Alabamaland by April Dobbins

Alabamaland by April Dobbins

April Dobbins is a photographer, writer, and nomad at heart. Her work has been published in Calyx Journal, Cimarron Review, Cura, GOOD, Marr’s Field Journal, Philadelphia City Paper, Redivider, Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, Thema, and Transition magazine—a publication of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.

My grandfather owns 688 acres of backwoods Alabama. Former slaves pieced this farm together with some help from their former owner. My grandfather worked and bought land to add to the original plot. On a good summer day, if you are willing to venture deep into the forest and beat back the kudzu, undergrowth, and rattlesnakes, you can find the slave graveyard—its crude tombstones serve as precarious markers of sunken graves. During reunions, I gather with dozens of my relatives around these graves. Silence overtakes us as we ponder their existences—how we are of them, but not them. The smell of sweat, red clay, and honeysuckle mingle in our throats. We fan the cloying southern heat. My uncle calls the name from each tombstone, tells the relation, and tells their story. He does this slowly, methodically. Dozens of us—all relatives—stand in somber silence.

On this farm, the young and old gather on the porch to tell and retell stories that range in setting from backwoods juke joints to white-washed wooden churches, from winding red-dirt roads to crowded city tenements. These stories not only keep us connected, but they serve to ingrain our unique history into our bones.

Alabamaland is a highly personal work—a hybridization of documentary, autobiography, and almanac. It is a decidedly Southern story chronicled by a prodigal Southerner. The photographs from this series are also important because they document a way of life that is endangered—that of the rural, African-American farmer. As black farmers like my grandfather reach their 90s, they are finding that younger generations are resistant to farming as a way of life. Young men and women of the South are flocking to urban centers; those who do pursue farming often do so on a very small scale. Yet, the farm serves as the hub for many important family events, such as family reunions. In their homecomings, relatives from the northern states often romanticize farm life, but they would never consider pursuing it themselves.