“Learning From Birmingham: A Journey Into History and Home” (University of Alabama Press, 2023) by Julie Buckner Armstrong
Birmingham is a place that requires explanation. The city’s racial past makes it a source of fascination and contempt. If you live in Birmingham, you know that outsiders often come at you with questions, and sometimes attitude. For African American residents, the attitude can come in the form of hillbilly jokes and a lack of respect. It was these type experiences that inspired Birmingham poet Dianne Mills to compose the wonderfully profane “Don’t Say S—t ‘bout Birmingham.”
White residents also experience a lack of respect from outsiders, a sense — sometimes said out loud — that we must be a bit backward or simply not smart enough to realize that we live in a terrible place and should probably leave. White residents can also experience suspicion regarding our racial attitudes. Call it the taint of Bull Connor. But for many of Birmingham’s white sons and daughters, there are no questions an outsider can ask that we have not already asked ourselves.
These questions, internal and external, have inspired white Birmingham writers — John Archibald, Diane McWhorter, Paul Hemphill, Chervis Isom, Howell Raines — to explore Birmingham’s difficult heritage and try to understand their place in that story.
The newest writer to grapple with the meaning of Birmingham is Julie Buckner Armstrong. A professor of English at the University of South Florida, Armstrong is a Birmingham native who grew up in the East Lake neighborhood and graduated from Banks High School. She left Birmingham for college, vowing never to return. But like many natives, Armstrong found that Birmingham is not easy to shake. In her book “Learning from Birmingham,” Armstrong seeks the heart of her own story in the context of a city’s history that is by turns horrible and deeply inspiring.
Armstrong’s narrative moves back and forth in time, providing a good introduction to Birmingham’s history while weaving her own story of growing up in a dysfunctional family, attending school as a wannabe rebel, visiting OZ Records and working at Eastwood Mall’s Great American Hamburger and Soda Fountain restaurant. Decades later, looking back with the aid of her academic training, Armstrong recognizes the racial dynamic that existed at the restaurant. “Every story about the past,” she writes, “leads me to the present.”
Like many Birmingham natives, Armstrong’s family history intersects with the city’s history. Her aunt served on the jury that convicted Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss for the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. She visits and revisits Birmingham’s civil rights sites and monuments, once coercing her teenage sons to escort her to Kelly Ingram Park by promising a plate of Dreamland ribs as a reward.
Armstrong weaves the experiences of Birmingham’s LGBTQ+ residents into the better-known story of race and intolerance that existed in the 1960s and 1970s of Armstrong’s youth. The history of queer Birmingham is yet to be written — but that day will come — so Armstrong makes an important early contribution toward telling a story that is broader and more nuanced than white verses black.
Again, Armstrong’s story intersects with a larger story of Birmingham. As a seventh grader who desperately wanted to stand out from her peers, Armstrong was taken by her mother to Ms. Sid’s Coiffures. Ms. Sid was Jody Ford, a tall, loud and fearless trans woman who became a local celebrity by refusing to hide her true self and by forcing the wider community to acknowledge that trans people exist. Jody Ford died in 1977, shot to death in a motel parking lot.
Birmingham, Armstrong writes, is a powerful symbol of our nation’s racial sins, but it is a symbol that many people outside Birmingham hold at arm’s length, refusing to acknowledge what should be familiar. When we look in a mirror, we see the version of ourselves that we want to see. Such can be the nation’s attitude toward the Magic City. Armstrong quotes James Baldwin, who wrote, “White people are astounded by Birmingham” and “don’t want to believe … that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country.”
Julie Buckner Armstrong has made an important contribution to the understanding of our particular past and to the broader understanding of where we are and where we are not when it comes to race in America.
James L. Baggett is a writer and historian. From 1997 until his retirement in 2023, he served as archivist for the Birmingham Public Library and archivist for the City of Birmingham. He lives with his wife and daughter in Birmingham and Mentone. He can be reached at BirminghamBaggett@gmail.com.