It is an important day in Alabama. As I have said elsewhere, I have never had so many in my life from outside the state email or call me about an election. I am grateful for the peaceful conversations had with fellow Alabamians while waiting to vote today.
When I woke up this morning, despite all of the coverage and reminders, I almost forgot that it was a special election day. And then I remembered the photo I took of the last shot in the movie “Sweet Home Alabama.” I took it last night while watching the movie I’d earlier recorded.
It features a red and a blue Rock’em Sock’em robot fighting each other. I have seen “Sweet Home Alabama” at least a dozen times. The first time I saw it, I lived in New York City. What made me go to a Union Square theatre and see this particular film I cannot say, but I did it without knowing I’d one day live in this state.
While watching the film again and again over the years (I love the fashion storyline, the soulmate storyline, but especially how it uncovers the craziness and contradictions in the South like “My Cousin Vinny“), I never saw the symbolism in those robots. They almost certainly point to red and blue states (i.e. partisan politics), but also the complex ties southerners have to the past and present. As I tell my students, there is no monolithic North or South. To typecast a region without seeing all of its complexities – just like to typecast any human being without seeing their complexities – is to make a huge mistake. Maybe that’s why I can watch “Sweet Home Alabama” and “My Cousin Vinny” over and over again (I can also watch the latter because it’s so darn “what is a grit” funny”).
I am fortunate to have time to reflect on this a bit. Today I was happy to see a book review I wrote earlier this year on historian Catherine Clinton’s Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2016). Like other writers/authors/scholars, I was anxious to see if what I’d written was printed exactly as I had written it. Lately, this is often not the case for reasons unclear. I am a former journalist (my career included being an editor and a copy editor so this is especially irksome for me. No, I don’t mind being edited. Edits matter, but honoring the spirit of a particular piece of writing matters, too). But the text looked exactly liked I wrote it and for this I was glad.
As I write in my review, which appeared in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, I was reminded again of how Clinton is unafraid in this book, one of many she has written, to show how marginalized historical actors should not be merely saved or celebrated but examined in all of their messy complexity. This is an approach I believe we’re seeing more and more scholars take.
Clinton also seems to see the degree to which first person approaches in scholarly writings (i.e. Saidiyah Hartman and Thavolia Glymph) are also fine from time to time as such approaches permit us to “raise questions that too often remain unspoken.”
I won’t repeat everything I said in the review, which can be read here, but suffice to say, my copy of the journal in which it appears arrived on a significant day when, as I wait to proctor final exams, I am reflecting on all the progress, but ongoing challenges for many people including myself in these interesting times.
I recently had a chance to see the Janet Jackson concert in Birmingham with a dear friend of 38 years and marveled at how much I have changed in the past year since turning 50.
I am more than okay with this being a reflective time for me as I proceed through life in and outside the academy. Taking the time to check in with one’s self is a worthwhile thing. I will soon be 51 and I doubtless will continue to be reflective. I don’t think most of us have much choice these days.
I will leave it there as I keep hoping for the best. No matter how today’s election turns out, as I have written elsewhere, we will survive. We have already survived so much.
PS I am grateful for the colleagues (whose names won’t be repeated as I don’t want to unnecessarily embarrass them, but they know who they are) who backread my review of Clinton’s book. She’s way up there when it comes to historians.
I wanted to be sure I struck the right tone while being true to what I saw. Her book is worth reading and can be easily read by anyone – not just historians. That’s something really important to me, too, as I continue in the profession.
If we want people to understand the ties between the past and present, it is worth it to attempt to write from time to time in ways that are accessible to all. And that’s not easy. As I return to my book on Florida’s racial and spatial politics, this is a constant challenge for me. I ask myself the following,
Would my Mississippi-born mother, educated daughter of sharecroppers, understand a word I just said?
Why is important to me that she does?
What does her understanding help me accomplish as a scholar and a citizen of this world?
When I see today’s headlines, these questions feel more urgent than ever.