Stories that Bridge: how our nation’s civil rights history and my family’s immigration story converged in Alabama
As we mark the the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I want to reflect on what I learned in the last year, about America and our legacy of racism, my own family history, and the power of stories.
Exactly a year ago, my husband and I visited Alabama. It was the last trip we took before COVID changed everything.
We went on our own civil rights journey to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. We were deeply affected by what we saw, particularly after visiting the powerful Legacy Museum and National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, and walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma — all against the backdrop of a critical presidential contest that put the spotlight on America’s racial divides. Racial fault lines continue to animate our politics today and voter disenfranchisement, particularly of African Americans, is not something we’ve successfully countered. Far from being able to relegate the issue to the history books, it’s still an active battleground.
That trip to Alabama was deeply meaningful to me for other reasons too. That’s because my mom spent six months of her life in Montgomery and Tuscaloosa in the late 1940s. It took me a while to piece all the story fragments together and that probably only happened because of COVID.
I’m close to my mom, now nearly 92, but the COVID lockdown provided new opportunities to connect deeply and learn new things about her and her journey to the US. We lived together for 4 months in 2020, the longest time we spent living together since I left for college at 17.
Over the years, I’d peppered my mother with questions about her past because it’s very exotic and I always wore that exoticism as a badge of honor. But my knowledge was spotty. I had cobbled together colorful vignettes from her stints in the Belgian Congo, Belgium, Alabama and New York but hadn’t put all the pieces together into a tight chronology and processed them fully. But now, years later, I was finally trying to understand the decisions she made, and how those shaped her life and mine.
Intellectually, I know that I am generation 1.5. My mother is an immigrant and my father the son of immigrants. My mother’s life mirrors that of so many immigrants — riding waves of connection, following other relatives, exploring new lands and possibilities, making decisions, and taking risks.
My mom grew up in the Belgian Congo in Central Africa in the 1930s and 1940s, the daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from the island of Rhodes. Ladino was spoken in the home, the language of Jews who were expelled from Spain by the Inquisition in the late 15th century. Here’s a picture of her with her parents in about 1932.
To pursue an education, this young Jew had to attend a Catholic boarding school a two-day journey away. She lived apart from her family for the better part of 8 years. Upon graduation from high school, she moved to Brussels briefly with her family but was stymied by a poor command of Flemish, which she needed to attend university there. A chance trip to America with her father to visit a paternal aunt from Rhodes took her to Montgomery, Alabama, where, I was surprised to learn, there was a vibrant Sephardic community. That chance visit led to college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Little did she know then that chance visit would change her life forever.
She commented to me recently that she was stunned by how blacks were treated in Alabama in the late 1940s, how stark and humiliating segregation was. Since she was raised in colonial Africa, in a place not known for its compassionate treatment of the local population, as King Leopold’s Ghost made clear, her observation was all the more heartbreaking.
After a difficult first semester, with all sorts of adjustment issues, struggles with English and cultural norms, and homesickness, mom headed north to New York for the holiday break to visit a maternal aunt, also from Rhodes. When she shared that she was miserable in Alabama, that aunt offered to have her continue her studies in New York and live with them. Mom transferred to NYU and never returned to Tuscaloosa. But homesickness eventually prompted her to return to Africa, just short of obtaining her undergraduate degree.
A few years later, another visit stateside sealed her fate and mine. She met my dad on a blind date and, with her tourist visa about to expire, took the leap and tied the knot. Yup, married within three months of the first date.
When I think of my mother, bold risk-taker is not how I would describe her. Yet that’s exactly what she was. She was itinerant, both charting her own path and following the paths her relatives had paved for her. She was making big decisions with imperfect information and enormous consequences. Poignantly, her decision to marry my father meant less time living near her parents and siblings, a void she still felt from her many years in boarding school.
Sometimes taking risks pays off. I am here today because my mom survived World War II and Nazism and that’s only because my grandparents took the chance on Africa in the 1920s. Relatives who had stayed in Rhodes perished in the Holocaust. The ability to leave so much behind to imagine and build a better future is what I find so compelling about the immigrant mindset.
It’s a coincidence that Montgomery featured in two fateful journeys I took in 2020. One, a physical journey to learn what it means to live in America and inherit the legacy of slavery and white supremacy. The other a more emotional and spiritual one to gain greater understanding of the role immigration played in my own life and to recast my mother as an adventurous dreamer.
Alabama changed my family’s path and America’s too.
So on Bloody Sunday’s anniversary, I commit to taking risks to make America the place it ought to be and could be, to believing in a better future for my family and my country.