Confronting Culture and Religion in Alabama

May 31st, 2011

I have spent a lot of time looking around, talking to people, and writing. It is now ten days from when I left home, and 30 to my birthday. I’ve used this past day to take a little break, relax, and do some thinking.

I’m in Montgomery, Alabama at a Days Inn. Across from me, an Inspector Investigator of oil and gas companies discusses the possibility of aliens building the pyramids with the hotel manager. They argue. A group of state senators come in, feverishly discussing the budget. Sitting here in Alabama, having driven through the heart of the Bible Belt, I cannot avoid considering religion. Every third radio station is religious talk radio, religious music, or country songs with religious lines, and I don’t own an ipod.

Driving south, I hear a man sing a gospel song on the radio: “I just can’t wait for heaven.” It turns my mental gears. I grew up religiousless. Theoretically Roman Catholic, and possibly secretly baptized as a child, I can count my Sunday’s in church on two hands, always with my grandma. Living away from home this past year gave me the opportunity to think about faith a little more, especially because at least three of my close friends believe strongly in god. At home in New York, everyone is either agnostic or quiet.

Ebenezer Baptist church, where Dr. King began preaching, was one place I stopped to consider faith.

I have faith, but my faith is in people. I got annoyed when I heard the line “I just can’t wait for heaven” because we have the ability to create heaven on earth. Our gift from “god” is our mental capacity to improve ourselves and others. No dolphin or primate has ever considered self improvement or societal betterment. We can and we should. To me, Heaven is not a place, but a place in time. Something we have the ability to create if we want too. Reaching heaven is dying satisfied.

I have never read the bible, but I get the sense that what we are being told in religious text is not that far off, only the interpretation makes a mistake. I get the feeling that when the bible describes that we should treat each other as we should like to be treated, and we can reach heaven, it is saying that if we do so, we can reach heaven by creating it. The idea of heaven occurring post death seems to me to provide an excuse not to work together and a reason not to improve the problems in our world. Why bother, if just around the corner you as an individual get this great place where everything’s perfect? No one person can create heaven, so no one person should be able to go to heaven without everyone else. So long as we think we as individuals will make it, we won’t work together to create it.

The podium Dr. King spoke at, unmoved in 40 years.

So I guess being religious to me is having faith that people will recognize all the good we can do here, and acting on it. Practicing my religion I suppose is encouraging people to do as much good as they can for as many people, while making sure I do the same as often as possible. I would be lying if I had said that I had thought much about this, as I have never felt the need for faith, but it is the beginnings of a religious self-education that I hope to continue.

The second thing utterly unavoidable in the South is southern culture. This is the culture I have only ever lived on the edges of, and the culture I hope to learn about as I travel the South. This is of course broken down further into white southern culture, black southern culture, youth southern culture, and other sub-cultures I have yet to witness.

Memorial Day weekend served as a useful opportunity to think about culture, since the events going on gave me the opportunity to witness it. The one I have written about previously, the concert in Simpsonville, SC, was followed up yesterday by a Laser Show and fireworks at Stone Mountain Park in Stone Mountain, Georgia. There are a lot of stereotypes about the South. I won’t cover them because I don’t want to color anyone’s reading of my impressions, but everyone has a sense of what a southern person is to them.

The crowd at Simpsonville stretched back about the length of a football field, becoming a little less packed further back.

Here are just a few notes on southern culture that I have observed so far. Remember these are just my experiences so far based on people I have met and events I have witnessed, not stereotypes or definitive statements about groups of people:

One thing I have found to be true is confederate pride. At both the Simpsonville and Stone Mountain show, references to states rights and the confederacy received raucous cheers. Though I have only seen a few confederate flags, the middle class of the South still feels a connection to the South of the past. Interestingly, this does not reflect white southern values alone. The laser show was a very diverse event, about 60-40 African American to white American. The show was held at a large stoneface depicting Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. The lasers depicted grand Civil War battles, and everyone cheered their three heroes on, black and white. I think there is an honest belief that the war was fought for state’s rights and emancipation was a side effect.

Barely visible are the laser form of Lee, Jackson, and Davis charging into battle, which Davis of course never did as President of the Confederacy.

Racism is not as prevalent as one might think on the surface. The aforementioned gas inspector and hotel manager are friends who see each other when the former is in town every few weeks, and they get on like they were born five feet from each other. That said, I have not spent the time here I would need to in order to really assess that. Here in Montgomery, the neighborhoods are basically segregated. The white neighborhoods are staffed by the black neighborhoods, but the differences in housing and road quality are marked.

Adults over 25 and African Americans of all ages are polite, nice, and talkative. Whites under 25 are wary and even occasionally rude to those unlike themselves. It is easy to start a conversation with almost anyone who is not young. They are eager to talk, polite, and always say good morning and good evening unsolicited. Young blacks share that politeness, and smile as I pass by. College age whites avert my eyes, continue talking with their friends, or in one case actually intentionally spill beer on my feet as what seemed to me a way of saying “you are not wanted here.” That was the experience I got from the all-white concert at Simpsonville, at any rate. In the defense of the college age white students, alcohol was involved and they were in groups. Outside of groups, the odds are they would have been more polite.

Country music tells the story well. “What are you doing here?” one guy asks another at the concert. “Same thing everyone else is! Getting drunk!” The pair commenced high fiving. It is true, young people in the south like drinking. How much more or less than others, I am not sure. Country music is often about partying, drinking, or attracting women/men; no different from the party music up north. Country music also has a softer side. Songs about mom and dad, death, god, lost love, and other subjects relatively ignored by northern youth music are common and popular. After going to Nashville for the Country Music Festival later this month, I’ll get a better sense of how this emotional side of country music plays out.

Stone form of the Lee, Jackson, and Davis. I feel like some kids in the South are named Davis Lee Jackson or some variation.

As I travel these next few days through the Deep South in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana headed to New Orleans, I’ll visit small towns and try to get more of a sense of culture here before heading to Nashville and nearing the end of the southern leg of my tour subsequently.

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5 responses to “Confronting Culture and Religion in Alabama

  1. Hey, John, I haven’t gotten to read all of your posts today, but what an experience you are having!!! Much better education than reading from books!!!

    I’ll have to disagree with you about faith though. Believing in God has sustained me and I truly get a sense of peace when I go to church each Sunday. I do believe that there is evil in this world, and, unfortunately, one must always be on watch to do the right thing. Perhaps when you are older you will tend to agree with me. In the meantime, I will be travelling with you in spirit. Keep me posted.

    • Hi Ms. Deckelmann! Glad you made it over here. I suppose I should clarify my thoughts on religion a bit. I don’t think faith in god or organized religion is a detriment to productivity itself, quite the contrary given that much charity comes from churches. Plus as you say, the power of faith can guide a life. More so I guess I’m saying that I am uncomfortable with the idea of heaven as an end goal when there’s so much we can do. Am I still far off from what your talking about?

      Anyhow, hope you are doing well and that the year is wrapping up nicely,

      John

  2. I do think what you are talking about is the essence of the pracice of christianity or islam (the only two religions I know well). By practice I mean the behaving to each other in humanistic ways — caring for others — faith vs good works has been a tension for along time. Whatever heaven is, do we experience it by the good works (humanistic behaviors) or by belief and theology? You will find Christian Existentialism ala Henri Bergson calls this heaven that is created by perople acting good together the “noosphere.” Check it out. It’s a compelling idea.

  3. We can discuss more when you are back, but what you’ve written about here is an echoing of an argument about how religion is seen by people who have been oppressed by it because those who oppress them use it as a tool of control rather than for spiritual benefit.

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