Home Sweet Selma
When RATco and the Freedom Foundation talk about how they’re all one big, giant family, believe them. It’s nothing but the truth.
My overwhelming initiation all began after I rushed to catch an early 7AM flight to Atlanta after arriving at the airport at about 6:20AM (Sorry, Mom!). Everything went smooth and my flight to Montgomery airport was teeming with anticipation and excitement. As I walked from inside the plane to the waiting area, the air seemed stiff and humid. I almost felt like I traveled back in time, and I did. Selma is one hour behind my hometown in Northern Virginia.
However, after passing the Pettus bridge and learning about the history of this small town, the hour behind felt comparable to the decades behind Selma really was in terms of integration and social expectations. There was generally not a lot prejudice among the people themselves, but the systems in which they lived their lives encouraged, emphasized and shoved ancient concepts of segregation and illogical fear down their throats. It was like this: there was a small, wealthy group of white people in power who wanted to remain in power and did so by economic segregation. As I heard a multitude of times, the racism was just really convenient. Although not legally segregated, the public schools in town were nearly all black and the private schools were nearly all white. Coming from the semi-North, I did not know how to react to such overt racism. I was used to things like “jokes” about how ratchet and underprivileged black people were and being asked and limited to hitting my dougie and nene on the dance floor. Never the less, I am extremely fortunate to journey into Selma’s past, present and future with a variety of the most wonderful people.
As soon as we arrived in Selma, we were greeted with an overpowering welcome. Everyone wanted to say hi, know how we were doing and if we needed anything at all. The introvert in me balled up, pleasantly observing everything around me. But there’s hardly any room for introverts in a family where laughter is a constant and someone’s always smiling. In a community where things could seem so dark, here was a group of people who refused to turn off the light. They were active, engaging and most importantly, there for each other. It was if the outdated laws that city council placed on their lives didn’t matter because their mutual love and respect was greater. However, things like having a confederate monument erected on a private acre of land in the middle of a public cemetery were painful reminders of work that was yet to be done.
I learned very rapidly that Selma was not just a small, quaint town that had a few segregation problems. In fact, it also functioned with some of the same issues as inner cities in regards to high crime rates and levels of income inequality. Based on a quick google search and numerous conversations with the residents and volunteers of Selma, it was confirmed over and over again that there was generally sustained prosperity within the white community but not so much in the black community. For some general ideas of how stark this gap was, the median income for 80% of Selma’s black population was around $11,000/year. However, the median income for the remaining 20% white population was about 6x that at $60,000/year. The small percentage of the population that was neither, generally was well above the poverty line as well. It was this, and Selma’s rampant history of slavery and southern confederacy that contributed to the slow, visible progression in Selma’s economy and social structure.
On our tour of the Tepper’s building, home to RATco’s future motherboard of performances and rehearsals, we had an eye-opening history lesson. Standing on the top of the roof, we looked atop downtown Selma and the visible surrounding areas.
“Look over there. At the red building. Look inside,” said Cody, a volunteer and well-respected police officer.
Our eyes wandered to the seemingly normal building. Then they traveled up. There was nothing behind the decorated storefront that at first glance, gave the impression of an old food storage place. I think I even saw trees growing from years of abandonment.
“Turn your eyes to the building next to it. Look at the windows.”
My eyes wandered once again, staring at empty black windows and an intricate display arrangement of books and historic souvenirs in one of the storefronts. I had no idea what I was looking at.
“Those windows are painted black. And the storefront… isn’t even a store. It’s just there for show.”
I lost myself for a second, allowing my body to go limp. Selma was like a gold cap with a rotting tooth underneath. Upon a visit during jubilee, it seemed like an old, historic town. But it was so much more than that. It was a place where a few selfish persons could quiet the ambitions and potential of others because they didn’t want anyone else to realize how special they could be.
Throughout the week leading up to our rooftop tour, we had been learning about the history of the town. It had once been a major destination in the slave trade and the auction house was still in decent condition as it had been a restaurant a few years ago. It was hard to imagine life in Selma during those times, especially as a second hand citizen slave. It was even harder to contemplate and predict the limitations faced by low-income Black families and the sometimes overwhelming hyper sexualization felt as a woman.
My first privilege check was grocery shopping at Wal Mart. We were given a healthy food budget with additional money for spending and other recreational activities. Growing up, I had the under appreciated benefit of never really worrying about how much food cost. If I liked it, I threw it in the cart. I was accustomed to eating a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruits and whatever else my parents desired from the grocery store and farmer’s market. As pretentious as it may sound, I rarely had to acknowledge how expensive fresh, unprocessed food was until I was given a grocery budget. I nearly maxed out on the first trip, frantically putting back items as the total cost soared with every scan of strawberries, grapes and bananas. Yikes. After putting my groceries away, I began to think about the food constraints that many families in Selma had to deal with. I was only buying groceries for myself and I nearly spent all my money for the week in one day. But if I was shopping for a family of 4 or 5 people using the same budget, I would have had to rethink everything in my cart. My focus would have shifted, from nutrition information to serving sizes, from eating healthy to making sure everyone ate. It was a reality I did not have to think about nor experience at home, a direct product of my privilege that in no way negated another reality’s existence.
My second privilege check was when I had to change out of my dashiki dress-shirt in order to avoid unwanted attention and comments. Given that my hometown was so near the nation’s capital, it functioned as an urban suburb area. People generally tried to keep up with the latest trends, no matter how skimpy or baggy the clothing would be. It just looked cool. The fashion focus for women in Selma was a tad different, something I failed to acknowledge that day. Cat calling culture is different here, it is direct and often comes in the form of objectifying stares and sly ‘how are you doing’s. In NoVA, I was used to being objectified through perverted messages on Tinder and not so much the staring part.
Even in 95 degree weather, it was common to see women in jeans and a decently modest t-shirt. Dressing in a modest manner restored some sense of civil normalcy amongst men and woman. It allowed trips to the gas station to be more about how many gallons were going in the tank rather than who was staring at your tank.
That Saturday, we made a trip to Montgomery and I discovered just how uncomfortable the cat calling culture could be. I chose to wear a long, pink sundress that showed as much skin as a tank top with spaghetti straps. I even used my long braids to help cover up part of my shoulders, but it was no use. We stopped for snacks to take into the movies and as I was about to purchase my goods, I felt a pair of eyes watching me. I turned around, only to discover that an older, random man had been checking me out. I felt myself adjusting my straps, pulling up my top and arranging my hair to show what little skin I was showing. I was more focused on not drawing attention to myself than actually giving my attention to the people around me.
On Sunday, we made our way to Wal Mart again for our weekly grocery shopping and I tried to play it safe with my outfit choice. I wore a long, loose tank top and leggings. I still felt a bit uncomfortable when I flashed a friendly smile at an older man (he could have been my grandpa!) and he returned it with a smile and greeting that implied a gross, sexual perversion. With moments like these, I could feel myself begin to harden a little. I couldn’t even be friendly without some man’s thoughts wandering elsewhere. Then I thought of the women who had grown up in the same culture. I began to understand why, no matter how hot it was, they would cover up as much as possible. Dressing scantily would incorporate unnecessary elements into their lives and now mine.
There was and is a lot to learn about Selma and I’m learning everything at a rapid pace. But for the next couple of weeks, I’m excited to learn and grow as a person with a supportive family that works tirelessly to progress an often unsupportive town.
Andeulazia Hughes-Murdock ’18