Leaving Tuscaloosa: An Alabamian Tells a Civil Rights Story

I enjoyed the book The Help, and I think it brought up some important civil rights issues — or at least helped us understand, through story, a little of the pain people were subjected to not very long ago. But something about the author Kathryn Stockett’s research — a lot of her first-hand knowledge of the African-American perspective came from her observations of the family’s black maid — never sat right with me. I know she was a child at the time, and not the perpetrator of abuse. Still, it seemed odd for a white woman to tell a black woman’s story (and, yes, I know that the storyline of The Help is about a white woman who tells black women’s stories).


Walter Bennett signs books at Emmet O’Neal Library.



For the same reason, I shuddered a little at a book signing this Sunday for Leaving Tuscaloosa, when the author of the book about two young men — one black, one white — listed one of his primary insights into African-American life in the sixties as his memories of the family maid. But author Walter Bennett seemed aware of this tension. He readily admitted that, although he sought counsel on the novel from black people who lived through the time period, his perspective could not be a complete one. More important, he spoke about the continuing problem of race relations, and indicated that he wrote the book in part to make sure the conversation about it continues instead of growing stagnant.


“Racism will never leave our society,” Bennett said during a Q&A session, “but we must continue the journey of consciousness.” He also spoke of role models in his own life who helped him understand the problems with racism, and who woke him up to the need to do what he could to stop its cycle. Looking at his decision from this angle — to help raise consciousness among his peer group and to be a role model for others looking to change — helps it make more sense.


And Bennett pointed out another reason to write the book: to capture a personal narrative about an important cultural shift from someone who was not only there, but also saw his own beliefs evolve. When asked to detail changes that have come since the ’60s, Bennett pointed out that he was speaking to a room full of people who had lived through them, and he didn’t have much new to add from a historical perspective. “I can’t tell you about any changes that you don’t already know,” he said. “I can only tell you about the changes in myself.”


Leaving Tuscaloosa is Bennett’s turn, through fiction, to tell the rest of us about his personal journey. Judging from his humility and respect for others at Sunday’s signing, I’d be willing to bet he handles the topic well, and that Leaving Tuscaloosa is worth a read. I’m still not sure it’s appropriate for white people to tell the stories of black Americans — but I do know that someone should.


To purchase a copy of Leaving Tuscaloosa, click on the Order Books link on the left side of your screen. The eBook version of The Help is available through our link.


Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.






Email with a purpose Let's Keep in Touch

Good news (and practical tips) for small businesses — we're not into being pushy or spammy.