Four Spirits, by Sena Jeter Naslund (New York : Perennial, 2003)
When I was a college student in the early sixties in Birmingham, Alabama, I promised myself, if I ever did become a novelist, that I would write about the acts of courage and tragedy taking place in my city. I would try to re-create through words what it was like to be alive then: how ordinary life went on, how people fell in and out of love, how family members got sick, how people worked ordinary jobs, tried to get an education, worshiped, looked for entertainment, grew up, died, participated in the great changes of the civil rights struggles or stood aside and watched the world change. -- from Sena Jeter Naslund's "Author's Note" in Four Spirits
In Four Spirits, Sena Jeter Naslund transports readers to Birmingham, Alabama of the early 1960s. Fictional characters and historical figures interact, bringing Naslund's novel to life. Places also pull readers into Birmingham's, and our own, history.
There are two Birminghams in Four Spirits. From high atop "Red Mountain," near the statue of "Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge," you look down on a quiet landscape, the "entire city of Birmingham filling the valley between the last ridges of the Appalachian mountain chain as it stretched from high in the northeast to southwest." On the streets below, however, fire hoses are being "turned on the Negroes peacefully congregating and marching for equality." Vulcan's presence is felt throughout the novel, but it is in Downtown Birmingham that history is being made.
Kelly Ingram Park "is the heart of it." TJ, one of the book's characters, remembers the Kelly Ingram park of his childhood as a place of "no importance." "Now it was the beating heart of the protest movement in Birmingham, and Birmingham was the heated-up heart of Alabama, and Alabama was the Heart of Dixie." And Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the bombings that killed the four little girls, the "four spirits," is "right across from the park." These locations are at the center of Four Spirits, places of violence and change.
Other places, too, are important to the novel. The Birmingham Jail; Phillips High School; Oak Hill Cemetery; the Birmingham Public Library; Birmingham-Southern College; and the gardens, "the most beautiful spot in Birmingham," Stella thinks, at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. Miles College is one of the center points of Four Spirits, a place where black and white teachers come together as colleagues and become friends. Christine Taylor knows that this threatens some, saying to the class, "'We already doing what they trying to stop...We integrated. Yes, we are. Say the word, class.'"
We learn about some of Birmingham's neighborhoods and the streets leading in and out, the Cahaba River, and the importance of the Gaston Motel. Owned by A. G. Gaston, for many years it was the only first-class lodging for African Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed at the Gaston, as did Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Occasionally Four Spirits remembers other places, such as Montgomery, where it all began. "Rosa Parks was the start of it all. Christine wanted to remember that. One brave, middle-aged Montgomery, Alabama, black woman." The places in Four Spirits, along with the lives of the fictional characters and historical figures, linger in your mind after leaving the book's pages.
Birmingham is worthy of a pilgrimage, a place to remember how far we've come and how far we have to go. You can visit places mentioned in the book. You can join a worship service at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, or reflect in Advent Gardens at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. The A. G. Gaston Gardens occupy the site of the former A. G. Gaston Motel. Miles College still provides training. Kelly Ingram Park is "distinguised as 'A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.'" Park sculptures recall the attacks on demonstrators, children jailed for protesting, and "the clergy's contribution to the movement." Park paths converge at the center, a place of hope. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute invites you on a "journey through the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement and human rights struggles." The Institute not only looks back at Birmingham's civil rights struggles, but also looks at current human rights issues around the world. And you can still experience beautiful and tranquil views of Birmingham from Vulcan Park atop Red Mountain.
"'What's happening here in the South. King's courage. Shuttleworth's. This rising of the South, it's a Christian movement. Oh, I know, plenty of Eastern intellectuals down here. You guys. Maybe some Buddhists, for all I know. Gandhi was a Hindu, and he's the fountainhead of all of it; he's immensely important to King. But the rise of the Negro in the South is really a Christian story. It has to be told that way.'" -- from Four Spirits, by Sena Jeter Naslund
"...Yes, the city did change. There was death, but there was rebirth. There was the seed of equality sown in pain, but there has been and continues to be the harvest." -- from Four Spirits, by Sena Jeter Naslund
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau
(Includes a guide to "The Birmingham Civil Rights District...a six block tribute to the monumental fight for human rights in our country," and an audio walking tour of Kelly Ingram Park.)
Sena Jeter Naslund Official Website
Of course racism is still an issue in our country. I hope that in its own way, this book will continue to honor the courage of the leaders and participants in the civil rights movement and to encouage people to come together and to share ideas about how to move forward. I hope people will speak about their own journeys toward an understanding that transcends race and other artificial barriers. For, after all, what can we do with our stories, but tell them? -- from "A Note from Sena Jeter Naslund" in Four Spirits
Advent Gardens, Cathedral Church of the Advent
2017 6th Avenue
A. G. Gaston Gardens
1510 5th Avenue North
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
520 16th Street North
Kelly Ingram Park
6th Avenue North at 16th Street
5500 Avenue G, Ensley
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Intersection of 16th Street and 6th Avenue
20th Street South and Valley View