Excerpt of State by State by Sean Wilsey, Matt Weiland
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Entered Union 1819 (22nd)
Origin of name Possibly from a Choctaw Indian word meaning "thicket-clearers" or "vegetation-gatherers"
Nickname Yellowhammer State
Motto Audemus jura nostra defendere ("We dare defend our rights")
Residents Alabamian or Alabaman
U.S. Representatives 7
State bird yellowhammer
State flower camellia
State tree Southern longleaf pine
State song "Alabama"
Land area 50,744 sq. mi.
Geographic center In Chilton Co., 12 mi. SW of Clanton
American Indian 0.5%
Under 18 26.3%
65 and over 13.0%
Median age 35.8
In the summer of 1980, when I was nineteen, I worked as a $600-a-month intern at a government-funded poverty law center in Alabama, renting a matchbox house with two black law students at the crumbling edge of downtown Mobile. It was a record hot summer, at a record high in urban seediness: Mobile, the poor man's New Orleans, was hollowed out by economic stagnation and the white exodus that followed desegregation. Carter was in the White House, the azaleas in Bienville Square were dead, and the sixteen blocks between the house and office offered the comfort of no trees, only the glare of the sun and an assortment of drunks, casual laborers, and petty criminals. My yellow short-sleeved Oxford shirt, too heavy in the humidity, instantly marked me as a carpetbagger, and one morning a razor-thin limping man pursued me block after block, yelling, "Hey! Ass-hole!" Anomie set in the day I arrivedeverything shut down for Memorial Day weekendand pursued me all the way to my departure in August. At times it grew so intense that the only relief came in cups of mocha-flavored instant International Coffee, from a red-and-white tin, which I bought at a shop downtown and savored as the taste of civilization itself.
The house on St. Francis Street had only one air-conditioner. Carlos, the law student to arrive first, grabbed it, and never let go. Cooled only by an ineffective fan, my room began to incubate turd-sized cockroaches. Carlos, from American University in Washington, despised me on sight. This was upsetting, because I had gone South with the idea of becoming a latter-day soldier in the civil rights struggle. I saw myself, in all modesty, as an heir to Schwerner and Goodman, the two white northerners killed in 1964 outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, with their black movement colleague Chaney. The Mother's Day melee when the Freedom Riders pulled into the Birmingham bus terminal, the fire hoses and K-9 squads in Linn Park, George Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent Vivian Malone and James Hood from becoming the first black students to attendin my mind, all of this had happened the day before yesterday. My backpack carried Robert Coles's study of the psychology of black children during desegregation, Children of Crisis, Anne Moody's memoir of growing up black during the civil rights era, Coming of Age in Mississippi, and (because I accepted Black Power as a necessary stage of the movement) Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. But it was hard to sustain my own private freedom ride after I discovered that Carlos kept a personal roll of toilet paper in his bedroom, ferrying it back and forth to the john. So much for black and white together.
That first weekend, before contempt had hardened into hatred, Carlos and I went out to get a bite to eat. A black neighbor saw us round the corner and exclaimed in wonder, "You black and you white but you both walking together!" Confronted with this nightmare tableau of black abjectness, white noblesse, and assumed interracial harmony, Carlos dispatched both the neighbor and me with a strained, sneering laugh. It was little consolation that Raymond, the other housemate, from Rutgers and gay, liked me fine.
The foregoing is excerpted from State by State by Matt Weiland, and Sean Wilsey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022