The Writers Voice
It had been a long time since I
could honestly say I was truly happy. In my heart I
was hoping the trip back
to Alabama would make me feel that way again. With
a well-deserved ninety-day military leave at my
disposal, I had returned with high expectations,
looking forward to a nostalgic walk down memory
Unfortunately, I hadn't considered the fact sixteen
long and complicated years had passed since my move
away: at the innocent age of eight. And being there
in my dress uniform, my chest covered in more
than most Sergeant First Class would have received
by retirement, made the entire visit seem even more
I had flown from Andrews Air force Base to Fort Benning and then driven into Birmingham. It was September, a time when the weather was mild and mosquito season was almost over. Sadly, the tangible climate was not nearly as inviting. Birmingham, once the steel capitol of the south, had been virtually transformed over the past decade and a half. I was shocked to see factories replaced by fashionable department stores, and modern malls standing where old smokestack were once commonplace. The roller rink, that had only accommodated skaters, was now expanded to five levels and covered one-and-a-half city blocks. There were clubs, amusement and video game centers, putt-putt golf, bowling, movie theaters and restaurants. Like so many other places, one stopping had been adapted, coining the phrase 'the one stop fun center.'
I drove down Jefferson Street, and like so many other aspects of Birmingham, its modern appearance was completely foreign. When my paternal grandmother was just a child, it was nothing more than a dirt road, over the years concrete was added and eventually asphalt; the single lane then expanding into two. And there I was, driving down a four-lane highway with posted speed limit signs.
To add to my disappointment, my grandmother's house had been torn down and rebuilt with modern luxuries. The AWIC Wine & Dine had been refurbished to an extravagant four-star restaurant for the elite of Birmingham. Attempts to locate an old friend, with whom I once played, were to no avail. In fact the entire trip produced only two familiar faces. My cousin Daryl (the oldest in my generation), who controlled the family owned business and was responsible for bringing the family into moderns' times, and Bishop Thompson, the Pastor of the church I attended as child. We reminisced about the days of my grandmothers, the two women who had a great deal to do with establishing the wealth of the Awic's.
It's been six years since that journey to Alabama, but tears fill my eyes each time I think about that trip and my childhood, in spite of the fact that I was happy during those early years. Of course, as I've grown older, I've come to realize that I was only happy because of the close knit ties of my family. My family has a very rich history that I will not go into right now. The lands that the Awic's occupied since the pre-civil war days were given to my great-great-grandfather as a way to appease his master so he would not revolt against the plantation owners or flee to aid the north.
During slavery, there were approximately one hundred and twenty families spread out over 2000 acres of land. My great-great-great grandfather was given 75 acres of that land to keep the so-called natives at bay. By the time the civil war had ended my great-great grandfather had swindled an additional 135 acres out of his masters. Unfortunately the number of people on the plantation had dwindled to about 35 families. My great-great grandfather not being a stingy man gave each of the families that remained 4 acres of land. At the end of the century, the number had been reduced to a mere ten. By the time the civil rights movement took place only two families remained on the Plantation Awic's (my father's side of the family) and the Giddens (my mother's side of the family). The Giddens and the Awic's had been friends for over a century.
My father and my mother were next-door neighbors, childhood friends, and sexual acquaintances all wrapped up in one. I believe in my mind that my brother was merely an accident that happened due to convenience rather then out of love. My father was like most of the Awic men, they partied and hung out at the street corner. However most of their time was spent at the family restaurant and/or pool hall.
When my mother became pregnant my father had to make a real decision about his future and the life of his child. At that time, Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy were big in Montgomery. They would come to Birmingham by invitation and talk to Pastor Thompson about keeping the heat on Bull Connor. Then he would speak to the congregations and let the people know that times will get hard and it will be an uphill battle.
Although my father had no interest whatsoever in the religious aspect, he desperately wanted to emulate those respected leaders. He participated in local protection issues stemming from the bombing of the Birmingham church, but my grandmother interpreted his so-called community involvement as another form of laziness.
Not only was my father concerned about emulating black leaders, he was also concerned that my mother was pregnant and about being drafted into the military with Vietnam in full swing. He had read that white college kids were going to college and getting out of going to Vietnam. He decided to enroll at the University of Alabama as a Communication and Engineer development major and worked full-time at the restaurant to support him and my mother.
On the other hand my mother wasn't as a fortunate with her own choices. There were not many programs available for single unwed teenage mothers. Without a high-school diploma, any knowledge she achieved was obtained through her own efforts.
The house that my grandmother inherited and where I was born and raised until the age of eight did not have any of the modern conveniences (i.e. running water, indoor plumbing, heating, or indoor bathroom. We did not have a color television set. Nonetheless, we were always taught to be thankful for whatever we had. More importantly, my grandmother would always say we have each other. Aside from my immediate family, there were seven uncles, three aunts, and a galore of cousins. We shared Sunday dinners, Christmas parties, summer reunions, and even camping trips.
Do not get me wrong; not all of my memories of my childhood were pleasant. When I was five, my then teenage uncle (who was a drunk and a drug addict) sent me to the corner store to get change for a twenty-dollar bill. I was carrying the money in my hand when I left the store, and someone on the street told me I should not be waving it around like that. He took the money from me; folded it, and shoved it into my pocket. Returning home, my uncle discovered that five dollars was missing and began to beat me. I remember screaming for my father to help but he merely stood there, clutching his bottle of wine, allowing the abuse to continue. Instead, Uncle Ta-von jumped in, attempting to stop him but at 12 years old he was no match for his older brother. The consequence of his actions was two broken ribs, a black eye, and some internal bleeding. My uncle Ta-von could have died for doing something my father was supposed to do.
I recall sitting in Ta-von's hospital room with my grandmother, David (my older brother), and Demetrius (Ta-von's twin brother). To me Ta-von looked dead. Tubes running through all of his body, he could not speak, his eyes were not open, and he was not moving. I remember seeing my grandmother just crying and rocking back and forth like she was in a trance or something.
When we got home I heard my mother yelling at my father and then a big old thud. My father had knocked my mother on her ass. From that day on my father was dead to me. I could not believe that he could hit a woman but not my uncle. I could not believe my father could hit a woman that bore his children but not the man that was beating his own blood.
The following morning my grandmother was sobbing, "Why lord did you take my baby?" I felt numb and I fell to the ground motionless; thinking that my Uncle Ta-von, had died in the hospital. My brother had to carry me back to bed. Later that night, I learned that it was not Ta-von who had died but the uncle that had beaten me and put Ta-von in the hospital. To this day his murder is unsolved. I wanted so much to believe that my father had murdered him for what he had done to me. But the consensus of the family was that my Uncle Tyrone, a member of the United States Army Special Forces home on leave, had murdered him for putting his hands on Ta-von. Ta-von and Tyrone were very close, just like David and myself were close because of the age difference. Not to mention the neighborhood where they had grown up in.
You have to understand that the plantation was segregated from the black (West End, mix Dupree) races and the whites (East end). My grandmother's land was the Mason-Dixie line per se. The West end had the stores, Dupree had the schools and the East end had everything you can possibly imagine as a five year old. But because of desegregation everything changed, a certain percentage of blacks were bused outside, while others remained; specifically those who lived in Dupree were bused out. In essence, this created another class of blacks.
Due largely to the radius in which the school was located, we walked six or seven miles one-way. The whites attending our old school, while we walked to our new school - despite the fact we had our own schools and our own teachers. Sad to say those white kids received a better education than us because our black teachers took pride in education all people regardless of race, class, or religion. While on the other hand we were being ridicule, placed in special education classes, or given easy assignments in our new school, with all of its fancy designs and books with all the pages.
My family on the other hand had it a lot worst because we were being teased by our own, because we did not have the modern conveniences. What they failed to understand was that being deprived of technology empowered us to become a more closely knit family. Instead of wasting time watching television, we spent hours on the front porch, listening to old stories and how life used to be. We were told how special we were because of who were and not what we had. We were the children of Bocephus Nathaniel Awic, a slave who earned his freedom by protecting the land he was given. A man who understood that his God-given right was Freedom.
Today, there are not enough grandmothers sitting with their grand kids, and telling them they are special. There are not enough grandfathers walking their grandchildren to the playground and buying them ice cream on the way back. Nowadays we have mothers trying to be grandmothers. We do not have enough spiritual Pastors these days. During my childhood, pastors and ministers did a great deal of walking: visiting members of their congregation and talking with them. Since the Awic's were the only family who had not given up their land for money during Reconstruction, every pastor (or anyone who wanted a church, money, etc) made it a point to stop by and talk to my grandfather.
My grandfather passed away before I was born, so I never really knew him, but I remember well one story that Bishop Thompson always wanted my grandmother to tell him when he forgets why God trusted him over his people. This one story renews his faith and allows him to continue doing God's mission on earth. The event surrounding the story was highly significant because it changed the way my grandmother looked at life.
Although my grandfather was Baptist, my grandmother was a member of Church of God in Christ, a very small Congregation back then. Now you can hardly go anywhere without meeting a member. The Pastor of the church had been in town to purchase building materials for the church. He was dressed in his coveralls.
While there, he used some of the money to buy candy for his daughter. I guess back then it must have been a lot of money, because when the church board heard that he had used church money they fired him. The church was his only means of support; he had given up a prosperous carpentry business in order to preach and lead them. Now, over a piece of candy, he had nothing. One cold, rainy and windy night, the disgraced pastor visited my grandmother, a wise woman that did not get involved in petty disputes. However she supported her church in every way. If a pastor would have told her that God meant the grass to be yellow she would have believed him and tried to persuade everyone to think like that. The disgraced pastor must have stayed for hours. My grandfather came home and brought my grandmother some tootsies rolls. My grandmother loved her some tootsie rolls. My grandfather walked off into the bedroom and changed out of his wet clothes. Not being rude my grandmother offered the disgraced pastor a tootsie roll. In those days, a man would not take from a lady, but on this occasion the disgraced pastor accepted the offer.
My grandfather walked in and grabbed my grandmother by the arm into the bedroom for a brief discussion. He said, "That man out in our living room is hungry, and if he's hungry then his family is hungry. What type of church do you belong to that would starve a man and his family? What God do you all believe in? This man bought some candy for his child. That is no reason for a man to go hungry, let alone his family starve to death. After all, the church pays his salary, and he built that church from the ground up."
After that my grandfather went in and offered him food and wood for his fire. My grandfather had always been blessed with more than enough, so my grandfather instructed my father and his brother and sisters to carry food and fire wood up to the disgraced pastor in cold, windy, and rain filled air. Uphill for two miles back and forth. My grandmother claims that they made about three trips that night.
Minister Thompson never forgot that because his father was the one who replaced the fired and disgraced pastor. However, Minister Thompson was the one who allowed that Pastor back into the ministry because he said He would have done the same thing and bought a piece a candy for his daughter, after a long hard day of work.
My grandmother taught us all about giving and not expecting to receive. The Awic's restaurant played an important role in this, because my grandmother not only walked to school with us, but she also fed the Black children from the West End. Since their parents were governed primarily by materialistic wants (television, two cars, and big houses), it was not uncommon for them to seek financial assistance from my grandmother. Most of the children would have gone without proper meals if it had not been for her kindness and generosity. In school I may not have had all the luxuries, but my grandmother never once asked for a handout. And because everything we had was paid for in full, no one could ever take it away from us.
As a child, I enjoyed the people who visited my grandmother and I would ask them lots of questions. I was happy to play with my friends, I was happy and never had to worry about going to school hungry or with raggedy clothes. It didn't matter that sometimes we were drinking out of jelly, mayonnaise, or molasses jars. It did not matter that sometimes we have just syrup sandwiches or sugars sandwiches. It did not matter that sometimes we had to warm ourselves up by the stove, or heat our bath water in a pot before we bathed. It did not matter that we had to use the bathroom outside because we had each other. Those same people who had all of those things were coming and borrowing from us because the bank wanted their money now.
I enjoyed being a neighborhood child. I enjoyed having a whole neighborhood looking after me. That was my childhood in Alabama.
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