Mobile Bay is shaped like a baby’s foot, fat and uncallused. The water is murky teal. At the shore, crisp sea oats jut upward, proud. The seaweed lies liquid and listless. The city at the shore is old. In 1702, Mobile was the capital of French Louisiana, later usurped by New Orleans. NOLA would also claim Mardi Gras and the reputation for being simultaneously the most European and the most African of US cities. All that you imagine of the Big Easy: the masks, the parades, the bacchanals, the slave pens, the beads? It’s been in Mobile the longest, if not the biggest, on these shores. But I am not bitter at the status of New Orleans. That’s not why I mention this. I am just trying to shake loose what TV movies and official declarations have told you. Alabama is more than you think. Put another way: it’s been said, aptly, that Alabama is a long state with its head in Appalachia and its toes in the Gulf Coast—the gateway to the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Alabama is swampland, beach silt, mountains, cities and dirt roads, plump gourds hanging from trees cut down and hollowed out to house purple martins and fat finchlike birds called yellowhammers. It is a tessellated but uneven map of counties, events, senses that must be read, more than a little bit, with one’s feet and not with one’s predilections.
The year before I was born, in 1971, one of Mobile’s native sons, Albert Murray, by then a celebrated jazz critic and essayist, published a book called South to a Very Old Place. The South was changing, and Murray, who had settled in Harlem, went back to see for himself. A Tuskegee graduate and career military man, Murray was a master of the second person. He roped the reader into his sight with Jamesian devices and riotously intoxicating scenes. Murray is my tar baby. His words and ideas stick to me even when I don’t want them to. He tends to preach an Americana of which I am suspicious. But the South is changing again, and, like Murray, I want to tell it. And as the South goes, so goes the nation. He taught me that. Today, it seems we are collectively reverting to its ugliness, but maybe also to its wonder.
I was born north of Mobile, in Birmingham, closer to Alabama’s Appalachia and far from the coast. Despite the differences in our landscapes, I cling to Murray as my fellow Alabamian because he knew how to write through the trouble. That’s important, because when you write about returning home, and home is a place that echoes with national wounds, you run the risk of making it seem as though home is frozen except when you, the expatriate, return. That kind of work often reeks of the egotism of the Northeastern writer—and the idea that the interpretation of everything worth knowing depends upon her. The trick, I think, at least as I have tried to learn it at Murray’s proverbial feet, is to remix past and present, where time syncopates and repeats in a mix of yearning, hope, and loss.