Friday, May 30, 2014

Robert Gray's Poem "THE DAY I WAS BORN" and film "MOBILE IN BLACK AND WHITE"

Christal Cooper 2,046 Words

A Dance To Remember Between
“Poem” and “Documentary Film”

"The line of the dancer: If you watch (Mikhail) Baryshnikov and you see that line, that's what the poet tries for. The poet tries for the line, the balance."
Maya Angelou in 2008

“The poetic mode of documentary moves away from the "objective" reality of a given situation or people to grasp at an inner "truth" that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation.”
Bill Nichols from his notes “Modes of Documentary”

One specific night in 2009 was just another night for poet Robert Gray – a time to go to sleep, like he did the night before and the night before that. 
         He doesn’t remember if he was awake trying to go to sleep, asleep waking up, or if he was half asleep, half awake?  All he knows is that something extraordinary happened, something that most poets only dream about.   And it all began as a thought.

         “The thought of always seeming to be asked what it was like to hold that fire hose popped into my head.”
         He tried to push the thought away, and focus on sleeping, but then the thought turned to ideas and images swimming through his brain.
                  whenever i say i’m from alabama
                  people seem to want to ask
                  what it was like to hold that fire hose
                  if I ever had to answer i’d tell them
                  i was born the day that happened

                  they seem to want to ask
                  what it was like to bomb that church
                  and kill those little girls
                  i was born that day as well

         Gray, born on April 8, 1965, didn’t know where those two stanzas came from – he just knew that they were words baptized in his brain.
         Gray decided to get out of bed with one thing in mind – to write those two stanzas down before he forgot them.  He got out of bed and typed the two stanzas into his laptop; but soon, he was typing in more stanzas.  He continued typing for about 30 minutes to an hour, and then it was finished.
                  i was born the day they marched across
                  the edmund pettus bridge
                  the day Wallace made his stand
                  the day martin had his dream
                  the day he saw the mountaintop
                  and the day after that

                  i was born innocent
                  free of all the blood
                  shed that day
                  but i was born into blood
                  i still am washing from my hands

         “It’s really almost like I didn’t even write it, but rather just recorded it.  I’ve done very little to it since.  I love it when poems happen like that.  I wish they would happen more often.”
         Gray and “The Day I Was Born” had a one-year courtship – not so strange that a poem chooses a poet as a companion.   

         One year later, in 2012, Gray (who is Manager of Faculty Development Services in the Innovation in Learning Center and English teacher at the University of South Alabama) had just wrapped up a meeting of Mobile United’s Race Relations Committee at All Saints Episcopal Church when he was approached by the director of Mobile United: “Would he be interested in interviewing people about race relations in Mobile and then posting the interviews on a website?” 
Gray said yes and thus became the director, producer, writer, and editor of Mobile In Black And White.

         Is it possible that the poetry gods are matchmakers – encouraging humanity to match-make one living art form with another?   In this case “The Day I Was Born” danced with Mobile In Black and White. 
         “The two things were totally unrelated, but I decided fairly early on that “The Day I Was Born” should be part of the film.”
         Mobile In Black And White was a totally different experience for Gray than “The Day I Was Born.” 
         “There was no clear process for the film, mostly because the final shape of the project kept evolving (and I’m not even sure if it’s finished shifting yet).”
         “The Day I Was Born” was created in one hour while Mobile In Black And White kept evolving on its own. 
 “It was going to be interviews on a website, and then it was going to be short, thematic segments that combined bits from multiple interviews, and then it became longer segments, and then it became a feature film, and now it’s looking like multiple kinds of segments and possibly multiple features.”

         Another complicated aspect is that Gray is not a documentary filmmaker by trade, but a poet, teacher, and an academic. 
         Gray and his team approached it like a qualitative research project by gathering data through a very specific interview protocol, coding it, and then trying to make sense out of it.
         One hundred people were interviewed and participated in Mobile In Black And White  – attorneys, teachers, poets, writers, educators, politicians, businessmen and businesswomen, consultants, historians, curators, and religious leaders.  (List of participants is at the end of this article). 

         “We had several lists of people—those people in town who we just had to interview, those expert voices we really wanted to interview, etc.—but I’m not sure how much that affected who we actually did interview.  We lucked into a lot of great people.”
         Initially, each participant was asked five questions, then, based on their responses, more questions were presented to them.  
“For a few interviewees, we came up with additional questions, which was because we were typically interviewing that person because they had expertise in a particular area, so we would ask them specifically about that (e.g., Peggy McIntosh on white privilege or Morris Dees on the Michael Donald incident).” 
Gray viewed each interview, grouped the clips by topic, and then created segments by piecing the clips together in a way that made sense, artistically and literally.  He would then find visuals to break up the stream of talking interviews.
Mobile In Black And White is not your typical documentary film – decisions were deliberately made to not have a narrator, not have a bad guy, not have cheap emotional manipulation, and to have numerous individual stories.
Our purposes were about starting conversations that lead to change, and we felt very strongly that following the conventional patterns would work against us.  We knew that not following them would work against us as well, but we still think we made the right decisions there.”
         It was decided that Mobile In Black And White should be made into a feature-length film, but Gray knew he needed someone with more experience in video editing, but was not sure of whom to turn to. 
Then Gray’s wife Kim and Brian Butler’s wife rekindled their friendship after being out of touch for twenty years, when a mutual friend was in need.  The two families spent time together.

         “Brian and I started talking about what we do for a living, and when I said I was just starting to work on a documentary on race relations in Mobile, he said he was a video editor for the TV station in Pensacola.  He was very interested in what we were trying to do and offered to help however he could.  He had helped all along with certain parts of the project, but for the feature, he did a great deal of polishing work.”

         Gray, Butler, and Joél Lewis discussed the specific aspects they wanted to explore for the film.  Joél’s primary role was to provide guidance and feedback.  She also played a huge role in the in the decision making process throughout the project's history, providing great wisdom and insight to our thinking on what the project should be.
“She played a huge role in shaping the message, and perhaps more importantly, in policing the message, making sure that we didn’t push too hard against the audience we were trying to reach.”
After almost four years and Gray spending 2000 hours on the film, Mobile in Black And White, in association with the University of South Alabama, Mobile United and the History Museum of Mobile, had its first private premier on September 25, 2013 at the University of South Alabama. 

The official open-to-the-public premier was at the Crescent Theater in Mobile, Alabama on January 19, 2014. 
Despite the attention garnered by the feature, however, Mobile In Black And White is primarily intended to be viewed as four 40-minutes segments, with a structured conversation amongst the audience following each segment.
“We still see the segments and the conversations they foster as the heart of the project, however.  We believe that is where the work will actually get done.  The feature is primarily intended as a vehicle to drive people to the segments by bringing publicity and credibility to the project.”
Gray was pleasantly surprised at the criticism he received because he was expecting something more and harsher. 
“We’ve been told it’s too intellectual, that it doesn’t have enough conflict in it, that it needs more victims, that it doesn’t show “the other side.”  As I mentioned earlier, we broke a lot of rules.  We didn’t follow the expected formula.”

The one thing Gray was not expecting was to receive a small grant from a local community foundation only to have that foundation react in an unexpected way.
“The foundation had gotten some money from a larger foundation to pursue “social justice” initiatives.  When the board saw the first segment of our (admittedly gentle) film, they put an end to such initiatives and said they don’t want to do anything else like that…”
One of the criticisms received that Gray does not understand is that the film lacks emotion.
“I still marvel at how we can have poetry by Natasha Trethewey, Sonia Sanchez, and Audre Lorde, and others, yet people can say there isn’t enough emotion in the film as though the poetry were invisible…”

Despite this, most of the responses have been incredibly positive and reaffirming.
“The film deals with a very touchy subject, one that most people don’t want to discuss, especially moderate and conservative whites.  So most of the people who have voluntarily come to see it have been predisposed to being sympathetic to the cause.”
Mobile In Black and White is not a biographical or autobiographical film on Gray; but nonetheless he felt emotionally involved in the film and the film’s message. 
Gray’s paternal ancestors lived in Alabama as far back as the 1700s; and his maternal ancestors lived in Alabama since 1930.   He was raised in Sylacauga, Alabama, the place of his first interracial memory, when he was in the first grade, wanting to invite his friend, an African American, to spend the night at his house.

“I was told that such a thing would not be proper.  African Americans were a significant part of the population in Sylacauga.  They were a part of every place I went.  I would later realize that, for the vast majority of them, those places were hierarchically arranged, but it was so discursively ingrained that I didn’t know to notice.”                  

         Gray finds the last fifteen minutes of the film the most emotional – when Karlos Finley speaks how we can move forward by recognizing that they are all our children.  Perhaps, as Gray watches the last fifteen minutes, he thinks of his friend he wanted to invite to his house, but couldn’t, all because of the color of his skin.
         “It still gets me, even though I’ve seen that clip thousands of times.” 

         Perhaps the most difficult part of the film was to edit out clips that Gray felt were beneficial, but had to be cut out due to length requirements.
         “For instance, john powell gives a wonderful explanation about how white people’s concepts of individuality and freedom are profoundly racial.  We just leave it at that in the film, but his explanation was just too long and sophisticated.  We felt it would lose people.  There are also some great out takes, things that were just too edgy.  But the thing I hated to leave out most was probably Peggy McIntosh’s listing of ways that white privilege plays out in our everyday lives.  I just couldn’t make them fit.”

         Mobile in Black and White was named one of the Top 50 Research, Scholarly, or Creative Works in the history of the University of South Alabama and named Mod-Mobilian Documentary of the Year for 2013.  It has been accepted at five film festivals around the country and nominated for Best Documentary in each of them.

         For more information on the film go to  (, and to contact Gray via email at or;

Adrian Kimbrough 032912, Attorney, New Orleans, LA

Aimee Nguyen 022312, Mobile Housing Board

Alice Kracke 082510, Department of English, USA

Allen Perkins 070213, Department of Family Medicine, USA

Anthony Outler 022011, College of Education, Georgia State

April Dupree-Taylor 120212, Department of Communication, USA

Becky Atkinson 021911, College of Education, Alabama

Beverly Cooper, Consultant, Mobile

Brenda Juarez 052410, College of Education, USA

Bruce Alford 091710, Department of English, USA

Bryan Stephenson 083010, Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery

Carl Cunningham 013111, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, USA

Carla Wallace 092410, Fairness Campaign, Louisville, KY

Carmen Harris 031211, Department of History, USC Upstate

Chip Herrington 080310, Attorney, Mobile

Chiquita McCall 091211, Accounting Student, USA

Christopher Viscardi 021111, Religious Studies/Hispanic Ministries, SHC

David Alsobrook 020811, Museum of Mobile

Denise McAdory 020911, Department of Sociology, USA

Dom Soto 081010, Attorney, Mobile

Dora Finley 010611, African American History Trail, Mobile

Dushaw Hockett 092510, Center for Community Change, Washington DC

Ellen Sims 061510, Open Table, Mobile

Errol Crook 080610, Center for Health Communities, USA

Facing Race 2010: Engaging White People, Segment with Tim Rice and

Scott Winn

Foster Dickson 080210, Writer/Teacher, Montgomery

Frank Hardy 083010, Artist/Activist, Montgomery

Fred Richardson 072910, Mobile City Council

Frye Gaillard 052410, Department of History, USA

Gary Delgado 092410, Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley

Hank Aaron 042211, Atlanta Braves

Harold Dodge 090111, College of Education, USA

Hattie Myles 030411, College of Medicine, USA

Ingie Givens 021911, College of Education, Alabama

Jake Adam York 041611, Department of English, University of Colorado, Denver

Jake Adam York 082111, Department of English, University of Colorado, Denver

Jan Love 042211, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Jared Hurvitz 073010, Department of Criminal Justice, USA

Jeremiah Newell 082610, Mobile Area Education Foundation

Jim Flowers 012011, All Saints Episcopal Church, Mobile

Jim Flowers 052410, All Saints Episcopal Church, Mobile

Jimmy Knight 072910 1, Mobile Community Action

Joan Reede 101012, Harvard Medical School

Jerry Rosiek , 0401213, Education, University of Oregon

Joe Johnson 083112, Mount Hebron Church, Mobile

Joe Morton 083010, State Superintendent of Education, Montgomery

John Powell 032912, Legal Studies, UC Berkeley

Joycelyn Finley-Hervey, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, USA

Judith Smits 020811, Quest for Social Justice, Mobile

Julia Freeman 092410, Organizing Apprecticeship Project, MN

Karlos Finley 010611, Attorney, Mobile

Kern Jackson 052410, Department of English, USA

Kern Jackson 081012, Department of English, USA

Kimberly Pettway 072512, Department of Social Work, USA

Lance Hill 061410, Southern Institute for Education and Research, Tulane

Latitia McCane 031512, Bishop State Community College

Leida Javier-Ferrell 020311, Center for Workforce Development, Mobile

Luke Coley 071510, Attorney, Mobile

Marc Burnette 071510 1, Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, Tuscaloosa

Mark Berte 090110, Mobile Area Education Foundation

Mary McDade 020911, Retired Hairdresser, Mobile

Mel McKiven 052410, Department of History, USA

Merceria Ludgood 011111, Mobile County Commission

Merceria Ludgood 052510, Mobile County Commission

Michael Eric Dyson 011813, Department of Sociology, Georgetown, University
Michael Williams 031611, Chief of Police, Mobile Police Department

Mike Mitchell 021111, Dean of Students, USA

Mills Thornton 031011, Department of History, University of Michigan

Morris Dees 080111, Southern Poverty Law Center

Nashira Baril 111712, Boston Health Commission

Natasha Trethewey 082111, Department of English, Emory University

Nicole Carr 073010, Department of Sociology, USA

Nirmala Erevelles 071510 1, College of Education, Alabama

Pam Adams 010711, Castlen Elementary School, Grand Bay

Paul Landry 021911, School of Law, Alabama

Peggy McIntosh 052411, Wellesley Centers for Women

Phil Carr 020911, Department of Anthropology, USA

PT Paul 071910, Poet, Spanish Fort

Ramona Hill 052410, VP, SHC

Randall Williams 080210, New South Books, Montgomery

Ravi Howard 092810, Novelist, Mobile

Rhina Guillen-Gomez 020911, Hispanic Ministries, Mobile

Ricardo Woods 062212, Attorney, Mobile

Rinku Sen 052411, Applied Research Center

Rose Johnson 051910, Mobile Country DHR

Sam Fisher, 071213, Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, USA

Scott Winn 092510, School of Social Work, University of Washington

Scotty Kirkland 081010, USA Archives

Shakti Butler 092410, Filmmaker, Oakland

Sonia Sanchez 041611, Department of English, Temple University

Sonya Floyd 080310, Chastang Middle School, Prichard

Stephen Black 071610 1, Impact Alabama, Tuscaloosa

Steve Sullivan 060512, AIDB, Mobile

Sydney Raine 080410, Mobile Works

Terry Keleher 092510, Applied Research Center, Chicago

Tim Wise 092510, Anti-Racism Activist, Nashville

Tommy Bice 083010, Deputy State Superintendent of Education, Montgomery

Tres Stefurak 081810, College of Education, USA

Vicky Robertson 020911, Hispanic Ministries, Mobile

Wayne Flynt 100311, Department of History, Auburn University


Photo 1
President Barack Obama presenting Maya Angelou with the President Medal of Freedom
February 2011
White House Photo
Public Domain

Photo 2
Bill Nicholas during a seminar at the Central European University in Budapest
June 2013
Photograph attributed to Slavik Bihun
GNU Free Documentation License
CCASA 3.0 Unported License.

Photo 3
Polyhumnia dancing.
Statue from Rome in the 2nd Century A.D.
Polyhmnia is the Muse of sacred poetry, sacred hymn, dance, eloquence, agriculture, pantomime, geometry, and meditation.
In Bibliotheca historica, Diodorus Siculus wrote, “Polyhymnia, becauseher great (polle) praises (humnesis), she brings distinction to writers whose works have won for them immortal fame.”
Photograph of statue attributed to Chris O
CCASA 3.0 Unported License

Photo 4
Image of Robert Gray interposed with The Mobile Register’s article on the church bombing.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo 5
Image of Robert Gray interposed with The Mobile Register’s article on the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo 6
Robert Gray giving a poet reading in the night.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo 7
Movie poster for Mobile In Black and White.

Photo 8
Robert Gray 
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo 9
Movie poster for Mobile In Black and White

Photo 10
Brian Butler on December 27, 2013.
Photograph attributed to Jessica Butler
Copyright granted by Brian Butler

Photo 11
Robert Gray, Delores Fisher, and Joél Lewis at the San Diego Black Film Festival.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo 12
Brian Butler, Robert Gray, and Joél Lewis at the premier of Mobile In Black And White at the Crescent Theater.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo 13
Movie poster of Mobile In Black And White

Photo 14
Natasha Trethewey signing her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan.
March 30, 2011
Attributed to Jalissa Gray
CCASA 3.0 Unported

Photo 15
Sonia Sanchez reading at Northern Virginia Community College
March 20, 2013
Photograph attributed to SlowKing4
Creative Commons License:  Attribution Non-commercial Unported 3.0

Photo 16
Audre Lorde in 1980 in Austin, Texas.
Attributed to K.Kendall
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Unported License

Photo 17
Robert Gray, age 3, and brother Drew in July of 1968.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo 18.
Karlos Finley
Copyright granted by Karlos Finley

Photo 19
Brian Butler's daughter in her swing.
Photograph attributed to Brian Butler.
Copyright granted by Brian Butler. 

Photo 20
Robert Gray and Joél Lewis being interviewed by Channel 15.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo 21
Robert Gray.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray