Back Story By Walter Bennett
I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1943. By the time I could walk, the War was ending. Soldiers came home. An air of optimism took hold – an anticipation of prosperity to come. Tuscaloosa was emerging from its pre-War “stolidity” into a “bustling” town.
By the time the 50s were in full swing, that feeling had firmly set in. The downtown was filled with people filing in and out of stores like Belk-Hudson, Woolworth’s, and Penny’s. Middle class white folks hired maids. Social life picked up speed and glitter. Along came Elvis and Rock-and-Roll. Bear Bryant came back to coach at his old school. Bonfires and parades preceded the Homecoming Games. Everything spilled over into everything else. Tuscaloosa High School, which I attended, was part of the scene. Glass-pack mufflers, late-night drag races on main street, duck-tails, bobbed hair and swishy skirts, all added up to confidence in a generous and open-ended future… For white Tuscaloosans–the only Tuscaloosans I really knew.
Meanwhile, behind all the glitter and bustle, from the darkness of our hidden past, a magnificent struggle was beginning that would change everything. Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus lit a fire that burned to crisps the old assumptions about race and singed the consciences of at least some Southern whites. For those so touched, moral journeys began. I’m one of the lucky ones who embarked on that journey. It has taken a lifetime, and I’m nowhere near “there.”
The first step was the hardest: learning to empathize with others–all others. White people had to develop the capacity to see the humanity in black people and feel the commonality; to see their pain, joy, hope, and despair; and to understand that their desire for freedom was as personal and as deep as our own.
One way to practice empathy is to imagine the lives of others, inhabit their minds, feel their feelings, experience their dreams and nightmares. Craig Nova, one of our greatest living novelists, has said: “If you can feel a character’s loneliness, you can feel the character.”
The ultimate end of empathy is the capacity to imagine the capacity for empathy in others. Leaving Tuscaloosa is an effort to do that, whether the characters in question are black or white. It is very sketchily biographical: the fictionalized setting, the racially charged atmosphere, traits of some of the characters. But the moral issues it raises and the emotional and intellectual struggle those issues induce are based upon personal experience. They are one individual’s struggle toward moral consciousness. I hope they speak to you in a similar way.