Last night, my students and I attended a showing of the documentary The Contradictions of Fair Hope. In celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in 2013, UAB and the city of Birmingham are hosting speakers, artists, exhibits and performances that represent where we’ve been and where we’re going in the continuous struggle to provide every citizen with basic human rights.

Set in Uniontown, Alabama, the film traces the lives of a community first formed in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation and evolving, or as producer of the film S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order) says, “de-volving,” into a place where the original values of its forebearers are vanishing.

In 1865, The Benevolent Society of Fair Hope was created to help aid the sick and bury the poor–necessary services for freed slaves in the Antebellum period since they found themselves without the financial and institutional resources and education to survive. Members of the benevolent society, one of many such organizations throughout the South and further north where African Americans began to migrate in the late 1800s and early 1900s in search of jobs and the promise of a better life, came together to pray, sing, and lift up one another. Meeting dues, required each time members gathered, ensured a proper burial at the end of their lives. Avoiding a pauper’s grave was motivation for showing up to meetings and offering support to members sharing the same dire circumstances.

As the film documents, slight improvements in the civil rights of African Americans in Alabama had unexpected effects on benevolent societies like Fair Hope. African Americans could no longer be denied life or health insurance, so the need for such a group to tend to the sick and bury the dead began to evaporate. The result in this particular community was the creation of an entirely different sort of gathering–Foot Wash.

As members of Uniontown left the area to seek opportunity, the land on which the Benevolent Society of Fair Hope had gathered, buried their dead, and prayed together was handed down from one generation to another. These descendants, far removed from the struggles and strength of their forebearers, began using the land to craft new rituals–prostitution, gambling, drugs, violence–that would bring outsiders into the community and money that went the way of those who returned to their homes far away from Uniontown. A religion of quite a different sort, Foot Wash is a festival held each September in Uniontown (the same month during which the benevolent soicety once gathered on the same land to share the blessings of the previous year) and makes Mardi Gras look like an exercise in solemnity.

Contradictions abound. Dignity. Exploitation. Community. Rabid self-interest. History. Momentary bliss. Freedom. Enslavement.

As I drove home from the film, I thought back to a summer day when I stopped by Edwina’s apartment to take her to a doctor’s appointment. When I pulled up, I discovered Edwina sitting on the front stoop talking to a sharply-dressed young man and signing a series of papers.

“Whatcha doin’?” I asked her.

“I’m gettin’ me a life insurance policy. Cost me just a few dollars a month, takin right outta my bank account,” she said, smiling ear to ear that she’d reached a point where she could make the minimal payment needed to ensure that she wouldn’t be given a pauper’s burial and might even have a little something to leave her son.

Some things haven’t changed all that much.


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