There are, by some estimates, more than one million distinct words in the English language. The average English-speaking adult will understand about 40,000 words but only use about 20,000 of them routinely.
Words are building blocks. They’re tools. We can use them to inspire or to attack. To make each other laugh or to make each other cry.
The same common language was used by Martin Luther King Jr. to liberate people as was used by Birmingham police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor to enforce segregation and inspire violence.
In a new collection of poetry called “White Bull,” Elizabeth Hughey has tried to make sense of and reclaim the words of Connor. For a decade, she sifted through his speeches, his private letters, even his receipts, to create a database of language from which she built something radically different. Turning the words of hatred into a language of poetry.
This week on the Reckon Interview, I chat with Elizabeth about what motivated her to take on a project like this. How her upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham affected the way she sees the world. What it was like to sit in the headspace of one of the most known villains of the 20th century. We also talk about her decision to move back to Birmingham after years of living in the northeast to found a literary nonprofit, the Desert Island Supply Company, aka DISCO. And what she hopes people gain from this project.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
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Reckon: You have a new book out, “White Bull.” It is a collection of poetry and it has an interesting premise. You have written all of these poems using just the words of Bull Connor. Tell me about that thought process and why you decided that you needed to reclaim those words.
Elizabeth Hughey: Yes. Well, this project started nearly a decade ago, so around 2012, 2013. I had recently moved back to Birmingham after living out of the state for years, swearing I would never move back. I came back with my family, my husband, and one, now two, sons. And, you know, a couple of things happened around the same time back then.
One is that we moved into the city. We grew up in the suburbs. We moved into actual Birmingham City and we started a nonprofit where we were going into the schools teaching poetry in Birmingham Public Schools. I sorta recognized the divide between the environment where I grew up in the suburb, which is a white flight suburb, and the schools and resources available to those in the city. I was really kind of starting to feel conflicted about Birmingham itself and realizing that the civil rights era was not over. It was still very much beginning. And there was a lot to work to do in Birmingham itself.
At the same time, I started to realize that the neighborhood where I was living, where I live now, this house, that’s where Bull Connor lived. He went to church across the street from DISCO, the building where DISCO is, it’s just a neighborhood in Woodlawn right down the road from here.
So he went to church across the street from where I work and I just started to feel his presence or his resonance in our city. Of course also kind of reflected in some of the leaders in our state and the country.
And at the same time, the Birmingham Public Library had just released Bull Connor’s files for while he was in office.
He was the Commissioner of Public Safety during the sixties, during the civil rights era. Most people know probably that he was the man behind the dogs and the fire hoses, those kinds of iconic pictures that you see from that era, at that time. So I had access to all of his words that he used during that time.
And you know, I read a biography of him. I read, “Carry Me Home,” which is Diane McWhorter’s kind of bible of the civil rights era in Birmingham or in the South. That’s where the book began. That’s how it started and I honestly didn’t know if it would work. Sometimes, I wonder if it did work. You know, I still wonder if that was the right thing to do, to bring attention to this man in this way.
I really kind of lived with his words for the past 10 years. And we know what’s happened during those past 10 years, so it’s not like they have gotten any less meaningful from then to now.
You think of George Wallace’s speeches. And I know that Bull Connor’s background before he was police commissioner was actually in radio and play by play calling for both the white baseball teams and the Negro league baseball teams in Birmingham. What was it about his speeches, his correspondence that drew you as a source of, I don’t know if inspiration is the right word, but as a source of exploration.
Hughey: Well, I think it’s because they were accessible. Because they were there. To be used, to be found. I will say I was also at that time kind of inspired by some other projects. You know, drawn to Harryette Mullen, who is a poet. She actually was born in Florence, lived in Texas or grew up in Texas, but she had written a book called Recyclopedia, which played with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.
And she was at that time kind of trying to negotiate between her admiration for Stein and her playful syntax and her kind of ruminations on femininity and this domestic space that women live in, but she was trying to grapple with that and the racist imagery that was in Stein’s work. That was a project that I was interested in.
And also artists like Kara Walker too, was a silhouette artist who was kind of retelling the narrative of Antebellum South using these large silhouettes, kind of classic silhouettes to tell that story through enslaved people’s eyes and imagery.
So I think I was looking for material. I think I was looking for what would mine be? What is my material going to be? If I want to add to that conversation, what would I use? And Bull Connor was right here with me, you know, unfortunately, I mean, like he’s just still here. So I just was drawn to those words.
Reckon: There’s a poem early on, this was not one we had discussed you reading, but it does describe you living on his street and, in some ways, seeming haunted that you are being stalked by Bull Connor around Birmingham. It is called “House of Bull.” And I wondered if you might read that one for us real quick.
House of Bull
A man sits alone in a house next door
to a man alone in his house next door
to mine. One of these houses is yours.
We walk over your footsteps.
We breathe in the words that you
blew out. It has taken fifty years
for the sounds of the fireworks to wake us
and we never saw the show.
We were children put to bed early.
The teacher said all men go
to the same place to dream
but that is not where we go to see you.
Every window has your face.
We can’t say which house it is.
Reckon: So tell me about this poem. As I’m listening to it, I’m imagining that you were writing this around the anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. You said that you grew up in a white flight suburb. How much of this history did you know as a child? What did you know about Bull Connor as a child? How much of it did you learn in the process of kind of putting this book together?
Hughey: Yeah. Very little. You know, we watched Eyes on the Prize in a philosophy class and read some literature in our literature classes about that era. But I knew very little. And when I left the South and people would say, “oh, Birmingham, they’re racist there.” You know, well, they’re racist everywhere, but my response was, “yeah, that must have been bad back then.” You know, I thought it was over and done and that was just my ignorance. You know, I just didn’t know. Coming back here is when I really learned almost everything.
Hughey: That book especially. And also as I was going through Bull Connor’s files, the names that were recognizable. I mean, there were so many names that either I went to school with –and they may not, you know, these were just names. These are ancestors that– What a high schooler in the eighties, you know, the attachment they have to their family abd what they did, I mean, we don’t know. But just the number of names that would come up. Or even people I wrote thank you notes to, I think that comes up in the book. Names that you see on signs in town, like the steel factories and things like that.
You’re right, like the proximity of the violence, you know we were to the people who were a part of that in some way. One thing, also, that while we’re talking about that book, Diane McWhorter’s book, is just that I realized too that… well, number one, the amount of infighting that happens with any movement. You know, there were debates about every march, about every critical decision that was being made for the civil rights movement. But also that being able to watch people change their mind or change their view. There is a poem in the book about the Girls in the Lake, which is based on a lake, Smyer Lake, where I used to swim with a friend and that name Smyer, Sid Smyer. I never knew who that was. Never thought to even ask. He played a big role in that era and was a segregationist, and then, and I may be getting this wrong, but he was a segregationist and then changed for business reasons. And a lot of people who changed their mind about segregation or integration became pro-integration because it did look bad for business. It looked bad for Birmingham and it was gonna affect their wallet in the end or bank account in the end. So just being able in that book to see how a movement changes through individuals changing.
Reckon: Well, and if I remember correctly and it’s been, I guess, a decade since I picked up that book, but some of those wealthy businessman in Mountain Brook were funding Klansmen initially as an anti-labor tactic. They wanted to turn lower income white people against lower income Black people in order to divide the labor movement. And I think that it was a Mountain Brook businessman who recruited Bull Connor to first run for police commissioner. I don’t remember if it was Smyer or if it were somebody else, but then, as you said, later, being labeled Bombingham became bad for business.
And a lot of these same people who kind of grabbed the tiger by the tail at the beginning of the movement, and led to the direct violence we saw later, tried to distance themselves from it. And yeah, it’s an interesting legacy to watch people wrestle with.
Your opening poem, “A Call to Arms,” seems to be engaging with that idea. Can you read that one for us?
A Call to Arms
A man will keep trying
to beat the bad energy
out of his father’s statue
until the man and the statue
appear to be one mark
on a timeline. Applause
comes from inside the fire
that takes down the stars
and removes the difference
between one thing and
another, between shotguns
and hands. Now we have
just one word
for everything, and we
aren’t even saying it.
We are being said
though we can’t quite hear
ourselves being said.
Reckon: Okay. Tell me what’s going through your mind with this poem. I was very drawn to the image of a man trying to beat the bad energy out of this statue, because that seems to be a conversation that we’ve been having all across the South, all across the country of us tearing down the statues that our ancestors may have erected. You know, you’re talking about the word that is being said. I’m just curious about what that word is and what you were thinking as you were writing this poem.
Hughey: I don’t know what that word is. That word changes to me. This is one of those poems that was really kind of an act of discovery as I was writing it. It feels like it was trying to be written or trying to be said and maybe that word is a word we don’t have yet.
Reckon: I want to ask a couple of questions about process. Almost every word that is in this collection of poetry came from the writings of Bull Connor. How did you compile them? Did you just pour them all into a database? And did you feel limited by that word selection?
Hughey: At first I felt very limited, and again, that was when I was like, I’m just not sure if this is going to work. The words felt very municipal. You know, they weren’t very beautiful. I just didn’t know if there was enough there. The bulk of the files, I turned mostly to these– I went to the archives at the Birmingham Public Library a good bit– but mostly used the digital version. Those files are not just his letters. They are, you know, magazine clippings. There are receipts for buying office furniture. There are many letters, which I used, but were not related at all to civil rights or segregation. I mean, you know, it might be a report of a police officer bitten by his own dog or one letter was the Crimson Tide getting, uh, I guess their players were getting ticketed at the airport and they he absolved them of their parking tickets. And there were plenty of letters that he was copied on that weren’t written by him. Were not signed by him. And so I didn’t use those.
So that process in itself was slow and meditative and it was interesting and it was almost like going to a place. You know, like sitting at your desk and then going into this file and being back in that era where you’ve got the county fair coming and a list of the flowers that won or something. You know, like that part, I guess, kept me engaged as I was pulling these words or finding these words. And then I just started to create a bank. I did it in a Google document. The words grew and grew. I was writing poems during that process. The longer I was writing, the longer the book took, the more words I had to use. And there was a point in my journal, I wrote, like, I now kind of feel rich with words.
Like there was a point where I was like, oh, I have “meteorite” now. You know, I have “kissing.” I have “balloons,” which I never got to use. You know, I had a wealth of words. So I went from having very little and feeling like I couldn’t make anything out of it to kind of feeling like, oh, now I’ve got something to work with.
And also you can tell in the book that I find words within words. So “peach” within “impeachment.” And so that really opened up what I could use.
By the end of it, I would’ve kept going. I was submitting this book for a couple of years before it was accepted. I would have kept writing in this way. I thought about continuing to write like it forever then decided it’s time to put it down.
Reckon: I’m curious what you learned about yourself and how you saw yourself change. And how you saw Birmingham and the South change around you in this 10 year process that you were working on this book. I mean, you referenced statues, we’ve seen some statues come down in Birmingham. We’ve seen massive changes in Birmingham in ways that we hadn’t really seen in a few decades. And so tell me about what that process has been like for you.
Hughey: Yeah, well, Birmingham itself, I mean, I love being here now. I absolutely love it.
I love our mayor, Mayor Woodfin. He’s very progressive. Personally, he can do no wrong for me. I just really believe in him. He was really great during the pandemic, made some hard decisions about the city to keep it safe. He’s brought a lot of new business here. You know, we have a new stadium for UAB and there’s just a lot of good things happening in the city.
The state itself? Not so good. This is not a good week for Alabama either with the gerrymandering. And it’s a hard place to be. It’s a hard place to be a blue dot or to be liberal or to be committed to seeing out the plan for the civil rights movement to bring justice and equality and equity.
It’s hard place to do it, but it’s also the right place to be. Because I feel like there’s a lot of work to do. I wrote through from Obama through Trump to Biden. Like a lot of school shootings, a lot of police shootings, you know, like it’s been a dramatic 10 years in a lot of ways.
Reckon: In that opening poem that you just read for us, you talk about a man going after his father’s statue and trying to beat that. What did you learn about your parents and your own upbringing in this process?
Hughey: Well, my parents are pretty great. I have to say. My mom’s a Democrat and my dad, he is a Republican that does not like Trump. And I don’t want to speak for him because… it’s easier to speak for my mom because we’re very similar in the way that we see things right now. But my family is in this book. It’s always been very easy for us to sit at the dinner table together. We don’t have hard political discussions, I mean we have political discussions, but, if anything, my family has been a really great place to have a safe dialogue about a lot of things that we’re processing.
One thing I have learned from my dad, who I just admire so much– the book is dedicated to him– I have just seen his ability to change. He is always one to really think things over deeply. To think fairly. He’ll admit, you know, “I used to think this, but now I think this,” you know, like “I’ve seen this happen and now I think this,” and I think that’s just so healthy.
So it’s been a safe place, again, for me to have these conversations about what’s right and what’s not right in our city and in our country.
Reckon: I can’t imagine living with Bull Connor as intimately as you’ve had to over the last decade without that taking you to some dark places on occasion. What was it like reading through his files and reading through his biography? What did you learn about him and what did you learn about yourself in that process?
Hughey: Yeah, there were definitely days where I would just be like, “I don’t want to go back in here.” And a lot of it may have been a reflection of like, something’s happening in the schools. It’s already happening here in the present. I don’t want to go back to the past.
So there were definitely those days. I am not a Bull Connor scholar at all. Like I did a lot of research at the very beginning about him, but then I kind of let him go. You know. And so when I would go into his files, I mean, clearly I would see him and hear his voice or recognize his typewriter. I could recognize his typewriter if it was him. But, I think I was most surprised by the people who supported him and the letters he would receive supporting him and saying, “thank you for keeping the parks closed.” Things like that in his support, that was really disturbing to me.
And I think that’s also why, you know, this book is not to glorify Bull Connor and maybe not even to draw that much attention to him, but to kind of highlight the fact that he’s just one person and he was supported by so many. And now there are white supremacists here now who are taking on his cause and using his words or using his image for their own power.
And also that there are those of us who are forward-thinking, trying to do the right thing. White people trying to do the right thing who are silent or who don’t act. That in itself is an act of complicity and a problem.
Reckon: And it’s interesting because you take these words of his that were used to glorify violence and to keep people divided and you are reclaiming them and kind of repositioning them in ways that tear down some of those things. But, I mean, we should just state for everyone, it was not your intention to redeem or to reclaim Bull Connor. Cause we do have a society at this point where it seems like we try to sand off the rough edges of a lot of terrible people from history. And that is not what you are trying to do with Bull Connor here. There’s another poem that you wrote in here that really stood out to me, and I think it’s because of where we both grew up, called “White Inks.” I wondered if you might read that one.
How could we know there was any other way to wake up
than by the unlocking a front doors across a neighborhood,
fathers leaving with combed hair, like ideas out of painted
mouths. But what was being said? Kickstand, lunchbox, carpool,
backboard. The summer heat came up over the mountain,
a trained heat, penned in clay courts. We wore short shorts
over swimsuits over bodies that did not feel right in this day,
something felt off, left open. Afternoons, we roamed the dead air
of ranch houses in the kind of silence that stretches between
voices on the television when the actor is waiting to speak her next
line, but what did she really have to say? It’s not that something
was left open, but that something could not be let out,
we could not marry out of our own bodies, and who
should want to? The gardens! The greenest lawns, soft sage under
our feet. Yellow iris, redbud, foxglove, our mothers made
of heavy white blooms. We tried our father’s drinks, fishing
for green olives. We could not feel our fingertips.
If there had been a war, there were no ruins. A red mountain
charged between our neighborhood and the city like a bull’s shoulders.
Downtown was all yellow notepad and briefcase, office buildings
the color of bodies bled out. The park ponds were dry. Unspecial
city, only pretty at night and from a distance. But we were unspecial,
too, repeatable and expected to repeat. By high school, we were free
to drive around. We picked up Michael and the other Michael
and the new Liz. We parked on the top of the mountain and looked out
over the city, a black pool containing another population of stars.
We felt like we were characters in a movie, but we knew nobody
was watching us, we felt our unimportance like an organ in our
bodies. We looked down upon the city that we said we were from,
where none of us really lived. We could not go there at night.
We could not drive down any numbered streets. All the little lights,
we did not know who they lit up.
Reckon: I feel like this is a poem that white suburbanites in any city across the country, could relate to where you claim a city that you don’t actually live in and, as we were discussing at the beginning of this episode, that you really don’t know all that much about. You know, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about the types of local history that we were denied as students growing up in the suburbs and recognizing Birmingham as a collection of buildings and not necessarily knowing the story about it. You moved away at one point and then moved back to Birmingham. How has your relationship changed from going from the suburbs to going away and wanting to escape and coming back?
Hughey: Yeah, I will say when you’re talking about not knowing the history, it’s funny, like Shuttlesworth airport. I did not know who Fred Shuttlesworth was when I moved back to Birmingham. Did not know. And, you know, that’s just a shame. It’s funny because, like I said, I swore I would never move back here. Alabama was, growing up in a suburb in the seventies and eighties, was just boring. I mean that’s what I remember most. The poem says “the dead air of ranch houses.” I just remember that. Just sitting in a house, like what to do.
I went to college in Virginia and then went to San Francisco and then Massachusetts for grad school. And in all of those places, I denied that I was homesick. Like I denied that I just really had Alabama in my blood. We sucked at the snow. In Massachusetts, we froze our car to the ground for a whole season because we didn’t know how to shovel.
I felt lost and out of place everywhere else I was. I just kind of denied that that was where I was supposed to be. I’ve lived in the city. I could not move back to our suburb where we grew up. I couldn’t move back to Mountain Brook. It was just too repeatable. Also in the poem is, you know, “repeatable and expected to repeat.”
And many people are drawn. Why would you not be drawn to have what you had? Because it was so good. It was so easy and safe and good in that place. I mean, there was suffering. There was definitely trauma. Things happened, but like, it was safe as you could be.
But I couldn’t move back there.
So we moved into the city, you know, I mean, that was our choice. Just to kind of pick somewhere where you’re driving down different roads that you didn’t drive down your whole childhood. And to be a part of the city, you know, to vote for the mayor and to participate in its growth and recovery.
You know, all that to say, like, after moving so far away and saying I wanted to live away, like I live two miles from the Mountain Brook line at most. You know, I live three or four miles from my parents’ house where I grew up. Like, I just cannot get that far away.
Reckon: And you work in the schools with your non-profit that Desert Island Supply Company. Was that something that you had in mind when you were moving back to the city to set up? Or is that something that you felt called to do once you got here?
Hughey: Yeah, pretty soon after we got here. We were aware of 826 national, or 826 Valencia was the first one in San Francisco, a writing program which we kind of modeled DISCO after. Where you have a space that’s themed and you offer workshops. And ours, we do a lot of readings and art and music and any kind of event that’s creative in some way at the space. But you have that. And then you also have programs where you go into the schools and teach creative writing and essay writing if needed.
It was kind of on our radar. And then when we moved back, another thing that was so great about moving back when we did, is that there was this building just sitting there empty in Woodlawn, which is a neighborhood right near to us.
And we were able to build out this space and use it for free for years because the landlords just wanted it to be something. And there were a lot of places like that. A lot of the development in Birmingham that was happening at that time was for that reason, just to have some life back in these spaces,
Reckon: There’s a stereotype about kids and teenagers today that they spend most of their time living on Tik Tok and social media and things like that. What have you learned in teaching children poetry and essay writing and creative writing?
Hughey: Well, fourth graders are the best poets and they’re the best readers of poets. Really children, young students in general, they just don’t have the same limits of understanding that adults do. I mean, they’re much more open to what they don’t understand or things that don’t make sense. Which poetry often doesn’t make sense. I mean, that first poem in the book, it’s not an easy poem to just explain. You just experience it. In that way, you know, kids are just naturally open and accessible for poetry.
I mean, I love teaching poetry because it’s immediate. You just go in, a kid can write a poem in five minutes and it could be brilliant. I also love just being present for that happening. For that magic that happened. I’m always very thankful when a teacher or principal allows us to come in because there are so many limits on their time and so much pressure, especially in this district, you know, a lot of schools are way behind. You know, there’s just no time for poetry or art. And so I’m always thankful when a teacher sees the value and knows that like, actually there is a connection to reading and writing poetry and whatever it is that they’ve got to check off their list for that day in order to meet the certain standard that they’re going to be tested on.
It’s my favorite thing to do is to spend time with Birmingham city students and also we publish books every year of our kids work and to get that into the world. You know, I think that giving students a voice and letting them know that their voice is important. And that they’re going to have to, not just write poetry, but they’re going to have to advocate for themselves and speak for themselves. You know, being part of that process is just really rewarding.
Reckon: As we start to wrap up, there was one more poem that we were going to have you read. “Now Kiss the Word Lips on This Paper.” Will you read that?
Now Kiss the Word Lips on This Paper
I eat a piece of paper with the word honey written on it and give my son the word toast and he eats it whole. I cover the windows with the words white sky, red brick, and 7 AM, though it still feels like night, so I write to the weak sunlight, let us feel worthy of your love. We do not feel worthy, bound in our clothes made of paper with clean written all over them. We go out into the streets with our sticky notes made of fire and stick them on everything. Nothing burns. I take a note to my son’s teacher that says help and she gives it right back with her red ink covering mine. Help. On my forehead, I write, What? I write on the school walls, I hate you words. You are not worthy of my love anymore. And the words are quiet. So, I say them out loud. I yell all the words I can yell. Walnut! Suitcase! Pistol! Wastebasket! I keep spitting words trying to rid them from my mouth.
Reckon: This one feels very personal. You know, the other three that you’ve written, you were kind of engaging with history and this seems more like engaging with your everyday life and using the words from Connor to do so. When I asked you which poem you’d like to read the most, you were drawn to this one. So tell me what it is about this poem that, that resonates with you?
Hughey: Well, yes, it is personal, I’ve had a lot of anxiety over schools with our kids. Like it’s been really hard finding the right school for our kids and having some trouble with them being in the wrong school or at the wrong time. So that was frustrating. Also, I love that I say “I hate you words.” Um, I don’t hate words, but you know, there’s just a point that you get to where words don’t work anymore. Or a teacher writing “help” on top, you know, you’re asking for help and she’s saying help back. It’s like, okay, well we’re just stuck in this volley. We both need help and we can’t help each other. Right? So I think that’s, you know, that’s why I like it.
Reckon: You know, if you were to just tell somebody, well, I wrote a book of poetry using the words of Bull Connor, they might kind of look at you askance. And so tell me what you hope that readers will get from this book and what you hope kind of the legacy of this book will be?
Hughey: Well, I hope it’s seen as part of a much bigger conversation. I hope that it’s just seen as one perspective in a very layered conversation. I hope that readers are turning to Black authors and looking for underrepresented voices. So, I hope that this, like I said, this is, just one voice in a conversation where that’s probably not a white-centered conversation if that’s even fair to say, considering it’s a white book with white man’s words.
And I hope that there is some value in reckoning and in grappling with your participation in a system that is broken and is undervaluing and limiting people of color and our neighbors, while at the same time, giving access and privilege to those of us who are white. So, I hope that that stirs people and makes them want to be a part of the solution.
Elizabeth Hughey’s poetry collection “White Bull” is available for purchase here.