Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with B.J. Hollars
Danielle DeSimone, Assistant Editor, Rappahannock Review: What first interested you in issues of race in Tuscaloosa?
B.J. Hollars: I suppose I was drawn to issues of race in Tuscaloosa because I was drawn to Tuscaloosa itself. I was—and continue to be—fascinated by the town, both historically and contemporarily. Though “History Obscura” may not make this abundantly clear, I have a great deal of love for the place. I truly do. I only spent four years there, but it will always feel like home. But as is often true with anyone (or any place) a person loves, these feelings are complicated. Yes, I love Tuscaloosa, but I don’t love everything about her. Sometimes she makes me crazy. Sometimes she makes me pull out my hair. But even my occasional frustration with her comes from my desire to be her defender. Yes, sometimes Tuscaloosa disappoints me, but more often than not she makes me proud.
This, of course, is the long way of getting back to your question. Quite simply, I was interested in issues of race in Tuscaloosa because so few people seemed to know anything about it. Ask a student on University Avenue if there are racial troubles in Tuscaloosa, and more often than not you’ll be told there aren’t. Specially, you’ll be told that there were once racial issues—many years back—but that it’s different now. True, it may be different now, but it’s not entirely different.
While researching my first book, Thirteen Loops, I stumbled upon a 1933 report from the Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching entitled “The Plight of Tuscaloosa.” It sparked my curiosity. What, I wondered naively, was Tuscaloosa’s plight? Of course, I soon learned that the plight was racial violence. Even more shocking, I learned that in the summer of 1933, Tuscaloosa was one of the most dangerous cities in the country. If you tell this to a student on University Avenue he’ll tell you that 1933 was a long time ago. True enough. Nevertheless, I like to think that shedding light on some of Tuscaloosa’s darker moments might serve to teach us other truths as well.
DD: How do you recreate scenes, such as those in History Obscura, with such vivid imagery?
BJH: This piece actually gave me a few advantages when it came to scene construction. First, I was working with a picture, and when a writer works with a picture, his primary job is to report on the picture in a unique manner. For instance, it wouldn’t have been sufficient for me to simply describe the picture of the 1965 Klan rally. Rather, I used the photo as a visual jumping off point that allowed me to imagine histories for the people in the frame. These histories may not have been accurate—how would I know?—but I hoped it would illustrate my mind’s desire to fit these strangers into a framework, give me an excuse to condemn people I never knew. Of course, by doing so, I’m no better than them, but that was sort of the point. I, too, made wholly unsupportable assumptions based on nothing more than my own biases.
Another great advantage of this piece was that I had Carl Carmer’s book Stars Fell On Alabama within arm’s reach. Carmer’s book provides a unique account, particularly because he was a Northerner in the south in the 1920s—just a few years before Tuscaloosa’s terribly violent summer of 1933. And so, it was a valuable resource for me, mainly because it showed me a firsthand account of a city soon to explode. It was easier for me to create the scenes since I had such strong sources to build from.
DD: How does your identity as a white male influence your treatment of race? Has it affected the access you’re given to information or sources?
BJH: I get asked this question a lot, probably because my positioning as a white male (and a Northerner at that!) generally raises questions of credibility. While writing Thirteen Loops—which focuses on three instances of racial violence that occurred throughout Alabama over a 50 year time period—I was enormously conscious of my place in the story. But the more I spoke with people, the more I realized that I wasn’t able to change my race or gender any more than any one else was. And so, while it was vital that I consider my privileged vantage point, my obligation was always first and foremost to the story. The book wasn’t about me, after all, it was about my obligation to the people I was writing about.
As for access, I don’t think the color of my skin put me at any kind of “disadvantage.” A few months back I was giving a reading and someone in the audience asked why so many African-American people felt comfortable opening up to me in a manner in which they hadn’t opened up to others. I tried to credit this to my “interviewing technique” and my “high journalistic standards,” but a woman who knew the truth interrupted me mid-answer. “Honey,” shouted an African-American woman from the back of the room, “we all talked to you because you looked like you were about ten-years-old. We figured you couldn’t hurt a fly.”
Trust me, my skin wasn’t white in that moment. It was bright red.
DD: In this work, you delve into the idea of “being a Southerner.” What does being a southerner mean to you, and how do you think this differs from other regional identities?
BJH: Let me begin by noting that I am no expert on what it means to “be a Southerner.” I can certainly tell you what it means to be a “carpetbagger” (which more closely fits my status), though if I call myself a Southerner I am likely giving myself more credit that I deserve. I often joke that I’m a “transplanted Southerner,” but not even that makes much sense. I was born in the Midwest, spent four years in the South, and now, live in the Midwest once more. In total, I spent 13% of my life in the South, yet I don’t think you can measure how you feel about a place based on time spent there. Over my four years in Tuscaloosa I changed more than I had in the 22 years leading up it. Maybe I didn’t truly “become a Southerner” but I became “less-of-a-Midwesterner.” And while I love the Midwest, too, it was important to get away for a while.
For me, being a Southerner means knowing which football team to root for (Bama), and in what form barbecue comes best (sliced). But it also means being aware of the place’s history as a means to being a part of its future.
DD: What inspires you to write nonfiction?
BJH: I suppose I’m inspired to write nonfiction because I believe the stories of our world to be of great importance. This isn’t to imply that fiction writers and poets don’t, bit I think that nonfiction writers generally get away with applying fewer filters. In short, nonfiction has the ability to preserve a moment in time as best as the writer can remember it. This doesn’t mean that nonfiction should always strive to preserve moments in this manner, but simply that the direct approach is an option.
However, “History Obscura” was my attempt to muddy the historical record. I wanted to filter history through various lenses, specifically by relying on a photograph, on Carl Carmer’s work, as well as my own humble observations from my time spent there. Even with all these unique vantage points, the reader will never get the complete account as a result of my essay. No written record of history can ever promise a complete account. Nonfiction writers can hope that their modest contributions might bring the reader a bit closer to a version of a truth.
Hollars’s essay “History Obscura” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 1.2.
B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.