Alabama – a melting pot or a salad bowl?

When my Fulbright program started in October 2017, one of my goals, besides innovative research at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York), was to participate in a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar. According to former scholars I’ve spoken to, an Enrichment program is like icing on the cake of a Fulbright experience; it is in fact, the ultimate experience. My excitement to attend the Fall 2017 Fulbright Enrichment Seminar however, turned from excitement to foreboding and apprehension. The theme was Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the New South, and the seminars and visits were placed, of all places, in Huntsville and Birmingham, in Alabama. I struggled to understand how the Fulbright Enrichment Team would think that Huntsville in Alabama can be a showcase of anything American. After all, this is a country of Skyscrapers, beautiful national parks, and much more, to impress 60 Fulbright scholars from 49 countries.
Understanding my disappointment requires a bit of background; a sort of a personal confession. I have over the years, developed a mental blacklist of countries I call my “no-go places”. The decision is based on evaluation of how safe I consider these countries to be, for a man of color like myself. Almost every item on my list is the name of a nation state. I say almost because there is an exception; the USA. When it comes to the USA, the names on my list are states or towns, rather than the whole country. The state of Alabama features on my list. The declaration of independence in 1776 contained the beautiful words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But exactly 100 years after this declaration, the Jim Crow laws would form the basis for discrimination and bigotry, especially in the south, against African Americans; a practice that lasted from the end of the Reconstruction Era after the civil war, up until at least the 1970’s. The state of Alabama was the state of “vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, in the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech by Dr. Martin Luther King. Understandably, not a single city in the state of Alabama featured on my list of interesting places to visit during my Fulbright stay in the USA. Besides, I was sure nothing of educational, technological or scientific innovation could be happening down south, and if it did happen, it couldn’t be in the state of Alabama.
So reluctantly, I boarded my flight from Ithaca on Nov 15 at 6:05am, and after two lay-overs in Philadelphia (PA) and Charlotte (NC), I arrived in Huntsville at approximately 2pm local time. On the last leg of my flight (from Charlotte to Huntsville), most of the seats surrounding me were occupied by other Fulbright scholars who like me, were on their way to Huntsville, with expectations and excitement. For some, this was their first time in the USA, and for those who were not new to the USA, it was their first time traveling to Huntsville. None of us had anything to lose; our tickets, boarding and lodging were covered. Whatever happened, I knew I could survive three days of boredom.We would find out later that none of the over 60 scholars had ever been to the state of Alabama, and none (absolutely none at all) had any plans to visit this state during their stay in the United States.
My first day excursion with the group was to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. A space and rocket center in Huntsville Alabama? The story behind how the rocket space came into being was as fascinating as the exhibits themselves. Huntsville is ‘Rocket City’; this is where, from 1950, Dr. Wernher von Braun (one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration in the twentieth century) and his team of scientists and engineers, propelled the United States into the era of space exploration. Like me, this information was unknown to most (and perhaps none) of my fellow scholars.

My reservations about the South began to slowly but reluctantly change on the second day, following seminars on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Birmingham. There were panel session discussions, and key note speeches at Samford University (Birmingham). Of all the keynote speakers, Bebe Goodrich (Founder and President of Icebox Coffee), made the strongest impression on me. Her speech on “Translating a Vision into Reality”, was neither a hyperbolic glorification of success, nor a jingoistic celebration of the American dream. She spoke as if it was ‘off-the-cuff’, about her failures, doubts (of herself and of others about her abilities) and eventual success. At the end of the morning session, I thought, ‘hmm, something truly innovative must be happening here’. Then I thought again, what about civil rights in Alabama? My mind was set on getting an answer to this question as the bus loaded at 2:30pm to drive us to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. Unfortunately, we only had one hour for the visit before the museum closed. But two incidents happened, which will mark my Fulbright experience.

Firstly, I have to say that going through the museum exhibits made a depressing experience. It was a catalog of indescribable human degradation, prejudice and bigotry. I continually asked myself, how could the colored people of Birmingham after seeing these, live in peaceful co-existence with the sons and daughters of former slave masters? I walked up to a colored woman, just as she was about to enter her office, introduced myself, and posed the direct question, “how does it feel to be working here, as a woman of color?”. Her answer moved me. She said, “These exhibits show that we as a people can overcome. We have the power and resilience to surmount even the biggest challenges”. I could draw parallels with what she (a colored woman) said, and the moving speech by Bebe, earlier during the day. I understood that the fight for racial equality in the Birmingham and Alabama, was becoming a translation of vision (of the civil rights movement) into reality. The fact that this was a process in progress wasn’t lost on me. At the end of the tour, I ended up in the souvenir shop with two female Brazilian scholars, who like me, wanted to buy CDs of Negro Spirituals and T-shirts. We failed to inform the group of our whereabout, and when we finally came out of the shop, our bus had left. It’s about one and a half hours to our hotel in Huntsville. In the end, we were rescued by Annette from Globalties Alabama. Annette (probably in her early 60’s) was born and raised in Alabama, and it was a blissful experience having her, all for myself to chat with, during our long journey from Alabama to Huntsville. It was almost as if missing the bus was by design.

On Friday, our visits to Oakwood University, University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH), and to the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology, all told the same story –A strong wind is blowing in the New South. It is a wind of innovation and entrepreneurship, of ingenuity and human resilience. Alabama appears set on a new narrative, and when the story of the New South is finally told, other stories of American success may pale in comparison. But before I could make a final decision of visiting Alabama again, I needed someone to answer a burning question – of whether Alabama was a melting pot or merely a salad bowl. I reserved the question for Reggie, a colored man, and an American Fulbright alumnus. “Alabama is far from a salad bowl. It’s not a perfect melting pot, but we’re working at it.”

On Saturday, as I prepared to depart for the airport, I realized this Enrichment meeting marked several first time, personal experiences. It is the first time I had talked, and shared a hotel room with someone from Tajikistan, dined together with an aspiring democratic senator, and enjoyed an authentic (home-cooked) Indian cuisine at the home of an Indian-American. It is also the first time I ever had the opportunity to talk about Norway to an international and inquisitive audience. But above all, it is the first time I considered that perhaps, my impression of the south needed appraising.

My experiences, including my revised impression of Alabama, wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work by several people, including seminar organizers, speakers, and facilitators. Lana Muck (Office of Academic Exchange Programs) and her administrative staff from the Institute of International Education (IIE) – Diana Schapiro, Sylvia Jons, and Julianne Cabour – deserve praise. Any organization of scientists is like herding cats. This seminar staff did a great job, and deserve all kudos. Jacquelyn Shipe (Global Ties Alabama) displayed the energy that characterizes the new South – She was always the first person on the ground, and her smiles where infectious. I’m grateful to Annette Philpot for the long chat, and for helping me understand. Thanks to my host family, Mr. and Mrs. Karlapelem, for unparalleled hospitality. Finally, to my fellow Fall 2017 Fulbright Enrichment Seminarians, I say ‘thanks for the time we shared together’.