Silly me. Really, I should’ve known!
The phone calls, emails, text messages and memes came at me fast, furious, and frequent, all asking, “Terry, are you going to write about the Montgomery Riverboat fracas?
Humm…well…uh, uh… I waffled!
Alright, quite frankly I hadn’t planned to since I figured that the photos and commentaries said all that I could possibly say about the incident. But in the end dogged persistence by some and, okay, flattery by others, eventually won out. So here we go.
But first I say this: If you light a match to a history of smoldering pent-up frustration – WHAM! – you get an explosion of reactions, chief among them anger and the risk of a riverboat-type all out freefall on your hands. It’s that volatile.
Now with that as a context, I decided to weave reactions from Black folks in local barber shops with snippets from commentaries by some compelling writers. You see, the advantage of letting others weigh in first is that it allows for cherry-picking to stitch together a single story. Let’s begin with “voices” from my visits to a couple of neighborhood barbershops.
“It was so inspiring to see brothers rushing to the support of a brother being attacked by a mob,” said a barber who paused and looked up from his chair at the TV screen on showing the attack.
Said a middle-aged Black man in another shop, “for me a positive that came out of this is the knowledge that Montgomery has a Black mayor and fire chief. As a Yankee raised on stereotypes about the deep south, I never thought that would ever happen in Alabama.”
Penned an editor of a publication, “My husband was the first to tell me about a video out of Montgomery that’s going viral. Black man. Handful of white guys. A confrontation. He was only a few words in before I felt my heart rate pick up. “Is everyone ok?” I cut him off: “Is anyone dead?” “Everyone’s fine,” he tried to reassure me. “It’s not that kind of video!”
“We’ve all had our fun laughing at the jokes and memes after the riverboat fight,” said another writer with a global publication. “Yes, I laughed at the song, “Lift Every Chair and Swing.” However, this writer and others linked the incident to the national climate he says is fostered by ex-president Trump who delivered a fiery speech a few days before not far from the wharf.
“The rhetoric that has become part of every election cycle has reached a fever pitch,” he wrote. “Telling people to “fight like hell” got us January 6 and the Montgomery riverfront brawl. I’m thinking it’s nowhere near over.” This concern was echoed by another fellow in the barbershop. “After all the jokes are behind us, my worry is the potential for backlash that could have far worse results.”
“Thank God that there were no firearms involved,” said a fellow sitting next to him.
“I am a proud Alabamian,” said a self-described poet, writer and college professor. “I’ve forever been interested in — or perhaps obsessed with — Alabama as the setting of many of my nonfiction, poetic and social justice endeavors.” Because of the writer’s Alabama roots, clearly the riverboat incident touched a raw nerve with this Alabamian.
“Because of my personal experiences with how people view Black Alabamians, I’ve always wanted to celebrate Alabama as a writer. Alabama is always — and I repeat, always — the butt of the joke on racism and its systemic oppression of people of color. I need for you to understand that there is always a silent dialogue within the Black collective.”
Silent dialog? Well, the truth is – and to this writer’s point – there are definite private “inside” observations and conversations that people outside Black culture are not privy to.
“They speak of a different America, one barely recognizable in daily media and news cycles. They watch intently as political figures get away with obstruction of justice, sedition, and insurrections against the United States because the government is afraid of the backlash while their brothers, sisters, friends and family members are locked up doing prison time for much, much less.”
So we can rightfully assume that the boat co-captain’s hat-throwing before getting into a fighting stance piqued curiosity on one hand and side-spitting insider humor on the other.
Wrote the Alabamian, “When it became clear that the white boaters intended to jump Pickett in an unfair fight, he did a move, throwing his hat straight up in the air before the fight began. No, that was not the Wakanda call, as some have claimed. Anybody familiar with Black Alabama culture will tell you the symbolic hat-throwing is always a preface to the fight as in, OK, now it’s on, let’s get it on.”
At my last barbershop stop, a young lady whose school age son was getting his haircut, got a laugh with this observation: “For years, the shoe was always on the other foot with our race getting the brunt of it. Well, this time the shoe was on the other foot and the chair was in the other hand.”
So, readers, I end this by granting you free and untethered use of this collection of “voices” as a tool for teachable moments, however with this stipulation: that it be used before it gets sugarcoated, swept under the rug or – Heaven help us – added to the preposterous list of banned books and other “divisive” reading material.
Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.