One of the most enlightening conversations I had in college happened with a friend of mine who went to Spelman College and is from Nigeria. We were out at IHOP (I think; probably a safe assumption because we pretty much lived at IHOP), and she was telling a few of us about her preconceived notions about America and African Americans in particular because of the media she consumed before getting to Atlanta for college.
Not surprisingly, most of her beliefs tended to skew toward American black people being cool but violent. She was glad to be wrong about a lot of what she thought before coming to America, but that conversation always stuck with me. It has to be all types of nerve-racking to come to a new place, let alone a new country, where the only real “knowledge” you have is what you’ve seen on television, heard in songs, read in books, or heard people express through second- and thirdhand experience.
My girlfriend was born in Ivory Coast and raised in Accra, Ghana. She moved to America—to New Jersey—when she was 11 and graduated from Howard University, in Washington, D.C. Throughout her life, to this point, she’d been “South” twice, to Miami and New Orleans (hence the asterisk in the title).
Last week, I took her to north Alabama. It’s just ... different.
I thought about that conversation I had with my Nigerian friend about America and realized that for people who have never been down to the Confederate-flag South (like my girlfriend), it can make them a bit anxious. Hell, I remember the first time I went to Mississippi; I felt some kind of way EVEN THOUGH I WAS COMING FROM ALABAMA. I think I saw Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill one too many times. Obviously, I got over it pretty quickly, but I remember a hint of nervousness. I was going to Mississippi, after all, and in my head, racism came there to get a beer after work. Again, ridiculous considering that I got my formal high school education in Alabama.
Well, my girlfriend DIDN’T go to school in Alabama and was every bit as nervous and concerned about making this trip to a place where all the racists dwell; and considering the climate in America today, I can’t say I don’t understand the hesitation. We’d just seen a bunch of white folks from various Southern places marching on Charlottesville, Va., acting a plum fool. And the history of the South isn’t exactly one of welcome and pleasantness for black folks, ya know, with slavery and all. A foreigner JUST might think that the South (with the exception of Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans—places we go to party and where the Super Bowl can reasonably be held) is basically a place you AVOID at all costs.
It’s about a 12-hour drive from D.C. to where my parents live in Madison, Ala. (a suburb of Huntsville, home of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and Space Camp; metro-area population just under 450,000), and that includes driving mostly through non-Northern Virginia Virginia, Tennessee and, of course, Alabama. We stopped at a few rest stops, somewhere along the Interstate 81 corridor in Virginia, and she was immediately on edge.
See, there were throngs of white people around. Now, I’m a Southerner. White Southerners don’t bother me; we kind of just do our thing separately at times. Plus, it’s a rest stop; folks are resting. She, though, was nervous, and of course, because God has a sense of humor, some folks with Confederate shirts, hats and license plates rolled up.
Again, I’m used to it. I went to high school with folks who wore those shirts and hats to class. But she’s from the Motherland, and woke, and up on current events. To her, none of those white people were to be trusted or spoken to. Except, interestingly, even white racists can still be polite. I had several conversations with folks on the way down—short ones, but I mean, I talk to everybody. I talked about the weather with one chap on a motorcycle who I’m pretty sure had some Southern-heritage marker on his shirt, and another because he saw my D.C. license plates and wanted to talk about the chaos on Capitol Hill. Both times, my girl wondered what they could possibly want; I informed her that we’re just polite down South.
Once we reached Alabama, the shenanigans continued to ensue. She was very excited to go to Publix and Kroger, two places I’ve never, ever been excited to go to in my own life, but ya know, perspective. Funny enough, while walking into Publix, she saw a woman walking out with a shirt that said, “Down With ’Bama” (one of those terrible Auburn fans), and she said, “What a way to walk into Publix,” thinking the shirt said, “Down With Obama.” Northerners.
I gave her a tour of Huntsville (and discovered that there’s a Huntsville Museum of Art), and we accidentally drove right through a rally. I only noticed this because I saw a bunch of fellows holding up Confederate flags and standing on one side of the road. Turns out, there’s a statue of a racist in Huntsville (ZOMG! HOW!?!?!?) and folks want to take it down. So that was fun. On her very first trip to Alabama, she managed to see the kind of stuff we’ve been seeing on television lately.
Granted, it’s Huntsville, so the rally was pretty tame and polite. Huntsville is the most educated part of the state of Alabama, so the fury and rage tend not to be on a hundred, thousand, trillion. It’s hard to do when you’d rather be at a Starbucks, sipping a latte and watching the NASA channel (which is a thing).
She didn’t get to see any cotton fields (not enough time) and did keep asking about seeing a plantation, which I’m pretty sure no American black person ever actively looks to do. Also, I literally have no idea where any plantations are near Huntsville. Because plantation. She remarked about how much land folks have. The heat was on extra-oppressive status, so that was a thing, though fairly normal, in my estimation, since the humidity in D.C. is at Southern levels.
She did enjoy the politeness of the people, though I imagine it would take some time getting used to people speaking to you all the time and not wanting anything from you.
All in all, while I’m sure her perception of the South did not change too much—we definitely saw a ton of Confederate flags all over, which would take anybody a while to get used to—I’d guess that she won’t be afraid of being there anymore. The South, and Huntsville in particular, is actually a pretty nice place, with friendly folks who smile in public.
Did the South win her over? Probably not. But she might be ready to make that trip more often.