Travel

The Shape of Time Being The Only White People In The Room In Selma Alabama

The turn missed wasn’t there — a phantom limb. Goddamnit, Google Maps.

My own phantom limb wasn’t technically a limb at all, it was a mind still at sea, adrift upon the Gulf, baked by the sun not kissing me back home. My mind rested atop a weary body that hadn’t found adequate sleep since having the French Quarter rental apartment all to myself at the beginning of the month. And even then, that was the dawn of another Mardi Gras season — there wasn’t much sleeping that week either.

Mama's Kitchen Selma Alabama_Shape of Time_Pettus Bridge B&W

The detour that followed the missed turn drew an imperfect square through a familiar version of real life; vinyl siding and a smattering of shingled roof, black as midnight Ford F-150s parked in stubby driveways and rusted two-door sedans, the badges missing, left half on the street, half on the dried up mud caked onto front yards.

We drove past dented chainlink fences and painted-white wooden ones in need of mending. There were plastic toys strewn about — tiny slides, Big Wheels, a chubby baseball bat — each of which had long lost their pastel sheen under the unmerciful southern sun. They were dropped and forgotten, tipped over haphazardly on rectangular patches of grasses yet to regain consciousness from the dormant season.

A right, a right, and another, passing homes of dulled pink, off white, and muted blue the color of a clear day’s end — before strawberries and peaches commandeer the sky.

A stray Doug Jones For Senate sign reminded us where we were still, as if we’d forgotten in the 2 miles since crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Mama's Kitchen Selma Alabama_Shape of Time_Doug Jones Sign

The yard sign used a navy blue font, the grass an iteration of green common in late winter around the world.

You can say that you don’t see color. You can even believe it as the words float out of your privileged mouth.

You do see color when you’re the only person of your color in a room, in a place, in a crowd. You damn well take notice of color then. You see color loud and clear. Color screams in your face as you listen to the pins dropping when your head peeks through the doorway.

On the surface, at a base level, you are a stranger here and while you don’t want to feel it, the feeling of discomfort washes over you on impact. I don’t know where that feeling originated but I hated it and felt like an asshole for feeling it.

There were no white people in Mama’s Kitchen until the four of us walked in looking for lunch, for something real, and real good, to eat after a day of driving up and over from New Orleans. The reviews on Yelp were solid, and anyway, there isn’t much else on offer in Selma on a Sunday afternoon.

I hadn’t considered for a second that we’d be the only white people in there.

It was a church day, a day of rest, but I’d simply never had reason to consider that kind of thing before. My privileged suburban upper middle class prep school life had brought me to this day, Sunday Feb 11 2018 in Selma, Alabama at Mama’s Kitchen on US-80, just the other side of the bridge you’ve seen in the black and white photos.

Never before had I known what it felt like to stand out because of the color of my skin. Then there I was, there we were, the four of us, sore thumbs. We felt everyone’s eyes turn to look at us when we opened the door.

Mama's Kitchen Selma Alabama_Shape of Time

There were about 50 folks already in Mama’s Kitchen, from the very young to the very old, each in their Sunday best, forming a single file line which curved from the bathrooms in the back all the way up to the stainless steels pots of solid gold by the front door.

I bet every single one of those 50 people knew well the feeling of standing out, of being the contrast in a room, a place, a crowd. It’s a feeling of not belonging, of being an outsider. It’s feeling that no one in Mama’s Kitchen put on me but rather a feeling that came from inside me, from a place I never knew existed.

I lead my family in, if not confidently, than at least with my head up and wearing my best smile. We went to the back of the line and waited with the post-church lunch bunch. It was awkward, more for the contrast in dress than color, but that too only lasted a half a minute.

The winner is clear when it’s satin blouses versus blue jeans but this was not a contest. Inside Mama’s Kitchen we were greeted by neckties and broaches, shoes that reflected the light from above and click as the queue shuffles closer to heaven, and the contrasting enamel of smiles that made sure we knew without hesitation and without a doubt that this was home cooking for us too.

I left my family’s place in line to take a peek at what was waiting at the end of the rainbow.

There were no menus.

There were no prices.

There were no labels on the food that sat in silver chaffing dishes along the front wall, beside the cash register.

That’s mac-n-cheese, there’s the collards, I see you fried chicken! The other 12-15 pans? I couldn’t know. I would only have been guessing — yams, question mark?

Gulp. I was out of my depth and would need to do what I’m not exactly proficient at doing: initiate conversations with strangers.

So I made fast friends, as meekly as I do, and was offered a friendly hand and a kind hello. Hi, we’re from Philly, just got off a cruise ship in New Orleans, and passing through on our way to Montgomery, Tuskegee and eventually, Atlanta. We’re good people, I promise. That was the gist of the basic vibe I hoped to give off. My eagerness to have our goodness come through was probably kinda hilarious but I needed these fine people to know, even more so right now in Trump’s ugly America, that we are friend not foe.

The locals were as sweet as the Mama’s Kitchen peach pie waiting to be ordered. They gave us the lay of the land, offered insight as to how to order, how much food we should expect to be loaded up onto each platter, and roughly what it’ll cost if our vegetarian kids wanted nothing more elaborate than some creamed corn, corn bread, and cheesy noodles.

A small TV off to the side played reruns of What’s Happening. No one, aside from my girls who have never seen that show, was really paying the TV any mind.

Now at the register, having finished pointing, smiling and saying yes please to that, that, and some collard greens too because I don’t know if I had ever tried them before and this sure as hell seems the appropriate place to start — like having my first dry rub ribs in a Memphis back alley 15 years ago, I tried to be considerate and order my wife a drink while she stood next to me looking back with hungry eyes at our order being plated into partitioned takeaway containers. The guy who would eventually run my credit card was having none of my patriarchal ways. “She can order her own drink!” he said firmly but with a devilish twinkle in his eye.

I felt small, but kept my head up and held the smile that at this point was painted on. I agreed immediately that yes, he’s right, she’s damn capable of deciding what she’d like to drink with her lunch, and a whole lot more. My wife laughed, a couple of people on either side of the counter laughed too. I played along with the gag, resisting the urge to make my case. I smiled and nodded. You got me, dude. If the ice hadn’t been fully cut before, it was then. Well played. I wanted to believe this was ribbing a local would get, and it made me feel good that I got it too.

We choose one of the dark wood tables in the main dining room and sat down; our bare legs immediately sticking to the cool red vinyl padding of metal chairs. The containers were plopped open and we went to town. It was delicious — the food, the atmosphere, the hospitality, all of it. I felt at home. I also felt stuffed and totally unprepared to drive the rest of the way to our Atlanta airport hotel.

Upon leaving we smiled some more, waved, said thank you, and continued in a northeasterly direction away from Mama’s Kitchen.

As we left Selma, I told the girls that that was the first time I, and by proxy they, had ever been the only white people in a room. I don’t know what I was expecting in making such a decree, but I was expecting something.

Mama's Kitchen Selma Alabama_Shape of Time_Walking over Pettus Bridge

My daughters didn’t seem to be phased or think anything of this fact which was strange at first but also heartening.

Maybe it is possible to not see color when you are smart, worldly young people growing up with a mixed race best friend, and going to a school where kids from India, Egypt, Mexico, north Philly, and from every corner of our mixed socioeconomic suburb coalesce without any fuss at all.

Maybe it is possible to still have a dream, to hope, and to find a welcoming home wherever you find yourself, if you are good, have an honest smile to share, and are as sweet as fresh baked peach pie.

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5 Comments

  1. This post works so nicely as a companion to your previous post about driving on the highway while the world morphs around us. It’s uplifting, inspiring and reminds us that there is still goodness to be found if we know where to look an remain open to it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jesus H. Christ, this is amazing writing. I felt like I was there, awkwardly ordering with you, praying I didn’t offend. Damn I love your writing and you, my friend.

  3. You are too, too kind. I can’t truly express how much you reading my writing means to me, Doug. Thank you!

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  5. I can’t wait to follow in all these footsteps and experience things w mybkid that help alter their paradigm. Or maybe it’s just my paradigm. Regardless, thanks for yet more family travel inspiration.

joc