It was the blue of the sky that suddenly grabbed my attention. Then it was the various shades of green in the trees around me. I was taking a walk in my neighborhood Wednesday afternoon when the beauty around me hit me so hard that it almost hurt my heart to feel it all.
For this moment in time, I couldn’t imagine being in any place on earth more beautiful. I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect than the stunning colors and shades and smells of my surroundings. It wasn’t just beauty, though. It was an emotional feeling that welled up inside.
It was about being in the place called home.
I don’t understand nationalism or patriotism anymore. George Bernard Shaw said, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….” I don’t have any particular argument at the moment with those who feel differently. I’m just saying that I’ve come to a point in life when I don’t feel connected to a country or a government. But I understand what it means to love the land you call home.
For me, home is a place that’s both wonderful and flawed. It’s reviled and misunderstood by outsiders. It’s full of people who have internalized so much of the criticism and prejudice about themselves that they’ve become insecure.
I once had an employee whose engineer husband had been transferred to Birmingham by his company. When they found out they were being moved away from their home in Wisconsin, all of their friends told them how terrible Alabama was going to be. They were told that it’s flat and has no trees. They were also assured that there were no white people here, so they were going to be ignored. The picture that was painted for them by their all-knowing friends was one of gloom and doom.
When they moved down here, they were delighted with how beautiful it was. There were hills and trees and natural beauty all around. The people were generally warm and friendly and welcoming. The cost of living was lower and they were able to afford a nicer home with better schools than what they had experienced back home. When it came time for the company to move them back to Wisconsin, he left the company and found another job — so they could stay in the state they had come to love.
People don’t understand the South or southerners in many respects. They’ve seen too many bad movies made by ignorant directors who paint southerners as just a bunch of hillbillies who live in trailers. Of course you can find people like that, but you can also find intelligent, talented and educated people (and everything in between), just as you can anywhere.
About five years ago, I was planning to marry a woman from another part of the country. When she broke the news to her mother, the horrified mother said something on the order of, “But you wouldn’t actually live there, would you?”
People who would rail against prejudice — and the ugly racial history here that’s the legacy of slavery — don’t realize just how much prejudice they show when they judge and condemn a place they don’t know anything about.
For many southerners — including me — there’s a weird sort of defensiveness and pride that go hand-in-hand. In many ways, we’re ashamed of the racial legacy that other people brand us with, but we wonder why the same condemnation doesn’t apply to other places where slavery also once existed. We wonder why some people are so eager to preach tolerance while pushing a political and historical agenda that demonizes people with standards that aren’t applied to the ancestors of other people.
That mix of pride and defensiveness makes many of us eager to latch onto the most positive things we can to prove to people that we’re not the rubes that we’re portrayed as. (Until the company had financial trouble and had to be broken up, Saks Fifth Avenue was headquartered here in Birmingham. That used to make people’s heads explode as they tried to come to grips with it.)
It’s become a cliche because it’s been played so much, but we love “Sweet Home Alabama.” A band from Jacksonville, Fla., spent enough time recording in Alabama that they loved the place and wrote the song as a response to Canadian Neil Young’s songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” which were his indictment of racism in the ’60s in the South. In response, Lynyrd Skynyrd sang:
Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don’t need him around anyhow
It was just a song to Lynyrd Skynyrd. For many in Alabama, it was a defiant defense — a raucous and joyful statement that we didn’t appreciate being stereotyped. We didn’t appreciate the broad brush that was used to paint use as a bunch of racists. If you want to make a crowd here happy, play that song. It’s become something of an unofficial state anthem. For me, it’s become a statement to the world that basically says, “You folks might not understand us. You might judge us without knowing us. But we’re proud of our home — and you can’t take the dignity of loving our home away from us.”
Identifying with the South in general — and Alabama in particular — is an emotional thing and it crops up when I least expect it sometimes. When my university — the University of Alabama — won college football’s national championship three years ago, for the first time in close to 20 years, I got teary-eyed and emotional. It’s not that I care that much about football. It’s that my team — my school — was the best at something, even if it was simply running around on a football field and hitting people.
I can get emotional and feel intense pride when I see progress the university is making. My school attracts a ridiculous number of National Merit Scholars, usually in the top two or three among public universities in the country. More than half of the most recent freshman class is from out of state. Various schools of the university are highly ranked. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but the point is that it matters to me. It matters because every little piece of advancement I see is one more way that I feel I can say — that we can say — we’re not what you think we are.
I’m proud of the artists and athletes and scholars who are from here. You know who many of them are — even if you don’t know where they’re from — and there are many others you’ve never heard of. I’m proud of what many of my people have done. I don’t care if they’re black or white or Hispanic or anything else. If they’re from here and they’re making the world better in some way, I claim them and I appreciate them.
I’m not a fan of country music, but a country band called Alabama had a song about 20 years ago called “My Home’s in Alabama,” which speaks nicely about the way I feel about myself. The chorus goes:
My home’s in Alabama
No matter where I lay my head
My home’s in Alabama
Southern born and Southern bred
I don’t know where the future will take me. I’m very willing to live wherever I need to. For various reasons, I might very well move away from here. That’s fine with me.
But wherever the future takes me, this place will be my home. The trees and the hills. The water and the blue skies and colorful sunsets. Even the people and the ugly history. The land and the people — the good and the bad — are where I came from. They’re who I am, whether it makes sense to you or not.
Come visit Alabama. Get to know us. You might come to love us and realize we’re not who you think we are. Stay here and become one of us. Maybe the South can become your home, too.
Note: The pictures with this article are mostly photos I’ve shot around here. At top is a sunset on I-20 westbound on the eastern side of Birmingham. Next is a tree in my suburb, which happens to be very close to the place that caught my attention Wednesday and prompted this piece. Third is former Alabama football player Bobby Greenwood celebrating the 2009 college football national championship. Below is an old mill that was converted decades ago into a home in a wealthy suburb of Birmingham. For more other random beautiful and interesting things in Alabama, check out this Pinterest page maintained by the Birmingham Public Library.