Monday, June 07, 2010

seeing color

Enemy, thy name is pollen.

When I woke up this morning, my eyes would not open, so crusted over were they. (After all that I've shared on this blog, I think that's the first detail that has me questioning, "TMI?" Ah, well; I'm nothing if not candid and crusty.) I had such a haze of pollen in my eyes last night that when I looked up at the ceiling lights, I saw rainbows.

Rainbows, y'all. Shooting out from the ceiling lights. I swear to God, I thought I had reached Nirvana. I was very excited. I hurried into the bathroom to see if it was just the lights in the bedroom that were magical, but no. Looking out through bloodshot eyes, I saw staring back at me a puffy pink face surrounded by an aura of rainbows. A study in contrasts.

Tears eked out of my eye corners, goopy pollen bits gathered under my lids, and I didn't care. Everywhere I looked, rainbows pulsated from light fixtures.  My world was a prism.


Tonight my parents and I watched the 2008 documentary The Order of Myths which follows two organizations in Mobile, Alabama -- one all-black and the other all-white -- as they prepare for their annual Mardi Gras celebrations which date back to 1703.

Now, I'm not a Southerner, but the South has long beckoned me with its looming red oaks, languid heat, loyalty to tradition. I understand the call to honor one's traditions; I honor, too, my own convictions and thus I often question the source of a tradition, its necessity and its relevancy -- particularly its ramifications.


Picture this: The year is 1859. The importation of slaves to America has been illegal for fifty-two years and yet the Clothilde,  a ship bearing over one hundred Africans, has dropped anchor in Mobile Bay. Timothy Meaher, the man who owns the ship -- and the Africans on board -- has made a bet that he can bring slaves into Alabama without getting caught. Meaher tells the ship's captain that if the scheme is discovered, he is to burn the ship and erase all evidence of the illegal dealings. Word comes back to the ship that Meaher's plans have been discovered, and the Clothilde -- minus its passengers -- is set aflame. Thirty of the Africans are brought to work as slaves on Timothy Meaher's property. The others, however, escape into the woods and found a community which they name Africatown.

The year is 2007. The Mardi Gras festivities are underway in Mobile. The all-white Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) holds its coronation of the King and Queen. For the first time in history, the King and Queen of the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) attend the event.

Helen Meaher, the MCA queen, is a descendant of the slaveholder, Timothy Meaher. The MAMGA queen, Stefanie Lucas, is a descendant of Barry Malone, one of Africatown's founders and one of the Africans whom Timothy Meaher transported on his slaveship, the Clothilde. As Stefanie puts it: "My people was on her people's ship."

At the MCA coronation, Helen and Stefanie, each a queen of Mobile, shake hands and exchange pleasantries. This is the South, after all, says the film. Everyone is very polite, and everything feels very awkward. Later, each royal court will parade down the town's streets on the same day -- just at different times.

Some citizens of Mobile would like to put an end to this segregation, but not everyone is so willing. Some brandish the shield of tradition, declaring that things have always been this way and that change is unnecessary. Some are quick to point out that while the organizations may be separate, they get along very well. But a young black man named Michael Donald was lynched in Mobile in 1981, and I can't help but question the apathy and willing ignorance that supports the argument to maintain the status quo.

Despite the fraught race and class relations in Mobile which the film brings to light, the younger generation offers a ray of hope. The young kings and queens enjoyed their time together -- they chatted, they mingled, they danced -- and they plan to do so in the future. Queen Stefanie hopes that the next year's MAMGA royalty will attend the MCA coronation. And thus a tradition is born.


From where I sit, I see the younger generation as the solution. The integration will be slow, but eventually, the annual act of everyone coming together will become a tradition that Mobile folks will strive to uphold.

I see it another way, too: this story isn't just about race. It's also about class. And it's also about how race and class intersect in some very complicated ways. And lord knows it's about gender, too; I winced at the harness -- yes, harness -- worn by the women of the royal court to support their massive trains. The situation is messy, and it doesn't feel right to sit back, satisfied that things will work themselves out.

I'm trying to see my own privilege. I resist labels -- white, heterosexual, middle-class -- and I see that my ability to do so reveals yet another layer of this privilege. I see that I refer to beige pantyhose as "nude." I see that in my dissertation, I only engage a discussion of race when talking about women of color.

I see that I have a long way to go.


  1. We have to meet...and you have to meet my sister and BIL.

  2. Wow. Great post. I've miles to go, myself.

  3. Thanks Fancy. As a G.R.I.T.S, I found your post interesting and informative. I haven't looked up the Hairstons (pronounced Harstons) in many years. They all started to intersection on a plantation in Collinsville, VA (about forty miles from Roanoke). As of a decade ago, the African-American Hairstons had one much better in many ways than their caucasian "cousins".

    Still blogless and disconnected.


  4. B, thank you for reminding me about the Hairstons. (If others are interested, the family is documented in this book -- I remember you telling me about the family a long time ago, but never did get to reading the book. I find it so moving that the Hairston cousins are able to come together and engage in these really important (and difficult) discussions.

    I'm reminded of a documentary that has been making the rounds recently made by a descendant of the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history, the DeWolfs (also spelled D'Wolf). Several descendants come together and retrace portions of the Middle Passage, traveling to Cuba and parts of Western Africa, all the while, attempting to come to grips with the legacy of slavery in America and how their family was complicit in this history. I haven't seen the documentary yet, but it looks fascinating. Here's more info if any are interested: