Well, I’ve already fallen behind the perfect “one year ago today” posts for the arm chair road trip. I can see now why it was impossible to post in real time during the trip; there was not one minute of extra time!
Days 16 was pretty much the low point of the trip — with one exception. After hitting the gym in the morning in Atlanta, we set out for Montgomery, Alabama.
This has never been high on my list to visit — or anywhere on my list — but Rosa Parks and the bus boycott are important events on the Civil Rights Trail, which I wanted Mtuseni to see on the trip given his experience in South Africa. And I did want to see the new National Museum for Peace and Justice, informally known as the Lynching Memorial, which is supposed to be a profound experience. I thought it would give Mtuseni a deep sense of the violence and repression of that era, with its parallels to apartheid.
I had read some things about Alabama, including recommendations to just drive through fast without stopping, but I brushed them off. It didn’t take long before I understood.
Five miles over the border I got off the highway to a small gas station and store surrounded by nothing. I parked to the side, not needing gas, and Mtuseni stayed in the car. When I returned, an old guy in his 70s was standing near the car. He glared at me and then at Mtuseni, back and forth, his grizzled face dripping with disdain. His message was clear.
I could feel waves of hatred directed at us. Mtuseni contentedly munched his umpteenth bag of salt and vinegar chips, thankfully unaware of the scene unfolding few away from him in the blazing sun.
I was unnerved. And pissed. I felt like a protective papa bear; nobody was going to openly exhibit such prejudice toward my sweet kid. I narrowed my eyes to slits and returned his glare. For a second was I ready to say, “You wanna go, old man?” But then I thought, “This is the Deep South. He probably has a shotgun in the back. Just get in the car.” He kept glaring at us as I drove away, not shaken but a little shocked. And disgusted..
When I was in South Africa, Mtuseni had to point out to me the disapproving looks we got from old, white Afrikaaners. I had’t noticed. They were more subtle in their bigotry, maybe because they’re the minority. But not that old southern cracker. He showed off his prejudice — and ignorance — proudly.
At our hotel outside Montgomery, I talked for a while to the young Black girl working the front desk. Telling her about the incident, she didn’t flinch. She said it’s common, and told me about White guests who won’t touch the pen she hands them to sign the register, or who won’t look her in the eye. I was floored. Welcome to Alabama, where it’s still 1949. I won’t return.
And on top of that, she told me the lynching museum was closed the next day. That was really the main reason we were there, and I doubted we could kill time for an extra day to see it.
But there was one bright spot: It was Mtuseni’s birthday! We’d never been able to celebrate it together before. We headed into “downtown” Montgomery — which is basically a few mid-size office structures, some government buildings, and about 50,000 empty parking spaces. Even Mtuseni, who’s generally impressed with everyplace in America, said, “It’s dry here.”
We skipped the riverfront, despite being a couple blocks away. From the map, it clearly was no Savannah or Charleston. We scouted out the few restaurants and found a decent-looking Italian place, full of what seemed to be government office workers.
Mtuseni had a good meal, including his first time eating shrimp. The servers brought over his birthday dessert and sang “Happy Birthday” shortly after his entree was delivered. (Really, how hard is it to time that? The place wasn’t even busy.) But Mtuseni was happy. Birthdays aren’t generally big celebrations at home; there’s no money. His smile on his 27th birthday on a trip across America salvaged a pretty crappy day.