Recently I was in Birmingham with a close friend. We’d flown into the city so we could drive to Montgomery to experience the Legacy Memorial and accompanying museum focused on lynchings in America. My friend asked if I’d show her where I was born. Reluctant at first to take time away from our going to the 16th Avenue Baptist Church and Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, I eventually agreed. That meant returning to Fairfield, a near burb of Birmingham, established as a model town when U.S. Steel opened a huge mill they called Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI to the locals). As a child, it never made any sense to me that a giant company in Alabama had “Tennessee” in its name . U.S Steel built a series of small but attractive houses for its white employees, while throwing up shanties for the black miners and factory hands. That was called the “colored section” and didn’t “model” anything. My father, mother, and sister lived in one of those little houses on a street whose name surely carried heavy irony–Acadia Terrace. When Mamie. my mother, got pregnant with me when their doctor suggested that having a second child might help her move out of her two-year old grief over the loss of her own mother, they had to move. The model home wasn’t big enough for the next arrival.
They found a railroad or shotgun house–5130 Holly Court–for very little money, and in the late fall of 1936, moved in. The lot next door as vacant, so Mamie exercised her own version of “squatters’ rights” and turned that large empty space into a stunning garden about which you may read if you look through my old blogs. One more lot (on which there was a house) ended the white residences and abutted an unpaved alley where the garbage truck drove every day. On the other side of that alley were a series of poorly constructed homes where lots of “Negroes” lived. As a young kid, I often found myself playing with kids from those and nearby houses. My favorite game was marbles because some little black boys taught me how to use the big shooters that they called “roller packers.” I became quite good at this sport and, once in my all-white grammar school, beat boys in my grades more times than they liked. Of course, there came a moment in those children’s lives and in my own, as we all approached puberty, when everyone’s mother forbad their own child from playing across the color barrier. My mother told me little Negro children liked to do different things than I did as they got older, though I never could get her to be specific. I’m sure black mothers told their precious children never to associate with me on pain of severe danger from “the whites.”
I’d been forewarned that the Fairfield I grew up in was no more: all white people had fled once TCI closed and jobs began drying up; the town was currently in a state of extreme economic poverty; houses were left partly burned down or with roofs caved in or had been cleared away leaving vacant overgrown lots. As my friend and I listened to our radio’s GPS voice telling us where to turn, I realized that the neighborhoods I’d understood to be solidly middle class and white, of course, had indeed seen much better days. The empty lots and partially burned out or disfigured residences made me feel sad. And, as we drove to where the mechanical voice said was “your destination is on your left,” I was shocked to see a shoddily built small house that wasn’t mine at all. My friend suggested we drive around to what would be the back of this flimsy thing, but I realized at some point that I knew a simpler route to get to my old house than our robotic lady, so we tuned her out and I said where to turn in which direction. Suddenly we were on the real Holly Court and there was my little white house, though right across the street where Kenny and Nancy Myers with whom I played every day for years, there was no house at all. Just a big field overgrown with vines, tree stumps, and human debris. Parked at 5130 was a white van with the name of an A.M.E. church on its side, so I knew some minister lived where I was born. I went to knock on the front door to tell the current resident that I’d been born there and to ask if we might walk around the property. My friend pointed out that a realtor’s lock box was attached to the front handle, so when no one answered, we just decided to go around back anyway. The front porch where the white metal glider had lived had been up-graded with windows where we’d just had screens and as we moved toward the still vacant lot, I first saw sturdy steep steps leading from the kitchen back door onto the ground below. Mamie had forbidden me to use the stairs we had because they were “rickety,” but I’d defied her as usual and sneaked up and down them just to prove I could.
Suddenly, looking at the big vacant lot that no longer boasted formal flower beds, I was stopped short by an miraculous sight: scores of beautiful light yellow and white jonquils and narcissus were dotting the whole area and were in early spring bloom! I burst into uncontrollable sobs and my friend held me as I just cried because Mamie would be so delighted to see that someone somehow had kept perennials alive over so many decades. Not her bulbs, of course, but bulbs nonetheless, lovely bulbs declaring their beauty for any who cared to look. As we made our way back to the car because the misting rain was becoming a little more substantial, I thought of the lovely little Wordsworth poem about how excited he had been in the early 19th century when he and his sister Dorothy were walking in a part of the Lake Country where they came upon “a host of daffodils.” And I also flashed to moments in the fiction of Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward where these remarkable black women authors locate fierce natural beauty in settings in which black people had been beaten, lynched, or raped by their white owners.
The American author Thomas Wolfe wrote a long and sad autobiographical novel entitled You Can’t Go Home Again. Written in 1934 and published posthumously in 1940, this novel told the melancholy teenaged me that it was impossible to recapture any of the experiences of our childhoods, that to try is just to rub salt into whatever wounds we may be nursing–and Thomas had many the nursing of which he devoted his considerable writing talent. Well, certainly it would be impossible for me to re-inhabit that structure on Holly Court if I had any inkling of a wish to do so. Racism and capitalism surely had made that impossible. But by humoring my friend’s wish to see where I played as a child, I found those blooming flowers. They are tangible, full of beauty, entirely connected to life. And they let me feel a few moments of simple love for a mother with whom I had a keenly vexed relationship way for many years after she died when I was only twenty-seven.