With just days until Black History month, I have a true story to tell which is now nearly 5 years old.
It was Spring break and I had committed to accompany my daughter Mariama and eleven of her classmates with their parents to France for 21 days. Imagine my horror at the parent meeting when I realized that ALL of the students and ALL of the parents going were Irish-Catholic moms and their daughters. Not a single man, red, black or green was in the mix!
So, I promised the sun, the moon and the skies to Mariama if she’d just let mom take my place. I told her she could even take a friend and I’d happily pay. Just please don’t make me go thru 21 days of small talk and weird probing that some people so effortlessly do. You know, when they ask personal questions without hesitation like, “So, what do you do for a living?” Mariama acquiesced and even my courageous young son Malcolm agreed to go. I was off the proverbial hamecon (that’s french for “hook”).
Their departure to France left me, and my eldest son Cameron, to plan our own spring break. Since Cameron had just gotten his pilot’s license, we decided to do a Black history tour beginning with the east coast and ending in the “deep south.” Cameron as pilot-in-command navigated us cross-country to Nashville, Savanna, Jackson and Birmingham. For more 10 days we flew from town to town, shocking folks as we popped out of the cockpit, staying in posh hotels, eating great southern cuisine and visiting historic sites. We even hung out in the park where Forest Gump was filmed. For a 16 year old, that IS historic. LOL . But it was our visit to the Birmingham, Alabama that we both hold closely to this day.
You see, the trip to Birmingham was wonderful.
We arrived at the municipal airport to a very surprised all-Black ground handling crew (the people who guide the airplanes and arrivals). Openly proud to see a Black father & son flight crew, they went out of their way to get us the best rental car, best restaurants and the best hotel. When I asked for a list of “must see” sites, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was at the top of the list.
After 3 days of exploring Birmingham, we headed to the museum. It sits across the street from the famous 16th Street Baptist Church where 4 little girls were bombed in a 1963.
There’s a huge park-like promenade leading up to the museum stairs. The park is filled with life-sized bronze sculptures of Freedom Fighters, student protesters, police dogs and firemen with water hoses. It’s like someone froze the civil rights carnage in time. And the people look so real, it’s a beautiful and painful at the same time.
We arrived at the museum right at closing time. I had to plead with the security guard, explaining our pilgrimage. He listened to my whole story, looked around and whispered, “Go’ne in, now.” God bless him; he gave us the run of the place. For the next hour, Cameron and I went to every exhibit in complete father/son solitude. We walked and talked and walked some more. People, the Birmingham Civil Right Institute is simply breathtaking (http://rg.bcri.org/gallery/). You will be moved.
Cameron, with his youthful & incredulous frustration and me with my middle-age gratitude, shed a tear or two or three. Ok, maybe four. It’s all very cleansing like a good cry at church and then a good benediction. Hopeful comes to mind. Thanks to the guard’s southern hospitality, we had all the time we needed to go full circle and come back to a place of progressive resolve and determination. So, in our final moments, Cammy & I formed a silent father/son pact about life, centered ourselves, took one last look back into a darkening museum and exited into the park.
It was just past sunset outside and suddenly some of the bronze statues had come to life. In the moonlit park, the statues milled about aimlessly, slowly and quietly. Still on our high from the Black History Museum, it all didn’t register at first. But as Cammy and I traversed the park, we realized that those weren’t statues of Freedom Fighters at all. Those weren’t the student protesters either. They were not the ghosts of the 4 little girls. In fact they weren’t statues at all but rather crackheads and dealers in a comfortable calm mercantile exchange. Surreal, I tell you.
I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone on principle but in that moment, a certain fundamental extremism overtook me and it all kinda made sense. Think of your most embracing black experience when you uncontrollably lamented, “Niggas!” and multiply it by 10. I felt they should all be immediately beheaded, for all of those who had died that they might dare live to defile that hallowed ground. If the Museum were an Islamic mosque, a Synagogue or Ground Zero, there’d be no conversation nor a blogpost. Black America, is there no hallowed ground for us, anywhere?
Thank you for reading this blogpost.