Gas Maps Part 2 examines a map published by The New York Times on June 9th, 2008 called "The Varying Impact of Gas Prices" that has been in heavy Internet circulation during the past week. It shows the locations where consumers spend the highest percentage of their income on gasoline. In general, poor rural counties in the Southeast and Appalachia; along the Mississippi River; in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico and in the Northern Rocky Mountains states are fairing the worst despite the fact that urban centers on both coasts have higher per gallon costs. The place that earned the dubious distinction of the highest gasoline costs as a percent of income is Wilcox County, Alabama. There, residents pay on average 16% of their income on gas at current prices. The rest of the counties in the Black Belt along the Alabama River share a similar impact.
Patrik Jonsson's related story published in the Christian Science Monitor on June 11, called Sticker Shock at the Supermarket, features comments of residents of Camden and Gee's Bend, two communities in Wilcox County. They were featured to illustrate the difficult trade offs that many families are making as both gasoline and food prices climb while income remains static.
Reddit.com's comment scroll related to the New York Times map illustrates the degree to which geographic inequalities related to the local impacts of prices are not well explained by a cursory examination of the New York Times map. "Hellsbelles" and "Digitallysick" give testimony to the intense and persistent poverty in the county among the 300 plus responses to the map. "Starkwhite" raises the issue of racism as a contributing factor to local poverty in Wilcox County. But most of the comments seem to avoid the uncomfortable finding that economic circumstances in Wilcox County really are that bad as compared with so many other places that are also struggling.
This is not the first time that Wilcox County or its most well known community - Gee's Bend - has come under the mainstream media spotlight. Most recently, Gee's Bend was featured by J.R. Moehringer's moving, Pulitzer Prize winning feature called Crossing Over in 2000. He presented a cultural and historical portrait of the community of Gee's Bend through the eyes and experiences of Mary Lee, one of its elders descended from generations of local African American residents. Readers learn about the extreme geographic isolation of the setting and how this contributes to its economic difficulties. They learn of the community's complex social, racial, and political history and of its centrality to civil rights activism in the 1960s. They learn that the events of the 1960s unfolded in the context of decades of institutionalized racism that resulted in unequal state investments in education, economic infrastructure, and transportation, symbolized by the the state's elimination of ferry service to cross the Alabama River in 1962. Crossing Over was published at a time when discussions about reopening the ferry were underway. That eventually occurred in 2006, punctuated by a new round of mainstream media attention.
Now that ferry service has resumed, there is a website that provides the Internet public with information about its hours of operation, directions on how to find it, and information about local cultural attractions in Gee's Bend. Prominently featured on the main page of the website are images of quilts created by the Gee's Bend quilters, famous in their own right as community artists and regents of local cultural heritage. Gee's Bend quilters are known nationally and internationally through coffee table books available at chic art shops and museums around the country. Their work is featured in exhibitions around the country. In 2004, the quilt designs were marketed.
The Gee's Bend settlement and the Snow Hill Institute artists colony are among the top educational tourism destinations featured in the widely acclaimed Black Belt Heritage Trail sponsored by the State of Alabama. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System has also recently partnered with other state agencies to implement an innovative Agricultural Tourism Program designed to connect rural communities along an AgriTourism Trail with special interest travelers.
Despite these efforts to improve the economic base and connectivity of Gee's Bend, Wilcox County and the larger region of Alabama's Black Belt with mainstream societal and economic institutions, last week's headlines underscore the harsh irony that the commodification of local culture in Gee's Bend has failed to fully benefit its residents. Moehringer's reflection of Mary Lee's reality in Crossing Over was indeed prophetic. He wrote: "Mary Lee knows better. A ferry would also bring tourists and hunters and developers and criminals and snoops. In other words, the end of Gee's Bend, the last place on Earth still safe enough for children and dead folks to go walking after dark. 'When you can sit in a place,' she says, 'and everybody be lovely--no fussing, no killing--to me, this don't even seem like the USA.'"
Gee's Bend once served as a safe haven in the racially tumultuous environs of west Alabama for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other local and regional civil rights activists to reside and organize prior to the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Their struggles and efforts are embedded in the memories of the people and local institutions of Wilcox County and Gee's Bend. Forty three years later, we are reminded that regional and economic disparities and institutionalized forms of racial inequality persist in the social landscape of American society.
Michele Masucci, Temple University
David Organ, Clark Atlanta University
Caroline Guigar, Temple University