Sorry for being MIA! I have no excuse. Well, except for getting featured in the July edition of Reader’s Digest (the story in the hard copy issue starts on page 140), a whirlwind visit to California, a weekend vacation to El Paso to meet my two-month-old nephew, and a very recently-developed addiction to Words with Friends (I am terribly sorry for the Facebook notifications).
I have recently met a few interesting individuals whose stories are just too interesting to keep to myself. In my opinion, these people are kind of representative of a lot of what I see in the residents of the Deep South.
Allow me to introduce you to…
This past Friday I helped prepare Montgomery’s Riverfront Park for a fundraiser that benefits my organization called the Dragon Boat Race and Festival. There was tons of setting up to do. Ya know, mostly manual labor: setting up tents, moving tables, etc. In addition to the few of us whose job it is to run the festival, several inmates were recruited from the Montgomery Department of Corrections.
I was alarmed at first because I was not expecting their presence. Although one of them was very good at staring at myself and the other young women who were helping to set up, they all were extremely helpful and were friendly to talk to. As the day went on, the conversations became a bit more comfortable and we got to learn more about each other.
All of the inmates, with the exception of one, were black. I feel the need to say this not because I believe there is a direct correlation between race and criminal behavior. There is merely a very strong racial problem all over the country where individuals of color are more likely to end up in jail than others. That could be in part due to modern-day racism, but my observations during the 6 months I’ve lived here have lead me to believe that there is a relationship between race and poverty, and I think that poverty-stricken individuals are more likely to commit crimes than others.
That being said…
The two individuals I want to tell you about have been locked up for close to twenty years now, and their sentences are almost up. The first one will be out in three months. He is talkative, polite, and a good worker. The first thing he is going to do when he gets out is sign up for night classes. His child died two weeks ago. This man is about forty years old; he has spent half his life and all of his adult life locked up for whatever he did. Can you believe it? He gets out in three months, but lost his kid two weeks ago.
The second has been in for 19 years. He was the hardest worker I noticed out of the group. He was quiet and smiled a lot – that pleasant, peaceful smile on the face of someone who is content with where they’re at. He gets out of jail next year. He is in his early 40’s also.
Two black men. Both about 40 years old. Both have been in jail for their entire adult lives. Both acknowledged that the crimes they committed were wrong, and their sentences were justified.
I am the AmeriCorps Project Developer for Rebuilding Together Central Alabama. We provide home repairs at no cost to low-income homeowners. Part of what I do is visit many, many homes of people who need our services so we can both get to know the person requesting our help as well as create a file with photos of the repairs they need.
Today I met with an elderly couple who had been married 67 years. They were charming, playful, and they flirted with each other. He was 90 years old and she was 87. He was a WWII veteran. We sat outside on their front patio and enjoyed each other’s company for a long time after we had finished taking our photos of the repairs they needed, just talking about life.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Southern charm is a real thing, yo. These two were sweethearts to each other and to us. They welcomed us into their home and talked with us for more than twenty minutes after the original goal of our visit was met.
These are the people I have met over the past few days. Two black, two white. Two locked away for twenty years, two who cannot afford to make basic home repairs on the home in which they’ve lived for 65 years. Two who did something they aren’t proud of, two who are very proud. Four who were charming as they shared their stories with me. Four smiling faces. Four Southerners.
This is where I live.
This is the South.