Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues is set in Montgomery, Alabama, during late June 1956, six months after Rosa Parks's arrest. Settings within the city offer contrasts of shelter, inclusion, exclusion, love versus danger, and hate with some places harboring elements of both good and bad or exhibiting them in varying degrees. Ironically, Montgomery is where both the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement had significant beginnings. In 1861, that city was the first Confederate capitol where politicians approved some of the first orders approving military action against federal troops. Alfa refers to places in the city where slaves were sold.
Almost one hundred years later, Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger and was arrested. This was the catalyst for social protest and legal action by other African Americans in Montgomery who had previously taken a stand against injustices and racial inequality. The bus boycott in Montgomery gave black leaders a voice to organize a community-shared mission which seized national attention about the plight of blacks in the segregated South. Ministers were among the most prominent leaders, including a young Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached nonviolence as a means to seek humanitarian social reform.
The Merryfield's home is located in Sundown, an African-American community, near downtown Montgomery. They live in a two-room, tar-paper shack which has no electricity or plumbing. The four glassless windows are covered with "greased brown paper." The monthly rent is fifty dollars payable to their landlord Mr. Harris. Various places in the shack's walls or in objects such as a picture frame serve as hiding places for that money. The family has few belongings. Alfa treasures his flashlight which illuminates things he is reading or places he is searching. Sometimes he has to use it to get Big Mama's attention by shining it on his face so that she recognizes him. When the weather is warm and clear, the Merryfields bathe with water from a faucet at a neighbor's house. If it is cold or stormy, they bring water inside. They use an outhouse. Usually Alfa can bring food home from the grocery store where he works, but, when he cannot, he and his sister root through dumpsters to find edible scraps. Nearby woods provide Alfa a private place to think and read and a place to collect sticks for the wood-burning stove.
The neighboring houses are much nicer than the shack and have electricity, plumbing, gas stoves, four rooms, and porches. Alfa acknowledges that people tolerate his tacky dwelling because they respect and value his great-grandmother, saying "Our tar-paper house embarrassed the street, but the neighbors loved Mama Merryfield." Twenty houses, ten per side, fill his block. Neighbors raise gardens and chickens, and pleasant cooking smells waft through the neighborhood. Alfa plays kick the can with neighborhood children in a "brick-red Alabama dirt" field. He walks the streets to go to work and to look for his great-grandmother who often becomes disoriented and lost because she is unfamiliar with routes due to relying on bus drivers to know directions. Robinet depicts Sundown as a hot, dusty, weedy, cluttered, somewhat lethargic place with puddles and populated by mosquitoes and stray dogs.
In contrast, the white neighborhoods are described as having sizeable houses and yards. Unlike Sundown, though, the white neighborhoods are hostile, intolerant, and unfriendly spaces for blacks. When Alfa attempts to make a delivery to a customer, Mrs. Logan, whose address he cannot decipher from the piece of paper he has been given, he is threatened, called obscenities, and accused of looking for trouble. At the Williams's thirty-room, yellow mansion where Alfa goes with his great-grandmother and sister to clean to earn enough rent money, he is amazed by the opulence. Mrs. Williams imports foreign trees and has native trees removed to plant the new ones. She also has costly exotic flowers. The spacious...
(The entire section is 4,387 words.)