A few days before I left for college, I walked barefoot along a stone bridge, watching Town Creek spill into a waterfall below me. The water’s surface curved like silk between the stones, then broke into fat, white droplets that battered the rock walls. The limestone was shaped by its history, pockmarked where it had dissolved over centuries. The air was warm and blue.
I have gotten better at appreciating these moments. My summer was an exercise in looking, in seeing parts of Alabama, my home state, that I had never noticed before. There was a sudden urgency to my physical location.
During the Civil War, my ancestors lived in Winston County, Ala., an area too poor to support the plantations that covered the antebellum South. These people refused to fight for the Confederacy, and Winston County seceded from Alabama in defiance. The Free State of Winston weathered years of siege while its property and farmland burned away.
My great-great-great grandma, who lived through the war, recounted this story to my grandma, and my grandma told it to me. Their stories are a direct connection to the past, embodied in living memory and oral tradition.
We have other stories, too. My pawpaw grew turnip greens because he could feed their leaves to hungry families. My grandfather could barely read when he finished high school, but he managed to put all three of his children through college.
I applied to Harvard because I wanted to escape from the South. But as I stood over the waterfall this August, I realized that I will never be able to leave.
There is something powerful about family stories. They invite themselves into our identities because family stories are our stories, regardless of who lived them. These stories unite us with our past and ground us in a place. We grow to embody the stories we tell ourselves.
My story is an Alabama story. I grew up with its names on my tongue, whispers of something untouchable: Sipsey, Black Warrior, Little River. I love how physical Alabama is, carved with rolling hills, canyons, and a deep blue sky. It is a slow, quiet, and beautiful place.
In the parking lot a few hundred feet from the falls, there are several trucks with large Confederate flags billowing from homemade posts, tailgates decorated with pro-Trump stickers. This is also part of Alabama’s story—an inescapable history of slavery, segregation, and racism which reaches out and corrupts the present. On Nov. 8, Alabama will most likely cast its votes for Donald Trump. How, in a place with so much beauty and diversity, is this possible?
I was caught in this conflict all throughout high school. It is easy to project societal problems onto certain people. It is easy to look out into the parking lot and be angry at the deliberate, casual displays of ignorance and hatred. It is easy for me to give up on the people I live with, to revel in my own righteous fury. Alabama is a loaded word, a symbol of our country’s backwater tendencies.
But that story is too simple. I loved my childhood of catching snakes in the creek, eating good food, and living slowly. I love the waterfalls, the limestone caves, and the forests. I love my stories, which show a place of kindness, courage, and sacrifice. With all the noise of living, it can be hard for me to see past the loaded word—Alabama. In a few days, most Alabama residents will likely vote for Donald Trump. This is disheartening. But it is not the whole story.