The Deep South is no stranger to ambivalence, or outright paradoxical heritages. Selma this weekend was no exception. The setting was so inseparably, almost seamlessly, American and Black in culture. Fitting, as Blackness and the American story are so deeply intertwined into each other’s DNA for better and for worse. I am the son of a black creole woman from New Orleans with a matrilineal line that reaches back to long before antebellum times and a black father whose Florida family has continued to spawn across the country from its old farming roots. I had the privilege and pleasure of a childhood in New Orleans as sweet and multilayered as our king cakes during carnival season. As I grew into a young man I had the benefit of being judged by the content of my character first – though like any black man in Louisiana, my skin color was a close second that always influenced first impressions.
An identity at the intersection of proud black man and proud American has made me a devoted but ambivalent, analytical citizen. Now, a 20 year-old journalist covering Selma, as i wrapped up interviews and the sun began to set, the crowds loosened. I took the chance to make my own walk across the bridge. I saw two black women, on the other side of middle-age, alongside me, both pridefully smiling and girlishly snickering to their right at the sight of three black teens taking pictures (including a silly one with bunny ears and wacky smiles) with Alabama state troopers. The irony and the beauty of progress, ain’t it?
The image mirrored transcendence as Selma defied the vanilla platitudes that so often consume those American celebrations long on pledges of patriotism and exceptionalism, yet lacking in either original insight, remarkability, or both. Despite the best efforts of speechwriters and the most charismatic political actors, America’s greatness is often invoked in such blandly abstract terms. We are all familiar with the jaded truisms offered at fundraisers and rallies: the hard-working single mom and the ode to the old reliable, stoic farmer. Of course, these people exist, are great citizens, and their recognition is deserved, but there are single moms and farmers in every country. Our ability to live, breathe, and celebrate among remnants of the horror of our history then stand above it is incredible. In that regard, the scene in downtown Selma this weekend was an aberration and a palpable illustration of the nation’s ability to transfigure.
The narrative was a story of redemption from state-sanctioned racial hate. In 1965, a group of over 600 marchers led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King crossed the Alabama River via the Edmund Pettus bridge, named after a KKK grand wizard. Due to its high arc, at the foot of the bridge, no one can see the other side. In spite of the unknown, the marchers, well aware of the animosity surrounding their efforts expected resistance and emboldened by their righteous cause walked up regardless. They would be met by Alabama state troopers, and their sticks, and their fists, and their guns. The world whose eyes were opened by the footage would come to call it ‘Bloody Sunday.’ The appalling government-backed beating and refusal of basic rights will forever mark the ugliest side of America. Yet, in the very same place, 50 years on, whites and blacks alike locked arms, crossed the bridge still bearing the same name, and came back to a jubilee.
Black people of every shade, white folks of every age, Asians and Latinos from coast to coast formed a beautifully simultaneous fusion of protest and celebration on Broad Street.
Pride in progress tempered with an admittance of how much further the nation has to go echoed from President Obama’s speech to the thousands his presence drew into attendance. There were hands in conflict with the need to lift one up and rejoice for the gains that have been made while keeping the other one– not holding a beer or pulled pork sandwich – pounding away and demanding redress of the injustices that persist: Ferguson or Madison or Cleveland or the Supreme Court ruling that stripped away provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
People posted lawn chairs, food tents, food trucks, and assembled impromptu flea markets along the curbs of downtown. Others sipped beers and conversed atop the second floors of old rusting, storefront balconies. In the middle of the street, bands of citizens waded patiently for their turn to cross the bridge. People prayed, did call and response chants; crowds gathered around soap-box speakers making calls to action with megaphones in hand; and herds in solidarity with the NAACP marched in step with Rev. Jesse Jackson as he came to pay his respects and make his trek across the Edmund Pettus.
A group of college kids and youth theater students, black, white, Asian and Latino, led by the Center for Leadership and Social Change, danced catchy choreographed routines to pop singles with positive messages. On one corner, an uncle and his baby nephew advertised the uncle’s memorial paintings of moments of black achievements and leaders.
Signs with simple, powerful messages like ‘Erase the Hate’ and ‘Unite’ and the increasingly ubiquitous ‘Black Lives Matter’ wobbled up and down in the hands of peaceful protesters like choppy sea waves. Children frolicked, danced, ate cotton candy and played tag as if they were at carnival.
Locals sold everything from sneakers, memorial shirts, natural-hair care products, bootleg CDs and DVDs, chicken on a stick, glow sticks, and mostly anything in between. More than 40% of Selman families and 67% of children in the county live below the poverty line. Considering those statistics, the brilliant bustle in the streets seemed less celebratory and more out of necessity. A commemorative block-party in conjunction with an opportunistic commemorative tourism that is the essence of the american hustle and spirit.
As could be expected in Alabama, the deliciously sweet stench of barbecue simmered past everyone’s nostrils throughout the sunny weekend. The sound of old school R&B rang smoothly through the early spring air – not indulgently but politely bumping in the background – as if vendors shared the feeling that the underlying solemnity of the occasion should not be overshadowed by fun.
After attendees took in the last glimpses of sunlight striking the currents of the Alabama River, the same currents that carried away trace spills of the marchers’ blood half a century ago, night fell. Crowds dispersed and so my job was done. I took the scenic route out of town, which took me through the residential heart of Selma. For all the positivity, a common theme I heard from residents was how much has and hasn’t changed here.
Repair and reconciliation is the narrative that we want. It’s the bedtime story we as Americans would like to read to ourselves so that as a society we can sleep better at night. Justice, equality, and peace are restful pleasant thoughts. Yet, the evidence of the continued socioeconomic inequality as one drives through Selma remains ripe. Dallas County, of which Selma is the county seat, was the poorest county in Alabama last year. Selma has an unemployment rate of 10.2%; the national rate is 5.5%. Black areas of town especially, are dotted with dilapidation. Burnt out stores and boarded up abandoned houses are surrounded by the low-quality commerce. Though the commemoration was ending today, this poverty would be there tomorrow, and the next day.
As the other cars headed outbound on MLK Street turned separate ways and traffic opened up, the streetlights flickered on and I remembered Dr. King’s simple, insightful words spoken during his final ‘Mountaintop’ address: “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” Straight ahead at the last light before the railroad tracks, there was a neighborhood cookout and basketball tourney behind the corner at the intersection of Martin Luther King Street and Jefferson Davis Avenue – coincidence or not, how poignantly poetic and representative of the tapestry of the American racial struggle with which we still grapple.