Marvin Gaye wrote a song called Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) and in an interview with Rolling Stone, said- “I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.” I painted a picture of Marvin Gaye when I was around 23 or 24 years old. Big fan. Not only do I love his music, his life- and death- in general is very interesting to me. Anything that takes me deeper… anything honest to soothe my soul.
I am currently reading Just Mercy, a #1 NY Times Bestseller by Alabama Attorney Bryan Stevenson. It is a powerful true story about the Equal Justice Initiative, the people the EJI represent, and the importance of confronting injustice. The contents are so gripping that the book couldn’t help but gain momentum and become adapted into a film, and a lot of important people are talking about it.
The book is infuriating to me for numerous reasons. For one, it is very personal. I know there are issues still to this day that make all of the contents in the book totally unsurprising, to say the least. I know the locations detailed in the book and I know that while, yes, there are so many people- including white people (like myself)- working to make Alabama better, there are also hoards of people doing the direct opposite. For reasons like personal gain and profit.
If you’ve been keeping up with this meek blog of mine, you may already know that I live in Alabama. I was born in Mobile in 1986 and have family along the Gulf Coast. Some have even served (and some currently serving) in Law Enforcement. I was raised in an overwhelmingly white, rural community that I refuse to name here because I have readers from around the globe and the name isn’t what is important. (I really don’t want a target on my backyard). As such, I can confidently attest that this book details problems that have been prevalent in this state from the beginning of its formation, and the problems have only gotten worse. One of the problems is that because there are so many distractions, people seem to only give a shit about money and possessions, so that our criminal justice system and Alabama Department of Corrections are topics that NOBODY wants to discuss. People actively avoid the subject altogether (but just love small talk and gossip and rumors), therefore there is no real demand for action or change. Since I am not people, it is a subject that I became immersed in at the height of Trump’s four year term. I could see with my own eyes what was happening because (as you may have read in a post I wrote several years ago), I have been able to harness my addiction to distraction and have no desire for money. Stupid me? Okay, I respond forever.
I stay focused on the things I deem important. One of those things at the top of my list involve my faith- and being that I was raised in a Church of Christ, I know the four gospels like the back of my hand. The text in red has been embedded deeply in my psyche and forgive me, but Jesus would have thrown tables across the room by now.
My family settled here five generations ago when my grandfather spotted this land marching on his way with fellow Union soldiers to battle in Atlanta. The story of my family’s journey from the north was detailed in our local paper and it is both legitimately interesting and inspiring. Once settled, they farmed and produced great crops- and people- and I am just one of hundreds of their descendants. Individually, I am nothing special, but the story and history means something to me because it gives me a root to blame for my urge to know and live in truth. And so now, let’s take a look at what is happening not just in the world… but right here, where I was born, raised and currently make my humble living, in the great state of Alabama.
Alabama is notoriously racist. One of the present day issues I have had to speak against is the lack of acknowledgment from my white counterparts that racism exists. Not only that, but that racism is (still) a problem here. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard folks saying bullshit like “I don’t think we have a racism issue, or even a homophobia issue, I think we just have a people issue.” My reaction was (lol) “Do what?!” I would assume the person never goes outside of their workplace or home if they truly believe this. And if that is the case, I would assume the person is a closet racist or homophobe themselves. Sigh. I have also heard people quickly defend their own families by saying things like “My daddy was dirt poor and would have given the shirt off his back for anybody in need”, to which I immediately respond in my head, thinking- “Okay, but what does this have to do with the fact that there was a group of white men screaming ‘White power!’ outside of the most popular barbecue joint the other night?” or the fact that there was a group of grown men in pick up trucks parked in front of a public park to intimidate SCHOOL CHILDREN who were so bold to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter”? (And while our community was mourning the losses of numerous children of color who had all passed suddenly). Why did local law enforcement feel the need to show up and were quoted to say they did so because of “the possibility of a potential clash”? I stare, blinking, silence deafening my ears, and move on, backing away slowly with my hands in the air… retreating from the clueless.
People are so quick to use phrases like “Be kind” or words like “Forgiveness” but that simply isn’t enough. Sorry. If you disagree, forgive me. But I’m right. Kindness does not fix the broken criminal justice system in Alabama, the beautiful, which is affecting not only those who are incarcerated and their loved ones, but each and every single damned one of us. What we need is competence and people to know and care about the truth. Unfortunately, competence in these parts is few and far between, and people fail to know and care about the truth when it makes them look like they associate with very bad people who do very bad things. Yeah, I know your dad would have given his right arm if it meant helping someone in need, but that doesn’t mean his golf buddy isn’t capable of sentencing a man to life in prison because his skin is darker than his own. It seems like a true David and Goliath story when you take into account that the overwhelming majority of folks around here fail to see this as an issue at all and the white sounding names they have elected are actively working to shut down any and all means of educating the public on these very real problems that only seem to grow more intrusive as we do see more color in our population.
One of my best friends whom I met while working in screen printing is what they call a Dreamer. She came here from Mexico when she was fifteen years old. Probably the nicest, most giving and loyal person I have ever known. Been through literal hell. She makes her home here and while raising sons and in the year 2021, encounters people in public who are vocally racist. I could tell story after story after story of her crying and telling me of an ordeal and me becoming enraged and defensive. This is nothing new. This is the same old song and dance since I was fifteen years old myself. And as Bryan Stevenson detailed in his amazing book, the same has been true for decades. I also could tell you story after story of my white friends hearing me bitch and respond only with- “It’s everywhere”.
Yeah, I know. But it feels like it is especially here.
For months, I would do nothing but work, take care of my general responsibilities, and read. I would read and read and read. Then I began to dig and dig and dig. Just call me Trixie Belden. I befriended several Alabama journalists, one of whom encouraged me to keep writing. “Keep writing, you’re obviously good at it.” Imagine my ego after reading this, the idea that this seasoned and prolific journalist whom I considered to be a hero, tapping the keys to make this remark to me– an absolute nobody! I considered what it must feel like to be an inmate, sweating in a heat box down in Tuscaloosa, receiving a letter of encouragement from someone- anyone– from the outside.
John Archibald is one notable, long time journalist from Alabama who was born of a minister and also knows The Bible well enough to feel the duty to correct the oppressors. He, too, wrote a book (I have not yet read, but it’s on my list) called Shaking the Gates of Hell. I can already imagine the contents and know what it is generally about, which is why I have put off reading it- for the sake of my sanity. But this man engaged with me a few times on social media and was incredibly thoughtful and I feel lucky that he spent any time at all reading and responding to any small thing I had to say. Another journalist I admire greatly, perhaps most of all, is a heart attack survivor, dog mom, and general badass. She spends almost all her waking hours engaging with prisoners in Alabama, working to shed light on their cases, including those who have committed suicide or had been murdered or died in such harsh conditions, and writing publications that not only beg the question: “What the hell is going on?” (she actually published this), but literally demand answers. The question has been sung before- “What’s going on?” in more polite terms by you know who.
Other groups, like Reckon South and Southern Poverty Law Center, are also among the fleet, comprised of tender hearted but bold and courageous people, working for real change. I want anyone who reads this to know that, yes- we have a problem. And yes- there is a reason for anonymity. The problem is old. The problem has roots. The roots are deep.
Hence, the deep south. And yeah, it’s hot as hell- and getting hotter. Marvin Gaye would be writing up a storm, I assure you.
I don’t know what the answers are. But I at least have a good idea of what the questions should be. I will continue asking questions until I am satisfied, though I fear that day will not come in my lifetime. I applaud writers who put their name on their work, though. I applaud Marvin Gaye and Bryan Stevenson and John Archibald and my journalist friends and anyone else who works hard in our communities to make them more inclusive, and safer- for all. I see you, too. This is what reaffirms my faith- the angels.
But damn, the demons are running amok.
I am not afraid. If you, too, find yourself seeking truth to reach your soul, do not be afraid. You are not alone.