Bearing Witness: Not So Crazy in Alabama
Like a majority of people who live and work in Hollywood but never really make it, Harlem native and freelance journalist Carla Thompson really wanted to be a screenwriter and producer. Instead she worked as a perpetual production assistant—barely paying her bills, driving a piece of a car, and struggling to eat—although she lived mere miles from the red carpet. When she had enough of working for next to nothing and being broke—even with a master’s degree—Thompson took her cutting-edge sarcasm to a place that no former Hollywood hopeful/native New Yorker should ever have to endure: everyone’s favorite notch on the Bible belt, Alabama. It gets worse. It’s Alabama with her Alabama-born mother.
Thompson’s memoir spans 1996 to 2002, from her grad-school graduation through unemployment to resurrecting a new but equally plastic life in Alabama. Almost immediately Thompson, who feels further marginalized because she is a black conservative, is affronted with ’Bama life. She hates suburbia (exhibit A the neighborhood in which she lives with her perfectionist mother), favoritism based on skin tone that often happens in black families (especially her own), sorority life, straight hair, her mother’s fruitless attempts to make her over (offering lip gloss to offset her broad shoulders and natural hair), and her hate-hate relationship with organized religion. Meanwhile, she struggles to guide students, who are dealing with heavier issues that make hers seem slight—rape, anorexia, and cerebral palsy—as a first-time college professor. Thompson ultimately uses her ’Bama time to regroup, becoming a PR wiz and a seasoned professor, because she has to work many jobs in ’Bama to make it, too. At the end of the day, ’Bama proves just as exhausting, if not more so, than Los Angeles, so Thompson decides to plant herself in a place that feels more like home, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The result is a wacky but hilarious slice of Thompson’s neurotic life. And although her stream-of-consciousness statement-admission-denial-confession style is challenging to follow at times, it is supremely entertaining. Characters such as Cathy, a mother of one blond and one brunette daughter who is so overzealous about entering the blond one in beauty pageants that she loses her job, underscore the absurdity of the South’s anti-dark Southern Belle worship and teach Thompson a valuable lesson. Whether she is in Alabama or not, she is not the crazy one—everyone else is.