In Gettysburg we ask the students what they think about the Civil War. It is asking a lot. They would have to go back 150 years. They would have to care. They answer honestly: they don’t think much of it.
In Birmingham, Alabama we ask the students what they think of Civil Rights. This history is closer and more contentious. A discomfort enters the group of students. I feel uncomfortable too. Maybe they worry that whatever they say will be thought 'politically incorrect'. Maybe a few feel they might offend me. They are careful with their words. But their answer seems to be the same as it was in Gettysburg: they don’t think much of it.
I feel for these students. I understand the shrugs, this I-can’t-be-bothered attitude. They are resisting our limited and limiting imaginations. On this trip, we have come with our own agendas – a way of reading cities through specific lenses. We are 'focused'. But every focus contains its own myopia. The danger is that in looking for one thing, we are less able to see the actual lives that are being lived. Disaster does this – it exotifies a landscape; it becomes the easy way that outsiders read and understand it. The people within that landscape, however, inevitably return to another life, to their own banalities. What occupies their minds are decisions like: to jog or not to jog this morning? Wholewheat bread or multigrain? McDonalds or Kentucky for lunch? And should I download that new Bruno Mars song?
Professor Pam King (no relation to Martin Luther) takes us on a short tour through the city and points to important buildings that the mayor has left to rot. Not just any mayor. A black mayor. You would think, she complains, that a black mayor and a black council would have been better stewards of this history - this history that affects all of America, but them most profoundly. The motel where Martin Luther King stayed is earmarked for a more permanent destruction than the Klan's bomb had done to it. In all likelihood, it will be torn down soon and turned into something else. You see, Birmingham itself seems to shrug off its history, as despondently as its college students do, or the students at Gettysburg. Birmingham itself resists our limiting imagination - the colonizing way of disaster. Why shouldn't it? And perhaps this too is a form of recovery.