Photo by Beau Gustafson
Back in the fourth grade, Kent Haines remembers knowing exactly who he wanted to play in the Alabama history pageant: his great-great-grandfather, U.S. Senator John Hollis Bankhead. Today both a national forest and highway bear Bankhead’s name. Add to that that Bankhead’s father John Sr. was also a U.S. senator, his niece Tallulah was a Broadway and film star, and his brother, William Brockman Bankhead, served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
It wasn’t something Haines bragged about at school, but it was a lineage he took pride in. “These people in my family were my personal Mount Rushmore,” he says. “I felt like I came from an important family, and I had an important legacy to live up to.”
As an adult, Haines left Alabama and the South to attend Brown University, and afterward enrolled in a Masters in Education program in Philadelphia, where he student taught seventh grade in urban public schools with mostly black and Latino children. For the first time in his life, he was looking poverty straight in the face. At first he saw only disruptive behavior and middle schoolers who weren’t mature enough to be allowed to go to the bathroom on their own, but then he started to see why. One student had been up all night in the emergency room because that was the only place his family knew to go to get medical care. Another, he learned, was suffering from trauma after finding a body behind his house.
In the midst of this, Haines also began to look at his own cultural influences for a project for his master’s program. Step one was to Google his great-great-grandfather’s name. He quickly found information he had never known: while future U.S. Senator John Hollis Bankhead was a state senator in Alabama, he wrote the legislation that disenfranchised black people through a series of polls and tests. “If you have seen the movie Selma, the test that Oprah’s character fails in the beginning of the movie was conceived by my great-great-grandfather, and the people who were beaten on Edmund Pettus Bridge were marching to Montgomery to protest his law,” Haines explains. Confronted with this knowledge, he began to process what he knew about his home state and his family in new ways.
“I knew the way Alabama looked in the year 1900 was horrific by modern day standards, but I never thought about who the people were who made it look that way and who considered it an accomplishment and who was very satisfied with the way things were at that time,” he says, reflecting back. “Then I found out my great-great-grandfather was one of those people…
“Yes, I knew Alabama had a dark past, but I never connected that to any decisions anyone had made. I just thought things were bad back then, and now they’re better. But things weren’t just bad back then by happenstance. We didn’t oppress black people by accident. That happened due to a series of decisions made by people like my great-great-grandfather, people who didn’t want black folks to vote and made sure they couldn’t, didn’t want black people moving into their neighborhood and made sure they could only live in high-poverty ghettos, people who didn’t want black folks to get an education and so they made their schools terrible and underfunded and never gave those children a chance of an equal life.”
This all didn’t negate the legacy Haines had taken pride in his whole life, but it’s no longer a legacy he wants to live up to. Instead, he wants to help redeem it. After 10 years away, Haines moved back to Birmingham in 2013. He’s still thinking about the issues his family research revealed and the importance of understanding your own past and where you come from—and grappling with all the nuances that come along with it.
“There is not enough introspection on the part of a lot of people about the ways in which our state’s legacy of racism and oppression against black people are reflected in its current day state,” he says. “That’s true throughout the country…but it’s certainly the case here as well. I feel as though the way that we talk about the post-slavery era—Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Movement—is as if it was a bad time that then ended in around 1965… I feel like it’s important to continue to look forward from that and see how those things still reverberate today.”
Now a math teacher at Simmons Middle School in Hoover, a system he sees as well integrated, Haines has also worked at a private school in Chicago and in Birmingham City Schools, allowing him to see ways in which school structures are different for different children depending on their neighborhood. This also gets him to think about the decisions that led to these structures and asking questions about how to influence matters like these today.
“It’s not like people are actively disenfranchising students in Birmingham City Schools as opposed to Mountain Brook or Hoover, but how could we make it more equitable?” he says.
And really, the issues he sees aren’t unique to our state. He saw them in Chicago and the Northeast too. “It’s really about people feeling comfortable living in environments where they are around lots of different types of people,” he says. “That discomfort is present throughout the country.”
Now a father, Haines sees the importance of seeking out opportunities for kids to interact with and respect different kinds of people. He also thinks it’s good to read literature and be exposed to art that was not specifically created for him, a white man who grew up in Mountain Brook, so that he can see others’ perspectives and learn what they care about. As an example, he talks about Ta-nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book in the form of a black man writing a letter to his son about American society. He also has gotten involved with helping Alabamians register to vote and likes to have conversations about these issues as first steps.
In all of it, he doesn’t see the root of contemporary systemic issues as evil. “Largely they weren’t villains; the people in my family were not monstrous,” Haines says. “They just had terrible ideas about the ways different races should interact with each other.… It’s more about the aggregation of thousands of small individual decisions that led to this system where certain people who are born in certain neighborhoods and into certain families get connected to certain universities and then certain jobs and continue to have a very successful life based on their families, and other people have to work much harder to do that.
“I think people define their own interests too narrowly, and we have broader obligations to the communities we live in to make sure members of those communities have the opportunities that somebody like I had. It’s about broadening your scope of who you consider a member of your community and trying to make decisions that acknowledge all the different realities of that broader community.” •
Kent Haines originally shared his story “Redeeming Legacy” at an Arc Stories event. Arc Stories events feature true personal stories told in person. Arc Stories’ next event, “More Than Words: Stories about Love and Heartbreak” is scheduled for Feb. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Avon Theater in Lakeview. Arc Stories hosts live events year round in the Birmingham area, and they’re always looking for new storytellers. To get tickets, submit your own story, or for more information, visit arcstories.com.
Hear the original recording of Kent Haines telling this story in the Arc Stories Podcast.
Tags: february 2017