Part 1: A Dual Childhood
I consider myself a center-left individual. Interestingly, I considered myself a center-right individual for many years. However, as the right moved further from the center, my self-identification had to move with it. As a center-left, white male over 40 in ruby-red Alabama, I guess I am somewhat of an anomaly. I have always been a fan of self-examination, and this series is an attempt to decipher what factors, internal and external, make me believe and vote so differently from so many of my contemporaries.
Any self-examination must start with childhood. We are all, in one way or another, built by our childhood. Our experiences in our formative years are dominant factors in our development of adult attitudes. In a way, my own childhood was somewhat unique in that I lived two childhoods. My first 9 years and second 9 years were extremely different, in a socioeconomic and communal sense. Those two distinct childhood experiences form the basis of many of my middle-aged political beliefs.
My biological father was still a student when I was born. My mother was quite a few years older than he and worked at a department store in Montgomery when they met. She later went to work for the Health Department, making somewhere in the neighborhood of $12,000 per year. My father was a loving and caring man, who also struggled with addiction his entire life. Their age difference and his alcoholism were the primary factors in my parents’ divorce when I was four. My mother later went to work for the Alabama Department of Public Safety as a State Trooper and Driver License Tech.
After the divorce, my mother was transferred several times within the department as she built her new career. We moved primarily between Montgomery and Mobile. In Montgomery, we lived in a two-bedroom house with my disabled older sister and my grandmother. My grandmother and I shared bunk beds. Needless to say, we were in a fairly disadvantageous economic position. Between the little money my mother made, a mostly part-time job for my sister, and my grandmother’s access to government cheese, we did pretty well as far as I could tell. I never remember being hungry.
When Mom was transferred to Mobile, as she was twice, my sister and grandmother would stay behind in Montgomery in that house. One year in Mobile was spent in a downtown apartment complex, and another in a trailer park in Saraland. My schools, my friends, my entire life was filled with economic and social diversity. I had never heard the N-word and had no idea that there were segregated communities. As a child, I believed, as most children do, that the whole world lived as we did. That changed prior to my 10th birthday.
My mother met and married a man from a small town in southwest Alabama. They were married in January of 1981 after a fairly brief courtship. The life we lived for the next nine years was nearly the opposite of our life before.
My stepfather was not a wealthy man, but he had retired from the state, had never been married, had inherited a modest amount of wealth and property from his somewhat prominent family, and lived comfortably in an antebellum home on a large plot of land. My new town, Camden, was entirely segregated. Barbershops, clothing stores, nearly everything in town had a duplicate for the “other” race. Most impactful to my life was the school system. The public school in town was 99% black, the private school was 100% white. Of course, at 10 years old, I had no idea what “segregation academies” were or why they existed. When I would ask my mother why I went to this school instead of the other one, she would simply tell me that it was a better school academically and that is why I was there.
Naturally, I really didn’t care about that, I had made a few friends and things were going well. For the first time, we were able to do some things we hadn’t before…things like eating out at restaurants or traveling in the summers. My stepfather even bought my arthritic and diabetic older sister business in town for her to operate. My stepfather took responsibility for me and my sister, even though he didn’t have to, and treated us as his own. As a stepfather myself, I will always value his contributions to my life.
There were, however, other issues that emerged in the move. Having always been in interracial or largely black neighborhoods and schools, I really didn’t have a concept of racism. I was never taught about it, and it wasn’t something with which I really knew how to engage. When I first heard the N-word, I literally did not know what it meant. I acted like I did because I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know something that everyone else knew, but it was confusing.
My parents, like many others, became “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, and my own budding political interests as a teenager followed suit. My interests diverged in the purpose of political action. I believed, even as a teenager, that political action should be taken as a means of improving life for those without the good fortune so many of us enjoyed. I became very fond of a Republican Congressman from upstate New York named Jack Kemp. Kemp argued that Republican-based policies could be used to attack such issues as regional and racial poverty gaps, inner-city revitalization, and fundamental fairness, offering access to the American dream to every child of God, irrespective of race or background. As I became more aware of the segregated world around me, I viewed it as simply an unfortunate reality that would eventually succumb to the efforts of well-meaning people who saw the world differently.
As the 1980s ended, my stepfather passed away, and I was off to college to continue my transformation.