By Kristine “Aster” Medina, Copy Editor
On the cusp of Jan. 18, nationally noted as Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I had a very late night/early morning, which led me to pay my papa’s grave a visit at the Pensacola Memorial Gardens once I finally left the comfort of my bed. I sat on the grass spread eagle near his grave thinking about the culmination of my experiences that led me to this moment of sobering thoughts with (I kid you not) a flock of sparrows flying nearby in perfect delta formation.
The day before, someone I love and I were discussing the totality of life and death as time. Staring out into the cemetery and glancing at the graves, I realized that you never really know how much time you actually get from conception to absolution. My realization led me to hopping into my car with the mindset of ultimately driving three hours from Pensacola, FL to Selma, AL to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge in all of its glory.
Selma is a small town known for its historic precedence when it comes to the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States. The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the backdrop for Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, a poignant time in the history of African Americans.
Black History Month was observed in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Germany this month. The idea was conceived by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 with the founding of Negro History Week. The week transitioned into an entire month in 1976.
After I paid my ma a visit, I drove up to Selma with my camera, a box of peanut butter crackers, a warm jacket, a water bottle, and a bit of senseless courage. On the drive to Selma, the map took me through the back country roads after I-65, and you could see the vastness of cotton fields along the curve of each narrow road. Once I hit Dallas Co. Road 7, I had to detour because of a road closure, but I soon after hit U.S. Highway 80, which led me to the middle of downtown Selma that afternoon.
There wasn’t a whole lot else to see there with Selma being a small town. Passing through Water Street, the strings of boxed buildings were rustic brown, worn down, and dated. The sidewalks and streets were scarce. My target destination was the Selma Interpretive Center, where I thought I could possibly learn more about its history. After driving around in circles, I gave into the fact that I was a little lost, and my curiosity led me back to a sign that read “Selma 2.0 Movement.” The crossed-out sign behind it revealed that the building on the property was an old steak and seafood house, which I later came to know as the current Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation.
From beyond, I could see the outline of the bridge across the landscape behind the building. Here’s where my senseless courage kicked in. I approached the building to take a few photos of the mural outside that states “bridging divides, building the beloved community.” Then, I checked out the premises to see where I could enter. There were a number of cars parked so I figured there would be people nearby who could help me get back to where I was going. I walked up the ramp on the side of the building that led to a door that said enter. I entered and looked around.
There were stacks of wooden chairs and a few tables here and there. Moments later, I heard voices. I followed them. Step by step, my ears heard the voices with more clarity. I tiptoed past the stacked chairs and tables and strolled through a hallway to the right that led to a kitchen where I was greeted by a woman who was fixing some food. She wiped her hands on a kitchen towel as she turned and then walked toward me.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said with a warm smile and her hands on her hips. “You can call me Mama Callie. What brings you in here? Can we help you?”
There was another woman sitting down eating her late lunch on a stool near a stainless steel prep table. A man was washing dishes at the nearby sink. They all curiously looked to my direction. I said hello and briefly introduced myself as a stranger from Florida passing by for a few hours with the sole purpose of seeing the bridge. I also mentioned the fact that I was a little lost and intended on going to the Selma Interpretive Center.
Mama Callie said that I can just go right back on Water Street and drive straight until I hit the corner of Broad Street, which will be to my right. But she then offered I stay awhile for the dinner she was preparing and maybe attend a few events while I was in town.
“A racial healing circle is going on downstairs,” she said. “They just started. I can take you there if you want to join, and after, I can give you a little tour of the place.”
“Why not?” I said and followed her downstairs to the basement floor of the building.
Mama Callie opened the door for me to enter the room and said she’d see me later. To my left was a portrait of MLK Jr. as I walked into the open space where a group of 11 women sat in a circle. Toward the other side of the room, you could see the commotion of traffic on the bridge in the background through wide, glass windows that spanned an entire wall. As I took to my 12th seat in the circle and stuck a name tag onto my sweater, I noticed an interesting shrine of sorts laid out on the floor in the center. I honestly didn’t know what to expect out of this circle at that point. These women are all strangers to me and I am to them. Soon after, the other woman who was in the kitchen eating followed and sat down across from me in the circle. She made 13.
Racial healing circles are a “tool for building trust and understanding among diverse groups, so they can more effectively transform their local communities,” according to the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation. The circle was led by Mee Moua, a Hmong American politician and former president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Afriye Wekandodis of By the River Center for Humanity. A couple of the women had already shared their stories. As we transitioned into the circle, Mee explained to us that we were to each share, if we feel comfortable, a moment where we felt the most alive.
Ruth is a woman who battled through breast cancer at a crucial point in her life where she realized that she was married to the wrong person for years. Once her divorce was finalized, she came home to an empty apartment. Instead of embodying the emptiness, she saw the potential for living life on her own terms and never looking back.
Vernetta is the woman who came into the room after me. She serves as an assistant district attorney in Selma and the general counsel for Montgomery public schools. However, she struggles every day because of her self-sacrificing nature. She looked to everyone in the circle and said she felt different because everyone else seemed to have a story of self-discovery and success, but she is still learning to love and find herself.
“But I got up this morning and prayed to God that I win the day,” she said.
More stories were shared about our lives among the circle. Afriye led the circle to a close with us coming together to blend a mix of vocal sounds creating one song. Mee followed with a Hmong ritual of tying red strings around wrists, which symbolizes the binding of souls. Vernetta and I were paired and tied each other’s red strings, signifying what the day meant to us and what we wish for one another. The circle came to a close as the sun set in the background. Once the sun had set, I finally made my way see the bridge before I made my way back home.
I initially came to see the bridge. Today, I’m still processing what moved me to make the drive to Selma, but this day will forever be engraved into my soul. I got lost along the way and even on the drive back home. But I met a group of empowering women from different generations, various backgrounds, and ever-changing circumstances. They were strangers who ultimately became my sisters on this day.
The root of our stories as a people comes from how we choose to take to each day. As different as our stories all seem once told, we’re actually the same. This experience reveals why diversity and inclusion matter, why we should be determined to unite as one. On this last day of Black History Month, I want to empower you to discover and dive into the truth of your narrative, whoever you are and whatever that may be.
Featured and Article Images: Special to The Jade Times