Around 5:13pm Central Standard Time on April 27th, 2011 an EF-4 tornado hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama. For those in Tuscaloosa, there are flashes of memory: the rain wall approaching from the south before the camera went out—the streets mentioned on the radio becoming recognizable, the lights flickering and going out. The next day, the weight of what had occurred settled on our chests: the residential areas of Forest Lake and Alberta City decimated, people missing, friends without roofs.
The phrase “Alabama Runs This” has been an inside joke between those here in Alabama about the caliber of work that comes out of here—if you have picked up a literary magazine or read one online in the past couple of months you have undoubtedly come across one or more of the names in this anthology. There is a pride, a camaraderie, a swagger to writers from Alabama; a grit beyond glamour, a work ethic. We write hard and we write well; I can say with confidence that this dedication to our work has translated to our efforts to rebuild.
After the tornado, “Tuscaloosa Runs This” became a rallying cry amongst friends involved in the recovery process. In one sense, when everything happened we didn’t know what to do, but we knew that we needed to do something. And so, we played to our strengths—our counseling, our writing, our ability to haul, to swing an ax. As a result there was a lot of attempts: some more successful than others, but attempts nonetheless. The works in this anthology are attempts (essays, Montaigne would call them) to capture what it is we love about this city and what it means to us to repair and rebuild our home. The quality of the people of Tuscaloosa is only matched by the quality of their writing. Here, we have some amazing work from amazing people—all with our city on our minds and in our hearts. Some of the work has been written long before late April, other pieces written shortly after the storm.
Tuscaloosa is my adopted home: I am originally from New Jersey and came to Alabama, as many do, to attend the University of Alabama’s MFA program in Creative Writing. As most people from the northeast who decide to move to the Deep South, I was intimidated and scared: I was giving up a life I knew for something completely foreign and terrifying. As with anytime someone moves from one place to another, there are growing pains—the town is small and vastly different from any other place that I ever lived. It is hot.
The moment I started to love Tuscaloosa was in the middle of the summer of 2007. I was teaching creative writing in a GED program in Greensboro, Alabama, a small town of about 2700 people about 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa through the Hale Arts Council and the Creative Writing Club at the University of Alabama. The students were construction workers in the Rural Studios Project out of Auburn University—they would take classes in the morning and build homes in the afternoon. When they heard that I was from Tuscaloosa, it is all they wanted to talk about: that Tuscaloosa is the center of it all—there is a movie theatre, there is football, there is an Olive Garden. They wanted to know where my Alabama Crimson Tide gear was: why wasn’t I wearing an Alabama shirt? It was then I understood the importance of where I lived; that there is something here that is envied, that is loved. It represents “the big city” for a lot of people in West Alabama, a mythical place where Paul Bear Bryant once walked, an opportunity to be the first person in one’s family to go to college, a town full of hope, a home. I returned to Tuscaloosa grateful and I remain grateful—I have grown in its red clay: a better writer, a better teacher, and a better person.
In Tuscaloosa, there are cockroaches. The faux aristocracy of the fraternities and sororities can be suffocating. There is backwardness to the point of absurdity. But there is barbecue. There are quick walks to campus, quick walks to the bar. There are opportunities to start and sustain anything you wish, whether that is starting an Art Kitchen or a reading series or a locally grown produce nonprofit or a theatre group or or or. The reason for this is because of the people: the beautiful, talented, loving people. The beautiful, talented, loving people that have been operating chainsaws. The beautiful, talented, loving people that have been sorting through the remnants of homes to find photographs of people they’ve never met. The beautiful, talented, loving people that are sorting baby clothes, moving pallets of water, making phone calls to shelters, delivering steel-toed boots to people who have lost their homes so that they can return to work on Monday, sending good will and love and money from far away, these things, all of these things. The beautiful, talented, loving people that are also the authors of the pieces in this collection, sons and daughters of Tuscaloosa—some born here, some adopted into its oak trees for a small period of time, forever changed. That shout “Roll Tide Roll” in the pregnant pause between “Alabama” and “Where” and “Alabama” and “Lord”, that are comforted by the sound of trains, that just know.
So, thank you for all of your support of Tuscaloosa and those who love this city. Thank you for your support of Alabama writers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Sunday, May 8, 2011