“I’ll speak to you, and you to me, together, in praise.”
from the poem “Goodbye, Tuscaloosa,” by Eliot Khalil Wilson and Paul Guest
I was going to write a blog about President Obama’s release of his so-called “long form” birth certificate today – I’m still not quite sure what differentiates that from what was released in 2008, particularly since both prove that he was born in the United States and is, therefore, eligible for the office he holds – but the city where I lived in for three years was just mauled by a massive tornado. Some have said it was an F-4; others, an F-5.
I have many friends still living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and thankfully I’ve been getting Twitter and Facebook updates from them indicating that almost everyone I know is doing okay, uninjured, although they are understandably shaken by the destruction they witnessed just a few hours ago. But I was just watching CNN within the last hour and an Alabama official confirmed that there were 25 fatalities, although it wasn’t clear whether that was just in Tuscaloosa, or the state as a whole. But regardless, any loss of life is tragic, whether it’s just in T-Town (as we transplants affectionately referred to it), or anywhere.
Apparently it struck downtown Tuscaloosa, a place I hold near and dear to my heart, and a place that, did it strike less than a year ago, I probably would have been in when it hit. It was a mile from the University of Alabama campus. Some of my best friends are still there – poets and novelists, professors, former students, the gas station owner I saw nearly every day, the veterinarian who neutered my cat and cared for his skin infection, the bartender who never failed to, whenever the Pistons were on national television, change the channel on the big screen TV for me so I could cringe, put my face in my hand, and promptly resume cheering for them in the Deep South among people who were far more concerned with the turnout of the A-Day game than a Pistons-Celtics matchup.
And I’m pretty sure all of them are doing okay at this point — a blessing that makes me incredibly happy.
So I’m not being fatalistic or morbid about my friends who make the trek along Skyland or University Boulevard or Hackberry, or 15th Street or the denizens of the streets pecking the borders of campus. The people of Alabama I know are strong, resilient, and largely defiant of the stereotypes that exist about the South. They survive, whether they are educators or small business owners. They are proud and hard-working. And they, too, have been devastated by the economy, although perhaps not as much as the great people of Michigan and Oakland County. And this latest tornado is the last thing they needed.
One of my students at the University of Alabama survived the tornado that killed nine people at her high school in 2007. When I assigned an oral presentation to the students, I didn’t know that heartbreaking aspect of her past – but after she gave her presentation, I sure was aware of the trauma she sustained. She talked about curling up in Enterprise High School’s hallway when the twister was about to strike, killing three of her friends literally right in front of her. She choked up during the presentation, but didn’t falter all that much when talking about her experience a little over four years ago. She finished the presentation, her nerves nearly of rebar, got a great grade – not out of my sympathy for her, but because she did an amazing job – and was her perky, extremely intelligent self just a few minutes after giving her speech.
So she is Alabama. And even though she is from that state, she is, in fact, Michigan. She — a Hispanic American whose parents are immigrants, much like President Obama, whose father is Kenyan — is the strength Americans have demonstrated day after day, tragedy after tragedy, unthinkable loss followed by unfathomable triumph.
UPDATE (7:20 A.M.): It is now being reported that 173 people were killed across the South, with 128 of them being in Alabama.
UPDATE (10:29 A.M.): MSNBC has the death toll at 213, at least. You can help by donating to the local Red Cross.
UPDATE (4:57 P.M.): CNN has the death toll at 273 at this time. Two of my former students at UA are still missing.