I Have Been Alabama
Copyright © by Jason Sanford, 6/12/03
I have been Alabama--growing up alone, angry, while the world asks what the hell is wrong with me. When people ask what I am--if there's any need to ask, since most only see the white man they've been programmed to see--there's no answer I want to give.
Stereotype time: I was born in Alabama in the early '70s. My family lived at the end of a mile-long dirt road in a green doublewide trailer. As children, my brother and I chased each other across cotton fields. I learned to shoot a rifle at age five. When I tell people outside the south these facts, there is such irony on their faces, such twisted smirks of, "You must be joking."
Truth: I don't remember the "Negroes only" and "Whites only" signs swinging rusty, cobwebbed, over bathrooms and water fountains. To me, the marches and protests, the police dog attacks on children, are grainy black and white newsreel images on the history channel. Not that they don't shame me at what Alabama did back then. Sometimes I think, Would I have been part of the violence if I'd been born twenty years earlier? Certainly. Would I have risen above it all? I like to imagine so, but the honest part of me nags any certainty away.
I am what people call white. My wife is African-American; our sons are both of us and more. On the census, we check two racial categories for our sons. When I look at the different racial categories of these forms, I laugh at how the world has been conned into believing this scary idea of whiteness.
When people talk of protecting the white race, of teaching white kids about their white heritage, I gotta laugh. When the original "white" people immigrated to this country, to Alabama, they weren't white. They were German, English, Irish, others--different ethnic groups, each with their own language and history. Call any of them white and they wouldn't have understood the word. Whiteness wasn't discovered until slavery became the engine of economic growth in the United States.
Suddenly, poof . . . rewrite history:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and whiteness was upon the face of the deep.”
So who am I? Growing up in Alabama, I was white. I
learned this fact as such a young kid that it exists eternally back in time, before any memories of self
begin. White. Black. Us. Them. Nothing else.
All this changed when the Peace Corps sent me to Thailand to teach English in a rural school. For two long years the Thai countryside stirred up deep helpings of Alabama in my soul. Hot humid days. Willow trees whipping to the breeze. Rains dragging hard during late afternoon thunderstorms. As the air grew alive with newly plowed earth smells and deep vegetation decay, all I had to do was blink and I was home again. I realized this was who I was.
I was Alabama.
But I can't check "Alabama" on racial forms. Just white.
I think that most white people know somewhere deep inside that whiteness is a lie. After all, when "white" people pass each other in the street, there's no deep bond between us. There is no heritage, no history, no cares--nothing at all.
But if I meet someone from Alabama, we'll stop and talk for hours.
White. Nonwhite. These are the choices America wants people to make. Don't be confused by the different words. The reason terms of racial identity change every year--white to caucasian to European-American to whatever--is because the terms don't represent who any of us really are as individuals or as a people. The terms are just variations of the original use for whiteness: Human. Nonhuman. Us. Other. And as long as
this happens, then whiteness is a disease.
Forget about racism existing in Alabama alone. Forget about being white. Find your own self. Alabama is more me than white could ever be. As my sons grow up, they'll have to be more themselves--whatever that turns out to be--than biracial could ever be.
Alabama is who I am; I am Alabama.
I am the place where America must learn that whiteness is a lie.
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