Opinion

What if Hale County, Ala., Is the Heart of America?

NASHVILLE — Like nearly all the hurry-past places in this vast country, the Alabama most people experience is only what can be glimpsed from the window of a car on the way to somewhere else. Hale County is a little different. For nearly 90 years, this county in the Alabama Black Belt has been chronicled in the work of some of this country’s most celebrated artists.

“Desire Paths: William Christenberry & RaMell Ross” brings together two of them in an exhibition at Pace Gallery in New York City through Saturday. Mr. Ross, an interdisciplinary artist, moved to Hale County in 2009. His transcendent 2018 documentary film, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” was nominated for an Academy Award. He counts Mr. Christenberry as a major influence.

Mr. Christenberry, who grew up in Alabama and died in 2016, felt the same way about the photographer Walker Evans and the writer James Agee. Their staggeringly original book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” emerged from a three-week visit to Hale County in 1936.

This part of the country didn’t exist for most Americans until Mr. Evans’s photographs of white tenant farmers in Depression-ravaged Alabama were published — and for nearly 20 years beyond that, too. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” sold only 600 copies when it was first published in 1941. It might have been consigned to oblivion if not for a new edition published after Mr. Agee won a Pulitzer Prize for his posthumous novel, “A Death in the Family.” The 1960 printing included a much-expanded selection of Mr. Evans’s photographs. These are the images, perhaps more than any others, that come to mind when we think about the Great Depression.

William Christenberry, “Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama” (1974- 2004).Credit…Estate of William Christenberry and Pace Gallery

Mr. Christenberry was born in 1936, the same year Mr. Agee and Mr. Evans parachuted into Hale County. Like his artistic predecessors, Mr. Christenberry was white. Unlike them, he was born in nearby Tuscaloosa, and all his grandparents lived in Hale County. He spent much of his childhood on their farms and returned to the area frequently in adulthood. Mr. Christenberry was a young painting instructor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa when “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” was rereleased, and the book made a profound impression on him.

Until that time, the photographs he’d been taking of his family’s homeland were merely snapshots, meant to serve as color references for future paintings. Inspired by the work of Mr. Agee and Mr. Evans — and by a conversation in 1961 with Mr. Evans himself, who went on to become a friend — Mr. Christenberry shifted focus. His paintings began to incorporate found objects; his photographs became artworks in their own right.

Retracing Mr. Evans’s footsteps at times, he began to photograph some of the same buildings and landscapes that appear in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” places and structures he’d known all his life. Many he returned to again and again, year after year, documenting in photographs — and sometimes in scale-model replicas — their disrepair and decline and, eventually, their decay. The Pace exhibition includes several groupings of photographs made over many years, often paired with sculptures of the same structures recreated in miniature.

William Christenberry, “5 Cent, Demopolis, Alabama” (1978).Credit…Estate of William Christenberry and Pace Gallery

Mr. Christenberry’s images of broken-down barns and abandoned shacks can be mistaken for works of nostalgia. But these photographs of forsaken landscapes comment as forcefully on the immutable poverty of Hale County as on memory and the passage of time. They are the photographic equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels.

Hale County occupies the upper edge of the Alabama Black Belt — a crescent region that spans the central portion of the state and curves upward into northern Mississippi. Originally a reference to the rich soil of the Southern grasslands, the Black Belt now refers, in most people’s understanding, to the racial makeup of the area’s population.

Early in Alabama’s history, white settlers drove out the native peoples, and white planters claimed the prairies for cotton. By the early 19th century, half of Alabama’s enslaved population was trapped in the Black Belt. Many of their descendants are economically trapped there still. According to the 2020 census, Black residents make up 57.7 percent of Hale County; white residents make up 40.8 percent. The average per capita income in 2021 dollars is $20,849.

William Christenberry, “Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama” (1995).Credit…Estate of William Christenberry and Pace Gallery
RaMell Ross, “Earth, Dirt, Soil, Land; Superstition” (2021).Credit…RaMell Ross

In “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” which is available for streaming, Mr. Ross’s focus is the daily life of rural Black Southerners in all its quotidian beauty. As a Black man who lived in Hale County exclusively for three years, teaching and coaching basketball, and who maintains a home there, he is able to capture the full experience of the place in a way that Mr. Agee and Mr. Evans — and even Mr. Christenberry, an Alabama native — could not.

There’s no ignoring the history of slavery in Hale County, of course; the soil itself is permeated with it. In a 2019 interview with Dissent, Mr. Ross spoke of “the specific historical baggage of slavery, which comes with the rural landscape — which the landscape itself forces us to contend with.”

His work at Pace Gallery is more transparently concerned with this historical baggage than his celebrated film is. Some of the photographs center the red dirt of Hale County; some of the three-dimensional pieces contain the red dirt itself. And the Black people in these images are most often positioned so that their faces are obscured — perhaps a nod toward the invisibility of rural Black experience in popular media, perhaps an effort to project the subjects’ experience while simultaneously protecting their privacy. Perhaps both. Almost certainly more.

RaMell Ross, “Man” (2019).Credit…RaMell Ross

As beautiful and loving as these images are, it’s impossible to escape the painful reality that underpins most of Mr. Ross’s work, especially his photographs of children. In “Yellow” a child in a yellow dress crouches behind a rose bush; only the dress, not the features of the human child, is visible. In the devastating photograph “Man,” a small boy is stretched across the top of a tire, squeezed into the wheel well between shiny fender and black tire, half the turn of a wheel from being crushed. He is looking directly at the viewer.

Two large installations are paired in “Desire Paths.” Both are profoundly unsettling, though for completely different reasons. “Return to Origin” by Mr. Ross is the wooden crate in which the artist shipped himself from Providence, R.I., where he is a professor at Brown University, back to Hale County in 2021. The piece echoes, and reverses, Henry “Box” Brown’s escape from enslavement in Virginia by mailing himself to Philadelphia.

Across from Mr. Ross’s meditation on and direct experience of the legacy of slavery is “Klan Tableau” by Mr. Christenberry. This collection of photographs, drawings, historical artifacts and hand-fashioned objects represents the artist’s yearslong effort to confront the violent history and inescapable racism of his beloved home. The installation is kept behind a curtain in a walled-off area of the gallery. Viewers must enter it fully aware of what they are getting into.

RaMell Ross, “Return to Origin” (2021).Credit…RaMell Ross

In these juxtapositions — of Black experience and white experience, of poverty and wealth, of art and violence, of history and memory and imagination — Hale County, Ala., is arguably the very heart of America. There is no reckoning with the history of this country without reckoning with the institution of slavery and its pervasive repercussions. “The Black Belt is the home of our social construction — it is from here that we are everything America has permitted us to be,” Mr. Ross said in the Dissent interview. “There was no better place for innuendo, for subtlety, for inference; no better setting for presenting Black folks in ways that are simultaneously basic and complex, historic and contemporary.”

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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