The Moral Economy in the Black Rural South
Once you drive out of Huntsville, within 15 minutes you run into deeply rural areas. Open fields, some cultivated, some wild; mobile homes and modest bungalows mix with a growing number of new suburban houses; fortunately, not enough—yet—to change the social character of the area. The lanes downsize to two and you see African-American men trudging along in the hot sun. I am driving “S,” my mid-50s, Black ex-con neighbor, out to get his car repaired at Alvin’s (not his real name). It’s sat in a lot for close to six months while “S” hustled the money to fix it.
“S” talks non-stop, charming, swaggering, humorous, exaggerating—and at times, glib and manipulative. His worldview is full of the Social Darwinism that is the hallmark of prison culture; a worldview that unites the very bottom with the very top in a funhouse mirror of mutual self-reflection, the carceral-penthouse version of the Master and Slave dialectic. “S’s” tough hustler’s veneer, though, as is so often the case, disguises a deeper capacity for self-reflection, a capacity that I’ve come to respect in our talks while driving him to work the past couple months.
“S” gripes non-stop about “the Mexicans” on the job who clique together and don’t do their “fair share.” Once, when driving past the Mission, he told me the homeless should be rounded up and made to report weekly to probation officers to justify why they haven’t gotten a job. I don’t take it seriously, especially since “S” later told me he had stayed at the Mission for a few weeks himself when the landlord defaulted on the mortgage without telling the tenants. The house was repossessed with the sheriff appearing without warning, telling “S” and his girlfriend they had fifteen minutes to get what they could carry and get out. But behind his anger toward the homeless is that peculiarly American form of ressentiment, the feeling that you’re being screwed from above and screwed from below; a feeling that is truthfully much more widespread than just among Trump supporters.
But now we have arrived at Alvin’s. The ragged gate remains forever closed except on rare occasions. In the distance on this warm Alabama spring day, I see cascading mountains, the bottom of the Appalachians, and, closer, fallow fields with flocks of crows pecking at stalks.
We go around the gate, careful not to stumble in a ditch, and then walk down a long, gravel road that meanders for over a block. On the right is a mobile home, which I first thought Alvin lived in, but I later found out was empty. In front of the trailer, lay a dog, Fred, with a sad, mournful face like a bloodhound, illegally tethered outdoors with a thick chain, an example of the infinite cruelty the South—home of the dogfight—visits upon its animals. But at least Fred had a doghouse and shade and perhaps, after all, his life wasn’t as bad as I imagined.
Getting closer to Alvin’s office, a small weathered barn-like building that I was told doesn’t even have a lock, we pass the carcasses of half-rusted cars in various states of disrepair lying on hills, packed together. I estimate there are at least a fifty, but “S” tells me there are more in the fields in the back, half-careened over hillocks with ankle-high grass. There’s a strange symmetric beauty to it all, worthy of a J.G. Ballard novel, the twisted shards of car innards piled up like so many coiled metallic snakes.
Alvin inherited the compound from his father and many of the cars look old. Each probably has a story behind it, of owners who left their vehicles for repair and never came back. Because Alvin is generous to a fault—his rates are more than competitive—most African-Americans in this rural part of Madison County use him, as do more than a few whites. Alvin, I discovered, used to be in the street life here—if you can call petty crime in a rural area “street life”—until he found himself pinned to the ground one night with two cops jamming guns to his head. He had an epiphany soon afterwards, giving his life to the Lord.
His mechanic services, I believe through observation, are an outgrowth of his religious belief, which in essence is to be of service to others. Although Alvin has never heard of E.P. Thompson, what he does is a small example of the moral economy; an economy based on “goodness, fairness, and justice.” He doesn’t loudly proclaim how much he loves the Lord or punctuate every other sentence with “Have a Blessed Day.” His belief gets expressed in more subtle ways. But I was warned before going don’t be “a’ smokin’ or a cussin’” around him.
In the garage, I first glimpse Alvin. He is bent over, working on an engine, surrounded by three or four other African-American men. When he looks up and I see his face, he reminds me of a slightly younger Morgan Freeman in a green boiler suit, with the same stoic, intense gaze. He spontaneously holds court and “S” fumes he never gets work done because of all the hangers-on, many of whom, “S” swears, are just there to get Alvin to buy lunch. Alvin takes lunch when he wants and come back when he likes. This is not the feverish productivity of an urban Jiffy Lube or Firestone. Things happen when they’re ready to and there’s no way anyone can force it to happen otherwise.
Sure enough, Alvin will suddenly stop and start talking life lessons and I can’t help but listen because of his unpretentious, slow-burn charisma. He turned to me and related with a smile how his old tube TV went up a few weeks ago and he was forced to buy a flat screen which upset him because he didn’t want to keep anything in his house worth stealing. A few minutes later, I went outside while he and “S” haggled prices and made small talk about the recent wave of tornadoes in southern Alabama with a stocky, middle-aged African American who told me that he used to live in Harvest, but a tornado took the house on the left of him and then another later took the house to the right, so he figured it was time to get out.
When I first talked with Alvin, I soon picked up that this was a man whose silences carried more weight than his words. I mentioned this later to “S,” who agreed. Alvin is a master practitioner of the “Y’All Wall,” that surface gentility so characteristic of the South where you really never know what the other person is thinking, all while they smile and display the upmost courtesy. So over the course of many visits to Alvin with “S” over three weeks, I learned to shut up and listen, smiling and agreeing, but never interjecting too much.
Alvin’s compound is clearly a de-facto community center for the rural African-American population, which explains the number of people who just come in to talk and be around others. “S” later told me, smiling, on the way back to Huntsville that “It’s like Sanford and Son there” and I had to laugh because I silently thought the same thing. A middle-aged African-American woman who grew up with Alvin stopped by with the funeral brochure for her daughter who had been killed by a motorist while walking one of these country byways (“all her bones were broken—every last one!”) and talked about how hard it had been to bring the family together to pay for a funeral. The younger children were caught up in drugs and a branch of the family in California wanted to be flown in, but didn’t want to contribute to funeral costs. It had been a struggle, she said, but her daughter got a decent burial. The same centrifugal churning that undermines working class family life in urban areas is present here too, an area formerly protected from the real and imagined corruption of the big city.
And the money game, that game that invades and coarsens all human relationships, has colonized even Alvin’s compound, because unlike the past, Alvin has stopped fronting the money for parts for clients because he’s been stiffed so much. He used to let people pay him on installment, but now he’s been burnt so often he’s cautious about extending too much generosity. So while it would be nice to portray some oasis of mutual aid in rural Alabama, it doesn’t exist, or rather it doesn’t exist as strongly as it once did. Social ties have frayed here too, dissolving in the acidic bath of the same dialectic of distrust that is arguably the quintessential hallmark of US life today.