In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chicken Gravy

Today, a creative writing student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told us that in her family, as in most white families in Alabama, there used to be members of the Klan. But we don't talk about this, she added coyly. When we asked the class if they'd written about that, if they thought it important for an Alabama writer to face that recent Birmingham past, one student said that she was afraid to say the wrong thing. Another student replied that she preferred to write about the good things in Alabama. Like going to church. Like her grandmother's chicken gravy. I noticed that there were no black students in the class --no future black writers to write about the Birmingham future, or past. As I listened to the students, I couldn't help remembering the photo that I'd seen this morning, on the front page of The Birmingham Times, of a black man hanging from a tree. A supposed suicide. The family of the dead man disagrees. Either way, no one in this class is going to write the story of a dead black man hanging from a tree. Maybe none of them even know about him. In this country, one student was still saying, we prefer to move forward, and not dwell on the past.


  1. I was one of the students in the class that you refer to in your above blog. With all due respect, I would like to defend my classmates and myself. A lot of us felt as if we were placed under a microscope, our opinions skewed to fit properly inside a pre-determined agenda. Also, a correction: there are two black students in our class who were absent on the day of your visit.

  2. "As in most white families in Alabama...going to church...chicken gravy..." Wildly, wildly offensive, and wildly over-generalized. The above blog entry is perhaps one of the most damaging and prejudicial statements I've encountered in a supposed academic environment. To compartmentalize and generalize the perspectives and histories of Alabamians that happen to be white is specious at best; to use one class of creative writing students as your test set shows a profound lack of insight, intelligence and sensitivity under the auspices of "examin[ing] some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals" that you purport to be "exploring."

    Shame on you for your own petty and bourgeois stereotyping of this city and this state.

  3. Yep, there are two black students in our class, they just weren't there. Saying that there are no future black writers to write about Birmingham is a little melodramatic. Also a correction- I HAVE written about issues such as the one that you mentioned. A gay black man beaten to the point of having to have his mouth wired shut, because he was gay and black. My friend facing disdainful looks because she was with a white girl (me). Among many others. And maybe some of them DID know about this man hanging from a tree, and maybe some of them were absolutely disgusted by it.

  4. This post disturbs me. The generalizations are unfair to any genuinely thoughtful and socially aware students who, for whichever of a plenitude of just reasons, were unprepared to articulate the depth of their feelings on the spot having thus been ambushed by locked and loaded questions.

    Beyond being unfair to real persons and conceivably hurtful, such generalizations (in a solitary paragraph gleaned from a solitary setting)comprise an empty argument. Whatever significance (and there is some, I'm sure) we might hope to extrapolate from the anecdotal incident is weakened by a lack of counterpoint.

    Lastly and perhaps most importantly--never underestimate how deeply churches and chicken gravy run through the veins of the southern experience itself. Religion and food--places we hide from ourselves, places we come together. Grace over grits, working out our bigotry and redemption with fear and trembling . . . and gravy.

  5. This is some piece of work. I'm offended and honestly I am relieved I missed this class. A great writer would first get their facts straight before writing; A great writer would have asked, "Is there any African American writers in this class?" My last piece for this class was dealing with racism and how I am rebelling against the past (as many are doing in my generation). I am proud of how far we've came as a state. The world has a long way to go, still, but progression is all around us. Our professor allowed these "writers in motion" to come to our classroom to inspire us. If this article is what we have to look up to, the future of writing looks dim. I'm not impressed and I do not look up to these people as GREAT writers.

  6. Eduardo, i am sorely disappointed in your misrepresentation of Birmingham. It is apparent in your above blog that you came here with a message in mind, and the questions posed to my fellow students and myself were specifically designed to fulfill that purpose.

    You neglect to mention that the hanged man was found in Greenwood, Mississippi on December 3rd of last year. The only connection to Birmingham is the attorney representing the family and the story is written in a Birmingham paper.

    Yes, there are two black students in our class who were regrettably absent that day. I'm curious as to how your opinion might have changed if they had been present, or if it would have changed at all.

    It is obvious you know nothing about our city as it stands today, or our present way of life. Having read your "insight" about the people in Birmingham, I can determine that you are just as ignorant about us as you make us out to be.

    I invite you back to spend some more time with us here in Bham. Maybe then you can find what you are looking for. I'd be happy to show you around.

  7. I was also a student at the reading/Q&A yesterday at UAB. I realize that the 150th anv of the Civil War starting is this week and you want to go down the raciest road, since that was the entire point of the war to begin with(yes, i'm a white person and knew that, shocker). Just because no one in the class had written a paper about a dead black person from Civil War times, that doesn't make us oblivious to the racism that went on then. There are books and movies based on the subject that actually make it down to AL. The truth of the matter, on one living today really knows what it was like back then, because everyone that lived through the war is and has been dead(white and black). The question I asked at the reading was:" As far as non-fiction goes, does it matter to tell the truth, or take creative liberty to make a more interesting story". I guess we see which road you took with this. We showed your group respect, you might want to look up what that word means and apply it some.

  8. I concur with the above comments and would add that they demonstrate "halfon"'s dismaying lack of critical thinking skills. One expects something vastly more thoughtful from an Iowa-sponsored, US State Department-funded program such as this.

    "half on"? more like "way off"

  9. Not only have the "Writers In Motion" failed in their shortsighted assessment of the relationship between Southern literature and race, but they also managed to trot out a trite, derivative paragraph of drivel. The archetype of the demure Southern belle whispering about the Klan in hushed tones...puh-leeze!

    Race relations and Birmingham go hand in hand; it shades everything we do, including writing. And what is wrong with writing about the love of church and gravy? Hell, those are two subjects that unite black and white Southerners like none other.

  10. Oh and PS- Tiffiany liking to write about her family and her pride in her Southern culture is not a bad thing. Just because chicken and dressing is a staple in her household doesn't make her an ignorant person. Just because she likes to shed Alabama in a beautiful light does not mean that she does not acknowledge Birmingham's past. We can't all be political writers. It's simply a preference, you know? I love to write about my family and my Italian and Polish and Native American heritage, because it makes me happy. Just because I don't write about concentration camps and the Trail of Tears doesn't mean I've forgotten that this is a part of my family's past.

  11. hi everyone, I'm Madeleine, one of the writers who visited your class. I asked the question of whether you felt the rest of America was interested in the stories you had to tell, or whether you felt some pressure to write about particular topics. I asked this out of genuine curiosity, and hope you did not feel the question was locked and loaded. The answers that came back were, for me, honest ones, and I deeply appreciated your willingness to speak freely. Although it may not look like it from the above post and comments, I think we are all, as writers, struggling with the same questions. Are we writing about the things that matter to us? Are there stories that, for reasons personal and various, we feel unable to approach? For myself, I can answer this last question: Yes. There are things that trouble me, for which I do not have the words. Perhaps, in time, I will. Or perhaps, the means will never be available to me.

    A few of you approached me afterward to continue the conversation and to add further insights. I loved this. Not only did I gain a deeper understanding of Birmingham and Alabama, but I recognized myself in you--a young writer, in university, beginning my work, confronting questions for which there are no easy or comfortable answers. This discomfort feeds into all of our work, and I strongly feel that the first person we need to provoke is ourselves. As a writer, I'm trying understand what has not yet been articulated, or what has been articulated yet remains unheard.

    I hope, eventually, the exchange we have had will feel like a beginning and not an end. I'm very glad I had the chance to meet you.

    warmest wishes,

  12. Almost all of the students that were in the class were falsley represented and misquotes within this article. I am one of the students in that class, the one that said I was afraid to say something "politically incorrect." I did not say that - I said that I did not want to say the wrong thing - so that I did not misrepresent those I'm writing about. I think you, as a writer, should also pay heed to misrepresenting somebody...

  13. My initial response to Ed’s blog was this:

    How can you, in such a brief encounter, know what my students will and won’t write about in the future? These are students, trying to find their voices. It was one of the reasons I wanted you to come – I knew it would spark in them insights not only into Birmingham’s past, but their own personal history in relation to civil rights in the South, and about fall and recovery in general, and their role as writers in this process. Ironically, when you left my class on Tuesday, my students were inspired by your words. Now they feel ridiculed, dismissed. Just because some of them are not sure of how to deal with the past yet doesn’t mean that it isn’t something deeply embedded within them. It is. And eventually they will find their voice, but this takes time. This, too, is part of recovery. And requires faith by us that they will find their voice, that we can help them find it. Writing is a responsibility, and we should never be so careless with students we barely know.

    Other members from Writers in Motion have addressed my concerns in their comments, and I just want to say thank you. And I want to thank my students for their responses.


    please read my blog!

  15. to madeleine-
    as I said (in one of these blogs, I don't quite remember) I was inspired by all of you. I was one of the students that came up to you after the thing, and I really do thank you for coming. All of you inspired me, 90 % of you in a positive way. This blog, however, inspired me to write about my anger and the ignorance of others. But hey, angry writing has gotten me through my life without killing anyone thus far... ;]
    but Madeleine, you were sweet :]

  16. This is a wonderfully thoughtful post. It is crucial for writers to be able to confront the ugly things in their lives. I would even argue that the best writing comes from a place of discomfort and a genuine attempt to work through the implications of both pain and happiness in one's life and in the history of one's people.

  17. Thanks everybody for posting! Thank you to the writers for visiting us, and thank you for the students for engaging with them.

    I think this is a great “teachable moment” (as cheesy as that phrase is) – what can we learn from this episode?

    First and most obviously, that everyone is a complex individual and that we must always strive to look past surface appearances. As Madeleine said, it is a struggle to write – especially nonfiction, which comes with a responsibility for accuracy and honesty. There are also several other related issues we can consider here.

    For example, if stereotypes and certain narratives are so powerful that they get in the way of actually seeing other people, we should also ask: Where do these stereotypes and narratives come from? In other words, who benefits from portraying – for example, in American popular media, news, etc. – complex human beings from BOTH the American South AND so-called “Third World”/“developing” countries as less-than-human and/or as the losers of history? Where do these narratives/stereotypes come from that perhaps prevent us from understanding that we’re ALL intimately connected in too often invisible ways (for example, in the U.S., in the gas that we use, the clothes that we wear, the food that we buy at the grocery store)?

    Furthermore, certainly errors were made here, but honestly, what do most Americans (me included) think – if we think at all? – about people in Kenya, Burma, Jamaica, Guatemala, or other countries, despite being intimately tied to them and their lives by economics, politics, and history? How much do we understand that, as Khet Mar wrote in another post, most of the world lives with “very demanding and troublesome daily struggles in poverty” that is tied to the same histories and processes that produced our relative wealth?

    And despite such obstacles to cross-cultural dialogue – as Kei said, understanding that we inevitably come in with preconceived notions and will make errors and must admit as much – in an increasingly globalized world (economically, politically, culturally), why might it be EVEN MORE necessary to try to understand “the Other”? Trying to understand someone different across national, racial, ethnic, regional, etc., lines is difficult and often fraught with errors and high emotions – and “the powers that be” are more than happy to profit from this divide-and-conquer. So I applaud the writers for delving into histories and places very different from but complexly related their own contexts, and I thank again the students and Jim for welcoming these writers into their classroom.

    Also, we might also ask: How are we implicated in the collective histories of our place and time – particularly in relation to some central historical trauma(s) – and what are we doing to engage those problems? Is it enough to defend against misinformed attacks from outsiders, or does the onus also fall on us to change what’s really wrong within our ranks? This question reminds me of the debates of cultural nationalism (for example, Black Power or the Asian American Movement from the 60s and 70s) about whether critiques of a community – from within or without – are justified in the face of overwhelming outside stereotyping and repression. (I actually got a lot of this in college, when I got criticized for publicly critiquing patriarchy in the Asian American community) To this effect, my friend James Braxton Peterson just wrote a wonderful, balanced essay on Ashley Judd’s characterization of rap music as contributing to “rape culture” – James is usually in the position of DEFENDING hip-hop, but in this essay he argues that while her oversimplification of hip-hop is problematic – and she has since apologized – some rap music undeniably contributes to an overall American rape culture. And he asks, so what are we going to do about it?,2.

    [continued in next post]

  18. One final note -- personally, I think the things Eduardo talks about – the repression of/unwillingness to engage history and the refusal to speak for fear of offending – is characteristic of *American culture* in general – and something we really need to fix. It’s actually more complicated in the South, where that particular history is in many ways much more PRESENT and INHABITED than in many other places in the country. This is partly because Southerners are so aware that everybody else in the U.S. is generally more than happy to dump everything bad about American history on the South and thereby try to make themselves feel better, ignoring the racial and class divisions in their own backyards.

    So again, thank you to all the writers and students for engaging with one another and continuing these important conversations!

  19. hi again, everyone!

    Thanks, Sue, Angel Star and everyone for widening this conversation. It's given me so much to think about and confront in my own writing.

    A few days ago, I read this article about Burma, which was pointed out to me by Khet Mar, our fellow writer who spoke to your class. I thought some of you might find it incredibly moving, as I did. And perhaps it might open a door on why some of us have been thinking and writing about history and how it shapes the present moment, and the necessity of confronting the visible, and sometimes invisible, structures of our societies.

    Letter from Rangoon: Drowning, by George Packer