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Stars Fell on Alabama

… And why wouldn’t they?

On our last day in Alabama, as my husband was closing up the moving truck and I was running around doing a final few cleaning chores, the neighbor who lived “behind” us (the house behind our back fence, the one with the all-night floodlights directed right into our bedroom window) came putting over to our front yard in his golf cart to ask if we were moving out or moving in.

He was an older white man, with two tow-heads hanging off the back of the golf cart; my husband tells me he turned his head and cussed when he found out we were leaving. He was really rooting for us to be moving in, it turns out, because he thought the neighborhood needed more of our type.

You know. Educators.

I tried hard to look for a silver lining about life in Alabama, the entire time I lived there (seven years!), but honestly it was this kind of crap, on a monthly basis, that made me so ecstatic when I finally got the hell outta there. I pray that I never have to go back.

In the spirit of being fair, here are the positives: You can wear sandals year-round, and the heating bill is never too bad. My M.A. is from Auburn University. I met my husband in Alabama and our first child was born there. We were able to rent our first two houses for far cheaper than we could have gotten away with in most places. I had several awesome jobs teaching ESL students, and my department and my students were fabulous. We know some cool people from Auburn, some who still live there, and when we were in the state we got to go to some fun parties.

But things were not all flip-flops and romance and grad school shenanigans. We got the sense that Alabama just didn’t like us, much. My husband, in particular, got the “yeww ain’t from around here, errr ya?” (he’s from Virginia, but his formative years were spent in California, and never got the southern accent) treatment frequently enough that it stopped being amusing and started making both of us paranoid. For instance: the few times a year we made reservations at nice restaurants always ended with us sitting behind a cash register, next to a bank of electrical outlets, or in the corner where they refill the drinks. I’m not sure if it was my spouse’s out-of-towner accent or our audacity in making reservations when they were recommended by the restaurant itself, but our fine dining experiences were a comic parade of us walking into an utterly empty dining area and promptly being guided by a snooty host (who clearly thought he was doing us a favor) to the table next to the bathrooms or the kitchen door.

But it wasn’t all lighthearted accent-ism and bad tables at restaurants, either! Sometimes it seemed that a general creeping shoddiness-entropy was slipping across whole businesses and towns while we lived there. My favorite chicken finger restaurant was a greasy, dark, falling-apart cave of a place. Large swathes of Montgomery look like abandoned industrial disaster zones. Once, in a local outdoorsy/sports store, I was browsing a rack of really cute skirts. I pulled one out for a closer look; it was made of tiers of recycled saree material, and I wanted to see the second layer’s pattern. A handwritten paper tag pinned to the skirt fell into my field of vision. Instead of a price, it had the words “Defective: Send to Auburn.” In a sweet little curvy script. I told some people about it, then felt like I was going insane–nobody I told seemed that impressed by my find, like they either didn’t believe me, or didn’t care that a business deliberately, specifically palmed off defective products at their Auburn branch.

The phrase became a sort of mantra for us afterwards (second only to declaring someone was “Pulling an Auburn” when we saw particularly egregious driving–like turning right on red from the left-hand turn lane). Meet a racist? “Defective: Send to Auburn.” Forced to pay to repair damage inflicted by a “certified” technician? “Defective: Send to Auburn.” Find out a student paper was 90% plagiarized word for word from Spark Notes? “Defective: Send to Auburn.” Once, my Composition class was completely derailed by the kid who admitted to selling his Adderall. His classmates all had their own cheeky anecdotes about using and abusing Adderall, like it was some kind of club or something. I guess we all got sent to Auburn that day.

In bad months I felt like this daily. Some of my K-12 English as a Second Language students picked up on this Alabama attitude frighteningly quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I had to tell one of my sixth grade boys, “I don’t care if your teacher doesn’t care if you copy and paste into your report. Do it right.“

In fact, what I occasionally heard while working with my youngest ESL students was the nail in the coffin for Alabama for me. Y’all. The racism. Not just the kids saying ching chang chong to my Korean students or asking the Taiwanese kids to speak Japanese. Not just the generic “hey those frat boys photo-lynched their pal in blackface” type of public scandals that pop up every so often.

One of my second graders, Minnie, who was scary smart and always wanted to share her Choco Heim cookies with me, told me the story of how her teacher explained the 2008 presidential race. Basically, she told me, “Teacher said that Obama doesn’t love God because he is a Muslim. And that made Aisha sad, because she is a Muslim.” I don’t know why I’m still so shocked, but this was a public school teacher saying these things.

Minnie’s partner in crime, a first grader called Manny (yes, I changed their names–but they really did have cutesy-matchy names), was at a private religious school, but he didn’t escape the attempted indoctrination there, either. He loved talking about Auburn sports, because that’s what all his best school friends talked about. One day, he casually mentioned that Cam Newton was his “favorite brown person.” I guess I have to give everyone involved credit for not using… an even grosser description?

One of my high school students, at a completely different religious private school, showed me her pictures of some sort of spirit day or pep rally, and one shot featured a bunch of wholesome white kids brandishing a noose (like, real rope with a real hangman’s knot). This one could have been possibly-maybe-sort-of-kind-of-harmless… just kidding, who lets kids run around with nooses? Even if this one’s not about race (and I doubt it), they were still playing with a real weapon on school grounds like it was no big deal.

This sounds like I actually just have a beef with racist frat boys and racist schools (and there’s more–ask me about the history textbooks re: the Civil War)… but one evening my husband and I were out for cheese fries and a buffalo chicken salad at a local bar and grill, and overheard some fellow customers talking about “N***** balls” as they strolled past our table. One: who even talks about balls enough that they have to designate which kind? Two: what. the. hell.

We always felt alienated and alien. One day, we tried out the newly-opened pizza place at the edge of town. They had a live banjo band performing. The whole restaurant was bobbing their heads and mouthing the lyrics to those socially-problematic favorites “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” and “Dixie.” There were no bluebirds on their shoulders. We didn’t see a single cotton field, but the old times there sure aren’t forgotten. Look away.

12 replies on “Stars Fell on Alabama”

As someone who moved to Alabama a few years ago, your post made me sad in how much I relate to it.

I recently got back in touch with a high school friend who’s working in Laos right now. I said how random that was, and he pointed out that it’s a lot less random than living in Alabama, and he was right.

But I love my job and I know how rare that is. I just keep trying to find the pockets of liberal people here where I can and take advantage of the criminally low cost of living here to travel to bluer states on vacation as often as I can.

Yeeaaah… It’s rough moving into Alabama, because you’re thinking “Everything I saw on the news… it can’t be true, right?” and then it kind of is.

We were in two college towns, which eased the blow considerably, I’m guessing (and my best friend was in Huntsville for a while, and that place is cool for food and diverse-ish population and space stuff). I was still teaching freshmen who thought Confederate flags + stripper silhouettes were totally fine to wear around me, in spite of my first-day lecture on y’all, no racism/sexism/etc.isms… but I could find cheap cheap adequate sushi, and we knew about 20 people we could depend on to roll their eyes with us when we recounted our tales of Alamabamama.

It does rule to live so cheap– we saved up and were able to have a month-long honeymoon in California without breaking the bank (too much).

Exactly. I started out in Tuscaloosa – a college town – and thought, okay, I can handle this, they’re even building a Starbucks next year. Now I’m in Montgomery and it is the Deep South, y’all. I never thought I would miss Tuscaloosa so much.

These are the places that make me think ‘yeah no’ when Boyfriend Freckle is talking about emigrating to the States. Of course, every country has them but I think what bugs me most is that it’s so ..effortless. No-one ponders what they are saying and how it can afflict others. They don’t feel the need to broaden their mindsets. urgh.

I think what threw me about Alabama was that I grew up next door in NW Georgia, and it was Not. Nearly. That. Bad. I guess maybe because we were close to Atlanta?

There were racists and jerks in Georgia, of course, because that’s basically everywhere, and definitely a little more obvious/in the open in the South than other places I’ve visited in the U.S. But just moving three hours away to the next state was like moving to a new country altogether.

I’m with you about the “why don’t they think about this?” mindset. When someone starts saying racist/sexist things to me, like I’m part of their gross club, I don’t know why my head doesn’t explode. What makes them think this basic stranger across from them is going to agree with that mess?

HA! Yes, the War of Northern Aggression. Although, tina6781’s got me beat, because I’ve Actually never heard it said with a straight face (it’s more of a thing I say when I hear Confederacy apologetics).

The sixth grade (?I think?) state history book has these disingenuous little “letters from an endearing southern kid to his northern cousin” in the Civil War chapters. They’re all like “Daddy says an army is coming to take our farm from us For No Reason, and I’m so scared, cousin. Are you scared about war and all our daddies dying??” and no mention of slavery… I can only imagine one letter says something like “Daddy says Lincoln wants to make my happy negro friends stop gardening! But I will miss sneaking them biscuits and having them sing me cheerful tunes!”

And a section in at least one chapter spends a couple of pages memorializing “heroic” Confederates.

holy shiiiiittt. your title is a mountain goats song. please please tell me you knew that! i don’t know if you saw my profile but i am super obsessed with the mountain goats like something fierce and it annoys my partner to no end.

also your piece was fantastic

Nope– but I did go look them up just now and listened to their “Stars Fell on Alabama,” so yay and thanks! They sound familiar-ish, but I definitely didn’t know about them until you said something.

And thank you for the kind feedback on my piece!

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