huntsville, depending on what route you take. We would take Highway 72 through Scottsboro (home of the infamous Scottsboro Boys case), over the mountains through Summerville, Ga., past Rome and onto Interstate 75, 60 miles north of Atlanta. From there it was basically the Atlanta Motor Speedway as we often tried to see just how fast we could cover those 60 miles. My record? Thirty-six minutes.
On the way, and on the outskirts of Huntsville, you pass several cotton fields. “Several” is probably underselling it. If you make a left turn onto Ryland Pike off Highway 72, you will literally be SURROUNDED by cotton fields, the whiteness overtaking you.
In all honesty, it’s rather beautiful. Until recently, I’d never once stopped to even look at them, and I’ve passed them so many times, I didn’t even notice them. My best friend’s mother lives about five minutes from them, and I’d drive there so many times, it’s almost embarrassing that I never noticed. But then again, they’re just part of my youth. I didn’t even notice Confederate flags until I moved north. Down South, they’re just part of the landscape, damn near scenery. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve always found them problematic; I just never thought much of how present they are.
My girlfriend is from Ghana (if you’ll remember). The first time she came to Alabama to visit, she wanted to see a cotton field, but I had no idea where to find one. Seriously. I really had no idea where they were. She also wanted to see a plantation. I imagine this to be some sort of Southern tragic romanticism. I don’t care to ever see a plantation, but for her it was part of the story of black America that wasn’t necessarily her story. The idea of cotton fields and plantations doesn’t carry the same weight of history for her.
This Thanksgiving, her mother and brothers came down to Alabama so we could celebrate the day with all of our families. As it turns out, I had to pick my best friend’s son, my godson, up on Thanksgiving morning to bring to my house, and on my way to pick him up, I saw all these cotton fields that I must have passed hundreds of times but never once noticed. I was dumbfounded at the fact that for so many years I could have missed them. On our way back to Washington, D.C., from Alabama, we made a pit stop so that my girlfriend and her mother could see real, true cotton fields. For me, it was just a field trip of sorts, no pun intended.
But because we took two cars, they were following me and we got separated, so I drove ahead to let them know the exact location and ended up in the middle of what felt like miles and miles of cotton fields. I stopped the car and got out and stared. For the first time, I actually LOOKED at a cotton field. Then I felt the cotton field.
Not to get all super deep, but I envisioned beautiful black people in those fields, forced to withstand the Alabama sun and heat. A wave of sadness came over me. It was amazing how much I could visualize and how it affected me as I just thought over our history. I have no idea whether slaves ever toiled this particular land—there are no plantations near there, as far as I could tell, but it was Alabama and this was cotton. It’s not hard to believe that slaves worked that land.
Cotton, and cotton fields, really are beautiful. It’s this large sea of white that just keeps going. It seems never-ending. And because cotton stalks are short, you can literally see white forever. But it was so hard to look at them objectively. My girlfriend and her mother also took pictures and marveled at it. They both wanted to go touch it. The land was private, and I could see a house close enough for somebody to notice us, so I advised against walking into those folks’ cotton fields. It’s still Alabama; people will shoot.
We drove off and I still kept thinking about those cotton fields. Not about the actual fields so much as how in the world could I live and spend so much time in a place and never notice them. How are some of these symbols so ingrained as part of my experience that they just exist, with all of their historical weight, as a mere backdrop for games of basketball or long walks to the corner store? That’s rather astounding to me. I don’t particularly need to see them again, but as my kids get older, I’ll definitely be taking them to look at them when we’re in Alabama so that they can understand what these fields represent historically.
My father is from Alabama. Born and raised in Five Points (Chambers County). Obviously, at some point in time, people in my family picked cotton. While it’s not those same fields I saw, they were undoubtedly in the fields of central Alabama, as slaves, trying to make it to the next day with God’s grace and mercy.
Those fields made me think of them and my own family history and how important it is to know and understand it. While I poked fun at my African girlfriend’s touristy desire to see two things that most black folks in America don’t ever care to acknowledge, looking over the vast whiteness did add to my appreciation for my ancestors. For the first time, I paid attention to cotton, and thought about my family history and how far we’ve come, while realizing that those fields represent how far we still have to go.
Home can be a very hard reminder. In Alabama.