Bryan and I were in Birmingham for a Closure screening and Q&A, hosted by the Heart Gallery. We arrived excited to visit a city with such rich history and left with an indelible imprint on our souls, thanks largely to The Civil Rights Institute of Birmingham.
Images of performers in Blackface, replicas of the bus carrying the Freedom Riders, newspaper clippings from 1963, sounds of the civil rights movement and KKK paraphernalia lined a self-guided tour at the interactive sequential museum. Some people blazed through the years of the difficult and ugly history in an hour, others stood transfixed, one woman wiped away tears while standing in front of a billy club (donated by the Birmingham Fire Department). I wondered if she or a family member had been personally hurt by the club that was currently encased behind a plexi-glass box with a sign that said “Do Not Touch.” The museum is located at the corner of tragedy and hope. Across one street stands 16th Street Baptist Church, home of the deadly Birmingham Bombing. A glance in the other direction and you’ll see Kelly Ingram Park – the common meeting ground for planning marches, sit-ins and boycotts. The park is now beautifully manicured with chilling statues of attack dogs and high powered hoses shooting directly at you as you walk through the path. I couldn’t walk around the park without the awareness that those who fought for justice knew they would likely die without it.
In sadness, a clear representation of the disenfranchisement and oppression from which blacks continue to dig out, is evident as the park is also home to many homeless folks – the great majority being black. Police officers on bicycles circle the park in an attempt to appease the fears of the many tourists. One man aggressively approached Bryan and demanded that Bryan listen to him, frustrated that “…white men don’t listen to Black men anymore!” He shouted after us that Bryan, of all people, should show him respect – especially with a “…black girl on ya hip.” The respect the man demanded is warranted given our current climate of targeted police brutality and the our seeming inherent distrust of black men. Black solidarity is one thing, but harassing my husband, a white ally? That’s an entirely different story. I stood idly by, mute & frustrated to be the non-consenting exhibit of this man’s frustrations. Aware that my outward silence was only helping to perpetuate stereotypes, inwardly the gravity of the situation overwhelmed me. I’d just spent a couple hours touring an exhibit intending to show how far we’ve come with regards to race relations. Little did I know that the “exhibit” would continue outside of those museum walls, and that we, an interracial couple, would be the proof to the tiresome fact that we still have so far to go. Words from Martin Luther King (about his daughter) are etched in marble inside the museum; “ominous clouds of her inferiority began to cloud her mental sky.” It was as if those words were tattooed on my forehead during this interaction in the park.
As an interracial couple wandering through Birmingham, Alabama, we know that being the recipient of long stares, harassment & curiosity is one way the continued (yet hopefully not timeless) truths of MLK’s words continue to ring true. It is clear to me that we continue to live within an “airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”