Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nothing If Not Mobile

Standing in the lobby of Mobile's Holiday Inn, I feel as if I've entered another world.  I'm surrounded by cadres of spinning little white girls in black leotards.  Hair pulled back tightly into ponytails, wearing surreally heavy makeup, the girls pirouette through the lobby on tiptoe, circle me, and move on.  Clearly, I've stumbled into an alternate universe.

The desk clerk explains that the regional cheerleading competition is in full swing.  

The next morning, with the cheerleaders only an odd memory, I take a quick drive three miles north to check out what remains of Africa Town.

Africa Town was a black community formed by the last known shipment of slaves from West Africa to the U.S.  In 1860, a group of white landowners illegally smuggled captured West Africans into Mobile, intending to enslave them.  The would-be slavemasters were found out and prosecuted for smuggling.  Left to fend for themselves, the West Africans formed a vibrant, independent community known as Africa Town.  Descendants of the original West African immigrants still live in the Pritchard area today; many worship at the local Baptist Church.

Though the visitors center is closed (here in the South, Sunday still means something), the church just across the road is doing a thriving business. 

Downtown Mobile is packed with community history.  Both the Stone Street Church and the State Street Church began as independent African-American congregations well before the Civil War.  

The Gulf Coast Lodge - where MOJO (Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed) holds court - is just a short amble from the Temple, its portals protected by torpedo-breasted Sphinxes.  

I talk with Charlie Smoke of the Mobile Arts Council over lunch at a local landmark.

I haven't been to Wintzell's in 25 years, but the gumbo is great, and the fresh oysters are still served fried, stewed, and nude.  While Charlie and I discuss arts funding (or the lack of it), ancient multicolored signs on the rafters overhead offer words of wisdom: 
A Wise Man Will Make More Opportunities Than He Finds!
Men Who Deserve Monuments Don't Need Them!
The Only Way to Get Anywhere is to Start from Where You Are.

Charlie and I head over to the Ben May Public Library for the screening of Trimpin: the sound of invention.  Mardi Gras celebrations took place nearly a week previously, but beads still dangle from the trees (as Mr. Smoke notes) "like so much Spanish moss."  

Though it's Sunday afternoon, library outreach director Nancy Anlage counts 97 filmgoers.  Both she and Bob Burnett of the Mobile Arts Council are happy with the turnout.  While the film unspools, I take a walk through the historic graveyard adjacent to the library.