A Tuscaloosa BBQ joint. (Aaron Cassara)
Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, Nation contributor Nona Willis Aronowitz will be guest-blogging while she’s on a reporting road trip to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Jackson and New Orleans. Look for her dispatches at TheNation.com!
On Monday night, I met a bunch of high school kids at a private boarding school in Indian Springs, Alabama, a town twenty minutes outside of Birmingham. I’d been invited to read from my book, Girldrive, which they’d been assigned in class. I glanced at their impressive Women’s Studies reading list, which was splayed out on the table: Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. During the Q&A, a girl with a shock of bleached blond hair snaking through her dark bob asked me: “What did you and Emma have in mind as your audience for Girldrive—given that this book would be banned in other Alabama schools?”
I thought back to reading things like On the Road, rife with hookers and drunkenness, in my New York City public high school. Then I remembered that, statistically, Alabama is the most conservative state in the nation. Book-banning, of course, is technically illegal, but “a teacher will try to teach a book, and someone will complain from the PTA, and then the book will be withdrawn,” says Jessica Smith, the school’s librarian. And it’s not just books with sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. “Harry Potter is one of the most banned books in the country because of witchcraft—non-Christian thinking.”
Not all Alabamans think this way. But it occurred to me that the progressive parents of Indian Springs School pay between $18,450 and $41,000 a year for their kids to be able to read a book containing references to pot-smoking sessions, an acid trip, casual sex, blow jobs and rape.
So how do you raise a progressive child in a sea of red? It depends on which city you live in, but it usually takes a good amount of effort—and resources. Smith says that, like most cities with a cavernous wealth gap, Birmingham’s good public schools are white and the struggling inner-city schools are black. But both are dominated by religious students.
“If you have a kid [in Birmingham] and you’re raising them as non-Christian and any other alternative, there aren’t that many places they can go and not be harassed,” Smith says. She tells me that parents shell out not only for Indian Springs’ rigorous, open-minded curriculum, but for the ethnic and religious diversity the school offers. (Smith points out the school gives a good amount of scholarships, too.)
The night before Indian Springs, I stayed in Tuscaloosa, the state’s major college town. Staying close to a university has been an age-old way for both natives and transplants to carve out a “blue dot in a red state,” says Ann Powers, a journalist and Seattle native who moved to Tuscaloosa with her husband and nine-year-old daughter three years ago. Although she acknowledges that “being able to go to a magnet school is a sign of privilege,” Powers’ daughter’s magnet elementary school is racially mixed, which she finds extremely valuable. (“If we still lived in Seattle,” she points out, “it’s not unlikely her school would be predominantly white.”)
But even though Powers doesn’t have to throw down for a private school, she admits raising a liberal child takes a heightened sense of consciousness. She considers that a good thing: Her daughter will learn at a young age that diversity isn’t only about race but about politics and religion, too. “I now feel viscerally aware of the phenomenon of liberal privilege,” she tells me. “Where you live in a place where you are surrounded by liberal people…you can get lazy.”
Whereas, if you’re surrounded by political rivals, you may be compelled to change things. Laurie Johns, another lefty Tuscaloosa resident and a Montgomery native, credits her conservative upbringing for her local political activism. She tells me it’s a “virtual certainty” that if she lived in a city full of liberals, she would have never started a political PAC to fund progressive candidates for her local school board. Still, her 7-year-old son goes to a private, international school because “one of their strengths is teaching tolerance…. there are people who are very religious in his school, but they don’t wear it on their sleeve, which is appropriate.”
Johns’ son has been coming to meetings with her since “he was in his little carseat carrier,” and she hopes he follows her example. Yet there’s only so much she can do. “One fear that every parent has regardless of your political views is that your kids won’t share your worldview,” says Powers. “And that might seem more likely in a place like Alabama. Your kid might be taken to church or might want to be a cheerleader.” Then again, the spawn of a Vermont hippie may join the Tea Party. A Catholic school virgin may become Madonna. And your Christian baby from Montgomery may end up moving to Tuscaloosa and raising hell like Laurie Johns.
Read Nona Willis Aronowitz’s take on the complicated relationship between being broke and being poor.