Rethinking Tuscaloosa: A really long post, but not a rant.

I often find myself moaning and groaning about Tuscaloosa. Most of my complaints have to do with the perils of living here my entire life...things like the annoying traffic that inevitably accompanies the return of students and football fans, the insane liquor laws, the sameness and the smallness of many aspects of the town (not just geographically), the gross misunderstanding of those new to the area, etc. Some of my complaints are valid and would apply to almost all of the United States. For example, the history and beauty of a place like Oxford, England, is impressive on a scale that isn't available here. The sense of culture and tradition associated with Tuscaloosa often revolves around football, the university, or a mistaken depth associated with certain social aspects of our town. These things do exist, but they are not always the most in depth experiences...though they can be. In other words, some of these things don't compare to something like my experiences when I lived in Mexico as an undergraduate. The word "culture" attains a very different meaning in a place like that and returning to the States left me feeling empty for a long time.

Tuscaloosa, I have often heard, is not a friendly place for the "outsider." I remember years ago, when I was about 15 or so, I was at a Karate studio waiting for my dad to finish his lesson. A young African American woman and I began to talk and she opened my eyes to how difficult it is to try to move to Tuscaloosa. Now, this doesn't necessarily apply to people coming to school here. The University is its own animal. No, I am talking about those who move here for real life. And this isn't something that is a racially bound argument either. Since this conversation, I have heard from people of all races and ethnicities tell me the same thing. She complained that though she and her family had tried hard to socialize and fit in, Tuscaloosa remained very closed. Her family lived in an affluent neighborhood and her husband had a job of high standing. And, yet, they just couldn't find a place for themselves--even though they had been here for TWO years.

Over the years, I came back to this conversation repeatedly. It is true, I think. Some of those established for a long time in this town hoard their lives, protecting them as if they are sacred. I have been to the parties. I know these people well. While many are lovely and interesting people, there also are many who are impossibly boring and closed. Ultimately, like all of us, they get comfortable in their version of "normal" and don't want to rock the boat with anyone new. The worst part is that they are denying themselves culture and experience. Reliving the same party over and over again is not culture, people. But, of course, many don't care--old family or not. Many people in our town fall into this type of community. And that is the worst part about Tuscaloosa--and other places.

I say this as someone who has always lived here. I don't mean to imply that this is all that there is to my hometown. Obviously, there are many communities here--and new ones developing every day. There are religious communities (definitely a whole different animal sometimes, depending on the community), communities of students and professors, athletic fans, various athletic communities, communities based on hobbies, etc. These communities, though I wouldn't want to be in some, are alternatives to the "one" community that seems to dominate the lives of those who grow up here. It is terribly naive to admit to, but when I was growing up, I really didn't think that there was much life in Tuscaloosa. I am a second generation citizen of this town, well familiar with the established canon and codes of thought offered here. God bless my mother who took me out regularly as a child to cultural events at the university. Still, in a way, I guess that I thought that these people were just visiting. I was part of that very closed society as a kid.

But the good thing is that now I see the richness available in Tuscaloosa, a hidden town that is out there for people to experience. Unfortunately, the mind set of most hasn't allowed them to notice that these aspects of Tuscaloosa exist. It is the same as the creative writing student who comes to our campus, convinced that the South with inspire him or her to write, only to end up spending his or her time bitching and moaning about the fact that they can't understand this third-world place. They came here to experience the South--and, yet, they don't. For example, I once knew a student who complained about the idiots in this town and the fact that all vegetables served in this town were cooked with and served with meat. The entire class joined in the discussion and it soon turned toward Tuscaloosa bashing. Now, don't get me wrong, as you have read in this post, I do think that there is quite a bit wrong with this town, just as there is always much to be improved anywhere in the world. Oxford isn't perfect either, as much as I love it. But, I am amazed that these people think that experience should just fall into their laps. Why not explore the history of Southern cooking and find out why meat is included in vegetable dishes? There is a reason. And, get yourself out into the real community! Not the Mimosa-drinking, plantation-party crowd, but the real the little barber shops around town, or the coffee shops (not the cheesy ones on campus or at Barnes and Noble), or even talk to the people in small businesses around here? There are all kinds of fascinating people and stories in this town waiting to be told. And people ignore them because they are annoyed (rightfully so, in some cases) by the surface. But, if you stay in your little land of friends that feels comfortable, then ultimately you are participating in the same system that you are complaining against.

So, why do I go into all of this? Because I am going to try to make a real effort over the next year to not only blog more about my thoughts (because it is good therapy) but also to blog about Tuscaloosa's hidden stories and people. Whenever I encounter someone or something interesting, I am going to make an effort to blog about it. I don't know how successful this will be or if I will have that many entries...I am writing a book, after all. But, I think I should try. So, there it is. I will do my best to shed some light on the complicated place that is my town.


Anonymous said…
I love this idea! After spending 4 years in a polar opposite college town, I learned that the great part of the city wasn't just the university. It was the local flavor. Once you dive into it, you grow to love it. The townies(not the affluent)have that part figured out. Become a townie. You'll have far more fun.

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