By Daniel Browne
A few weeks ago, I found myself back in Brooklyn for the first time in three years. After being scolded for not making a reservation, my friends and I settled in for fish and chips at what used to be a neighborhood haunt. As it often does these days, the conversation soon turned to my new home, Alabama.
“It’s all starting to happen,” said one of my dinner companions. He’d never been to Alabama, but he’d gotten a report from an architect friend who worked on The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, often referred to as the “lynching memorial.” The “all” that was starting to happen referred not only to the revitalization of downtown Montgomery brought about by interest in the memorial but to the political transformation of the state.
A year earlier, a coalition of black voters, college students, and urbanites like me — I live in Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city — had delivered a razor-thin victory to a likable moderate named Doug Jones, keeping religious zealot and mall creeper Roy Moore out of the Senate. This, apparently, was just the beginning. Activists had been activated. The state Democratic Party had risen from its slumber. In the next election, neighboring Georgia had nearly elected a black woman as governor, and Alabama was just a few paces behind.
“It may take 10 years, but it’s definitely happening.”
All I could think about as I listened was a dinner party I’d attended back home a couple of months earlier. Most of the guests sitting around the table were younger than me, in their 20s and 30s. Unlike in Brooklyn, there were black faces, as well as white. Nearly everyone but me was a real Southerner, meaning they’d grown up in the South and either stayed or chosen to come back. We were talking politics. Only days had passed since the Democrats had retaken the House. Across the country, lefties, women, people of color, Muslims, Native Americans, and LGBTQ candidates had won or at least beaten expectations. Still, the conversation had a dark edge to it. I was surprised.
“Weren’t any of you encouraged by what happened in the election?” I asked.
There was a pause, and then everyone — and I mean everyone — laughed raucously. At me. The idea that there could be anything to be encouraged by was ridiculous. A new acquaintance mocked me, putting on his best snowflake whine.
“But Beto came so close, y’all . . . ”
I’ve lived in Alabama for three years now, and I still can’t figure out who’s got it right.
I’d been in New York for nearly 20 years and dreaming of making my escape for at least five when my wife got offered a job in Birmingham. We’d been thinking more along the lines of Portland, but our son was four months old at the time, and life was quickly becoming unaffordable, so we took a chance.
Lisa had interned here in college, but I’d never spent any time at all in the deep South. I was apprehensive, of course, but I realized right away I was going to like it. We’ve got a place of our own now with maple and elm trees in the front yard, cardinals and blue jays flitting from limb to limb. I can see a show at Saturn, a rock club named in honor of local legend Sun Ra (who preferred to trace his origins to the cosmos), and be home in 10 minutes. I would be happy to never spend another winter above the Mason-Dixon Line. You get the idea.
Or maybe you don’t. I’ve fielded a lot of questions from friends, relatives, and co-workers since we made the move, and most of those questions are dumb.
Q: Do you eat barbecue all the time now?
A: No, we shop at the grocery store just like everyone else. Anyway, while Birmingham has one or two notable barbecue joints, the thing down here is meat and three (look it up). There are plenty of places to get a grain bowl, too.
Q: Is it super-annoying how friendly everyone is?
A: I live in a metropolitan area of more than a million people, not Mayberry. The average interaction here is undoubtedly less aggro than what I’m used to, but no one’s up in my business. We do tend to run into members of our social circle a lot, but I like that feeling of community. It’s more than I ever managed to find in New York.
Q: It must make you so uncomfortable to be constantly asked if you’ve found a church yet.
A: That’s not a question. The church thing has come up a few times, but, as far as I can tell, no one really gives a damn where, or even if, I go (see previous answer). I think it’s just considered polite to ask.
Q: Okay, but is it weird being the only Jew around?
A: I am not the only Jew in Birmingham. Our son goes to daycare at the Jewish Community Center, which is a hub of multiculturalism in the city. True, goyish families outnumber Jewish in both the daycare and the general membership, but who can blame them? The JCC’s got one of the best gyms in town and wicked hiking trails out back.
After a year of answering questions like these over and over, I was starting to relate to the resentment that Southerners are purported to feel toward coastal elites. My uneasiness only intensified during the Roy Moore drama. It was hard to ignore the “Dear Alabama” Twitter campaign, in which well-meaning Yankees directed condescending messages at Yellowhammer State voters like Helen Lovejoy pleading, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Meanwhile, I was the subject of my own personal “Dear Alabama” campaign as what seemed like half my address book called and emailed, seeking reassurance that everything would be all right. “Mind your own business,” I thought, wondering where that ornery streak came from.
In truth, I had no clue whether everything would be all right. Birmingham, it turns out, is an ideal place to practice “don’t know mind.” That’s not the set-up for a joke. “Don’t know mind” is a Zen concept. The idea is to free yourself from false certainty, the mentality that you’ve figured out the way the world works, that you know what’s going to happen. Many people got a near-fatal dose of “don’t know mind” when Donald Trump was elected. I was no different, except that, thanks to my new surroundings, it had already started to dawn on me how little I understood about the society I live in.
When we first arrived, I had all the misgivings you’d expect a Brooklyn liberal to have about life in a red state. I quickly began to notice, though, there were more Priuses than pickups on the road, and many of them had the same decal on the back window: a blue dot in a red square. That’s how many Birminghamians see the city and themselves. Soon enough, I was telling anyone who would listen that the Bernie rally here drew more than 7,000 people and that the city still best known for the murder of four young girls by white terrorists now has a majority-black population. Later, I could point to the election of Randall Woodfin, the young (and, to hear my wife tell it, hot AF) new mayor who campaigned on free community college and a $15 minimum wage. Birmingham, I said, was proof positive of what is becoming conventional wisdom: The real division in this country isn’t North and South; it’s city dwellers and everyone else.
Only one problem with the picture I was painting: I don’t actually live in the city of Birmingham. Should I have mentioned that sooner? When it came time to buy a house, my wife and I chose Homewood, a vest-pocket suburb of about 25,000 incorporated in 1926. Looking at a map, you’d think Homewood was a part of Birmingham, and it probably should be. It’s a familiar story: White families of means land in Homewood and places like it because they’re trying to avoid Birmingham’s dysfunctional public schools, which are dysfunctional in large part because they’re starved of those families’ tax dollars.
As you can imagine, Homewood’s political orientation is different from Birmingham’s. When we first looked at what became our house, the only book on the shelves was Sarah Palin’s memoir. The owner asked for extra time to move out because he needed to transport all his guns by hand. The place next door belongs to a former governor. He and his wife show up every few weeks to visit their son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, who live on the other side of us. Judging by the bumper sticker on the family SUV, the boy we see shooting hoops in the driveway is a Young Republican. Next door to the governor is the coach of the women’s volleyball team of the nearby Christian university.
Trump country, then. Only you’ll hardly spot a single MAGA cap or bumper sticker anywhere in walking distance. (There is a rusty beater with a Ben Carson sticker about a half-mile up the road.) Of the white-flight suburbs surrounding Birmingham, Homewood happens to be the most racially and economically diverse (a low bar, but still …). It’s also, we were told, “the one where it’s okay to be a Democrat.” Sure enough, in 2016, most of the lawn signs in our neighborhood were for Hillary. In 2017, it was Doug Jones with the occasional “No Moore” mixed in. Now, the most common sign is the one that says “Wherever you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. Perhaps they were put up for the benefit of the two women in hijab I often see out strolling with their children.
As for my immediate neighbors, they strike me as the kind of Christian conservatives who held their noses when they voted for Trump, the kind who stayed home when Roy Moore was on the ballot, who might be relieved to have another choice in the next presidential primary. The governor next door actually tried to raise taxes on the wealthy while in office and succeeded in cutting them for the poor. He also pushed for stricter ethics rules. Maybe he was secretly with Her.
Then again, what do I know? There’s another Buddhist concept, this one from the Tibetan tradition, that can be translated as, “Don’t try to figure people out.” One of the most meaningful differences between living in Brooklyn and living in Birmingham (or rather the Birmingham area), is that, here, I can never assume the person on the other end of any social interaction — be it a fellow daycare parent, a Lyft driver, or my therapist — holds the same beliefs as I do. I see now I was fooling myself carrying around that assumption even in Brooklyn. There was comfort in it, for sure, but it feels liberating to have it taken away.
What do you do with people when you can’t automatically figure them out? You can just be with them and see what happens. In the case of the neighbors, politics have never come up. We talk about neighbor stuff: the weather, our kids and our pets, the hassle of removing dead trees. They’ve been nothing but warm, especially to our son, now three, who’s gotten basketball lessons from the Young Republican, helped the folks across the street paint their porch, and trick-or-treated with no regard for party affiliation.
Not trying to figure people out doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding touchy subjects. My barber Dewey often has Fox News on the TV when I show up, as do many of the businesses around here. I’ll admit I found this threatening when I was new in town, but I kept coming back and, disarmed by his easy rapport with customers, eventually got to talking about the state of the nation. Dewey, I now know, maintains a healthy skepticism of cable pundits, the wealthy, and the powerful, regardless of their ideological bent. While I may choose my words more carefully around him than I would if I were sounding off with my New York friends, I don’t have to hide my opinions. No matter where the conversation leads, every haircut ends with a hug and a promise to be good.
You could say “don’t know mind” is a form of privilege. Many people don’t have the luxury of meeting the South’s ambiguities and contradictions with their guard down. I once heard Dewey the barber, in an amiably facetious tone, tell the mailman, who was black, “Get out. We don’t want your kind here.” The mailman laughed. He may have heard the joke any number of times before; the two of them weren’t strangers to each other and may even have been old pals, for all I know. I can’t fathom what was running through either of their minds in that moment, but I doubt it was the same thing.
You could also say that who gets to speak about these ambiguities and contradictions is an unsettled question. Not long after we moved, an author I know and respect suggested I start writing about my experiences as a New York City expat in Dixieland. I balked. At first, Birmingham didn’t seem all that different from the (definitely not Southern) Florida beach town where I grew up. Even as I began to notice the charming and not-so-charming tics that make Birmingham uniquely Southern and uniquely itself, I couldn’t articulate my thoughts, let alone deliver a hot take. When friends and acquaintances, spooked by Roy Moore, called on me to be their Alabama-to-normal translator, I felt utterly unqualified. Even as I write this, something is holding me back, a sense that I’m carpetbagging, talking out of turn. Ask me if the South will be a progressive paradise in a decade’s time or if the cussedness runs too deep, and I’m liable to say, “Don’t know. Mind your own business.”
Not long ago, I spoke the word “y’all” for the first time. Lisa and I were at Highlands Bar and Grill, recently named the best restaurant in the country by the James Beard Foundation (around the same time that John Archibald, a local columnist for the left-leaning website Reckon by AL.com, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary). There was, as always, a crowd around the bar. A young man with a flowing mane of blond hair and matching beard was genially grousing to his even blonder date about the tourists who’d been flocking to Highlands ever since the Beard award was announced. As we finished up our drinks and paid the tab, I tapped him on the shoulder of his velvet dinner jacket and said, “Y’all want to take our seats?” It just popped out.
Velvet Jesus accepted graciously. Still, I felt awkward invoking that most Southern of Southernisms, and I haven’t tried again since. Even though we’ve lived in Birmingham for three years now, and I feel more at home here than I have anywhere else. Even though my son speaks with a twang (“milk” is three syllables) and greets his friends with a hearty “Roll Tide!” Even though I wear my “All Y’all” T-shirt with pride. I don’t know if the word will ever sound right coming from my mouth, but it sure feels good when it’s addressed to me. Being included in that “y’all” is a privilege in more ways than one. It’s a place I never thought I’d be.