In firefighting it’s called a “rekindle”: A blaze thought to be extinguished that later reignites soon after firefighters have left the scene. Failure to find and douse embers smoldering behind walls and flooring leads to rekindles. The only thing that can prevent a rekindle is a thorough overhaul (tearing apart floors, ceilings and furniture). If a firefighter fails to conduct that overhaul, hours later they will be face to face with a second fire that often burns bigger and hotter than the original blaze.
“You gotta check the walls,” a firefighter friend of mine told me. “The floors, the insulation, the electrical wires, even the mattress. Fire hides everywhere. You have to get in the walls.”
He unknowingly explained to me the change happening not only in my hometown Birmingham, but Alabama as a whole.
To many people, laws and legislation over the past 50 years might have appeared to have extinguished the initial flames of racism, but black people have known for a long time that racism is still “in the walls.” And finally it seems like the people of Alabama are ready for a real overhaul.
We are a country in flux. We are a nation at its best because we are, in many ways, at our worst. But a recent trip through my home state has me hopeful that the country can evolve.
Birmingham was my home until I left for Los Angeles in 2007. My workload on “The Daily Show” coupled with fatherhood makes trips home even less frequent than before.
Alabama is an interesting place. It’s one of the few places in America you can be from that can elicit multiple reactions. If you’re from a popular American city, most people do the same thing: They first compliment your city, and then follow it up with a personal gripe about it.
“Oh you’re from Chicago?! That’s nice, the pizza, but oh my God the traffic.”
You tell someone you’re from Alabama, and they start with the gripe and then follow it up with a bigger gripe.
“Alabama? Wow, that’s nice, congrats on that football trophy; what’s up with that Roy Moore guy?”
Roy Moore has always been a walking headline in the state for his positions on everything from gay rights to dating women of a questionable age, but in some weird way he felt like an isolated Alabama problem. Then he ran for the U.S. Senate last year and became national.
I’ve never been a bigger fan of Alabama football than during that campaign last December: “Anything, please, anything to get people thinking differently about Alabama, even if only for a few days.”
People from Alabama living outside the state have an unofficial job as P.R. rep for it. The moment someone attacks your state you have to start the spin job like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Listen, I know you’ve heard a lot about the elected officials where I’m from, but I assure you that they don’t represent the views of everyone who lives there. It’s full of good people who do the right thing more often than not.”
The most important work in Alabama is happening south of Birmingham in the Black Belt. Aside from black women leading the charge to get Doug Jones elected to the Senate against Mr. Moore, the biggest indicator of an effort to get in the walls and extinguish the past lies in Montgomery and the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Less than a mile away is the equally riveting Legacy Museum.
The Peace and Justice memorial was erected to honor those who died during lynchings, not only in the Jim Crow South but also as far west as California. The more than 4,000 names that they could find, each have their place engraved somewhere on the grounds. Tribute is also paid to the scores of unnamed victims of lynchings. Even more jarring than the names on the wall are the reasons some of the dead were lynched. Black people were lynched for doing anything from annoying a white woman to simply voting. Literally, just voting.
These lynchings remain of America’s greatest acts of domestic terrorism.
The museum’s “no selfies” policy is fitting considering that this place feels less like a memorial and more like an ongoing wake for the spirits of those who were wronged. It has the energy of a burial ground. And the same amount of silence.
Every single name that could be found is engraved somewhere on these grounds. Every single United States county where a lynching has occurred is documented here. It is only natural that you head to your own home county to see how much blood stains its soil. Some people cried, some strangers hugged, many conversed with strangers.
Around the corner is the Legacy Museum. If the lynching memorial captures the horrid culmination of manifested hate, then the Legacy Museum shows you everything else that was happening, then and now: A well-documented history of our country’s relationship with bigotry and ruling with fear.
The Legacy Museum shows you how that hatred began, the circumstances that fed it and where we are today as a society. Which is actually the most jarring part of the exhibit. When you can see what was happening decades ago and turn a corner and see what’s happening today, the similarities are stunning.
The lead designer on the exhibit is a company called Local Projects. Part of the company’s mission statement is to “test the limits of human interaction.”
You are for sure tested here.
The museum is immersive. Maybe to an emotional fault. Lifelike holograms portraying people from the past come to life and recount their trials.
An interactive booth allows you to pick up a phone and have a simulated conversation at a jail visitation window. You sit and interact with an actual formerly incarcerated person. In this “visitation,” you learn some of the inner workings of a prison system — that is not only not built to rehabilitate, but is eerily similar to the slavery of old. It’s very difficult to just go about your day after leaving such an experience; it stays with you.
It’s like that iconic N.F.L. image from 1982, when the San Diego Chargers, 13 minutes into overtime, defeated the Miami Dolphins in what is still considered to be one of the greatest football games in history. When it was over, the Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow had severe cramps, three stitches in his lip, dehydration and a pinched nerve.
A similar feeling of emotional exhaustion cloaks you as you leave the Legacy Museum. Anger, sadness and sorrow are also in this emotional cocktail. It’s heavy. Very heavy. But the fact that the museum even exists shows a willingness to confront the horrible past.
The phone policy here is even stricter than at the Peace and Justice Memorial. At the Legacy your phone must be turned off. So as the gravity of the situation weighs on your shoulders, you don’t have the comforts of social media to break up the emotions.
Strangers become your ally. And bonds are indeed made.
Journeys like this are part of the emotional cardio that must be done if Alabama and our country want to truly rise above their past reputations. For every “Confederate Memorial Day” there are concrete instances of people working actively to change the culture and image of the state.
If you really want to see something beautiful, witness the overhaul in Birmingham.
In the last election cycle in Birmingham/Jefferson County, nine black women judges were elected. And some have come out swinging with policies that treat the cause of many issues instead of the symptoms, like sending a defendant to night school or drug counseling instead of jail.
Birmingham’s new young Mayor Randall Woodfin is quickly infusing new thoughts, creating the Office of Social Justice that works to stamp out discrimination and give citizens a place to take their concerns. An effort to prevent another racial rekindling.
The city is in the final stages of creating a Small Business Task Force, with the goal of making Birmingham a hub for women and minority startups by 2020. African-American women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States, and yet little more than one- half of 1 percent currently obtain start-up/start up funding for their businesses or ideas.
The nonprofit Birmingham organization called Bronze Valley creates educational and organization opportunities for underrepresented communities, and at its first conference earlier this year a start-up called Mixtroz won $100,000 in the Rise of the Rest, a competition funded by the former AOL chief executive Steve Case. The Nashville-based mother-daughter team behind Mixtroz plan to relocate to Birmingham to develop their networking app.
A reporter for Forbes recently visited Birmingham and said this about a tech event: “Amid this mishmash of ideas, I couldn’t help but notice the gender breakdown in the room; According to my rough calculations, around 40 percent of people here were women, and 50 percent were African-American or Asian. That’s huge and far better than” Silicon Valley.
This is not the Alabama I grew up in; on the surface a lot of things are the same. There is for sure still discrimination. But Alabama has been the site of so many losses that it’s a place where you count the victories, no matter how small. Because they often point to something larger.
Still, I’m thankful that there a few things that never change, like the food. As soon as I walk out of the airport, I’m headed straight to get chicken wings from Green Acres, a burger from Milo’s and a slice of lemon pie from Jim ‘n Nick’s BBQ.
The only thing more plentiful in Birmingham than barbecue spots are churches. If you want good ribs or religion, we’ve got you covered.
I have to see a Birmingham Barons baseball game at the new ballpark downtown. And to see something unique, I try to find a Ramsay High School baseball game. An entirely black team in an era when African-American involvement in baseball is on a steady decline, it is funded by booster donations and the tireless work of the head coach Lavert Andrews.
The only way I can describe watching a game is that it’s like seeing mentorship happening in real time: To see coaches help instill values in young black men who could very well end up being a statistic. It’s a good hang in the Southern sun, but the snack selection at most high school games sucks. (Pick up a plate of smothered pork chops from Niki’s West on the way.)
How do I know Alabama is ready for a new future? Because it seems to finally be making a few steps toward getting in the walls, and stopping a racial rekindle.
You can travel anywhere and get a sense for adventure, but very few places will leave you with a sense of optimism for what’s to come.
Roy Wood Jr. is a correspondent for “The Daily Show” and the host of “This Is Not Happening,” both on Comedy Central.