I still remember the first time I told someone I was a survivor of sexual assault. It was years after the rape, and it would be years before I found the courage to speak about it publicly. Before I could get the words out, I remember catching myself holding my breath to the point that my stomach began to hurt. That’s when I first started reminding myself to breathe. I’ve been doing it ever since.
I started telling my story because it seemed like the only way to breathe again. My body was caught in a constant state of fight-or-flight and the fight was always turned inwards, punishing myself with fear or shame or self-loathing. I told my story because, although I had never heard anyone else’s story of sexual violence at that point, I knew there must be other people out there who experienced the same thing and felt the same way. I knew I had to tell people the hardest parts of my life if I wanted anything to change.
Since then, I have heard the stories of hundreds of survivors of sexual assault. When women in Alabama tell me their stories, they so often begin with an apology: “I’m so sorry I’m burdening you with my burden.” The world has always played this trick on us as women — to tell us that the hardest things that happen to us (rape, abortion, miscarriage) are taboo topics. In doing so, so many of us are forced to suffer in isolation. In Alabama, we’ve decided we’re done suffering alone.
If you’re going to call a place home, you have to be willing to fight for it. You have to be willing to look hard at a place and see its flaws and its beauty, and decide the beauty is worth staying and fighting for.
We knew it was only a matter of time before a near-total abortion bill was passed. We were all holding our collective breath. So here we are — the place we always knew we’d end up — and I once again find myself amazed by the courage and strength of my friends in Alabama. But I also find myself frustrated by calls from other places for statewide boycotts. This is not to say that boycotts can’t be effective, but they’re often hardest on those who have the least, especially when the net is cast so broadly. Boycotting specific companies that donated money to legislators who voted for the bill would be a much better use of collective strength than telling your friends they shouldn’t visit Alabama at all.
And those who say we should just leave? The average cost of an interstate move is $4,500, and that’s before considerations about family and jobs. The average Alabamian does not have that type of money to spare. And so the folks who are most hurt by the abortion ban are also the folks that are the most stuck here.
That’s why I’m not leaving — not because I can’t, but because I won’t. There is too much at stake. I’m staying for the same reason many of you stay and fight in your little corners of the world — because this is home. And I think if you’re going to call a place home, you have to be willing to fight for it. You have to be willing to look hard at a place and see its flaws and its beauty, and decide the beauty is worth staying and fighting for.
When my friends from other parts of the country come visit me, I take them to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute first. I let them stand in front of the 16th Street Baptist Church and walk through Kelly Ingram Park, where some of the most important events in civil rights history took place, and I let the weight of it all sink in. I tell them this is Alabama. I tell them there’s no understanding Alabama today unless you understand where we came from, and there’s no changing the future if you don’t remember the past. I tell them, yes, we are indeed all of the bad things you’ve heard.
I could stop there. Telling only one half of our story is what the rest of the country does well. They talk about our racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and Islamophobia, and they’re not wrong. But their story is incomplete, and an incomplete story can be just as harmful as one that’s completely made up. Every fight has at least two sides, and when other places try to tell the story of Alabama, they forget there would be no fight without a resistance.
In Alabama, there has always been a resistance.
In Alabama, there has always been a resistance. Before we were here, there were Rosa Parks and Helen Keller. There were Harper Lee and John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. The gender pay gap changed nationally because of the work Lilly Ledbetter did here. Before we all had the strength to share our #MeToo stories, Tarana Burke founded the movement in Selma, Alabama. We have been on the wrong side of history. But we have also been on the right side, because here in Alabama, we have always been fighters. And that fight can be harder here than it is in other places.
Over the past four years, I’ve found it hard to breathe again. We’ve been dealing with everything women have been dealing with on a national level, but we’ve had our own nightmares closer to home, too. While the entire country reeled from the presidential election, the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, the immigration bans, and the detainment of children at the border, so did we. But we also had to deal with Roy Moore and everyone in this state who vehemently supported him. And like most other states, we found hope in the many fantastic women candidates who ran for office, but for numerous reasons — mostly due to lack of financial and strategic support — none of them won like they did in other states.
We can’t do this alone. We don’t have the resources. National organizations leave us out because they think change here is impossible, and in doing so, ensure nothing ever changes. Folks in other places write us off because it’s easy — they think what happens in Alabama doesn’t impact them. But it does. So I’m asking you not to write us off. I’m asking you to come down here and take a look around. We’re all the things you’ve heard, and a million things you haven’t, and our future isn’t written yet. There’s still so much work to do. And if you’re willing to give it a shot, I have an extra protest sign in my trunk, and a spot in my car for the ride to Montgomery. Let’s write a different future together.
Robyn Hammontree is a designer and small business owner based in Tuscaloosa, AL. The views expressed here are her own.