D.B. Tipmore, “My Little Town: A Pilgrim’s Portrait of a Uniquely Southern Place.” (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, March 2021) ISBN: 978-1-58838-433-1, cloth, $25.95, 160 pp.
By Mike Thomason
You cannot live very long around Mobile Bay without hearing or reading about the Black Belt in western Alabama, just a few miles north of us here on the Gulf Coast. Your family may have land in that area or you may have relatives who still live in the small towns around it or on the land itself. Going to football games in Tuscaloosa, you may have traveled Highways 43 or 25 through the region. The architecture you see today is what remains of the Black Belt’s heyday, when it produced a vast bounty of cotton, most work done by slaves, whose descendants still comprise the majority of the region’s dwindling population. To say the area is but a shadow of its former self is to speak generously. While cotton is still grown there, the principal crops are cattle and pine trees, neither of which requires much in the way of a labor force. Poverty is widespread and health care and public education are both struggling to meet the minimal standards. Division along racial lines is endemic.
Despite all this and more, we often romanticize the region, especially if we don’t have to live there permanently. There are, predictably, few newcomers moving into this part of Alabama, so there are also few new views to encourage new activity. It is as if we know all that we need to know about it. Into this landscape comes a young man from Indiana who has a career in journalism and degrees from major universities.
D.B. Tipmore began his career at the Village Voice in New York City and has lived in Morocco, London, Paris and Saudi Arabia. In his new book “My Little Town: A Pilgrim’s Portrait of a Uniquely Southern Place,” he describes how he came to Alabama for a visit and eventually stayed for a decade in the little town he calls Lovelady. Tipmore becomes quite fond of the place and its people while being puzzled by the contrasts he sees. How can people who are so kind and helpful to this Yankee have such antediluvian social, racial and political views?
The gulf between the Black and White communities seems to be unbridgeable. To him, neither group knows very much about the other, nor do they want to. White people are proud of their heroic heritage as they see it and mistrust the culture of modern America. Don’t mention Barack Obama or the Democratic Party! However, the little town’s citizens are courteous and helpful. While the education system is permanently on the brink of collapse and is about as segregated as possible, there seems nothing to do about it. The races have very little in common, or they think they don’t, and the town’s economy is virtually lifeless. Nonetheless, the 3,000 people of this town soldier on, supported by two contrasting histories, perhaps not knowing what else to do. In the end, the White people are afraid of the outside world and keep to themselves. Tipmore admits to facing a nearly impenetrable barrier separating him from the Black residents. This may be the book’s one disappointment.
“A poor thing, but mine own” might be the town’s motto. However, this is an honest, loving effort to understand a culture with so many contradictions and so much — perhaps superficial — kindness. White people are amazed Tipmore lets his yardman work on the yard when he isn’t there to protect it. The author finds all this interesting and the people loveable, but finally concludes he cannot make his little town his permanent home. He now lives in Selma, so the appeal of a Black Belt town seems strong. “My Little Town” includes photographs by Frank Williams, which powerfully support the author’s narrative and conclusions. Like the text, they are honest and insightful and contribute to the book’s appeal.
You have never read a book on a small Black Belt town that is as insightful as “My Little Town.” Because he wanted to protect the town and its people, he has changed all their names and that of the town. Despite that, see how long it takes you to identify the town’s real name! Then go and see it and judge for yourself the accuracy of the book. You will be impressed.
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