In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on a hot Sunday morning in early October, I sat in my car in the parking lot of a motel studying a map, trying to locate a certain church. I was not looking for more religion or to be voyeuristically stimulated by travel. I was hoping for music and uplift, sacred steel and celebration, and maybe a friend. I slapped the map with the back of my hand. I must have looked befuddled. “You lost, baby?” I had driven from my home in New England, a three-day road trip to another world, the warm green states of the Deep South I had longed to visit, where “the past is never dead,” so the man famously said. “It’s not even past.” Later that month, a black barber snipping my hair in Greensboro, speaking of its racial turmoil today, laughed and said to me, in a sort of paraphrase of that writer whom he’d not heard of and never read, “History is alive and well here.” A church in the South is the beating heart of the community, the social center, the anchor of faith, the beacon of light, the arena of music, the gathering place, offering hope, counsel, welfare, warmth, fellowship, melody, harmony, and snacks. In some churches, snake handling, foot washing, and glossolalia too, the babbling in tongues like someone spitting and gargling in a shower stall under jets of water. Poverty is well dressed in churches, and everyone is approachable. As a powerful and revealing cultural event, a Southern church service is on a par with a college football game or a gun show, and there are many of them. People say, “There’s a church on every corner.” That is also why, when a church is bombed — and this was the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little girls were murdered — the heart is torn out of a congregation, and a community plunges into pure anguish. “You lost?” Her voice had been so soft I had not realized she’d been talking to me. It was the woman in the car beside me, a sun-faded sedan with a crushed and cracked rear bumper. She was sipping coffee from a carryout paper cup, her car door swung open for the breeze. She was in her late forties, perhaps, with blue-gray eyes, and in contrast to the poor car she was dressed beautifully in black silk with lacy sleeves, a big flower pinned to her shoulder, wearing a white hat with a veil that she lifted with the back of her hand when she raised the coffee cup to her pretty lips, leaving a puckered kiss-daub of purple lipstick on the rim. I said I was a stranger here. “Ain’t no strangers here, baby,” she said, and gave me a merry smile. The South, I was to find, was one of the few places I’d been in the world where I could use the word “merry” without sarcasm. “I’m Lucille.” I told her my name and where I wanted to go, the Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church, on Brooksdale Drive. She was quick to say that it was not her church, but that she knew the one. She said the name of the pastor, Bishop Earnest Palmer, began to give me directions, and then said, “Tell you what.” One hand tipping her veil, she stared intently at the rim of her cup. She paused and drank the last of her coffee while I waited for another word. “Shoot, it’s easier for me to take you there,” she said, then used the tip of her tongue to work a fleck of foam from her upper lip. “I don’t have to meet my daughter for another hour. Just follow me, Mr. Paul.” I dogged the crushed rear bumper of her small car for about three miles, making unexpected turns, into and out of subdivisions of small bungalows that had been so hollowed out by a devastating tornado the previous year, they could accurately be described as fistulated and tortured. In the midst of this scoured landscape, on a suburban street, I saw the church steeple, and Lucille slowed down and pointed, and waved me on. As I passed her to enter the parking lot, I thanked her, and she gave me a wonderful smile, and just before she drove on she said, “Be blessed.” That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome. I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace. Yes, there is a haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life, and though it pulses through many interactions, it takes a long while to perceive it, and even longer to understand. I sometimes had long days, but encounters like the one with Lucille always lifted my spirits and sent me deeper into the South, to out-of-the-way churches like the Cornerstone Full Gospel, and to places so obscure, such flyspecks on the map, they were described in the rural way as “You gotta be going there to get there.” After circulating awhile in the Deep South I grew fond of the greetings, the hello of the passerby on the sidewalk, and the casual endearments, being called baby, honey, babe, buddy, dear, boss, and often, sir. I liked “What’s going on, bubba?” and “How ya’ll doin’?” The good cheer and greetings in the post office or the store. It was the reflex of some blacks to call me “Mr. Paul” after I introduced myself with my full name (“a habit from slavery” was one explanation). This was utterly unlike the North, or anywhere in the world I’d traveled. “Raging politeness,” this extreme friendliness is sometimes termed, but even if that is true, it is better than the cold stare or the averted eyes or the calculated snub I was used to in New England. “One’s supreme relation,” Henry James once remarked about traveling in America, “was one’s relation to one’s country.” With this in mind, after having seen the rest of the world, I had planned to take one long trip through the South in the autumn, before the presidential election of 2012, and write about it. But when that trip was over I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me, sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.
A week or more before I’d met Lucille, past ten o’clock on a dark night, I had pulled up outside a minimart and gas station near the town of Gadsen in northeastern Alabama. “Kin Ah he’p you,” a man said from the window of his pickup truck. He had that tipsy querying Deep South manner of speaking that was so ponderous, fuddled beyond reason. I half expected him to plop forward drunk after he’d asked the question. But he was being friendly. Stepping out of his darkened, oddly painted pickup and gaining his footing, he swallowed a little, his lower lip drooping and damp. He finished his sentence, “In inny way?” I said I was looking for a place to stay. He held a can of beer but it was unopened. He had oyster eyes and was jowly and, though sober, looked unsteady. He ignored my appeal. I was thinking how now and then the gods of travel seem to deliver you into the hands of an apparently oversimple stereotype, which means you have to look very closely to make sure this is not the case — the comic, drawling Southerner, loving talk for its own sake. “Ah mo explain something to you,” he said. “Yes?” “Ah mo explain the South to you.”