White baby boomers born and raised in the deep South each have a unique personal history of their experiences and attitudes about race. They began their lives and schooling in the era of segregation, but began encountering a profoundly different world as they matured.
It’s been a topic of thought, conversation, puzzlement, conflict, anger, sadness, regret, and so much more. Attitudes of many of them changed for the better as laws and society evolved. For others, not so much. But only a small fraction of them have recorded for public consumption their personal journey through the minefield of American race relations.
One who did is Atlanta author and Emory University creative writing professor Jim Grimsley. His memoir “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood,’’ was published last year. It’s a quiet, honest and moving story of how he was raised as a white kid surrounded by racism and his journey to move beyond it.
Grimsley visited the UGA Russell Library in May to record an oral history with John Inscoe, UGA professor of history. The following excerpt is taken from that recording and has been edited for print.
Grimsley began the interview by explaining he had long wanted to write a memoir about his childhood experience of school desegregation in his eastern North Carolina home of Jones County. However, he wrote it initially as a 400-page fictionalized version, which his publisher suggested would need some rewriting, for instance, to portray the white boy as having a black best friend, attend black churches, and be “a little white hero…and that was precisely the territory I wanted to avoid because that is the classic way white people do write about these years. They talk about themselves as not being part of the problem. My memories of what I had been like as a child were very different from that.”
After mulling it over, Grimsley says he decided if he wrote a memoir, he couldn’t be asked to change the facts. So, “I began by writing down my memories of every intersection I had had with black people beginning as far back as I could go.” His publishers liked the new version.
Inscoe: Do you approach material differently as a nonfiction writer than as a fiction writer?
Grimsley: My habits have all been formed by fiction. I used to say when I was working on this book that this was the least fun I had had with writing. Writing fiction is fun; I get to make stuff up. In writing this, I had to remind myself I couldn’t embroider, I couldn’t write funny dialogue that didn’t actually happen, I couldn’t elaborate. What I’m really writing about is my own realization at 11 years old that I was a bigot, and I had to work myself out of it. In writing the book, I struggled with the discomfort and had to go over it again and again to make sure I got as close to the truth as I could.
Inscoe: You obviously have a very sharp memory; do you have any tricks for bringing memories back into focus?
Grimsley: I meditated on the moments I wanted to bring back. The most successful strategy was just writing the book over and over again. Writing it the first time brought up a certain layer of memory. Writing it the second time brought up even more. I didn’t interview friends from that time; I had to check on a couple of points but each time, it turned out I was correct.
Inscoe: We should establish when and where the events in the book took place.
Grimsley: It was my junior high and high school years, 1966 – 1973. I grew up along highway 17, about an hour from the coast. There were about 10,000 people in the county, and about 60 percent were black. There was one elementary school for white students and one for black students. There was one high school for white students and a few miles away, a high school for black students. Integration in the South started slowly with what white leaders called “freedom of choice,” a stalling strategy which resulted in a few black students being allowed to enroll at white schools.
Inscoe: Can you give some specifics as to what was happening during your 6th grade year?
Grimsley: In 6th grade, we had heard that we were going to have some black children in our classrooms. So I went to school the first day and three black girls walked into class, escorted by the principal. This was the first time I had ever had any interaction with black children other than to see them playing in a yard. I wasn’t conscious of them in stores because black people and white people shopped in different parts of the stores: white people at the front; black people at the back. They came in through a back entrance and had a separate counter. That’s the way our town was set up.
They (the girls) were introduced to us. One sat behind me: Violet. (I changed all the names for privacy purposes). Sometime in the first few days, I had the impulse to say to her: ‘you black bitch.’ And she looked at me and said: ‘you white cracker bitch.’ And that took me aback. It hadn’t occurred to me that she would talk back. Then she looked at me and said: ‘you didn’t think I’d say that, did you?’ And all of a sudden, it was her getting the laughs, not me. And she was embarrassing me. This was in front of a group of about 30 classmates that I had been going to school with since first grade. She didn’t tell on me but I could feel her behind me the whole day. She came to school the next day and asked me if I was going to call her names any more and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ I couldn’t have articulated it at the time but what I see in that moment was that I understood she was a child just like me.
Hear the entire interview: https://youtu.be/0M_IO567O2M