Story posted October 24, 2005
Bowdoin writer-in-residence Anthony Walton has written about and discussed American history and culture - most notably in his acclaimed book Mississippi: An American Journey - in many venues the last fifteen years, among them, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and CNN.
Now, Walton is poised for the international stage with an upcoming radio documentary, Southern Road, a searching ramble through the American Southeast that will air on British Broadcast Corporation Radio (BBC Radio 3) Sunday, November 6th.
Walton was approached by BBC producer Tony Phillips to create the 45-minute program as part of the BBC's ongoing examination of the American South. As it turned out, Walton and Phillips headed out together in a Toyota Highlander and "humped it up the road" just a week before Hurricane Katrina brought the South into worldwide media focus.
Bowdoin writer Selby Frame recently spoke with Walton about the project, which is Walton's first foray into radio.
SF: What led you to this project?
Walton: The editors at the BBC had become more and more interested in what they perceived as the growing influence of the South on American society. They wanted someone who could kind of introduce their audience to the South.
The metaphor is taking a trip from the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, to the Confederate Memorial in Richmond, Virginia, in pursuit of the South. You can't even say "The South," because the difference between Montgomery or Atlanta, or Charleston, or Chapel Hill - and those are just a few places - there are so many different possibilities. My goal was to try to give a few indications of that multiplicity. For me, I figured I'd learn something and I figured it would be fun. It would be a road trip, my favorite thing.
SF: As someone who's never worked in radio before - and who also is a very soft spoken person - did you have trepidation about doing the project?
Walton: I just viewed it as another way of telling a story. I've done many interviews and profiles over the years and I think that I am very good at getting people to talk. And I think it's because I listen to them. There's a certain technique also to just not saying anything, and they will start talking. I like to hear what people have to say. It's always fascinating.
I had a producer from BBC with me, Tony Phillips, and he "coached me up," as they say in football. He was very good to me. He sent me some [radio] pieces that he thought were the best that had been done and I was able to study those. Then, as we worked, he would say, "That was excellent," or "That was ridiculous, do it again."
I tried to not have any preconceptions. I started with a script I wrote that was very detailed and then I threw it out. Once you know what you want, then you can go with the flow. I think of things like that like jazz ... you start out with a piece of music and because you know it very well you can move away from it and improvise.
SF: It definitely can open up your storytelling. You can get layers; it's almost painting.
Walton: It's fascinating to me, because this piece is the sort of thing you could do in print - I often imagine how various sections would look in prose - but you have all these other tools to tell a story in radio. One of the things I did, I went to Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor. That's where a large percentage of African Americans came ashore. It was a quarantined island. It's actually quite a place. In typically American fashion it's now being developed into condos and big vacation houses. You could go there and write a piece about it and it could be quite good, quite powerful, but to go there and talk about it and also have the sound of water lapping and the seagulls and every so often a coast guard helicopter flying by ... that's a different way of telling that story.
And you can also hear the effect it's having on me. There's a way that if I wrote it, I would have time to think about it, I would mediate my voice. On the radio, you get me saying "I'm in the car now, driving," and you hear the rrrrrmmmm sound. You get all these different textures and moods.
SF: So where exactly did you go?
Walton: The big frame is Montgomery, Atlanta, Charleston, Chapel Hill and Richmond. There are also a lot of byways, including Alpharetta, Ga., a "placeless" suburb of Atlanta. We think of Atlanta as "Gone With the Wind," and that's certainly a part of it. But it has 20 identities now. I was interested in Alpharetta because it's like Orange Co. - just this edge city, no place. It was interesting to see that in context to the South because the South is so much about place.
I also went on a night walk through the tourist-rich part of Charleston that I find almost like a Disney set of the old South. It's worth seeing, but it will shake you up if you pay attention. In Raleigh-Durham, I spent time at Duke. I had a long conversation with John Hope Franklin, who is kind of the elder statesman of American history, and certainly African American history. I stopped in Columbia, S.C., and was able to interview the chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Jean Hoefer Toal. She was a civil rights activist and attorney, what would be described as a liberal by all descriptions. Yet she is chief justice in what I often think of as the most conservative place there is.
SF: Was there one place in the South that really captured that multiplicity you were trying to show?
Walton: Right where I started, in Montgomery. I went to the Dexter Avenue/King Memorial Baptist Church, which was Martin Luther King Jr.'s church. I was even able to stand in Dr. King's pulpit, which was amazing. The church is a really profound, a massively important place in our history; it's also still a Baptist church where the congregation meets every Sunday.
And across the street, literally, is the Alabama State Capitol building, a beautiful, austere, massive white granite building. In front of it, however, is a statue of Jefferson Davis. That's also where George Wallace made many of his pronouncements.
A couple of blocks away is the Civil Rights Memorial. Very beautiful, designed by Maya Lin who designed the Vietnam Memorial. Then I went out to a shopping center on the edge of town. It was the latest in shopping center design, which is to say it tries to resemble an old downtown. Just in that little spot, it's both a Saturday morning in a southern town and this center of incredible importance in American history.
SF: You can't avoid the theme of race certainly if you're looking at the South, but I'm wondering if your piece is a conscious exploration of African Americans in the South?
Walton: There's more to it. In the end, African American history is American history. It's going to be informed by that in a certain way because I am African American and it will direct certain of my investigations. But I was determined, for example, to see Jefferson Davis' grave. It would have been easy in Atlanta to go to Morehouse or the King Center, but I went to Alpharetta. It's all mixed up. You can't tell any story without telling all of it. Why can't we tell all of it? It's a question we should always ask.
SF: Who were some of the people you talked with along the way?
Walton: We had an amazing conversation with a gentleman selling T-shirts on the side of the road in Tuskegee. We went there to visit the Tuskegee Institute. It's a very important place in both the actual and imagined history of African Americans. It was founded by Booker T. Washington as a place for people to train after slavery - and all through the Jim Crow era - and even now, it is a great purveyor of opportunity. Also, it's a great thought, and always has been, that there was this school where African Americans could go. People would walk for hundreds of miles to try and get there.
The man selling the T-shirts was so interesting. At first he wonders who these guys are. Then he wonders if he can sell us some shirts, which he did. Then we just kept hanging around and suddenly he started talking and he was full of insights and thoughts and lore about Tuskegee and about the contemporary United States. He was amazing. You can just overlook a person like that. You don't know anything about their sophistication, or who they are, if you just accept the mask that they present.
SF: What did he say that interested you so much?
Walton: He said that Tuskegee was important because they weren't afraid to teach you about the soul. And that Booker T. Washington thought that you had to educate the mind, but also educate the spirit. That got my attention. He was not a fellow who you would have imagined thought about things like that.
SF: You're from a southern family and spent a lot of time there as a kid, but I'm wondering if you came to a different idea of the South by the time you finished this project.
Walton: It continues to change and evolve. One of the things I saw this time and didn't have a chance to go into, was just the massive Hispanic presence that's growing, growing, growing. Now, they're working construction and as maids in hotels, but that's going to change. I think there are some Hispanics who will figure how to get out of that servant class - it's already happened in Florida and Texas - and grab their piece of the American dream, and others will remain trapped on the other side, which is what always happens.
One of the things the people at the BBC were right about: To begin to have a nuanced understanding of the U.S, you have to have an understanding of the South. It's one region among regions, but it controls so much of the both political and psychic life of the country. It cannot be overlooked.