categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
Leaving Tuscaloosa is set in the Deep South of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1962. This is the year before Bull Connor turned his fire hoses on civil rights protesters in Birmingham and the Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Walter Bennett paints a raw, violent, and realistic landscape of racial tensions that existed prior to the eruption of Connor’s fire hoses. Yet what draws the reader into this novel are not its historical implications but the characters’ authentic voices and Bennett’s skillful weaving of plot and storytelling abilities. Simply put, Bennett is a master storyteller.
Leaving Tuscaloosa follows the journeys of two young men, one black, Acee Waites, one white, Richeboux Branscomb, through thirty-six hours of racial turmoil. Richeboux and Acee were once childhood friends but were forced to separate due to segregation. As young adults, they reunite in an explosive climax one fateful night.
For Richeboux Branscomb, the journey begins one sultry Alabama night on a dusty road in a rattle-trap Ford. A raw egg is thrown at a revered leader of the black community, Reverend Gryce. For Acee Waites, it begins with his brother, Raiford, charged with killing a police officer, and with a ruthless sheriff’s search for Raiford and, eventually, Acee himself.
Propelled along separate tracks through thirty-six hours of racial turmoil, these estranged boyhood friends encounter tenderness and cruelty, erotic passion, and murderous rage.
In a pivotal chapter, Acee’s brother, Raiford, encounters the “cracker” sheriff’s deputies. Raiford, a young Black man, was rumored to “spend company” with a white woman from the East coast, and even more annoying to the sheriff, Raiford was an ardent activist who promoted Civil Rights among members of the Black community.
The night Raiford is apprehended by the sheriff’s deputies, Acee can only watch as his estranged childhood friend, Richeboux, dressed as Chief Tuskaloosa, walks to Cherrytown, the Black community of Tuscaloosa. With war paint smeared on his chest and face, Richeboux attempts to save Raiford’s life, but violence erupts. Acee is saved, in part, by Richeboux’s incredible act of self sacrifice.
Walter Bennett has created a haunting fictional world steeped in a gripping story that raises questions regarding our moral obligations to human communities.
Amy Susan Wilson has recently published in This Land, The Literary Lawyer, Southern Literary Review, and elsewhere.