I have not yet noted that my thoughts about cities are necessarily shaped by my having grown up in one. When, twenty years ago, I read Paul Hemphill’s book Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son I knew I had to write something about it. Marc Smirnoff of the Oxford American let me do so, and I’m reprinting my essay here. It was hard for me to keep my editorial pencil away from this — I would write it much differently today — but let it stand as a moment in my own personal history.
Still Leaving Birmingham
My home town, the place where I was born and lived until I was twenty-one years old, is not a city; it is a symbol. More technically, it is a synecdoche, a part of an entity which can stand for the whole. Birmingham represents the darkest days of the civil rights movement, evil forces finally but at inordinate cost defeated. The name once pronounced, all the images step obediently forward: the church shattered by dynamite, the four young girls dead in their Sunday clothes, Bull Connor, fire hoses, Reverend King in jail inscribing his great open letter on the margins of a newspaper. Birmingham is the fiery trial, the purgatory that, as far as anyone then could see, was just plain hell.
I was slow learning all this, because most of it happened when I was too young to find out on my own, and as far as I can recall it was never discussed in my house. Though I clearly remember seeing the announcement of President Kennedy’s assassination on television the year before I started school — sitting on the linoleum floor of our living room, playing with a puzzle, looking up with no particular curiosity to see why a program I was not watching had been interrupted — I only learned about the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had occurred just two months before the assassination, while browsing through a book in my local public library when I was senior in high school. In my history and civics classes (most of which, incidentally, were taught by black men) nothing of Birmingham’s recent history was ever mentioned. I didn’t read King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” until I was in graduate school, six hundred miles from home. It was only in those years, living outside of Alabama for the first time, that I came to understand that I could not speak the name of the city in which I had lived my whole life without calling up, in the minds of my interlocutors and increasingly in my own, that whole solemn procession of evil images from the past.
I understand myself, then, to live on the other side of a divide from Paul Hemphill, author of the recent historical memoir Leaving Birmingham. Between those Birminghamians who knew what was happening when it happened and those who did not (including those who were not yet born) there is a great gulf fixed. I am not sure it can be bridged. Though Hemphill and I grew up not only in Birmingham but in the same part of Birmingham, though the landmarks of his youth (the streets, the parks, the schools, the churches) are also the landmarks of mine, though the old family home which he revisits at the end of his book stands just a scant few blocks from the one in which I was raised, though, in short, he represents the world of my youth more fully than I ever imagined anyone would ever do, we are different in this fundamental respect: he grew up in a city, I in a symbol.
But this is not to say that I was completely ignorant, as a child, that I lived in an unusual place. I was attending Elyton School, in the oldest section of the city, when Birmingham’s schools were integrated for the first time. At Elyton, anyway, the transition was peaceful, and even at the time (or not long afterwards) I was proud of our tolerance. Perhaps my teacher told me I should be. When I was twelve Birmingham was named an “All-American City” by whatever bureaucracy claimed the authority to make such a designation, and the t-shirts bearing the official logo which suddenly appeared on bodies of all ages were worn not just with civic pride but also (it was palpable to me even then) with an air of vindication. Every white person in the city, it seemed, was copping an attitude. Dimly and half-consciously I understood that people who lived elsewhere didn’t have to be so defensive, that other lives remained unwatched and unremarked.
This was not, I think, part of Hemphill’s childhood experience. He relates, concisely and directly, Birmingham’s short and ugly history, its birth and development after the Civil War as a “gawky stepchild” of northern industrial desire, its enormous distance from the “agrarian South, that gossamer myth” upon which other Southern cities (“Memphis and Charleston and Mobile and Natchez”) have tried for so long to nourish themselves. But these differences were surely inaccessible to a working-class child like Hemphill. Later, as an adult trying to understand what it meant to grow up, not a Southerner, but specifically a Birminghamian, he must have meditated on this history; but I wager it was not part of his upbringing. The troubles of his Birmingham were never exposited by Walter Cronkite, or depicted for readers of the New York Times by reporters on special assignment and photos courtesy of AP. When the agonies of Birmingham came to attract such august national institutions, Hemphill had the chance to get out of town, and to do so as a more-or-less conscious act of protest. By “leaving Birmingham” he could get a better job, see more of the world — but he could also make a point, could respond in the way he found most appropriate to the transformation of his home town into a synecdoche. That was an opportunity my generation never had. By the time I was old enough to leave Birmingham there was no one point to make: had I intended a noble protest against continuing racism, it could easily have been interpreted (if anyone happened to notice) as another white in flight from a city increasingly dominated, politically if not economically, by its black majority. The problem with symbols is that they are susceptible to continuing reinterpretation.
Perhaps my envy of Hemphill’s ability to leave Birmingham underlies my otherwise inexplicable frustration with his book. I have been reading Paul Hemphill’s work for a long time: in fact, when I was about ten years old, poring over his columns in Sport magazine, I got my first glimpses of a world in which an interest in sports and an interest in language were not irreconcilable. And the parallels between his history and mine seem almost calculated to garner my sympathy. Still, again and again I find myself wincing at parts of Hemphill’s narrative. What I’m trying to understand is whether those winces come from the chasm that separates us or the ties that bind us. Wincing at Hemphill I may be wincing at myself.
An illustration: After he moved away from Birmingham, Hemphill — so I infer from his story — came to suffer from an affliction common to sensitive Southerners: the compulsion to establish and display friendships with black people. With evident relish he describes his experience as a Nieman Fellow (which meant a year of writing time at Harvard for gifted young journalists) when he became close friends with the year’s only black Fellow, Joe Strickland of the Detroit News. He is clearly proud to relate the eulogy he gave at Strickland’s funeral in Boston. Perhaps he doth protest too much, I start to think, but memory forces me to acknowledge that I have often done the same. One of my most vivid memories of my freshman year in college involves a young black woman I had known in high school. We crossed paths on campus, neither having known that the other was going to school there, and greeted each other with a hug. We talked for a few moments, then parted, and as I walked away I saw another student on a bench, a big guy in jeans and a tight t-shirt, looking at me with unconcealed disgust. Immediately I realized that I had hugged a black woman right there in public, in front of dozens of people, many of whom were likely as disgusted as the guy on the bench. Pride surged in my breast — not so much that I had hugged Bernice, but that I had done so unconsciously, not thinking it a significant act. Surely this was proof of my immunity to racism. And yet why, if I could hug Bernice so un-self-consciously, why do I inwardly rejoice that after twenty years I have finally found a way to get that story into print? As lawyers and logicians will tell you, it’s mighty tough to prove a negative; if you want people to believe you’re not a racist, you’ll scrounge for any evidence you can find.
Similarly, I find myself as I read complaining that Hemphill makes racial innocence sound all too easy. The self-exiled native son returns to Birmingham after many years away and takes all the right stands: he dispenses appropriate contempt for the country club racists whose whites-only admission policy disfigured Birmingham’s first major golf tournament; he attends a city-government-sponsored “Salute to Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement,” duly noting the scarcity of white faces; he assures anyone who will listen that the accusations against Birmingham’s black mayor, Richard Arrington, were trumped up by hostile Republicans in the Justice Department; he visits the black family who now lives in the house his virulently racist father once owned and feels “elated” because “finally justice had prevailed.” As I read such passages I scowl and carp: who are you, Hemphill, to dispense praise and blame so confidently, or to find an almost Biblical achievement of justice in black Birminghamians’ inheritance of houses virtually abandoned by whites fleeing to the suburbs? Are you given privileged moral stature by your long-time residence in Atlanta? — whose superiority to Birmingham, especially in racial relations, you regularly proclaim, though not everyone finds Atlanta so ideal a polis, or so remarkably free from the racist taint. Yet even as I mouth such words I remember that others could draw certain regrettable conclusions from the fact that I now live in a suburb of Chicago where one would be hard-pressed to scare up a black face for love or money, and where my tales of being the only white boy on the basketball court at Lynn Park (ask Paul Hemphill where that is) can, in the minds of my suburban friends, compare in exoticism with the travelogues of Victorian gentlemen in Asia. If it’s easy to be a native of Birmingham when you live in Atlanta, it’s even easier when you live in northern Illinois.
So easy, in fact, that the longer you live in the North the more nostalgically you speak of your old Alabama home, though some folks might notice that you aren’t contacting any real estate agents in Birmingham. I can plead the excuse that the scarcity of jobs for college professors makes it hard for me to move, which is true; but it is also true that, while I used to wonder how writers like Roy Blount Jr. could write so fondly and eloquently about the South while living in near-polar climes, I don’t wonder so much anymore. Time and distance sand one’s experience smooth; I can handle my Birminghamian history now without fearing so much as a splinter; and since most of my friends know my shtick about growing up in a synecdoche, while my students have never heard of Bull Connor and have only the vaguest iconic image of Martin Luther King, there’s no reason to think that my past won’t get smoother still as time goes on. And when things get rough I can always reread Absalom, Absalom! and remind myself how much tougher poor Quentin Compson had it, huddled in a bitterly cold room in Massachusetts trying to explain a peculiarly Southern piece of American history to a Canadian.
But really, I still haven’t left Birmingham; though in a way and without willing it I suppose I’m in the process of leaving. This may be a point at which Paul Hemphill and I really do part company, because his book may be his true farewell to the city. His parents are dead now and his sister’s husband is, shall we say, sufficiently unreceptive to his liberalism that he wonders if he will ever eat at their table again. Having lived in Birmingham long enough to put this book together, he need never return, and can watch future developments from the safe vantage point of Atlanta. I, on the other hand, retain many ties to the place: though I’ve lost touch with every one of my old friends, my wife and I still have family there — but only in a sense. Her parents live in one of the suburbs Hemphill calls the Five White Kingdoms; mine, when their neighborhood in East Lake was levelled because of an engineering project, took the money and fled to a little town fifty miles north of the city where the old men still sit on the court house steps and spit. Her one sibling lives on a lake forty miles from town; mine on some farmland not far from my parents’ house. There was a time when all these people lived in Birmingham; now none of them does, and “the race thing” has played some part in all of these moves. In one way or another we’ve all been flung by the same explosion that Paul Hemphill left town to avoid, or to protest; my wife and I have just been flung a little farther than the others. So my connections to Birmingham grow, imperceptibly, ever more tenuous. One of these years I’ll return from a visit and realize, with surprise and regret, that in ten days I never crossed the city limits.
I still go back, though, if only for Christmas, and drive around in my old neighborhood — most recently with my two-year-old son chattering from the back seat in his already pronounced Northern accent, not a dipthong to be heard. I think about how the place has changed, usually for the worse, especially now that my old street has no houses on it; or note that my son’s schools will be far superior to any I ever attended; or consider whether, if we could spend our summers in Alabama, he might acquire a Southern accent; or ask if the suburbs of Chicago meet anyone’s definition of a “place.” But I always think one complicated and ambivalent thought: if this isn’t home, no place else ever will be.