Can Iron Catch Flame?
There are railroad tracks in the sand. They dip and dive into the earth, only to re-emerge several feet from me without warning. But my eyes are trained. They see what cannot be fully covered. These gnarled, land-trapped metal lines run as far as I can see up and down the coastline of the Black Warrior River, flowing just behind the University of Alabama. After initially discovering these tracks, I was told by a friend that they had been used to support the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. But, in the last year of that brutal war, General Croxton with the Union Army took the city of Tuscaloosa—this city—by fire, and so with it took these tracks. Iron bones. Cremated, buried, rising. My mind wanders along them, wanting to raise them, to straighten them, to give them life. Maybe once healed they would speak. Maybe they could give me peace in knowing that the Black Warrior River—my Alabama Walden Pond—and the town that surrounds isn’t all bad.
I have lived in Tuscaloosa and taken solace here, in this park, in this very spot, on this very boulder, for almost a year now. No longer do I notice the curious strangers who flit past, directing over-emphasized blessings my way. No longer do I register the cacophonous buzz of the jack hammer some short distance to my left. The construction is never ending. They’re always building and rebuilding this place, this state, for one reason or another. This time, construction began after the massive tornado of April, 2011. It evolved into the current drive for University expansion. I’ve grown accustomed to this place, over time, and I have learned to tune it all out. Today, like every day, my plan is to read one of my many well-intended Kindle purchases. Yet the river, nestled against the bank and several steps away, calls to me instead. On cue, I pack up and begin to walk.
I keep my eyes pointed towards the stone steps ahead that lead to the port dock below. I am vigilantly aware of the rail tracks around me. They follow me like a well-trained puppy, always popping up underfoot. But, as I move towards the water, I watch and take care to avoid them. The rails beg for engagement. I won’t give in. Every time I see them, though, I am mesmerized. Entranced. I want to follow them into the earth and back out again.
Tracks, sinking and rising. Time elapsed. There is a gnawing fear deep within me. I swallow it down but it lurches back up and lodges in my throat. The question is there all along, posed but not spoken to me: “what do you want to know?”
Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a politician, but I learned over time that I have no stomach for memorizing history. The actual details of mankind, of evolving American life, of lessons learned or passed on from Southern-esque mentalities, took care to cut and slice and bruise me. I learned young, from the spaces between lines of histories half told, that dragons and ghosts come in many forms, always when you least expect them. Little mixed girls learn quick to be wary of those who likely play dress-up with bed sheets.
The rails stare and I stare back. They dance with the dirt and mock and leer. They wait for my answer, already knowing…
On days when I head to the river and the red lights seem to always catch me, I am forced to face the only African American History Museum in town. It stands at the end of my sightline while I am stopped on Lurleen B. Wallace Boulevard, waiting to turn left towards the river. I cannot ignore it. I acknowledge silently that I should visit this museum sometime soon, but soon never comes.
The building itself is a green sherbet colored, wood panel 1920’s home built by the town’s first black mortician. Within the many walls of that two-story house resides a monument to prominent African Americans of the early 1900’s, or so the website says. Why the founders of the museum elected to memorialize African American lives strictly post 1900s, negating the role that African Americans played in building—even rebuilding—this city and state, strikes me as curious. Though, in a town still divided—out of habit; out of comfort in lines drawn—who can really handle a large dose of the truth? Who would sanction remembering that African Americans played a vital role in building Crimson Tide country? To date, a Googled page on the World Wide Web is the closest I’ve come to this partial hall of fame.
When feeling particularly bored, and when the river doesn’t quite soothe me, I pass this museum, continue on Lurleen B. Wallace Boulevard and turn left onto 15th Street. On auto pilot, I head towards the skeleton of a once beautiful home turned auto parts store turned historical mess. When I close my eyes—at any given place, date, or time—I can see it vividly, the Old Drish Mansion, with its peeling salmon-colored plaster and boarded-up windows. It is one of the last plantation homes in Tuscaloosa that is still erect, still protected, still waiting for restoration.
I’ve read all about this place: built by slave artisans, haunted either by the doctor’s voodoo wielding wife or the slave the original owners might have burned alive. A good portion of Tuscaloosa, south of the river, was once a part of the Drish plantation. Now, the circumference of the plot can be driven in three minutes or less.
To one side, there is an auto body shop as decrepit as the mansion. To the rear are clusters of dilapidated homes that house a large number of African Americans. Does it ever come to them in the middle of the night: the sound of suffering, of wounds, of ravishings that happened to their people on that land when that building was in its youth? Circling this crypt in a borrowed maroon Prius, I feel the weight of the home’s shadow. I don’t leave the car to go sit on the steps at the front of the double arched doors, now covered by plywood, but I want to.
The rails grow impatient and threaten to leave if I don’t ask already. So I do… “what was it like for General Croxton to set fire to an entire city?”
I tried to keep an open mind when I visited the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. Reticently, I went with both my youngest sister and a partner unacknowledged for fear of Southern hospitality. My sister was in town from Chicago and this was our last stop on her way home. In all the time that I had spent in Alabama, I had yet to visit it. Not because I was uninterested in learning about my heritage, or that of the South; but instead, because from the moment I first visited Alabama—when my partner and I drove from Arizona to Alabama searching for our soon to be new home—I hardly saw or felt real social progress, apart from moments already captured museums.
Also, in preparation for the move to Alabama, I had packed up—with the dishes and the linens and the other material things—important aspects of my identity: pieces of me that I felt were too revealing, too unsafe-in-foreign-uber-conservative-territory. Once relocated, unpacking occurred only as necessary.
Until my sister’s visit, I had merely been existing, experiencing, accepting. I suppressed a great majority of myself; rejected events and interactions that induced metaphysical question.
But, she had insisted we go. And, I gave in. She was so ready to go look history in the face and dare it to bind her. She was, she is, the spitting image of everything I once hoped to be.
We parked on the street across from the museum, diagonal to the 16th Street Baptist Church. They wanted to take in the scene: the park of bronze statues to our right as well as the interesting lack of traffic in a seemingly well populated area. I was, in turn, stuck staring across the street at the old stone church.
It took me a minute to place that building: those tiny footsteps; those little girls lost. When it hit me, I tried to imagine the church a smoking pile of broken brick, dust, and crushed beams. I thought, if I waited a while longer, I could sense the smell of smoke and ash; or maybe hear the screams of mothers whose daughters would be forever young. I didn’t wait, though, for the images to hit me or the ghosts to find me. I turned my back to the church and rejoined my companions. I left those feelings and footsteps abandoned on that corner where they belonged.
The museum’s entrance greeted us as we crossed the street. There was a large crowd outside the museum’s front doors, snapping photos and laughing loudly and sporting shirts that conveyed this was a family reunion. We moved past them and into the museum without a word.
I cannot adequately describe the feeling of rage relived, rage belittled, or rage unabated. Words alone could never do it justice. But, should I try, I’d say it was like being forced to relive the feeling of swallowed words when my mother was told in front of me that a hotel had no vacancy; but then, a family of walk-ins, white walk-ins, was shown several options as we were shown the door. Or, it was the feeling of moving to a home in a nice historic district five minutes from the University of Alabama, only to realize that I was seemingly the only black person living on the frontline of the neighborhood with the strictly white families.
Afterwards, we ate tacos from the Dos Hermanos food truck, which was parked outside a Chevron. It was my first taste of truly authentic Mexican food since moving to the state. Everything thus far had been disappointing takes on Mexican: too-sweet fusions of South American and corporate TexMex. My palate, preferential to savory things, could not abide that, in the South, they sugarcoat everything.
Between savored bites of slow-roasted al-pastor and cabeza wrapped in warm corn tortillas, which dripped with tomatillo salsa, I let myself sink into comforting memories of home in Arizona. Authentic taquerias, which pop up as frequently as Starbucks, McDonalds, and Walgreens. Overheard Spanish and Spanglish conversations, which waft to your ears as you peruse any store. My best friend’s mom who, before moving back to Mexico city, cooked molletes for breakfast, tacos de lengua for lunch and dinner, and drank home-made sangria in the evening. Then, a sudden shift to memories of brave friends protesting SB 1070 on the steps of the Arizona State Capitol building. And later, voices on NPR comparing Alabama to Arizona, SB 56 to SB1070. News stories compounded of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, leaving Alabama in mass exodus as a reaction to the state passing the nation’s harshest immigration bill, which had replicated elements of SB1070 but far surpassed Arizona’s legislation in cruelness. Yet again, Alabama had won the game of who could hate the hardest.
Again, I didn’t discuss my thoughts with my love or my sister. Instead, I tucked them away in a deeply internal, safe place. I cleaned my plate. And then, I commented to my companions that the food had been a perfect ending to a good yet emotionally taxing day. How could I dwell on issues of race and government sanctioned hate when those issues are never ending? I had to keep moving. No matter the place or the decade, though the faces of the oppressed and the oppressor may change, prejudice and ignorance are for many people comforting, back-home tastes.
The rails are hard and cold and twisted. They hear my pleading, my anxiety, but no response. I continue, pulse beating like Akan talking drums, “what exactly does iron sound like as the flame surrounds it, catching and licking, red hot imposing on cold metal? Can iron catch flame?”
From the day I arrived in Alabama (2013) to well past the day I returned home to Arizona (2014), discordant endings have cycled before my eyes.
Willie Edwards (1957)
James Earl Chaney (1964)
Jimmie Lee Jackson (1965)
Endings that cap brief lives, which comprise a black and white kaleidoscope reflection of current news feeds, archived stories, and inciting moments transmuted into accepted accidents; brief lives that speak to tendencies turned trend turned social problem uncorrected, even once exploded under the light of day.
Michael Brown (2014)
Eric Garner (2014)
Freddie Gray (2015)
While living in Tuscaloosa, I went to the river seeking internal peace. I spent a year under trees attempting to be mindful of narratives, both past and present, which dictate aspects of my future, of my children’s future.
Yet, how could I find peace when while driving to the river I was confronted daily with scraggly, weathered, strictly-black faces popping in and out of trash cans? When meandering about the Crimson campus, I found University newspapers still on their Crimson White stands proclaiming “The Final Barrier: 50 years later, segregation still exists.” Or, when Alabama news channels, towards the end of the 2013-2014 school year, actually debated the legitimacy of under-handed legislation passed quickly in Hoover, AL, which dictated low-income parents in rural areas begin paying per child, monthly, for access to the tax-funded public school buses.
I tried to shut down the feelings that crashed like insurmountable waves against my overcast subconscious. I avoided news outlets and tried to accept that progress penetrates slowly the snow-globe South. I tried to find communion with the practicing progressives whom I did meet around town. But the heart-beat beneath the floorboards, the unspoken truth that I, that black lives, did not, do not, may not matter, defeated me.
Abandoning Alabama did not ease me, because the kaleidoscope just keeps spinning.
History and hashtags—like chains in the belly of a boat; like train tracks made of iron, which heat but never cinder—link and carry these stories and these souls to me long after I have left the river.
Iron cannot be burned, but it can be bent, reformed, transfigured into something new. I understand, but still, in this moment, I want to scream at the rails; to incinerate, to obliterate, to humble the rails. The tracks hear but do not heed me. They disappear without warning and take refuge in the earth. They shy away from the sun and remain, unaffected.
With steps uncounted and tracks unmoved, I finally arrive at the top of the Black Warrior River’s bank. I head down the steep concrete stairs to the port dock, running my hand along the damp iron railing. I think to myself that if I slip and fall there is no one below to catch me. So I cling to the railing and continue my descent.
The port landing is lined with black iron gates and black iron benches. Body pressed against the gate, I look down into the algae-filled water. There is about a six or seven foot drop from my eyes to the water’s surface. A half-dead trout floats by belly up, then a few moments later belly down, trying to swim against death.
I wait as close to the edge as the rigid gate will allow for the spirit of this place to find me. A steam boat passes instead. My mind wanders, again. How many slaves were forced to help chug chug chug those early steamboats down this waterway, bringing cotton to and from surrounding antebellum plantations? How many people purchases were made on shores long past this port, where the Bama Belle loads champagne for anticipated guests of another cruise hosted by the University? How many minorities, or those who supported equal rights for minorities, have floated down this river under the light of a Tuscaloosa moon: belly up, then belly down?
The sun beats down on me, and I am less and less aware of the purse and Kindle in my hands. I push my body into the bars, daring them to give, and close my eyes. I want to love this place. I want to know this place. I need something to redeem this place and this land and these people who bless me wantonly. I open my eyes and the view is still vacant. Glints of sunlight bounce up and blind me. I squint to look at the affluent homes across the river, homes to which I will never be invited. It is a strange path that the mind travels when racial tension falls on one’s shoulders, heavier than the damp air around.
I am not discouraged. The fire filling my core subsides and waits to irradiate iron another day.
Rosie Huf is the Senior Editor of Cleaver Magazine’s Life As Activism feature and manages the Editors’ Blog. She has had several interviews published in Superstition Review and written book reviews for Cleaver Magazine. She received her Master’s degree from Arizona State University, the concentration in Nonfiction and Publishing.