After eleven months in Birmingham, Alabama, I left for Denver, Colorado. I was excited about my new teaching and studying life in Denver, but also sad to be leaving a place that had been home to me in every sense of the word. I wondered if I would ever find the same generosity.
The moment I arrived in Birmingham, I was received with love, a welcome dinner, laughter, and in a matter of hours I felt at home. Love continued throughout my stay. Within two weeks I found an apartment—with help from my new friends and fellow teachers—moved in and was told to make a list of whatever item I needed. Within twenty-four hours my house was filled with every lovely thing—a beautiful brown couch, an orange armchair that became my favorite relaxing seat, got me floating gently into pleasantness, leaving all tiredness behind. I was also given a computer table and chair, a dining table complete with four chairs, a brand new bed and mattress, and everything that I needed for the kitchen: plates, glasses, cups, kettle, pots, pans, and utensils.
I felt lifted up, light, fluid, melted by all that love; I wondered what I had done to deserve such care and compassion. I had simply showed up, and the residents had done what they thought was theirs to do; for them hospitality was second nature. Humbled and eased into comfort, it was not hard to enjoy my job.
In my short teaching career, I had thought it was okay to like students, be friendly and helpful, but also to maintain a respectable distance. My students at Alabama School of Fine Arts changed all that. It was love or nothing. Bonding. Knowing that I was from Uganda, they were keen to introduce Southern cooking to me. Before I knew it we were having buffets in class: collard greens cooked Southern style, shrimp, ham, chicken, grits…And never did any one of them falter in their assignments or fail to submit work on time. Their stories were delightful, wonderfully crafted, heartfelt and compelling.
When it was time for my departure, all I could think of was my students’ warmth and laughter, intelligence and humor; their remarkable poems and stories; their honesty, enthusiasm, and trust. I was aware by then that most of them had shared with me truths and concerns they wouldn’t have revealed to others. They had sensed that I would understand and help. They transformed me, giving me the best alive experiences.
The month of February was especially packed with activities that involved marches, visits to the Civil Rights Museum, (just a few blocks away from the school), and, opposite the museum, the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls had died in a bomb explosion during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. I was glad to witness the 50th Anniversary celebrations at the church in 2013, and to chat with the “babies” who had been a year old during those turbulent times of the 1960s, and who were now mature men and women. I wondered how much they remembered, and if a lot had changed after all.
On a Sunday, in that baptist church with its red cushioned chairs, I sat in the chair that had welcomed Martin Luther King, Jr., and I listened to the energetic, soulful singing, feeling transported to a time in the past, a time before I was even conceived. I felt one with history, the present, and the future. Everything flowed seamlessly back and forth, there was no boundary separating the three. I had to pinch myself to know where I was and was not. In that moment I understood the impression of liminal spaces, when the curtain wall cracks just enough to let in a little light for one to perceive briefly another lifetime. I looked into the mosaic glass window (now restored) that had splintered as the bomb exploded that September day in 1963, claiming those four young girls. I glanced around me and wondered how I came to be so lucky to be in the past and present at the same time. I said a prayer for little girls who are still growing and don’t know the terrible times that befell those who came before them. I prayed for the little boys too, that amongst them we might have as many Kings as seashells on the shore.
The Civil Rights Museum taught me about what got “left out” in school. I learnt the true meaning of struggle; that revolutions whose time has come can never be extinguished; that the past is vital and breathing in the hearts of all who care; that the fruits of today are the pains of yesterday. And when I set my eyes to the Vulcan, the world’s largest cast-iron statue – now 110 years old and still watching over the city – I realized that the god of forge and the goddess of fire are precisely what all men, women, and children need, and that that was what Birmingham had given me.
Back in class we ended the 2013 commemorations with two poems by Langston Hughes, Daybreak in Alabama and Birmingham Sunday, which we read out loud.
But the most wholesome tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy is Arthur Flowers’ book: I See The Promised Land, published by Tara Books in 2010. An extraordinary graphic version of King’s life, it beckons the reader to sit down and listen to a good story “replete with the Will of the Gods, with Fate and Destiny and The Human Condition.” Arthur, being a hoodoo Lord of the Delta, a Memphis native, strings out the narrative with griot rhythms and an invocation to Legba to open the gate. The story is riveting, and the book stands out as a distinctive collaboration with Manu Chitrakar and Guglielmo Rossi. Chitrakar’s free-floating images are rich with color and texture, deeply steeped in the Patua scroll-painting tradition of Bengal, India. Flowing in and out of the text, they are the perfect complement to the narrative. I See The Promised Land is a book everyone should read, an essential addition to any art or biography collection.
. . . Langston Hughes (1902-1967) Daybreak in Alabama
When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I’m gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I’m gonna put some tall tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I’m gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
. . .
Birmingham Sunday (September 15th, 1963)
Four little girls
Who went to Sunday School that day
And never came back home at all–
But left instead
Their blood upon the wall
With spattered flesh
And bloodied Sunday dresses
Scorched by dynamite that
China made aeons ago
Did not know what China made
Before China was ever Red at all
Would ever redden with their blood
This Birmingham-on-Sunday wall.
Four tiny little girls
Who left their blood upon that wall,
In little graves today await:
The dynamite that might ignite
The ancient fuse of Dragon Kings
Whose tomorrow sings a hymn
The missionaries never taught
In Christian Sunday School
To implement the Golden Rule.
Four little girls
Might be awakened someday soon
By songs upon the breeze
As yet unfelt among
. . . . .
To read more essay-and-poem features by Mildred K. Barya at Zócalo Poets, click on her name under “Guest Editors” in the right-hand column…