Alabama is a mirror of truths we refuse to face
By TED GUP | Special to The Washington Post | Published: December 6, 2017
In my family, Alabama was always spoken of as a magical place reflecting much of what is best about America. That may be hard to swallow for some. But for the Gups, Mobile was a haven. Hence, my father’s taste for grits; my courtly bachelor uncles, Nat and Gabe, lived there. In the city archives, a black-and-white photo of 56 Dauphin St. captures a sign reading “Gup The Tailor.” There my great-grandfathers, Marcus and Abraham, sat side by side, stitching costumes for Mobile’s fabulous Mardi Gras.
My family had fled pogroms, Cossacks and ghettos. They crossed the Atlantic in steerage with no more than a battered Torah, a samovar and passports marked Vilnius and Tbilisi. To Alabama they came and there they found the thing they hungered for most: acceptance. Over a generation, their Yiddish would yield to deep Southern drawls, their kosher palates to gumbo, their circle of friends widening well beyond their own faith.
On Jan. 15, 1894, before a Mobile court, my great-grandfather Abraham renounced his allegiance to the sultan of Turkey and became a U.S. citizen, but also, and always, a proud Alabaman — a tale as improbable as it is distinctly American.
So it pains me to read how today’s Americans view Alabama, where much of my extended family still lives, as home to the sanctimonious Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused of trolling for teens, and as a backwater state rife with bigotry, hypocrisy and xenophobia. I think of the Alabama to which I was reverently introduced in my youth — an Eden with live oaks draped with Spanish moss, wide porches and open hearts, romanticized to be sure. Mobile took my family in when no one else would. I feel indebted.
In the minds of many, particularly in the North and Northeast, Alabama has become the poster child of the narrow-minded, the self-righteous, the extreme. It is the butt of jokes. (What is “Alabama” backward? Alabama is backward.) The cesspool of modern politics would seem to find its drain in Alabama, where even God is seen to lend his blessing to corruption.
But if Alabama makes us uncomfortable, it is perhaps because our own foibles are writ a little larger there, magnified that we may see ourselves for who we are and what we are becoming. Alabama hosts rank partisanship and evangelical fervor (both religious and political) that contravenes the Christian spirit. It has demagoguery and scapegoating, the demonizing of fellow citizens, zealotry, suspicion and tribalism — but in none of this is it alone. In Alabama it just seems to play out on a wider screen. It is the mirror we shun — not just a state but a state of mind. We hold it at arm’s length because we cannot face the truth about ourselves.
Walking among my family’s graves in Mobile, I know that even in death it was “White Only,” and that a foreign-born Jew had access to this soil when a native-born black man did not. The legacy of Gov. George Wallace, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the water cannons and police dogs now find full expression in the face of Moore, who champions the Ten Commandments but sees them as a license to lie, hate and bring out the least Christian of impulses in his constituents. He is a master of mixing virtue and vice till neither is distinguishable from the other.
But the Alabama my family knew and knows is only partially reflected in the headlines. It is not the caricature of the ignorant Southerner, not the Bible-thumping congregation that prefers a potential child molester to missing out on a tax cut.
My relatives in Alabama could not be more pained by the thought of Moore’s ascent to the U.S. Senate. But their anguish should be familiar to many well beyond the state who wince at Donald Trump as president, commander in chief and the face of the United States. Alabama is no more monolithic than the rest of the country, and no less divided. The war for the soul of America goes on there as it goes on in states and homes across this land.
The truth is that if Alabama did not exist, we might have to invent it. In this moment of national doubt and angst, we need to look down our noses at someplace else, to express the disdain of those who themselves have become unmoored, complacent or resigned. Alabama is the perfect foil in the Trump era, a reference point on the Southern horizon — a safe distance from Los Angeles and New York — that offers us the sense that we are somehow different, better and above.
My adopted home, smug Boston, like so many other places quick to judge, can block out its own dire record on race and religious intolerance as it spurns its Southern cousins (mine, literally). But it is self-delusion, the kind that compromises the conscience and allows for the rest of us to descend deeper into the abyss. In each of us, there is a bit of Alabama, the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.
Ted Gup is a Boston-based author and professor of journalism at Emerson College.