Everywhere I travel, the song finds me, although I’ve been gone for twenty years. From truck windows and bar doors and my mama’s voice on my answering machine, it reaches out to wrap a companionable arm around my shoulders, pulling me close. She likes to hold her cellphone up when that song comes on the radio and broadcast it to me, eleven hundred miles north. “Just to let you know we’re thinking about you down here,” she says. “We love you.” I love them too. They’re my blood. Like this song, they’re a voice from home. And all of them know me better than I think.

A song comes to life in us, whether or not it should.

Here I come. Alabama.

Harriet Jacobs was a twenty-one-year-old enslaved woman in North Carolina whose master – thirty-five years her senior – started harassing her when she turned fourteen. Her 1861 memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl describes it. His body pressing her into corners. Unrepeatable words. A Sophie’s choice to begin an affair with another white man so the master she calls “Dr. Flint” would be blocked by a peer. This was a social bargain to protect herself and the children who followed, a son and then a daughter. When Jacobs began plotting escape, she worried especially about the girl. “Slavery is terrible for men,” she writes, “but it is far more terrible for women.”

A chord means nothing by itself. Meaning comes when listening ears receive the shadows underneath the words and decide to join in. Or not.

I can’t remember when “Sweet Home Alabama,” from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 album Second Helping, stepped forth out of the radio backdrop of a million childhood afternoons: trucker songs, the Spinners and the Commodores, Winslow, Arizona and “A Horse With No Name,” free birds and ramblin’ men. At first, it fit right into that poem-of-motion genre: Big wheels, keep on turnin’/ Carry me home to see my kin. Eventually my ear snagged on those women wailing in the background like some captive choir. Then the needle dropped on Psalm 137, waiting on its own turntable in my Methodist-trained mind: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The Psalms – like the stories of Israelites in bondage (let my people go), like Daniel delivered from the lion’s den (then why not every man?) – come to life in the bodies that need them. In the ears of hearers, words take on lives beyond what their writers can imagine.

At first, as a little white girl, I was just happy to pick out the name of my own state on the radio, which usually sang of more glamorous places; L.A., which was too much for the man (he couldn’t make it); New York (takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line), Penny Lane (where the banker never wears a mac, even in the pouring rain). Then – who knows how kids pick up these things, from adults’ murmurs about “that bad time” and movies and elisions – a dim sense gathered in me that there was more inside that name. “Sweet Home Alabama” and I were born together, six years after Martin Luther King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

“He who has ears to hear,” Jesus repeatedly warns, “let him hear.”

The difference between listening and hearing – passively receiving, or engaging with stories underneath – is important to get into a song so built on back-talk. People love to linger in the crossfire of lyrics. First, Neil Young, in 1970: Alabama, you got the weight on your shoulders that’s breaking your back. Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track. Then, two years later, Neil Young again: Southern Man, better keep your head. Don’t forget what your Good Book said. In 1974, in “Sweet Home Alabama,” Skynyrd shoots back: I heard Mr. Young sing about her. I heard ol’ Neil put her down. Well I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow. Ha, ha! That’ll show that Yankee sumbitch.

Except that isn’t the whole story. Skynyrd’s actually from Jacksonville, Florida, not Alabama, and they didn’t hate Neil Young (a Canadian). When his producer suggested he have Young’s lyrics sung sarcastically behind “Sweet Home Alabama,” Ronnie Van Zant, Skynyrd’s lead singer, said no, because he didn’t want to copy, and he didn’t want to give offense. After all, Skynyrd were also Neil Young fans, known to wear his t-shirts on their own tours. And Young admired them as musicians. Later, he’d write, “My own song ‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.” In my earnest youth, I heard in “Sweet Home Alabama” a brow-creasing reason for concern, My Native State Getting It Wrong Again. Now I enjoy the song even as I also hear a piss-taking, intra-dude banter that matches the genre’s general shape: one big white boys’ club, with the black girls in their matching dresses lined up in the back.

Of course, white boys can be complicated too. Like Kenny Rogers in 1970’s “Reuben James,” Skynyrd recorded, on side 2 of Second Helping, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” a tribute to a misunderstood black man by a young white narrator. Dyed-in-the-wool xenophobes usually huddle in place, not even trying to understand anyone else. These white Southern boys wrote sympathetically about a black man, and they toured the world, including England, where I now get to spend some time myself. On YouTube you can dial up a version of “Saturday Night Special” (more caustic and anti-gun than Skynyrd usually gets credit for) from the Knebworth music festival in 1976. Back and forth the camera pans between the skinny longhaired Southern boys and the pale Brits bouncing ecstatically to a tale of authentic American violence. One year later, Ronnie Van Zant would die in a plane crash, age 29, the same age as rebellious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: a free bird, a poem of motion, in flames.

The voice of one black woman – Merry Clayton, a New Orleans native – links “Sweet Home Alabama” and perhaps the most famous song of its era, the brilliant, sinister “Gimme Shelter” from the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed. A singer of staggering gifts who recorded alongside Bobby Darin at age 14 and backed Ray Charles as a Raelette in the 1960s, Clayton readjusts your picture of popular music around herself instantly. Start in 1971, when Clayton recorded her own version of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” on her second album: Southern man, you better keep your head. Don’t forget what your Good Book said. On film, backed by an all-black band, she surfs the line between gospel and funk and claims the song for herself from the inside out. Her voice is surly, imperious. Her conviction is absolute. Even in grainy-seventies-TV video, she melts the screen.1 How on earth has this woman never ascended to Soul Olympus alongside Aretha Franklin? Mavis Staples? Sharon Jones? Even Diana Ross?

As the documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom” (2013) makes clear, even a singer of Clayton’s talent had it tough in the rock industry of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Mick Jagger – a Brit inspired by black Mississippians – was coming off his affair with beautiful Claudia Lennear of “Brown Sugar” fame. Tina Turner with her fringe-dress shimmy was lining up with the Ikettes under her then-husband’s cold eye, her explosive talent driven even harder by what we now know was his offstage abuse. Phil Spector was hobbling Darlene Love with girl-group contracts that thwarted her career for years. But if you were a woman and you wanted work, you’d better sing along.

In 1969, with Vietnam raging and America mourning the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, a pregnant Merry Clayton was called up at home and asked if she’d record a backup vocal for “Gimme Shelter.” “The use of the female voice was the producer’s idea,” Jagger later said. “It would be one of those moments along the lines of ‘I hear a girl on this track – get one on the phone.’” And so Clayton, in silk pajamas, a mink coat, and a Chanel scarf over her curlers, came to the studio in the middle of the night. Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away. “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really,” Jagger said, describing the song’s connection to its turbulent times. “It’s apocalypse.”2

Like Goya’s caprichos or Cormac McCarthy’s grinning Judge, “Gimme Shelter” will never lose its power to disturb. The sulfurous upward swirl of single guitar, then drums, then rattlesnake percussion is a gathering wind in a desert at the dawn of some nightmare, holding us tighter and tighter as the sun rises, throwing light on something even this song can’t name. And above it all keens a single female voice. “I am become death,” Robert Oppenheimer mumbled when his mushroom cloud bloomed in the desert, “the destroyer of worlds.” Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away. Like some dark spell, “Gimme Shelter” destroyed the thing that made it – Keith Richards’ open-body guitar, which fell apart in his hands after the last note.3 And this riveting, dangerous creature needed the lightning strike of a black woman’s voice to bring it to life.

Clayton suffered a miscarriage after that night. Maybe it was the strain of reaching for those banshee notes, so hard that her voice cracks, to an admiring, near-inaudible “Whoo!” from Jagger in the background. Musicians do respect conviction.

The following year, Clayton recorded her own version of “Gimme Shelter” as the title track of her debut album. In 1972, Clayton went on to perform as the original Acid Queen in the Who’s rock opera Tommy in London and sing for films by Robert Altman and Nicholas Roeg. Then, in 1974, she was asked to sing backup on a Lynyrd Skynyrd track. “It was basically like a slap in the face,” she says. “Sweet Home Alabama? We got your Sweet Home Alabama. We gonna sing you anyway. And we gonna sing the crap out of you. … My way of being an activist in our struggle as black people was to do the music.”

So Merry Clayton became one of those women in the “Sweet Home Alabama” background choir: rich, sonorous, right on time. Alabama – aaaah, aaaah, aaaah. Alabama. And she kept on singing, up to the present day. In 1987, her song “Yes” appeared in the megahit film Dirty Dancing, and she starred (and sang) as a musician turned cook opposite Ally Sheedy in Maid to Order. More recently, she’s appeared on tracks by Tori Amos, G. Love and Special Sauce, and Coldplay, and her cover of “Southern Man” is sampled by rapper Cool Breeze in “Watch for the Hook.” Back in 1986, she was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times about “Gimme Shelter.” “That was a dark, dark period for me, but God gave me the strength to overcome it,” she told journalist Don Snowden. “I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”

Yet the industry never quite made room for her. “You think that if you just give your heart to something,” she muses onscreen in “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” “you will…” Her words trail away, her eyes fill with tears. Watching her, so do mine.

In a 1973 essay, “Ripping Off Black Music: From Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice to Jimi Hendrix,” critic Margo Jefferson argues that “too many white performers thrive and survive on personas and performances that are studies in ventriloquism and minstrelsy, careless footnotes to a badly read blues text.” In the process, they’re hollowing out the cultural space of black music and filling it with versions of themselves, which may, over time, obscure the fact that rock ‘n’ roll was not invented by white people. “It is jarring and most distressing,” Jefferson writes, “to walk into a room one has considered private and find it ringed with cameras, spotlights, and insistent strangers claiming long acquaintance and making plans to move in and redecorate without being invited.”4 One example of this tone-deafness, she writes, is the belief that “Merry Clayton was ‘discovered’ backing the Stones.”

So: “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Ah, who cares. It’s just a song.

Yeah, it is: classically built, highly enjoyable rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t hate the song, but it sends me down a path I need to walk, into stories I need to hear. A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow. It’s a joke between Skynyrd and Young, but in real life it turns into a fatally defensive sneer. Who cares what those outsiders think. So would say George Wallace on the steps at the University of Alabama. So would say the state trooper jabbing his nightstick into Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s stomach outside Governor John Patterson’s office when Kennedy came down to remind the governor that Greyhound buses could cross state lines, no matter who was riding them together. So would say the men who planted the bomb outside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls were putting their choir robes on, getting ready to sing.

Let’s go back to the text for a minute. In Birmingham they love the governor… What are those three syllables following, where the tempo lingers just a little bit? For years – conditioned by the outsize presence of Wallace in my home state, which was only partially mitigated by his late-in-life racial repentance and the assassination attempt that left him in a wheelchair – I heard them as a rueful mourning cry. Yet Skynyrd said those syllables are “boo, boo, boo,” as in a cry of disapproval; “Wallace and I have very little in common,” Ronnie Van Zant said. “I don’t like what he says about colored people.” Similarly, producer Al Kooper said, “The line ‘We all did what we could do’ is sort of ambiguous. ‘We tried to get Wallace out of there’ is how I always thought of it.” And of course, if you say “Birmingham” rather than “Montgomery,” you’ve deliberately let Freedom Summer into the room: police dogs, fire hoses, actions justly regarded as a national disgrace.

It’s about taking pride in your home, where you’re from.

Taking pride in home is something we do alongside history and human complexity wherever we’re from. Perhaps we all feel at least sometimes what the Germans call Geschichtsmudigkeit, a weariness of history.5 “History has to live with what was here,” wrote poet Robert Lowell in 1973, “clutching and close to fumbling all we had— / it is so dull and gruesome how we die, / unlike writing, life never finishes.”6 Peel back the skin of that weariness, and the habitual thinking it can lead to, by asking what you ask in a writing class. Why do you feel the need to say this?7 What is this story really about?

The plantation in Toni Morrison’s great American novel Beloved is called Sweet Home.

Like a record, history turns: around and around and around. Journeys. Voices. Freedom. Land. Home.

A feather is made for flight; release it from your hand and watch how pinion and weighted shaft tip it along the breeze until it comes to rest. Winged things find me, out here in the woods, and ask me to listen. A little speckled moth licking up the salt on the back of my hand. Flocks of yellow swallowtail butterflies spangling the open spaces in the trees. The rumple and clatter of bird wings, reminding me of my profession in high clear voices: teacher teacher teacher.

And then, when I look down, a wild turkey feather, slate-brownish-gray striped with white, is tangled in the grass in front of me. Home – one particular farm, back in Alabama, where I find turkey feathers just like this – blooms in my brain. That land has a dry and glittering skin: quartz rocks piled up to keep them out of the bushhog’s teeth, mica schist flaking from the ditch-banks, snakeskins snagged in long grass. But underneath it hides a sweet and secret heart: a rock-lined pool where a wild rhododendron blooms. For years a water moccasin lived in a crack above that pool, and probably still does. Every Eden has its snake, every Adam his curse. Summer after boyhood summer, my father sweated here, working cows and splitting cedar hearts for fenceposts and stacking rocks. Once he and his friends made an 8mm adventure film, whooping through the woods and leaping off the moccasin’s rock into the swimming hole. That film is lost. My father’s dead. But this feather is here with me, right now.

Love and grief: my job as a writer is to hold them both.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

A persistent legend says that okra, that quintessential Southern vegetable, was brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people, who hid it on their bodies. While okra is indeed African, and slavery is its logical Southeastern source, I wonder how a forcibly captured person would have been able to grab seeds and hide them, then hold onto them through the Middle Passage and what followed. But like any legend it bears a deep and heartbreaking human truth: a woman taken captive still hopes to plant seeds on some land of her own. To claim some space for, as Adrienne Rich would write in her 1968 poem “Planetarium,” “the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

On June 14, 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement condemning “every form of racial and ethnic hatred” as “of the devil.” While applauding the move, I linger on that last part. Evil does exist. I believe that. But I think it’s located not in some separate anti-human agent but in something all too human: the greed and power-hunger in our hearts. It’s in here, not out there. Original sin, fallenness: these are old names for the soil of greed and power-hunger waiting in us, the soil that cracks that red seed-hull open to send dark roots down and sharp leaves unfurling up.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Be careful what you plant in that soil. You never know what will grow.

In 1963, in his speech “Message to the Grass Roots,” Malcolm X identified the economic roots of oppression, across multiple layers of geography and time: “Revolution is based on land,” he argued. “Land is the basis for all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”8

“God bless the child,” sang Billie Holiday in 1941, “that’s got his own.”

To secure her body from Dr. Flint, Harriet Jacobs kidnapped herself. She fled into a crawl space above a storeroom in the house of her grandmother, whose freedom had been purchased by a benefactor. In that attic, she hid for seven years. “I served for my liberty as faithfully as Jacob served for Rachel,” she later wrote. “At the end, he had large possessions; but I was robbed of my victory; I was obliged to resign my crown, to rid myself of a tyrant.”9 Every so often, when it was safe, she would slip down into the storeroom to stretch her legs.

When we teach Incidents at our college, we build in the library a wooden frame to the dimensions of her attic space – three feet high, seven feet wide, nine feet long. Students crawl inside, then out again, their faces somber. In my own classroom, using a tape measure, I sketch the steep triangle on the board. A volunteer of Jacobs’ height – five feet four, as reported in Dr. Flint’s runaway-slave ad – comes forth to be measured across the shoulders and head. Then, as a class, we plot out permutations of body in space.

Jacobs spent much of her time lying down, near the one-inch peephole she bored in the house’s exterior wall. “I don’t know what kept life within me,” she writes. “Again and again, I thought I should die before long; but I saw the leaves of another autumn whirl through the air, and felt the touch of another winter. In summer the most terrible thunder storms were acceptable, for the rain came through the roof, and I rolled up my bed that it might cool the hot boards under it.”10

In the small space, day followed night followed day. “Dark thoughts passed through my mind,” she writes. “I tried to be thankful for my little cell, dismal as it was, and even to love it, as part of the price I had paid for the redemption of my children. Sometimes I thought God was a compassionate Father, who would forgive my sins for the sake of my sufferings. At other times, it seemed to me there was no justice or mercy in the divine government. I asked why the curse of slavery was permitted to exist, and why I had been so persecuted and wronged from youth upward. These things took the shape of mystery, which is to this day not so clear to my soul as I trust it will be hereafter.”11

In Incidents, Harriet Jacobs has little time for white Christians. I don’t blame her.

Last year, a black wildlife biologist named J. Drew Lanham published a memoir called The Home Place. For him, home is the family land near Edgefield, South Carolina, purchased by his parents, where his ancestor, Harry Lanham, was once enslaved. His specialty is birds, although his race, he writes, makes him a “birding anomaly. The chances of seeing someone who looks like me while on the trail are only slightly greater than those of sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker.”12 Birding while black has drawn threats ranging from curious stares to “three raggedy, red-spray-painted K’s [that] appeared on a Forest Service gate leading to one of my study sites.”13 Yet one way to address racial tension in America, he writes, may be to “get more people of color ‘out there’” to “say to others that we, too, appreciate the warble of a summer tanager, the incredible instincts of a whitetail buck, and the sound of wind in the tall pines.”14 Being present, in your own body, on a piece of land – caring for it, taking pleasure in it, using it to feed yourself – can be a way of claiming it, an act of love and of history. We’ve been learning that again this winter, from Native encampments at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter and Women’s Marches everywhere. Such personal involvement with landscape is Lanham’s source of hope, and mine. “As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew,” Lanham writes, “that our connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks; that the land renews and sustains us – maybe things will begin to change.”15

Researching the story of his ancestors, Lanham makes a discovery. In 1858, “a converted yacht that had delivered an illegal cargo of African slaves…almost fifty years after such importations were banned” docked at Georgia’s Jekyll Island and scattered its human cargo to buyers up and down the coast. Some of those captives made their way to Edgefield. More than 150 years later, Lanham discovers a photo of one of those women in an historical archive. “Staring out from the paper,” he writes, “with familiar eyes and a scarf-wrapped head, was a dark-skinned woman with a slight smile. Her hair…was hidden by a white rag, and she wore…a checkered dress.” Her name is Lucy Lanham. Captured at age three, she “was listed as living on the plantation of Senator Benjamin Tillman…who previously, as governor, had sanctioned terrorism against black people and earned the name ‘Pitchfork Ben.’”16 The main building at Clemson University, Lanham’s alma mater, where he now teaches, bears Tillman’s name.

The name of that converted slave ship, with its illegal cargo, was the Wanderer.

In Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, a black woman named Georgia Gilmore made and sold food to support the boycott of the city’s segregated bus system. Gilmore was seriously tough, known for spurning the taunting whites who’d pull up beside her in their cars and ask if she wouldn’t rather ride. “No, cracker, no,” Gilmore would snap. “We rather walk.”17 In church, one of the songs she’s known to have sung is the traditional spiritual “I Dreamt of a City Called Heaven,” a haunting plaint of exile and longing:

Sometimes I am tossed and driven, Lord,
Sometimes I don’t know where to roam
I’ve dreamt of a city called heaven
I’ve decided to make heaven my home.

I first heard this song in a church at the edge of Harlem in New York City, object of so many wanderers’ yearnings for so many years. Out into the streetlit night I reeled, wrecked and ringing like a bell with all that song had woken up in me. Home. When a song – or a feather, dropped in the grass at your feet, or an ancestor’s gaze in a photograph – catches up with you in the middle of your wandering life, it can switch some track in your head, starting you down a road you can’t even see at the time. It opens you, like music opens James Baldwin’s lonely narrator in “Sonny’s Blues.” “An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian,” Baldwin said in Life Magazine in May 1963. “His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else in the world can tell, what it is like to be alive… Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

Land asks us to live together on it – to attend to its needs and its history and to ensure its conservation, its protection from the forces of greed and economic injustice. Drew Lanham’s work suggests this. So did my father’s. On a bright cold day – a bluebird day, the old folks call it – he filled plastic buckets with millet seed and slung them into the back of the Kawasaki Mule, the all-terrain vehicle named after the iconic beast for which he had a vast respect. “Tough, resilient, intelligent, and capable of harboring a grudge,” he once wrote to me, “the mule has always sided with the Southern poor. The history of the pioneer, slave, yeoman ‘redneck’ farmer, and sharecropper was powered by the mule.” This precise and playful admiration was shared by Zora Neale Hurston, born just down the road from us in Notasulga (from the Muscogean noti sulgi, “many teeth.”) Her landmark novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) features a yellow mule, overworked as one of the Union’s forty-acre castoffs, property of mean farmer Matt Bonner. When the mule finally dies, one of the townsman preaches on “the joys of mule-heaven”: “Up there, mule-angels would have people to ride on and from his place beside the glittering throne, the dear departed brother would look down into hell and see the devil plowing Matt Bonner all day long in a hell-hot sun and laying the raw-hide to his back.”18 Every time I teach this tale I pray to transmit to my young Midwesterners the rueful, gleeful historical undersong I hear in it. It’s an Alabama thing, I can’t quite say. Y’all wouldn’t understand.

Around the firebreaks at the edges of the fields my father trundled in his mechanical mule, stopping to scatter seed where the wild bobwhite quail might come and eat. Fascinated by history but no mythologist – having concluded, at age fifteen, that it was a good thing the South lost the war – he turned his energies to the land, boosting declining wild-quail numbers and replanting the longleaf pine trees that once covered much of the Southeast. Longleafs are big, rich-hearted trees that flourish in cycles of fire and bloom, anchoring an ecosystem that includes the indigo snake and the gopher tortoise and the quail. The Cherokees named them iitaawaa, which survives as the place-name Etowah elsewhere in Alabama. As the trees and birds return, surely the words and the stories, the human palimpsest laid over this place, must return with them. All these things make a place, in the fullest sense. A city called heaven. A place called home.

Harriet Jacobs was living in New York in 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted. “The slave Hamlin,” she writes, “the first fugitive that came under the new law, was given up by the bloodhounds of the north to the bloodhounds of the south. It was the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population.” The law landed like a bomb in ordinary lives: Jacobs tells of washerwomen forced to sell up and flee to Canada, of parents who feared that children of a fugitive mother could be returned to slavery themselves. “But while fashionables were listening to the thrilling voice of Jenny Lind in Metropolitan Hall,” she writes, “the thrilling voices of poor hunted colored people went up, in an agony of supplication to the Lord, from Zion’s church.”19

That year Swedish native Jenny Lind, the most popular opera singer of her day, was on a tour managed by showman P.T. Barnum. As part of her agreement with him, she stipulated that a large portion of her earnings would go to her favorite charities, which paid for the education of poor children. Lind’s popular nickname was “The Swedish Nightingale.”

And with that, I’m back in 1819, where a young English medical student turned poet – John Keats, writing in the same year Alabama was named a state – sits in a garden, scribbling words and listening.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn; The same that oft-times hath Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Harriet Jacobs knew her Bible and would have known the story of Ruth. An avid reader, she probably also would have known the poems of John Keats, whose American readership ballooned in the 1830s and 1840s. Perhaps his lines invoking exile, loneliness, a woman laboring in strangers’ fields for food, struck an answering chord in her own sad heart. Perhaps she wondered where her home might ever be. Perhaps Lucy Lanham, refugee of the illegal slave ship Wanderer, wondered the same thing.

The nightingale’s voice transcends time. So do the words on the page that carry it to Harriet Jacobs, and to us. So did the legal documents that made a state out of a frontier inhabited by native people (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Choctaw, whose language gave the state its name, Alibamu, meaning “thicket-clearers”) and tree frogs and mockingbirds and longleaf pines and water moccasins and wild rhododendrons and settlers and slaves. Words on a page decreed Harriet Jacobs the free woman she always knew herself to be, and they keep her with us now.

Now Watergate does not bother me, Ronnie Van Zant sings. Does your conscience bother you? Tell me true. You can read this as plain old stubbornness or as expression of what more than one historian has written: the South represents a super-concentrated strain of the racial and political corruption that have marked all of America’s history, and the rest of us marginalize it at our peril. Yet one particular place in Alabama – Hale County, at the western end of the Black Belt – can show us super-concentrated possibility, too, centered on land and home.

In 1844, a North Carolina planter named Paul Cameron purchased 1,674 acres near what’s now Greensboro, Alabama, hoping to expand his business empire and his profits. As described in Sydney Nathans’ book A Mind To Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland, the enslaved people sent from North Carolina to work the new land managed to stay with it through the vagaries of war and Reconstruction, and, unusually, managed to stay with their family members. When Cameron, overextended by debt and a postwar downturn, needed to sell the land, the now-free black men and their families offered to buy. And Cameron accepted their offer, working out purchase terms (in cash or cotton) over several years for individual parcels that still remain in the possession of those men’s descendants. One of those women, Alice Sledge Hargress, marched (and was arrested) for voting rights in 1965, saying thirty years later that she’d done it for her heirs, even those who had left Alabama, so they’d have something to come back to if they ever were in need. The land would always be there, and it would always be within their family’s control. Alice Hargress died in 2014, just before her hundredth birthday. In the living room of her house on her family’s land hung a photograph of her grandson David, a Navy serviceman who’d become the cook at Camp David, with President and Mrs. Obama.

In 1936, a pair of New York artists came to Hale County – photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee, who’d grown up in Knoxville, Tennessee. For an assignment that later became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941, Agee and Evans shadowed three families of white sharecroppers, in words and pictures. Agee’s prose soars and then swoops back to nail the moment precisely to the page he sits writing on late at night: “Lamplight here, and lone, late: the odor is of pine that has stood shut on itself through the heat of a hot day: the odor of an attic at white noon…” Amid the overall picture of grinding poverty, it’s the small details that stay. A small girl’s direct gaze from under her straw hat. The bed with its legs set in cans of turpentine in a futile attempt to keep insects from crawling up into the mattress. The ubiquitous mule, which the sharecropper handles like a policeman handles, “with a gratuitous sort of toughness, anyone (except the right people) who happens to fall into his power.” And what it’s like to pick cotton. “It is simple and terrible work,” he writes. “Skill will help you; all the endurance you can draw up against it from the roots of your existence will be thoroughly used as fuel to it: but neither skill nor endurance can make it any easier.” Agee renders the physical realities of picking – continually pincering the fingers (which he invites readers to try), the dragging weight of the long sack, “sunlight that stands and stacks itself upon you with the serene weight of deep sea water” – and what it does to the soul: “It has the doubleness that all jobs have by which one stays alive and in which one’s life is made a cheated ruin, and the same sprained and twilight effect on those who must work at it: but because it is only one among the many jobs by which a tenant family must stay alive, and deflects all these others, and receives still other light from their more personal need, reward, and value, its meanings are much more complex than those of most jobs: it is a strong stale magnet among many others more weak and more yielding of life and hope.”20 Do the exercise Agee describes – hold out your hand and bring your fingertips together while trying to clasp an imaginary boll of cotton in your palm – and you feel in your own bones the labor on which the big house of the Southern economy was built.

But something else is being built there now. In the small town of Newbern (population around 200), is headquartered the Rural Studio, administered by my alma mater, Auburn University. Its presiding spirit is the late Samuel Mockbee, a white Mississippian who founded the Rural Studio with his colleague Dennis Ruth in 1993 to bring affordable, graceful architecture to an area more known for dilapidated cotton mansions and trailer parks. Nationally and internationally, the Rural Studio is a really big deal. The students who pass through the program go on to brilliant careers. Yet its mission is grounded and deliberate: to expand the language of the vernacular, the way ordinary people have historically built to suit their needs, into contemporary architecture by serving their community. The buildings are humble and elegant – wood, tin, brick, steel – incorporating traditionally Southern features such as large porches, shotgun styling, and dogtrot halls. I particularly love a long narrow footbridge (pictured in the book Rural Studio at Twenty), roofed in rusty reclaimed tin, that manages to be at once modestly site-appropriate and the platonic ideal of a Southern covered bridge your grandfather would have recognized.

Over time, the students and professors of the Rural Studio are building something new in Hale County. They’ve just refurbished an old bank building into the first public library Newbern has ever had. They’re known for “20K houses,” a series of small homes designed to be affordable, maintainable, and beautiful for those who live in them, since roughly a third of Hale County residents live below the poverty line. One of their public projects is a 2010 restoration of the “Safe House Museum” in Greensboro, founded by activist Teresa Burroughs after her family shielded Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Ku Klux Klan overnight in their home on March 21, 1968, two weeks before his assassination on April 4. Cypress-clad additions now extend off the back of the two original shotgun structures, preserving their original walls (inside and out) while expanding accessibility, longevity, and exhibition space. The Rural Studio’s current director, Yorkshire-born Andrew Freear, has said that he was trained “by architects who literally rebuilt England after World War II” and the work of the Rural Studio, like that long patient work of rebuilding shattered cities, shows you the power of what happens when people decide to care about a place, to make commitments, and to help others make homes right where they are.

Imagine a woman captured and borne across the ocean, smuggling seeds to plant wherever she lands. Set your hand on the trunk of a young pine and feel its sturdy heart beating, careless of you. Wonder what it is drawing up from the ground underneath your feet that has been here for longer than you can imagine. Linger at the edge of the woods as the sun goes down, and listen. Away off in the trees, there it is: that still small voice you seek, that sweet bobwhite call of home.

“Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor,” Samuel Mockbee said, “not only a warm dry room but a shelter for the soul.”21


[1] This footage of Clayton’s performance appears in the 2013 documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” directed by Morgan Neville, which informs my narration and descriptions.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimme_Shelter

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimme_Shelter

[4] Margo Jefferson, “Ripping Off Black Music.” Harper’s, January 1973: 40-45; p. 43.

[5] “The summer of discontent,” The Economist, June 3rd and 9th, 2017: p. 19.

[6] Robert Lowell, “History,” in Selected Poems [Revised Edition] (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1977).

[7] LRB podcast, Paul Beatty

[8] Text available at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~public/civilrights/a0147.html.

[9] Jacobs, Incidents, p. 227.

[10] Ibid., 137.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lanham, J. Drew. The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016; p. 153.

[13] Ibid., 157.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 197-198.

[17] John T. Edge, Potlikker Papers,

[18] Hurston, Zora Neale. (1937). Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990; p. 57.

[19] Jacobs, Incidents, 213.

[20] P 327

[21] https://onbeing.org/programs/andrew-freear-an-architecture-of-decency/



Agee, James and Walker Evans. (1941). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Beard, Rick. “Forty Acres and a Mule.” New York Times, January 16, 2015.

Edge, John T. The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. New York: Penguin, 2017.

Freear, Andrew and Elena Barthel with Andrea Oppenheimer Dean. Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.

Flynt, Wayne. Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites. Tuscaloosa: University Press of Alabama, 1989.

Hamilton, Jack. Just Around Midnight: Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Racial Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Hurston, Zora Neale. (1937). Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Jacobs, Harriet. (1861). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. and intro. Nell Irvin Painter. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Jefferson, Margo. “Ripping Off Black Music.” Harper’s, January 1973: 40-45.

Lanham, J. Drew. The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016

Lowell, Robert. “History.” Selected Poems [Revised Edition]. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1977.

Nathans, Sydney. A Mind To Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Neville, Morgan, dir. “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” 2013.

Rich, Adrienne. “Planetarium” (1986). In Contemporary American Poetry, 8th ed. Ed. A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006: 413-415.

“The summer of discontent” [unsigned], The Economist, June 3rd and 9th, 2017.

X, Malcolm. “Message to the Grass Roots” (1963). Transcript available via http://xroads.virginia.edu/~public/civilrights/a0147.html.

I have also gathered information from Wikipedia entries on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jenny Lind, “Gimme Shelter,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Merry Clayton, and am indebted to the historical scholarship of Frye Gaillard and Wayne Flynt.