I started off the new year as I start off as many days of any year as I can, with a healthy jolt of the java. My rote ingestion of coffee has long since passed the point of mere addiction, now as necessary as any vitamin or mineral to the maintenance and sustenance of my very organism.
I have experimented with every means imaginable to concoct the fulsome brew, from cold drip to Chemex, and now I have returned to the original fount: a percolator. This is a sweet machine; Farberware, heavy stainless steel, short cord to get those electrons to the heating element faster. Godspeed to all of you with hightech steaming apparatuses, but the percolator is like a Shelby Mustang, blasting out a cup a minute while those others are still attaining optimal operating temperatures.
To fend off hyperventilating mocha devotees out there, I concede that the percolator is the least aesthetic way to treat a delicate coffee bean. It is less a statement of taste than an accession to memory, because that’s how I came to experience bean juice in the first place. I can’t give you an exact date, but the circumstances of my first swig are welded into recollection: my grandmother’s house, a sunny dining room, an oilcloth tablecloth, opaque green glass cups and saucers. I stood by his chair as my father gave me a sip of the hot, sugary brown beverage and it was fine indeed.
Up in the country, there’s no telling what brand of ground coffee the old folks were using, but it was probably whatever was in a can on a shelf at Murphree’s grocery down the dirt road apiece. Caffeine snobbery was practically nonexistent off the two-lane, perhaps hearkening back to Civil War times when thirsty rebels made do with roasted acorns, chicory and even okra seeds in lieu of actual coffee beans blockaded by those damnable Yankees.
We’ll be hearing a lot about this during the next five years. Not the coffee so much, but the Civil War, because we are entering the 150th year since internecine unpleasantries erupted, and that’s more than just a centennial—it’s a sesquicentennial.
There was a lot of pageantry hereabouts in 1961 when the first hundred years’ passage was observed, plenty of it involving Confederate battle flags and purple prose about states’ rights. Over on the other side of the Jim Crow line, there was considerably less excitement about the occasion. Black folk seemed less inclined to regard the past as to alter the present; right around the time Alabama celebrated seceding from the Union, James Meredith attempted to break the color barrier at the University of Mississippi.
Between the two words “observe” and “celebrate” lies a hazardous terrain of semantic intent one hopes we can steer around during the sesquicentennial. After all, with an extra half-century to have pondered the outcome, there seems precious little to celebrate. Alabama lost its wealth, its infrastructure and the lives of thousands of its citizens, in uniform and out.
the great rebellion was kicked off in Montgomery with Jefferson Davis’s
inauguration, Alabama was spared the deadliest fighting in part because
the Confederate capital relocated to Richmond. That did not lessen the
privation of Alabama’s population, though; black and white alike
suffered because of the disruption of commerce. At war’s end, with the
bad luck to have chosen the wrong side and the worse luck to have lost
Lincoln as a reunifying national influence, Alabama sank into an
economic malaise from which some parts of the state arguably never
These are not good reasons to break out party hats.
Speaking of parties, a number of politically inclined individuals may try to compare the travails of 1861 to present times, suggesting secession as a remedy for what they perceive as the federal government’s continuing imposition. One notion such people like to deploy is that the Civil War was fought not over slavery, but states’ rights.
Let us be clear. In Alabama, at least, if the state’s rights were at issue, it was because so many citizens wanted the right to keep enslaving Africans. It’s right up front in the Ordinance of Secession: “Whereas, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of President and Vice- President of the United States of America, by a sectional party avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions…of the State of Alabama…”
“Domestic institutions” doesn’t mean SEC football. But if that’s not enough, consider the floor speech of delegate E.S. Dargan of Mobile, who proclaimed, “The day is now come, and Alabama must make her selection, either to secede from the Union, and assume the position of a sovereign, independent State, or she must submit to a system of policy on the part of the Federal Government that, in a short time, will compel her to abolish African Slavery.” He voted to secede, mainly because he thought freeing the South’s four million slaves would create a sociological cataclysm: “To remove them from amongst us is impossible. History gives us no account of the exodus of such a number of persons. We neither have a place to which to remove them, nor the means of such removal.”
In Dargan’s apocalyptic view, “They would either be destroyed by our own hands—the hands to which they look, and look with confidence, for protection—or we ourselves would become demoralized and degraded. The former result would take place, and we ourselves would become the executioners of our own slaves.” So naturally he voted to secede from the Union, on the basis of, as he put it, “justice and philanthropy!”
Based on what you can read online and hear in the remarks of some of our present officials, certain aspects of the rhetoric of race haven’t changed much in 150 years. That’s one more thing we can observe but definitely do not want to celebrate.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.