Birmingham Taught Me

I’m finishing my application for the OFA organizing fellowship. One of the questions is what you learned growing up in your community, and I can’t tell if what I’ve written clearly communicates what’s in my head. Thoughts?

And for the love of all things good, pleasepleasePLEASE point out any typos or other errors.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama.

I knew men with gun racks and Confederate battle flags on their pickup trucks. I’ve visited Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and made myself keep watching grainy black-and-white videos of explosions and fire hoses and German shepherds. I’ve watched the KKK march down streets they wished Bull Connor still controlled. I’ve heard politicians brag about enacting the country’s harshest immigration laws and gutting the Voting Rights Act.

I’ve also heard honest dialogue about “benign” and malignant racism. I’ve read and reread Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve pinned ribbons to my shirt to protest Klan marches. I’ve watched religious leaders openly defy laws that treat immigrants as something less than people.

I was taught to “behave like a lady”: to be agreeable and acquiescent, to sit right and walk right and eat right, to never speak out of turn, no matter how bad something needed saying. I stopped counting how many men told me not to worry my pretty little head over issues I thought were important. I remember the day Eric Robert Rudolph bombed an abortion clinic, killing a police officer and injuring a nurse, and I remember how many people said they deserved it for working somewhere like that.

I learned to speak anyway. I pushed myself to do twice as well to prove my being female wasn’t a deficit. Teachers showed me how to use the brain inside my pretty little head, taught me to observe, reason, describe, argue. I learned I could reject female gender roles that didn’t fit me but still cultivate the respect, grace, and hospitality of a Southern lady. I sat in a high school English class and heard “Birmingham Sunday” and “Hello Birmingham” for the first time–the first voices of dissent I learned. I stood in the January cold where an abortion clinic still stood, facing a pro-life protest with twice our numbers.

Birmingham taught me that we can only move forward if we can acknowledge and learn from the traumas of our histories. Birmingham taught me that I must speak, even if my voice is the only one protesting against status quo. Birmingham taught me that I have to be willing to work for good in my community, to mix old traumas with hope and shape a future out of both.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Birmingham Taught Me

  1. I think the essay is very well written. I don’t know if this is accurate not growing up in the south or even really visiting there. But you’re part about them telling you “I stopped counting how many men told me not to worry my pretty little head over issues I thought were important.” maybe want to include or clarify that they meant political issues, of course that is only if they were implying that. But still well written.

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