Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Looking at History Through Memoir: Jim Grimsley

I have read quite a few memoirs/autobiographies about the the civil rights era by black civil rights leaders, most notably John Lewis' Walking With the Wind (which he calls "A Memoir of the Movement" - a fascinating subtitle, for another time). Before now, I hadn't realized how little I knew about the desegregation era in schools in specific. To read my first hint of it "from the inside" from a white man is powerful, though of course, incomplete. I am now seeking out more titles which explore it from the black perspective, as well. In the mean time, please find more about a wonderful, historical book by a white man who happened to be a boy in the "front lines" of integration.

The memoir is Jim Grimsley's How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood. Grimsley happened to grow up in a tiny town in North Carolina, and be high school aged when the Freedom of Choice program went into effect in 1966. The bulk of the memoir covers the time between 66-68, when the Freedom of Choice program gave way to full desegregation.

Grimsley is a fascinating narrator. He was a self-identified young "sissy" - gay but not knowing the word, hemophiliac to such a degree that no other kids touch him and he never plays in gym class. Already an outsider, in other words, and an outsider others are afraid to bully or tease, lest they kill him. He half places and half finds himself making friends with the black kids - first the three girls that come to his all-white high school, then the completely halved population of black and white the first few years of desegregation.
What I love the most about Grimsley is his dead honesty. He is up front that one of the first things he said to a black girl was to call her, "a black bitch." Stunningly, she replied, "You white cracker bitch." He absolutely recounts his experiences of his own racism, coming into awareness in many beautiful passages as he describes how he became racist without ever once being overtly told to be racist. This is institutional racism, but it is much easier to see inside the system from an individual's reflection on their own actions.

Grimsley is no hero, and no anti-hero. He ends the memoir with a forty-year-later reunion, in which he is the only white man in a sea of black former cohort. He knows his racism hasn't been eliminated, and is clear that white America's racism isn't gone yet, either. And may likely never be. And yet, he has not lost hope. It takes effort, but we can do it - we can work against our training, subconscious though it may be:

Somewhere in my memory, beneath all I've learned and experienced, there is still the little bigot I was meant to be. I can hope that I've changed; I can question my upbringing; I can examine my life for every nuance of bias and prejudice and racism; but even so I can never erase that earliest software, those assumptions that were part of my surroundings from my first breath. This is why, whenever a white person tells me he or she is not a racist, I never believe the statement. What we learn in those earliest months and years can never be deleted.  
But this fact was never a doom or a destiny. I changed. I learned to question the programing. When Violet Strahan spoke back to me in sixth grade, after I decided to call her a black bitch, something crumbled in my vision of the world. 

I am reminded of the importance of reading all the individual voices and identities we can. Not to diversify palate, but because, especially with memoir, we are all both so individual and so human. Keeping myself informed on history via the many personal lenses of memoir is the most powerful way I have found to understand an era, and to understand the deeply interdependent causes and conditions of racism.

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