“The story I am telling is personal.” A conversation with Jim Grimsley
When we are faced with sudden social change, how do we respond? Author and playwright Jim Grimsley’s new memoir HOW I SHED MY SKIN: Unlearning The Lessons of a Racist Childhood (April 14, Algonquin Books) recalls 1966, the year his sixth grade class in Jones County North Carolina admitted its first black students in response to Freedom of Choice desegregation policies, and the years of turbulent social change and white flight from the public schools that followed. In spite of community tensions around busing and school integration that persisted as he moved on to junior high and high school, Grimsley and his public school classmates lived their adolescent lives, tested boundaries, forged new and lasting alliances, and learned from each other.
Divided into three sections, “Bias,” “Origins,” and “Change,” How I Shed My Skin offers a fascinating glimpse of how children and their teachers reacted to the changes brought about by school integration, a deeply personal reflection on the everyday racism that had shaped Grimsley’s childhood prior to this historic change, and a meditation on the lifelong practice of recognizing and rejecting racism in its many insidious forms.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Almost fifty years have passed since your elementary school in eastern North Carolina admitted its first black pupils, marking your first real interactions with black people. And yet cultural tensions related to race are still very much a part of our current national conversation. You’ve thought deeply and reflectively about these issues since your own small-town, southern white world expanded to include those three black girls, and with them a world beyond what you had been taught to expect. What made you decide to write about this experience now, and why as a memoir rather than a novel (or play)?
JIM GRIMSLEY: The idea of the book came to me at least a couple of decades ago, and perhaps a bit more; I realized at some point that there had been rather little written about this event by white southern writers. The idea for the book underwent a good deal of transformation as I considered it. My original idea was to write a memoir, but to mix fiction into it in order to make it both dramatic and true. I knew that a memoir would have a greater feeling of authority than a piece of fiction about this era, but I was constrained in making the attempt by the fact that I had already written a good deal of autobiographical fiction about this era of my life, and I did not want to write a repeat of that. My childhood story involved a number of powerful elements; I grew up in a family that was plagued by the violence of my father, his alcoholism, and the chronic illness, hemophilia that my brother and I lived with. I told the story of this family in my first novel, Winter Birds, so I was aware of the power of the material. My fear was that these aspects of the story would cloud the focus of any memoir I might write about my early years.
I did a lot of reading over the last two decades to prepare me for this writing, and meanwhile pondered how best to shape the story. I read books about eastern North Carolina history, about the type of slavery that was practiced there, about the Civil War and reconstruction. I read slave narratives recorded during the Works Progress Administration era, which were oral histories taken from slaves who had survived in Piedmont and eastern North Carolina. This reading taught me that I actually knew very little of my own history; the process showed me that while southerners might be reputed to be great storytellers and sharers of their own history, the history that we had handed down to ourselves in Jones County was incomplete.
About six years ago I felt that it was time to take on this book and set out to write it. I chose to shape it as a novel, hoping that later I would be able to weave some chapters of memoir into the fictional narrative. In framing the novel I chose a child of a family different from my own, but I told his story using largely the facts of my sixth grade class as I remembered them. That story encompassed only the sixth grade year when Freedom of Choice was in play in North Carolina, the year that the three black girls came to our class. I finished a manuscript of the book that was some 400 pages in length, showed it to my publisher and to some other people, and got lukewarm reactions to the story all around. Rejection was painful, as it always is, and it took me a few months to work through their responses and to understand that the failure was mine. My editor at Algonquin saw the book as promising and offered some very specific suggestions to make it better, but while I knew these were good ideas, I also knew they were not what I wanted to do. He suggested that I free myself from the facts and write a narrative that included more interaction between my white-boy protagonist and the black community around him. While I understood that this would make the book more dramatic, I feared that this would turn the novel into the tale of a little white hero of integration, and that path felt false to me. Nevertheless I did begin a rewrite of the novel, though as work proceeded on it, I felt worse and worse about what I was writing. I still had the notion that I wanted to weave some chapters of memoir into the novel, so I decided to take a break from it and write the memoir instead.
I decided to write a manuscript in which I simply wrote down everything I could remember about my encounters with black people and with the idea of blackness, reaching back as far as I could go. When I started this work, I very quickly realized that I was writing material that was vastly stronger than the novel. My fears about the memoir proved unfounded as I was able very easily to limit the writing to the subject of integration and to limit the material about my family. My story was largely that of my own transformation from a young bigot to something that I now term a recovering bigot, someone who still has racist programming but who refuses to act on it, much the way that an alcoholic recovers by refusing to drink one day at a time.
When I showed this manuscript to my editor, he became excited about the book, and he saw what I was trying to do with this story very clearly; he helped me to reshape that manuscript into the present book.
AR: I’m interested in the point you make about growing up without knowing the true history of your own region in regards to race. (I think this could be said of white folks in other regions as well–the ability to remain ignorant of this history is a pretty major indicator of white privilege.) Can you give an example of a detail that you encountered in your research that particularly surprised you, either because it deviated sharply from your personal recollections or changed your own understanding of a memory from this time?
JG: When I read the history of lynchings in eastern North Carolina, I was struck by the fact that the people who were involved in these events might have been friends and family. There’s a whole brutal history to the way our country was settled, and I knew it in outline but the impact of it did not come home to me until I read about the lynching of men in Wayne County, in Lenoir County, and in Jones County, where at least three men were killed by mob violence. I pictured my relatives, my acquaintances, my friends, even myself in these crowds, and the feeling was startling and unpleasant. The last man was hung in Jones County sometime in the 1930s, about the time my parents were born. Understanding that such acts had taken place in my home, where I thought of people as gentle and kindly, made me understand how much bigger the history was than I had realized.
AR: Something that really struck me about the first section of the book, which follows the first year that Violet, Ursula and Rhonda join your class, is how overwhelmingly silent the adults in your world (parents, teachers, and others) are on the subject of race relations or desegregation. Your teacher introduces the new girls as though they’d simply moved there from another town. And you and your white classmates receive no real cues from adults about how you are expected to respond or behave in this unprecedented situation: you are left to decipher the silence. Whereas the three newcomers seem a bit more prepared for the possibility of confrontation. You and your classmates learn by trial and error what you can and can’t say or do; you form friendships and alliances in spite of (or perhaps because of) this. What do you imagine caused such a total silence on the part of the adults, particularly your teachers, in the face of this tremendous cultural shift?
JG: I think the people in my little town felt a deep discomfort with the whole idea of race and that they kept silent about the process of integration for a whole spectrum of reasons. So when I say that the community was silent on the subject, what I mean is that there was no consensus, no open discussion, no preparation for integration. White southerners were deeply conflicted about civil right legislation and about the end of the two separate school systems. Some whites openly opposed integration; some saw it as inevitable; some even approved of it but looked on its coming with trepidation, not certain what this enormous change would do to what we called our way of life.
People kept silent about this issue because to pursue it too directly would bring about conflict, and the adults I knew did not like open discussions of anything controversial. It’s not the way of small town people to discuss their feelings, their problems, their fears. The idea of integration was very frightening to people and so they ignored it as much as they could. When somebody mentioned integration at our church, usually in a negative way, the subject hung in the air uncomfortably for a moment or two and then disappeared again. This is what I remember from the people I knew.
There were exceptions, I’m sure. There were parents who told their children to respect the black students in our classrooms, though I can remember only one or two families in which this kind of conversation took place, and I only learned about those families much later. In my own family, issues of survival overpowered even the idea of integration.
There had to have been some discussions about integration among the adults that went further than those to which I was exposed, because many white people took action to oppose the consolidation of schools. Private schools were formed in our county and the neighboring county, starting around 1968. I have no idea what this process was like, but it had to involve a good deal of discussion.
The silence of our school teachers on this subject was the most surprising to me. My elementary school teachers were nearly all women, very strong-minded people, and I doubt they would have been afraid of this kind of conversation without good reason. It’s possible they felt they could not control such a discussion in their classroom; it’s possible that some of them did not approve of integration or that they did not want to teach black students; it’s possible that they did not want to come into conflict with our parents by having such discussions. I simply don’t know why there was so little preparation for this process on the part of the schools.
AR: In 1968 the Supreme Court rules Freedom of Choice insufficient to integrate the public schools, and a policy of busing and wider integration follows. Many of your white classmates abandon the public system in favor of hastily-created private schools, and you find yourself in the minority in high school, hoping to fit in with a mostly new set of peers. There are institutional challenges as well: the teaching staff is mostly white and many are new teachers working off their educational debt. Some resent having to teach black students and make racist remarks. When your black peers attempt to take control of their educational experience by staging a walkout, their protest is reframed as a “riot” in subsequent reports. You and your classmates forged alliances, friendships and romances across racial boundaries within the self-contained world of the school. And yet outside of school, many reverted to their (separate) communities. You were the only white person to attend your fortieth high school reunion– one classmate even asked you if the whites were holding a separate reunion elsewhere. What do you think could have been done to make these connections more lasting and meaningful over time?
JG: The personal connections that we made were in fact lasting and meaningful over time, at least to some of us. Facebook brought me back in touch with a lot of my high school friends, and the sense of connection we feel to one another is palpable. Living through those years was intense for all of us, and it forged bonds that are strong. The people I knew in high school can cut through to my core very easily and quickly, and some of them still do so, even in the shortest message on my Facebook page. I have a reverence for those folks that is not like any of my other friendships. They remind me of my childhood, they call me by my childhood name, Jimmy. They saw me at my worst and weakest, before I had developed my adult ability to disguise myself.
It’s hard for me to speculate about why the white students did not come to the reunion because I don’t live there any more. There are a lot of reasons that make it hard to face people you knew in high school; there is likely still to be a reluctance on the part of blacks and whites to socialize with one another, especially in groups. Since writing the book I have heard that the practice of holding racially segregated reunions is not all that uncommon in the south even today, and I expect this reflects a continued reluctance on the part of white people to accept integration at the social level. White people by and large do not see black people as their social equals, and this is particularly true in rural areas.
However, I know from talking to some of my friends in Jones County that the line of separation between the races is far easier to cross than it was fifty years ago. There has been a lot of intermarriage in the intervening decades, and most families are now integrated to some degree. It is easier now for white people and black people to maintain friendships and to visit one another in their homes. The world changes in part and stays the same in part.
I think our biggest failure during those early years of integration was to fail at organized dialogue with one another, and I fault the adults in Jones County for this. There were no active parent groups who stepped forward to encourage black and white students to talk to one another about the process of integration. It would have made a big difference if we had learned to discuss how it felt to be part of this enormous change. But those kinds of guided conversations were not all that common in any arena in the 1960s and 70s. Counseling was much less visible and active in that time.
AR: I appreciate your concern about not wanting to tell a “tale of a little white hero of integration” as you put it. The record of this historic moment deserves more than the easy dichotomies of heroes and villains–and you certainly don’t let yourself off the hook in this account. On a personal note, I was drawn to How I Shed My Skin having attended a majority-black, public high school in California in the early nineties, and in spite of the decades and geographic distance between our respective high school experiences, I was surprised by how many of the racial dynamics you describe resonated with my own adolescent memories. Once you decided to pursue this as memoir, did you compare notes or share parts of it with your classmates, from that 6th grade class or your high school? Have others (from the South or other regions) shared their experiences of integration with you after learning of this project?
JG: While I was shaping the book, I kept it to myself. It was important that the narrative reflect my own memories since the story I am telling is how I realized I was a bigot and began to change. I did talk to a handful of people I knew in those days, including a couple of teachers, but I was careful not to mix in other people’s memories with my own. Once the book was done I began to share it with the people who were part of the story. I also reviewed local newspapers from the era, and did other kinds of library research related to eastern North Carolina. Newspapers covered the walkouts at our school and helped jog my memory.
I am not a journalist or historian; the story I am telling is personal, so I felt it was the right decision to keep the work out of those arenas. Even in discussing the book with the few people with whom I had conversations, I did not interview them so much as chat with them about how integration had worked, in their opinion. I was curious to learn whether Jones County had changed in the intervening decades.
People have shared memories with me as I’ve talked to them about the book. The woman who took my author photo told me that her home county had reacted to integration by acceding to the law but instituting gender-based segregation in the public schools where she lived. I thought that was fascinating. That’s probably the oddest story I’ve heard from the time.
AR: In the middle section of the book, “ORIGINS” you explore the ways in which bigoted ideas of race first entered your consciousness, possibly as early as you learned to speak. The word “nigger” enters your lexicon through nursery rhymes and children’s songs, in overheard jokes and stories, and in its casual, widespread usage as a synonym for “substandard”. Though you are taught not to use the word in conversation (it was “coarse”) its negative meaning and association with black people was clear. In church the symbolism is underscored: white is equated to goodness and black to evil and sin. You have this rooted notion of social order related to skin color long before you enter school, much less encounter any black people. I loved the detail and sensitivity with which you unpack these early childhood experiences. (I was reminded of the playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s examination of her own early impressions of race–like her fascination with Snow White–in her memoir, People Who Led to My Plays.) Since many of your earliest impressions were subconsciously formed, at what point did you become explicitly aware of them as bigoted?
JG: I only examined the process that taught me racist ideas about blackness and black people when I was writing these chapters. I remember approaching the writing of these chapters with a good deal of anxiety, since I was not sure I would be able to find the earliest bits of this programming in myself. But once I started to write, I saw more and more deeply into what I had learned as a very young child. The chapter about the nursery rhymes was one of the first pieces of the book that I wrote, and I remember being horrified as I was writing those rhymes in which the word “nigger” appeared as a kind of chant. We spoke these lines of doggerel in play, but play is a very important part of shaping a child’s world.
I only became aware of myself as a racist when I encountered the girls in my sixth-grade class, and even then my awareness was not very deep. By the time I was in high school I was able to discuss bias-issues with what passes for clarity among teenagers, but I had no real understanding of how pervasive an issue it was in our county. In college I became aware of black political movements, and my own coming out as a gay person began to educate me in the mechanics of oppression. After college I moved to New Orleans, where the problems between whites and blacks were visible everywhere; and after I moved to Atlanta I worked for twenty years in the public hospital here, Grady Memorial, where the patient population is largely black and where the staff is largely black. So throughout my life I have worked and lived in settings that were far from homogenous or white. This taught me a great deal about the way white people maintain power even in settings where black people predominate, but once again these were lessons that only became explicit to me when I started to write about them.
AR: How have those early lessons in language, storytelling and symbolism shaped your sensibilities as a writer?
JG: These ideas are still shaping me as a writer. In my early years I was reluctant to write black characters into my work because I did not want to be seen as attempting to speak on behalf of black people. Those first books were mostly about the lives of poor white people, the class from which I emerged, and my focus there was on working through material related to my family.
The first story I wrote in which I dealt with race overtly was a story called, “Jesus is Sending You This Message,” the tale of a fussy, uncomfortable white bachelor who tells a black preacher woman to shut up on a commuter train in Atlanta. Her bold willingness to preach in public frightens him and makes him afraid that his own Christianity is tepid. After writing that story I began to be more bold about writing overtly on subjects of race. The novel I am currently working on tells the story of the transfer of administrative power from white people to black people at Grady Memorial Hospital, a process that I witnessed while I was there.
AR: At a certain point in your junior high school year you came to realize that you were benefiting from integration in an unanticipated way. You write, “my own life of hiding, of masking my sexuality and damping it down to nothing, would have been far harder in a white junior high school. In breaking the old social patterns, integration had done me a service. I saw this truth and felt a bit lucky…” Did this break from the expected pattern also help you envision a future for yourself outside of Jones County and beyond what your upbringing had led you to expect?
JG: It’s possible that there was some connection, but I was lucky to have a mother who from an early age drilled into my head that I was going to college and doing something with my life. I never had any doubt that I would leave Jones County, at least to further my education. The whole feeling of the 1960s and the upheaval of the times gave credence to this belief that I could make a better life for myself; I do believe that this feeling was shared by many of my schoolmates and that we knew that we would be leaving Jones County as soon as we could. There was so little opportunity for jobs there that we had little choice in the matter.
Find a copy of How I Shed My Skin on IndieBound.
Jim Grimsley is the author of four previous novels, among them Winter Birds, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; Dream Boy, winner of the GLBTF Book Award for literature; My Drowning, a Lila-Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award winner; and Comfort and Joy. He lives in Atlanta and teaches at Emory University. (Author photo by Kay Hinton, Emory University)