Damn right, I come from Alabama: The symbolic and historic importance of the Alabama Sweet Tea Party

Why the defense of Harriott II's co-captain captured the imagination and hearts of Black people across the country

Published August 11, 2023 12:05PM (EDT)

The Harriott II, a riverboat, remains docked on August 8, 2023, on the Alabama riverfront in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. Three people have now been charged in the large fight on floating dock Saturday that was captured on video by numerous spectators. (Julie Bennett/Getty Images)
The Harriott II, a riverboat, remains docked on August 8, 2023, on the Alabama riverfront in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. Three people have now been charged in the large fight on floating dock Saturday that was captured on video by numerous spectators. (Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

As a Native Son of Alabama, I would like to pull back the veil that surrounds the Black experience and provide insight into why the event that has been dubbed the Alabama Sweet Tea Party is my own personal flashpoint in Alabama history.

For context, it was not until I entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., coming from Birmingham, Alabama, that I first became aware of the misconceptions, and ultimately the stereotypes, about me from being born in a city known for dog bites and dynamite blasts, for killing four little girls and critically wounding another on Sunday morning in a house of worship, a day of dedicated peace and spirituality. Even at Howard, that great mecca of higher learning, there was always a formulaic assumption about Black Southerners: that we were countrified hicks, docile, unaware of the social constructs that bind us to a way of living, incapable of resistance — our drawl, the way we said mane and gull instead of man and girl, made us different, a sorta sideshow, an oddity within the fabric of Blackness.

At Howard, students from Alabama were often referred to as Bamas.

The underlying sentiment of these assumptions almost always came with pity for being born inside the cradle of the Confederacy. I must assume these statements emitted from a catalog of memory handed down by parents, grandparents, friends and the larger public perception in major urban centers of what it meant to be Black, to be Southern and to be from Alabama. I often found myself having to address Northern and East Coast ignorance when students made backward comments like, "Where are your bellbottoms?" or "How come you don't look like a country Bama?"

I am a proud Alabamian. I love the way I grew up in a cocoon of Black love, never once questioning what it meant to walk in my own skin within the contours of American life.

As a poet, a writer and a college professor, one who deals with language in an intimate way, I've forever been interested in — or perhaps obsessed with — Alabama as the setting of many of my nonfiction, poetic and social justice endeavors. My very first book, a collection of poetry called "The Definition of Place," was from a historical perspective of Black life in Alabama, the strong lineage of family resistance that began in 1902 with a shootout in a covered wagon, when my relatives, Wiley and Percy Fennel, were coming home from church in a covered wagon in Guntersville, Alabama, with their wives. They were confronted by a white man named Major King and an unnamed white accomplice riding horseback. After not giving up the women to be molested and raped, a shootout occurred between the covered wagon and the white men.

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At the same time as lead bullets pierced through thin air, approaching the gun battle from another direction were my great-great-great-uncles Bud and Dennis Merrill, who had been out all night drinking moonshine at a juke joint. Consequently, my kinfolk let buckshot flow freely from their gun barrels until Major King and his accomplice ceased to breathe and walk upright. Ultimately, it is a story that could never be repeated during Bud and Dennis's lifetime, as the assailants who fired the buckshot have never been identified in a court of law.

Then, too, my mother was president of the Alabama Education Association for four years and her main office was in Montgomery. When we integrated Gardendale Elementary in Jefferson County as part of the first wave of integration in 1972, my mother gave me one mandate: "If someone white hit you and call you n***er, you knock the ___ out them."

It took exactly one year from me entering Gardendale Elementary to do exactly what my mother told me to do, and then I demanded to leave and be placed in an all-Black school.

I am a proud Alabamian. I love the way I grew up in a cocoon of Black love, never once questioning what it meant to walk in my own skin within the contours of American life.

Because of my personal experiences of how people view Black Alabamians, I've always wanted to celebrate Alabama as writers often do with geographical locations near and dear to them. The joys and resilience of Black life I've tried to highlight have often been overshadowed by ignorant stances that the state has taken, from ultra-right-wing conservatism that believes Donald J. Trump is godlike to the national embarrassment that is Sen. Tommy Tuberville, and I refuse to give either space in this writing. Alabama is always — and I repeat, always — the butt of the joke on racism and its systemic oppression of people of color.  

I need for you to understand there is always a silent dialogue within the Black collective.

These are the private conversations people outside the culture are not privy to. This dialogue comes from those who live or feel invisible within the fabric of the American flag, the ones beaten, shot and maimed, not only by the police but by citizens of the state too. They speak of a different America, one barely recognizable in daily media and news cycles. They watch intently as political figures get away with obstruction of justice, sedition and insurrections against the United States because the government is afraid of the backlash, while their brothers, sisters, friends and family members are locked up doing prison time for much, much less.

They understand the distribution of justice and fairness is unequal.

On Aug. 5, 2023, in Montgomery, Alabama, about 65 miles south of my hometown of Birmingham, the narrative of Alabama, in my opinion, changed through one single event. The scene unfolded in great cinematic fashion at Riverfront Park on a dock as the Harriott II, an elegant 19th-century riverboat that is the centerpiece of Montgomery's entertainment district, was being steered portside to dock in its designated space that features the Riverwalk Amphitheater in the background, except that it could not dock because a pontoon was blocking entry. One of the co-captains of the Harriott II, Damien Pickett, had to take a smaller boat to the dock to sort out the problem so the riverboat could moor. On the dock, after multiple tries to get the owners to move the pontoon, Mr. Pickett took the initiative, as was his job to solve the problem, to move the pontoon that the occupants refused to move. If the Harriott II was to pull in portside, that needed to happen.

I need for you to understand there is always a silent dialogue within the Black collective.

Apparently, the pontoon party was not happy about having its boat moved and behaved as if this was the worst insult they could have ever gotten in life: being shown up by a Black man in public.

Empowered by the sum of Alabama history, a preconceived notion about Alabama Blackness and an ignorance of Black culture, members of this clandestine clan of everything that continues to contribute to the backward representations of Alabama decided to jump Pickett in plain view, presumably to teach hima lesson. To put him in his place. Meanwhile, the occupants of the Harriott II, along with Pickett's fellow crew members (some who have known him all his life), were watching their co-captain fight for his life as the Harriott II steadily pulled in. It all unfolded in slow motion, in cinematic sequence. There are literally dozens of points of view of this event. The overwhelming number of cellphone videos documenting what happened can be found on various social media platforms in extensive detail. In other words, this ain't 1963 but 2023, and thank whoever you believe in for the cellphone.

I wish it weren't so, but this was totally about race, the complexion of one's skin, white privilege and living in a state that condones and consistently attempts to subvert, demean and oppress the Black experience every chance it gets.

The symbolism within the Alabama Sweet Tea Party is too rich to ignore, especially when we live in a climate where American citizens believe there were benefits to slavery, that teaching Black history creates white guilt and that Black people should feel guilty for the guilt. Also, we cannot ignore another overarching theme of this event: the appearance of Donald J. Trump in Montgomery one day after being arraigned on federal charges in a Washington courtroom. Evidently, the former president feels his racist tendencies have a lifecycle in Sweet Home Alabama. I cannot verify this, but I'm willing to bet money that some, if not all the people involved in attacking this Black co-captain at least wished they were at that Trump event too.

When it became clear the white boaters intended to jump Pickett in an unfair fight, he did a move, throwing his hat straight up in the air before the fight began. No, that was not the Wakanda call, as some have claimed. Anybody familiar with Black Alabama culture will tell you the symbolic hat-throwing is always a preface to the fight, as in, OK, now it's on, let's get it on.

This brings us to the 16-year-old crew member on board the Harriott II, and his place in my canon of Alabama history.

If any piece of that white privilege on the dock had read the poem "Shine," about a subversive mythological character in African literature said to be a crew member on the Titanic, "in the boiler room eating blackeye peas/ when water came damn near up to his knees," who displayed an unbreakable will to swim across the ocean while the white folks drowned in their own privilege, that might have dispelled the idea that Black folks can't swim. The 16-year-old saw his colleague in trouble, understood the assignment when the hat went in the air and hit a swan dive from the Harriott II into the river, and then commenced to freestyle across the channel, moving through rugged water like wet butter, fully clothed, which is not easy to do at all.

The symbolism of that dive, those against-all-odds-purposeful strokes, the determination to reverse the narrative of Black people in Alabama while understanding history, proved to be a galvanizing force that has captured the imagination and hearts of Black people all over this country.

A 16-year-old Black kid did that.

Throughout the weeks ahead you will read several takes on what happened in various media outlets, and at some point you will read the phrase: I do not condone violence. For the sake of not sounding cliché, I will not do that. Instead, I will offer that the call and response to protecting Damien Pickett may have ignited a Black love that often seems lost while disrupting or perhaps destroying the stereotypical idea of what it means to be a Bama, or to be for Alabama. I, for one, am thankful for that.

From this day forward, please: Call me Bama.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story positioned Montgomery to the north of Birmingham instead of south. The story has been updated. 

By Randall Horton

Randall Horton is the author of "{#289-128}: Poems," which received the 2021 American Book Award; "Dead Weight: A Memoir in Essays;" "Hook: A Memoir," which received the Great Lakes College Association 2017 Award for Creative Nonfiction; and three additional poetry collections. The recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature, Horton is a Cave Canem Fellow and a member of the Affrilachian Poets, as well as the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders, which received the 2018 American Book Award in Oral Literature. He is the co-creator of Radical Reversal, a poetry/music band dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system through the installation of recording studios and creative/performance spaces as well as programming in Department of Correction facilities in the United States. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he now resides in New Jersey and is a Professor of English at the University of New Haven. 

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