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APRIL 29, 2012 5:45PM

A Walk Across Birmingham:Race, Class, and Regionalism

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As part of the project Democracy in America in Hard Times, A Personal Journey, which of course didn't work out, if it was a hard try, I have been taking a series of walks across Birmingham each Saturday, usually about eight to ten hours at a time.

Part of that is to remember some happy memories before moving on to different things. although it is in keeping with the methodology of the study, in the class known as participant-observer. I am sorry the editors here were misinformed as to my character, although that's like, a box of chocolates.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the community of Mtn. Brook, one of the wealthiest places in the United States, and 100 per cent white. My family line is an old one, dating to John E. Coffee of Coffee County Georgia and Alabama, General of the Georgia Militia, and cousin of General John T Coffee, in turn descended from Virginia planters who moved to the Deep South in about 1800. This blog and my acedemic carrer therefore are like Brooks Adams on acid.

I grew up in an unusual fashion as to seeing more of the class and racial spectrum of Birmingham, as I was raised by my paternal grandparents from the age of four in Mtn. Brook, but also in Homewood with what amounted to a semi Big Brother arrangement, with Homewood being lower on the food chain, with a then small and highly seggregated black population, especially then, and also a variety of places on the Southside with my mother, racially mixed as to demography, and sexual preference as well, as it was and is the "Bohemian" part of Birmingham, and in the West End in what became a majority black ghetto with my father,
the last white family on the block by 1984," and also time interacting with a "country" element with the Scouts.

The long and the short of it is that race and class are far more complicated than the media usually presents, especially in what is really the most formidable bastion of the Deep South: Birmingham.

Birmingham is the most formidable bastion of traditions of the Deep South, because although it actually was created after the Civil War, Birmingham has more money and educated people than any of the rest of the Deep South that are embodied with traditions evolving out of that pre-Civil War era, unlike Atlanta, which is home to many transplants. Atlanta of course is a Southern city, but not really in quite the same way as Birmingham, if Birmingham is unique in the Deep South as to being a highly industrialized city, much more than Atlanta historically speaking, if also therefore one that has suffered from the relative decline in manufacturing employment. They called it "the Pittsburgh of the South" for a reason then, and it has similarities now as to struggling to make adaptations to the world economic structure. Scrapping as my half-siblings have done from time to time can be seen as a part of this, as to grabbing whatever metal isn't tied down and recycling it to of course China.

That Southerness is why Alabama has always struck people as "different," if also because there is a domineering, centralizing, homogenizing spirit Jefferson Davis correctly identified as a very basic part of the Northern character, if to be fair, DeTocqueville preferred the Northern to the Southern character by a large margin, if it was something much more likely to be familiar to him.

After my walk around Birmigham, in comparison to Boston, I prefer that mentality as to race, class, and regionalism, as it is more honest, and lived more naturalistically, and because it has changed so much over the years too.

As to the comparison, I have lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia, D.C., Irvine, Boston, and of course Birmingham.

For all the Northern talk of how much more progressive they were, I found the North highly seggregated in its own way, and again, with a pushy, domineering spirit that is out of touch with how race is really lived.

For example, as part of this project, I hung out in urban Mattapan, known as "murderpan" locally, and for good reason. I had "interviews" with the police both there and in Hyde Park to establish bona fides as to not being a drug dealer, because white people look out of place in certain situations every much as black people do in others, if coded for class as well.

If you walk around with a lot of cash in an all black neighborhood, police will ask white people questions for good reasons, the lots of cash part because I had sold a house to finance this project.

So, as to observations, which aren't really about racial hostility at all, just more like an episode of Star Trek Next Generation, in which Picard is invited once again to play cards, and this time accepts, the female doctor saying "You were always welcome," there is some of that in race relations, and then not at the same time.

For example, in Mattapan, I went to the Av Tav, the only white person there. It started more out of logistics, but then changed, as I realized the simple utility of that, although there were of course obstacles.

The main obstacle of course was being the only white person there most of the time, which made people nervous at first, since they thought, and were then told, I was a cop. The bounder I came to know did that to protect me, because he was nervous that something might happen to who it seemed pretty clearly was a little naive, about walking around in "murderpan," although I never felt very nervous personally.

What I found was that once people got over the idea that I was "white," mainly because I am somewhat dark complected, and therefore can if not pass, be humored as "he's a Dominican" or something, then they didn't mind me there. They wouldn't go out of their way to invite me there, and it had to be on there terms, not mine, which is fair enough, as it seemed there was a part of them that needed to unwind a consciousness of being black quite possibly, by being among other blacks, not because they disliked white people at all, but because they just wanted to not have to worry about that.

By the same token, when I did my walks, too times when crossing certain class boundaries that perfectly correlated with race, one does encounter what one might call "racial enforcers," if not really in a bad way necessarily.

As to the first, if you walk under I-65, you are a crackhead, or looking for H, or a prostitute, if you are white, probabilistically speaking. I was looking for someone's vehicle to identify as to license plate, but that's another story.

So, I go into the Church's Chicken, a cool place, and a homeless black guy, homeless like me, says, "Give me a piece of chicken."

Now I thought about it in terms of Mathew 25-40, and gave him a drumstick, when he said, "Sorry about your headwound."

Puzzled, I said, "Headwound?"

"You must have a headwound to be out here by yourself, white boy."

And that was pretty good advice actually, and so I left, if the next walk I had a rather different interpretation of that.

Part i


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Donny, if I cum down to visit you in Birmingham, can we go to a restaurant that serves 'deep fried coon?' On my dime, er, Confederate scrip, snicker. With a side order of cannibalized eyeballz? I hear your Southern cuisine is most enchanting....wink
AC, you are missing the point, which is that there are racial enforcers of identity on both sides, but, as you would see in part ii, plenty of integration also.