Monday was our second whole day in the wonderful town of Selma, Alabama. The Voting Rights Museum and Institute was the sponsor of the Jubilee festivities, and we drove straight over there first thing in the morning. It is a storefront place, modestly marked with maroon letters and a small awning. Inside there is a low ceiling and worn carpet. In the front room, one whole wall is covered in mirrored panes, etched with a picture of the Edmund Pettus bridge. Another whole wall is the “I Was There” wall. Those people who took part in Bloody Sunday in any capacity fill out cards describing their experiences, and those cards are tacked to the wall. Rosa Parks is up there, so are the mayor from that time, and even a couple of men who, as Alabama state troopers, attacked marchers on that day.

Our guide at the museum was Laurence Huggins. It really amazes me every time we meet someone who was a freedom fighter during this time. I spend so much time studying history from literally ages ago – ancient or medieval Europe, the foundations of Christianity. I feel like someone had splashed my face with cold water- it is that rejuvenating and surprising to actually touch and talk to people who lived history and made history and are history. Of course, they didn’t think anything like that at the time. They just did what they had to do, what they knew was right.

Two pictures of Laurence: one from Monday, and one from the front page of the Selma paper, more than 40 years ago. That is Sheriff Clarke shoving him in the stomach with a baton as he stands outside the Dallas County Courthouse demanding the right to vote.

The museum was shabby and small and very earnest. Everyone who worked there was a freedom fighter. Every photo- and, oh, what photos!- was carefully researched and collected. Every name carefully highlighted, famous or not. One room celebrated African-American women throughout American history- that is, pre-Movement history. So many strong women! Another room displayed the pictures of freedmen Congressmen and Senators from all over the United States, all elected in the year immediately following the Civil War. It was a moment in the sun for educated blacks, before segregation and Jim Crow kicked in. I had zero knowledge of this. Amazing.

From there, we met Joanne Bland, this hilarious, strong woman with a huge attitude, who was 8 years old at the time of Bloody Sunday. She grew up in Selma and has lived here her whole life. She was our tour guide throughout the city. “This is MLK Street”, she said as we turned down the street by that name. “Every good city has one, and this is ours.” As we stood, once again, on the steps of Brown Chapel AME Church, staring at the Section 8 projects across the street, Joanne told us about coming mass meetings and hearing Dr. King. As cars drove by they would slow down and wave at her, and she would yell “Hey baby!” and wave back. She knew everyone. Then, a man walked up and gave her a big hug- this was yet another marcher who grew up in Selma. He had just stopped to say hi, and then told us his story, too.

As we walked down the street, Joanne waved hi to some men unloading their car, and other men walking down the street. “That’s the beauty of living in Selma”, she said over her shoulder. “You just see civil rights workers walking down the street, all cool.”

Then Joanne taught us how to say “po”. “Not POOR, po! This is the hood. We can’t afford the ‘r’.” She really has the gift of oral transmission. That is, she has absorbed the oral history of Selma, its homes, its people, its neighborhoods, and transmits them all by storytelling. And what a storyteller! As we drove around she would ramble off who used to in what house, who lives there now, her own stories from playing there as a kid. These stunning, just stunning homes in Selma’s historical district (the largest in the country) are slowing being renovated and restored one by one. She pointed out one house, freshly painted decorative wooden trim around the wrap-around porch and at the top corners of the bannisters. Decorative shutters. Picket fence. “It’s expensive to buy a house in these parts”, she said. “That one there was just bought for $175,000.”

$175,000. For a huge historic home in Selma, Alabama, built in the 1930’s. My.

In the 8th ward, Selma’s poorest neighborhood, the homes were smaller but in the same style. Horrible to say, in some ways it looked like New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Except for the fully grown trees and lack of water damage, there were many similarities. Broken glass, boarded windows, trash and broken furniture stacked in front yards, stray dogs. Old men sitting on empty porches, chain link surrounding 5-yard wide front yards, once bright colors faded and peeling. Historic decorative details missing or in disrepair. Broken cars parked in the street, in the yards, in the driveway. Closed business, one after the other after the other after the other.

No, truly, there were more closed and boarded up businesses in the entire city than there were open. This is not in the “modern” strip shopping centers on the freeway side of town. You know, the place with the fast food and Walgreen’s for all the drivers passing by or the tourist coming through. This is Selma. Selma by the river and by the tracks. Selma, where 70% of the population is black and the economic power of the town lies largely within the 30% of population that is well, not black.

Selma is home to three universities: Selma University- an historically black college with an enrollment of 287, Concordia College- another, larger, historically black college, and George Wallace Community College of Selma- named after the governor of Alabama during the years surrounding Bloody Sunday. His motto? “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Selma is “ideally is located right in the middle of nowhere”, says Joanne. Selma is the only place where Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King, Jr. will ever meet, in this life or the next- their respective streets intersect right at First Baptist Church, the church to which state troopers chased marchers, beating them and trampling them with horses. Selma is the city that re-elected its white mayor, who resisted desegregation, to twenty more years in office after the 1965 march, and in 2000, when the first black mayor was elected, Selma’s whites starting leaving in droves.

Selma is full of ironies. Selma is beautiful.

Preach!

March 10, 2008

Selma, Alabama. Bus boycott. March to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Brown Chapel AME Church. Rosa Parks. Bloody Sunday. Voting Rights Act. Sheriff Clarke. Teacher’s March.

History runs deep in the streets of Selma. We watched the Eyes on the Prize section that covered Bloody Sunday and the town looked exactly the same as it did in that film. It was cool because you could really get a sense of how the original march felt, 43 years ago. It was also sad, because Selma was so poor and didn’t seem to be kept up very well. Clearly there was a lot of pride in the history of Selma and the importance of the events there. But my overwhelming visual impression of the town was of abandoned houses, old mom-and-pop shops, and overgrown cements slab lots.

The service at Brown Chapel was amazing. Amazing! It was unlike anything I could have imagined. We were sitting there, all squeezed into the tiny balcony area, and there were 5 or 6 preachers sitting on the stage. Then Jesse Jackson walked in. A few minutes later, Al Sharpton walked in. Then Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee and Maxine Waters. Then Senator John Lewis and Senator Hank Sanders. Later, Judge Greg Mathis walked onto the stage. Each time a new person came, everyone shuffled around and gave that person a seat. There was constant conversation and hand shaking throughout the whole service. And everyone spoke! Everyone got up and gave a short lesson or greeting, and finally Jesse Jackson stood up and spoke for a long while. He told the story of how he and others went through the projects the night Reverend Reed was murdered and tried to get information. Brown Chapel is actually surrounded by identical-looking projects on two sides. Oh man, I had no idea any of those people would be there!

Rev. Jackson also spoke about the current presidential race and said that we are focusing too much on the horses in the “horse race” for presidency. Instead, he said, we should be focusing on the wagons that they are pulling and who is and is not in those wagons. We want a work horse! (YESSUH! Tell the truth, we need to hear it!) Not a show horse! (AMEN! Yes, brother! THAT’S RIGHT!) Focus on the wagon, brothers and sisters, and whose wagon we are actually in.

Takeaway quote: “The ground is no place for a champion, and nothing is too hard for God!”

I don’t know how to explain Al Sharpton’s sermon. It was one of the most amazing things that I have ever been a part of. He talked about combing his hair, and Joshua taking Moses’ bones across the river, and James Brown, and the evils of misogyny in rap music, and suffering being necessary for resurrection, and faith, and his mother, and young people. He joked and he yelled and he shook his fist. He spun around, sang, slammed his fist on the podium, and threw his arms in the air. It was wonderful. Wonderful.

At one point he asked the congregation to “turn briefly” to Romans 6. All the preachers on the stage started laughing- they are all old friends and I guess they knew that he could only have meant briefly in the broadest sense of the word. Jesse Jackson was sitting behind him and whenever he liked something that Al Sharpton said he was lean forward and hit him in the side. I mean, really whack him. It was so funny! The congregation and the choir was constantly standing up and down, screaming, shaking, falling over, waving their arms in the air…wonderful. So alive and joyful. And the organ. The organ! It had that tinny sound you hear on old gospel records. It was played during the choir’s songs, but also to emphasize points during Al Sharpton’s sermon.

For example, Al Sharpton was telling a story about how a white reporter came to church with him one Sunday and asked why a woman in the choir was waving her arms back and forth. “I SAID, you don’t know that woman!” (organ hits a few strong chords, congregation yells “YESSS!”, choir stands up and waves their arms) “She was at work one day!” (same response) “She passed out!” (“YESSSS!”) “Her boss wouldn’t pay her!” (“UH OH!”) “When she got out!”….”She got an eviction notice!”….”She had 72 hours!”…”She was packing her stuff!”…”She trusted GOD!”…”She went to the mailbox”…”There was a check in her mailbox!” (congregation stomps their feet, screams “YES JESUS!”, shakes their heads, practically faints all over themselves).

It was wonderful.

Takeaway quote: “They walked over that bridge so you could be more than a ho!” (referring to the degrading lyrics in rap music), and “The hands that picked cotton in Alabama are now going to pick a president!”

Then we marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and thought about the meaning of Bloody Sunday, and the change that was a result of the bravery of a hundred every day people in Selma.

More as I remember it.

The first stop on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage that I am on this Spring Break was New Orleans.

New Orleans has always had an air of mystery to me…the people there are so loyal to their city, so in love with it, and willing to go through a lot to stay.

In the morning we went to Dillard University, a historically black college in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. They had a few 9th graders from a nearby school come to the discussion. They were so smart and articulate and they spoke about being harassed by cops and seeing their friends and family members harassed. It was awful. I really don’t know why these issues have been so far out of my reality, but I suppose it’s because not much like that has every happened to me. One of them said (this is a 15-year-old boy) said “You know, I just don’t understand it. First there was slavery, then we were treated like nothing, and now… still nothing”. To hear those words out of the mouth of an American student, and person that lives in the same country and under the same laws that I do- it’s an awakening.

After hearing that and then seeing the emptiness and destruction of the 9th Ward, I feel embarrassed that this situation exists in my country. It is really awful, what I learned there. But good- very, very good- because I needed to know and there was no other way to really understand. It also make me feel simultaneously purposeful and purposeless. Strange way to feel.

“Moment of grace”, as Ray Jordan, the leader of our trip likes to say: dancing to When the Saints Come Marching In in the streets of the 9th Ward with residents celebrating the birthday of the recently deceased black fire chief. They’d started an impromptu parade with brass instruments and umbrellas. He was a good man, they said.

Good people are needed in New Orleans, seems like. The cops are corrupt, the people don’t trust the government at all. The hotels, casinos, bars, clubs, and gift shops are open and ready for business with a smile on. The projects and houses and schools and libraries are closed, boarded up, still spray painted with rescuers’ symbols and the word “HELP!”

What is going to be done?

images: steeple at Dillard, house in 9th Ward, people dancing in 9th Ward

Fin

September 13, 2007

Last Album of the Summer

These are the last pictures of my very first summer abroad. Most of them are from the cruise on the river Isis that we took as a last-minute “surprise”. Now, more than a month and a half later, it seems as if none of it actually happened. The physical memories- memories of sensations- have faded and the memories of emotion are what stick with me.

I can’t remember exactly what the wind felt like walking around the grounds of Blenheim, or how hot it was outside, but I can remember the feeling of pure awe at what I was seeing. Perhaps that is the most important thing, anyway. The fact that I discovered what it was inside of me that had led me to my major, my studies, my interests. Who knew that that was hiding in England this whole time, just waiting for me to come along and experience it and become enlightened and deepened and inspired. Cool!

Tonight, Tonight

August 4, 2007

Tonight was our farewell convocation and banquet. Awards were presented, toasts made, talents displayed, and general warm-fuzziness was had. It was very bittersweet. I don’t think I felt very sad until today, at least I didn’t really think about leaving and the end of the program.

I feel very, very sad. Sadder than I really know why, actually. I just don’t like the finality of it all- the sense that “This is it, old chaps”. Oh, I am not at ease with this parting at all. I can’t wait to get home to my bed and hug my mom and see my house. But I cannot imagine not returning here, to Univ and to Oxford- to England. That is the real sadness I think: that what is truly wonderful cannot be repeated, at least not in the same manner that it was.

Last Day in Oxford

August 3, 2007

So, I got out of my first exam this morning an hour and a half early and decided to run and try to sell some of my books back at Blackwell’s, the awesome 150-year-old bookstore on Broad Street. They only took back two of my books, for only 5L! I gave the rest to Oxfam on my way back to Univ. Then I stepped into the covered market to get a milkshake at Moomoo’s, this great smoothie place with over 200 combinations. I bought a banana-Dime bar-peanut butter milkshake and walked back to school to study for my second final.

The weather was perfect- surely one of the best days since we have been here. As I was walking I passed an elderly couple walking very slowly in the opposite direction, down the sidewalk towards St. Mary’s Cathedral.  They stopped and turned their faces up to see the very top of the huge steeple, and tilted their heads all the way back. They had huge smiles on their faces and you could tell they thought the whole sight was just beautiful. And then the old man reached for his wife’s hand, and she took it without looking and they stood there looking at the beautiful and ancient church against the bright blue sky.

Spending and Studying

August 2, 2007

It’s Thursday, which means I only have one and a half days left here in Oxford. Tomorrow will be spent doing…well, a lot of stuff. We have our two final exams, each three hours long. We also have our convocation and “going-down” banquet, which I gather is a sort of mini graduation from the program. There is an hour for lunch in there somewhere, too. Unfortunately it looks like I will be using that hour to sell back my books at Blackwell’s. They only buy books back before 1pm.

I am really going to miss this place. Life seems to move more slowly here. And there are endless amounts of things to see in Oxford. You could shop all day if you wanted to- and I have never seen so many great sales in one place. You can read, sleep, or picnic on Christ Church Meadow on every sunny day. Or you can tour any of Oxford University’s 32 colleges, or one of the old churches around here. You an go punting on the river, rent a bike and ride a few miles into the English countryside, or climb to the top of the mot at Oxford Castle. And a short bus ride will take you to any number of great places: London, Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle, the Cotswolds, Klemscot Manor.

I don’t know. I feel very unprepared for the busy semester ahead. On one hand I feel very motivated. I had a great chat with Prof. Bonnie Wheeler (affectionately known as “Bon-bon”) and she gave me some good insight into grad school and what kinds of classes I should be taking. She also reminded me that these four years of college (now just two!) are one of the only times in my life that I will be able to focus entirely on me. I should be expanding my mind, figuring out who I am and what I want, and all of that rather gown-up sounding stuff. Good point, though.

On the other hand, I will be working in the mornings before class for the first time and I will be the ARA for an all first-year hall. Among other things. And, let’s face it, I like to sit around and do nothing.

I have to study King Arthur and the 18th century for tomorrow, so I’m going to go get started. I finally finished all my souvenir and gift shopping and am hoping to escape without spending any more money at all. That would be so amazing! Budget-wise this whole trip (with it’s little side-trips) has been a great learning experience. I created a really cool Excel document to keep track of my spending. Before I even left I budgeted out how much I would spend on food, the Paris trip, the France, Belgium trip, and other stuff.

One of the things I am most proud of is my Paris budget. Christina and I did a lot of research and made a lot of phone calls to figure out how to get good deals on everything. We got a great, cheap hostel and did a lot of research to find good deals on the Eurostar. We finally settled on buying a package deal from an STATravel agent. We agreed to set a $500 budget for the whole weekend, including spending money- and my total for the weekend was $499.80. CRAZY!

Right now the coffers are getting kind of low, so I need to be careful. But fortunately (and I recommend this), I kept some U.S. money and didn’t exchange it. That way I know that I will have money for the trip home whether or not my bank account is empty (not that I am expecting that…). And if I don’t spend it I can just redeposit it. The plus side is that whatever is in my bank account stays there once I leave Oxford…I don’t have to make any more withdrawals. Which is nice since it gives the illusion of not spending any money. It would be great if I could amend my budget with a plus sign once I get home!

One other thing- did you know that you can’t exchange coins?? It makes me so angry, especially since there are no one or two pound bills or one or two Euro bills- only coins. Right now I have about 8 Euros in coins that I can’t exchange anywhere. So, word of advice: before you leave for the States convert as many of your coins into bills as you possibly can. Or spend them! Just don’t let them sit around making you feel all bitter.

Good Days

July 30, 2007

I just added some great pictures from a variety of things that I’ve been doing in the last week. These include pictures of our trip to Bath and Stonehenge, as well as some great pictures of exploring Oxford. Only one more week to do that, afterall!

PICTURES OF THE LAST WEEK

Today’s task is writing an essay on why Methodism was able to challenge the established church to dramatically in the 18th century. I also have about a hundred pages of reading from the legends of King Arthur. So, enjoy the pictures!

Christina recently pointed out some strange things that she has learned about me from being around me so much this summer. “Oh goody!”, I thought. “I love being odd!”

So I guess I am particularly fond of graveyards, clean pillowcases, fresh cherries, squirrels, mushrooms for breakfast, clean feet, lint-free clothing (and hence, lint rollers), and exploring! Oh, and sheep.

The clean feet thing became really apparent in Paris, where our feet got really dirty from walking around the subway and streets all day. I started carrying around anti-bacterial wipes and constantly asking Christina “Do my feet look dirty to you?” Haha, she was so annoyed. It was a losing battle, though. I think the last straw was when I asked her what she thought about me washing my feet in this bidet-like thing in our bathroom that looked more like a low sink and was maybe broken. I didn’t though, don’t worry. But I was tempted to.

Every morning here at Univ they serve a “full English breakfast”, which consists of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes, baked beans, cereal, yogurt, coffee, and orange juice. The mushrooms seemed like the best source of protein in that bunch so I have them every morning and they are delicious.

Also, there are graveyards (more specifically, graves) everywhere here! There will be one or two gravestones stuck in a corner of a garden, or next to a random sidewalk. Of course, there are also graveyards next to every church and more besides. Cool! It is so interesting to read the inscriptions, especially with the old ones. In the oldest graveyards there are lots and lots of children, I suppose because the life expectancy was so low and medical knowledge was lacking. Most of the gravestones I’ve seen list the name, dates of birth and death, age of the person when they died, closest relatives- sometimes even how they died. Fantastic!

OK, those are just some thoughts for now. I just got back from tea at The Rose, a great little tea place right down High Street. Classic Cream Tea is two just-made hot scones with fresh clotted cream and strawberry jam and a pot of tea. I had Earl Grey…mmmm. The pots of tea have the leaves right in them, so the bright yellow tea cups come with little strainers to pour your tea through. It’s fun. There is no way you can have a bad afternoon once you’ve had Cream Tea.

Blenheim Battle Prom

July 29, 2007

I just returned from the Annual Blenheim Battle Prom. Battle Proms (short for “promenades”) are a tradition in England, and they happen at various famous sites throughout the year. SMU-in-Oxford goes to this particular prom every year. It is basically a huge patriotic concert and fireworks show with lots of cannons going off and flag-waving. Your basic July 4th celebration at any major park in the U.S. minus the dirtiness and the national holiday.

Overall, it was pretty great. As I said in a much earlier post, Blenheim Palace is one of my favorite places in the world. We visited it within the first week of arriving here and I was literally speechless- it is a beautiful, beautiful place. The property is seven acres, and the prom took place on what was essentially a very large field surrounded by forest and within view of the palace itself. Another giant field nearby was designated for parking. A huge stage with speakers were set up, and to the left there was a large area roped off with probably two dozens cannons set up, ready to fire. Between the parking lot and the prom area were just a few booths. One sold hamburgers, another ale, another Free Trade and handmade goods, and yet another sold prom supplies: rugs (blankets), lanterns, hats, lawn chairs, England and UK flags, and glow-in-the-dark lightsabers and such for the kids.

It was a very neat and tidy affair. Prom goers brought tables and chairs, portable gazebos and tents, and lanterns. The tables were covered in table clothes, and real wine glasses and cutlery we packed into real wicker picnic baskets. Of course, there was threat of rain, so everyone had umbrellas. When it did begin sprinkling, all the British picnickers calmly opened their umbrellas and continued sipping wine and eating their dinners. A funny contrast from the smelly, drunken, and rather un-classy crowds at your usual American patriotic public gathering. The tickets were expensive at 32L ($64), but our British PA, Jamie, insisted that the crowd was working class. “Not middle class at all!”, he exclaimed when I protested that a working class crowd at such an event in the U.S. would not normally bring decorative candles and table centerpieces to a picnic in a wet field.

It was so heart-warming to see this big crowd get so into the old and wonderful patriotic hymns that were performed by the full orchestra on stage. I absolutely love songs like “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory”. Wonderful sound, too! They had the most amazing soprano performing, and all the Brits around us knew all the words to all the verses and sang along quite wholeheartedly. Lots of flag waving and swaying back and forth. It was so great! I love it when people are excited about their country and know the words.

Though there was food and ale at Blenheim, a lot of people brought their own liqueur. And by brought their own I mean the liqueur store down the street from Univ was out of plastic cups and cold beer by the time that we pulled out of Oxford. It was really quite ridiculous how much people brought with them. If there is one thing that has consistently bothered me during this trip it is the drinking. Without exaggeration, it is as if drinking is though of as an essential and integral part of the SMU-in-Oxford experience. Very annoying and low-minded, if you ask me. I felt like kind of a snob tonight because I wasn’t drinking and was getting very, very irritated with the silly behavior of my friends who were. Those who know me know that I have little patience as is, and that isn’t a good trait to have when surrounded by trying behavior.

Anyway, I just hate that judgmental, superior feeling that I get when I am in these situations. But I do feel somewhat justified. Man, I just wish that it wasn’t such an acceptable thing, to get drunk and act embarrassingly.

We left for Blenheim at 5pm, so before that I went on some fun little errands with Christina. We went to a few shops that we have been meaning to go to, including a wonderful, hidden little bookstore specializing in rare and antique theology books. Right up my alley! It was wonderful, but expensive. Being there reminded me that there is so much left in the world for me to read- a wonderful sort of realization.

Funny, in this short post I have mistyped probably a dozen words by spelling them the British way. Gah!