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Welcome to Shelbyville: A
Documentary Review

By Hassan M. Abukar
May 24, 2011

Illegal aliens have always been a problem in the United
States. Ask any Indian.
”  Robert Orben
Welcome to Shelbyville
As a university freshman in Ohio many years ago, I took an introductory class about the American Government. The class was taught by a middle-aged professor named Alexander Prisley. Dr. Prisley was liberal, energetic, and inspiring instructor. He presented the American government as an epitome of success by emphasizing what is generally called “American exceptionalism”. The term denotes the uniqueness of the United States as a country based on liberty, equality, and democratic ideals. The birth of the United States with its revolution, Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the extraordinary power structure of the country were topics that Dr. Prisley relished on with an unbridled passion and vigor.  Then, in my junior year, I audited that same course with one of my favorite professors; Dr. Ron Hunt, who still teaches political theory and thought. He presented a portrait of America in which democracy was only for a few, and where inequality, disfranchisement, and denial of basic rights were once common-and still occurring.

It was a rude awakening, a realization that American exceptionalism was, in essence, what Howard Zinn, a leading political scientist/historian and the author of the seminal work, A People’s History of the United States, described it as myth and rather an  “exercise of self-congratulation; we are the best, the strongest, the freest, the most democratic country” in the world. Former American president, George W. Bush, had exemplified that notion when he said, “We are the beacon of liberty and democracy in the world”. Zinn was critical of how America dealt with its Native Americans, blacks, and the “hysterical reaction” that the country responded toward Muslims after the 9-11 tragedy.

In reality, the United States is a country replete with contradictions, and that the two portraits by these professors might, oddly, represent what this country was, or perhaps, still is. Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of America, once opposed German immigration to the US because the Germans, he stated, would be unable to assimilate. But these inherent contradictions of the United States are what defines it. The country has the capacity to nurture its strengths and deal with its flaws openly without resorting to violence.

Immigrants in Shelbyville attending a citizenship class (Courtesy: BeCause Foundation 2008)

After all, the United States has the largest population of immigrants in the world. According to NationMaster.com, a website that collects government statistics; about 38.5 million immigrants live in the USA; with an estimated 898, 000 becoming naturalized each year. Since 1995, America has admitted over one million immigrants per year.

And it is this America, a tapestry of colors and cultures, that filmmaker Kim Snyder tries to capture in her documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville (watch a trailer of the documentary).  It airs on PBS channel across the United States on May 24th, 2011 at 10:OO PM ET.

Welcome To Shelbyville

Director/Producer/Writer: Kim A. Snyder
Executive Producer: Ellen Scneider
Cinematographer: Greg Poschman
Editor: Jeremiah Zagler
Total Running Time: 70 minutes.

Kim A. Snyder is an American filmmaker, a master story-teller, and co-founder of BeCause Foundation, which produces “socially-conscious documentaries”. If there is a common thread to her work it is this: empathy. “I have always been driven to tell stories that hit the emotional core of a given human-experience,” she once said. She openly admits that she uses her documentaries as a way to motivate people to get involved. “Not because they [people] have to, but because the emotional experience of the story compels them to.”

Welcome To Shelbyville is no exception. She immerses herself into this small town in Tennessee, where three-quarters of the population is white and where segregation was once part of life. But Shelbyville is changing. The film is set on the eve of the 2008 election, as immigrants settle into this town just north of the Alabama border, and a nation gets ready to elect a black president with a funny last name and a Muslim middle name.

Filmmaker Kim A. Snyder
(Courtesy: Documentary.org)
In the beginning, Shelbyville, Tennessee, was a white as cotton. Then the African-Americans came as slaves. Some folks in Shelbyville were not happy with the arrival of people who did not look like them. Some grumbled about the fear that the blacks would tinker with the White Community’s chemistry, whereas others discriminated against blacks and disenfranchised them. Shelbyville, after all, is in the neighbourhood of Pulaski, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, which promoted white supremacy and opposed immigration. After many decades, residents of Shelbyville accepted and got used to the small number of African-Americans. They even elected a Black mayor.

Then the Mexicans came

Whites and blacks were uneasy about the Latinos. There were feelings of bemusement, discomfort, irritation, even hate. Some residents of Shelbyville described the newcomers as dirty and called them aliens. Bigots, indeed, can be stupefyingly simplistic. But after a while, Shelbyville got used to the Mexicans.

Then the Somalis slipped into town

Interestingly, it took two years and a series of stories in the local newspaper, for the Somalis to be noticed. The new refugees had serious barriers such as lack of English proficiency, educational background and familiarity with life in the US. They were mostly working at Tyson Foods chicken plant, and were not interacting, with the town’s residents. But when they did get noticed, all hell broke out. Somalis weren’t only black. They also were Muslims and many of the women dressed differently, covering their heads in scarves and their bodies in long flowing dresses.

Accusations started being hurled against the Somalis. Questions were raised about their true intent, their loyalty to the United States, and even their hygiene. Then, there was the fear of Muslims, who since 2001, have been regarded with truculent suspicions.  Are Somalis going to blow up Shelbyville? Wasn’t it Somalis who dragged the body of a U.S soldier through the streets of Mogadishu after an ill-fated attack in 1993?

Ed Gray, Selbyville’s black mayor, echoed how Shelbyville residents perceived the Mexicans and the Somalis. “The Mexicans,” he said, “were nice when they came to town but that the Somalis were not nice”.

Mohamed Ali shakes hands with Mayor Eugene Ray.
Imam Mohamed Ali with Mayor Eugene Gray
(Courtesy: ITVS)

In the midst of this quandary, a group of people, some white but mostly Mexicans took upon themselves to welcome the Somalis. The Latinos were once in the same position as the Somalis were. They encouraged Somalis to study English, organize themselves, speak up, and open up to the wider community. There were also some African-American women who stood by the Somalis as they negotiated their way in life in America’s South. 

Some members of a Baptist Church saw the Somalis differently. Members of this church saw an opportunity to convert the Somalis to Christianity.

Kim Snyder’s film is an attempt to capture the Somali arrival into an American community in the South that has traditionally been White and conservative. She succeeds in rendering the complexities of this encounter between the town’s people and its new refugee group with clarity and vigor. The film is an attempt to recognize the vicissitudes affecting the evolution of American society. It is also a tableau of the life of a group of Americans reacting, debating, and engaging with an immigrant population that is attempting to make its own niche in the land. Snyder allows all the parties to this contentious issue to speak up and tell their own concerns, fear, and vision of Shelbyville.

The famous Irish writer/poet, James Joyce, once said that all novelists have one story and would keep telling that story over and over in different forms. Welcome to Shelbyville is the American story; the story of an Immigrant group settling in the USA, and the reaction their presence creates among American nationals. It is the story of immigrants working hard to achieve American dream while at the same time rejecting attempts to be shoehorned into simple and unchanging category. It is the story of America redefining itself and reinventing.

Today, the latest newcomers in Shelbyville are the Burmese refugees. So now the Somalis, who are struggling to become part of their community, are facing yet another challenge. Will they welcome the newcomers?

Hassan M. Abukar
Email: Abukar60@yahoo.com

Read also Filmmaker Kim Snyder Talks to WardheerNews (WDN)


Hassan M. Abukar is working on a memoir about growing up in Mogadishu in 1960s and 1970s.
Read "Mogadishu Memoir Parts I ", " II "," III", IV, VI , VII, VIII

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