At the Flora-Bama bar, located on the Florida-Alabama border. Credit Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge, via Getty Images
BERKELEY, Calif. — My dad and stepmom live in Mobile, Ala., and spend their vacation time an hour’s drive away in Orange Beach, Ala. This means that, throughout my life, I have regularly vacationed there as well.
Whenever I tell people in Berkeley, Calif., where I live, that I’m headed to the beach in Alabama, they are shocked. Most people outside of the Gulf Coast have no idea that Alabama has beaches — even though if you look at a map of Alabama, there is a part of it that looks as if it should belong to Florida. There is even a bar at the Alabama-Florida border that commemorates this fact. That bar is named the Flora-Bama. (Calling it the Ala-Lorida would just be ridiculous.)
I often try to convince my wife, Melissa, that we and our two daughters should vacation in Orange Beach more often. I try to persuade friends to come, too. It is the perfect fun-and-sun vacation. We stay across the street from the beach, which is perfect for my wife. The resort has an old-school arcade room with one of those claw machines, which is perfect for our older daughter, even though she has never won anything from it. And it has a lazy-river pool, where you can sit in an inner tube and let the underwater jets push you around while thinking that you may be experiencing the pinnacle of human achievement. That’s perfect for me.
But no one has taken us up on the invitation yet, because of one problematic word: Alabama. Nobody I know from the Bay Area has any interest in purposefully spending time in Alabama. Florida, maybe, but Alabama? Nah, that’s a hard pass.
I have discovered that when you are black, saying “I’m headed to the South” to someone, especially a white person who is not from the South, is like saying, “I’m headed to my own lynching and I decided to bring the rope just to make it easier on the Klansmen.”
It is one of my enduring frustrations with this country. People live in their part of the Union, and if they don’t travel a lot, then there is a tendency to believe that the other parts of America couldn’t possibly be as American as their part. You can see it in the way people in the South scrunch up their faces when they hear words like “New York,” “Chicago” and “challah.” And you can also see it in the way people on the coast narrow their eyes when they hear words like “Louisiana,” “Kentucky” and “pork rinds.”
Sometimes it gets even worse. Some people think that the things going on in other parts are actually anti-American.
I’m happy that I know how to speak “Southern.” I spent a lot of time in Alabama throughout my life. I even lived there for part of junior high and high school, so I learned the true beauty and mastery of the Southern dialect. “Y’all” is one of the greatest and most useful words ever invented. Saying you are “fixing to get ready to go” is useful, because it is a state most of us are regularly in, even if we don’t know it. It means you are thinking about maybe leaving. That is me, every time I try to go out of the house.
Southern is more than just a language. It’s also about understanding someone’s intentions. There are things people in the South say to me that I just let go, but if someone outside the South says the same thing, I’ll think to myself, “Well, I’ll be telling this story onstage tonight.”
I was in a Walgreens in Northern California once, back when I still had long dreadlocks. The cashier, a white woman, asked as she was ringing me up, “Can I touch your hair?” When you have dreadlocks you start to get used to this question. I said, “No, you can’t touch my hair,” but I said it with a smile so that we could both move on without the situation getting weirder than it already was.
A few months later, in Mobile, I was at a Krispy Kreme with my dad. A different white woman asked the same question and I said, “Sure.” I could tell that she was taking a chance by asking. It felt like more than the idle curiosity or simple objectification that I felt in Northern California. Maybe some part of me hoped that she would touch my hair, her eyes would glaze over, and then like Neo from “The Matrix” she would say something like, “I now understand how the institution of slavery is directly connected the current struggle of black people in America, and I also recognize white people’s part in that … also, I know kung fu.” That didn’t happen. But she did give me an extra doughnut.
Those types of interactions prepared me for my current career, where I travel the country and ask (and occasionally answer) “dumb questions.” When I created a pilot for CNN called “The United Shades of America,” I tried to roll all of that experience up into an hour of television. I went to Kentucky and talked to the Ku Klux Klan.
When the episode aired back in a distant time called April 2016, the major criticism I heard was: “Why are you giving the K.K.K. a platform? We already know the K.K.K. is awful.” Well, my mom taught me that there is no such thing as too much knowledge. And as gobsmacked as my liberal friends were by Donald Trump’s victory, they now know that they definitely didn’t know as much about America as they thought.
And if there was ever a time that we all should take a trip to the other parts of America and spend some time to get to know the people there, it is now.
So, who wants to come with me to Orange Beach?
W. Kamau Bell is the host of “United Shades of America” on CNN and the author of “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell,” from which this essay is adapted.