If you know me in real life and know me well enough to know my reading habits, you will have noticed that I read a lot of books on race and racism, specifically in America. I cannot pinpoint exactly when this interest started, but I do remember my Grandma giving me a book on the life of Harriet Tubman, who remains a personal hero to this day. Regardless of whether or not this was the spark that started the fire, the memory stays with me.
Perhaps it is a little odd, a white, middle-class girl in South West England delving into the murky causes, effects and persistence of the white/black racial divide of America’s streets, downtowns and, of course, its Southern states, where my own heritage lies. My mother is American and her family come from Virginia and Alabama, neither of which have a racial history to be proud of. We even discovered recently that some of our distant Virginian relatives (great-great-great grandparents’ family, or something along those lines) owned slaves, a fact that is shocking, disturbing, upsetting and embarrassing to say the least. My interest in America’s history and present of racial discrimination began long before that discovery though. It really took a hold during my time at university, where I was taught so much more about it within a literary framework. I was able to use those analytical skills I gained from my degree to try to grapple with some kind of understanding as to why America’s racial problem began, progressed and continues. The immense depth and breadth of the issue means that I have yet to find an answer.
Since I have been neglectful of blogging recently, I thought I would post a mini-series of three books on race/racism that I have read recently. First up is How I Shed My Skin, by Jim Grimsley. In the absence of a blurb, below is an excerpt from the book itself, which should give you an idea of what it is about.
“…Good people taught and still teach racism to their children without a second thought. This was true in the South of my birth and remains so in the present…We teach that God created the races to be separate from one another for a purpose, and we preach that this purpose cannot be to mix, because then why would He have created the separation in the first place? We teach that when people are different from each other, one is better and the other worse…We teach that black and white are not simply different but opposite.”
In summary, Grimsley chronicles the racist lessons that he learnt during his childhood in North Carolina (coincidentally, not far from where my Grandpa used to live) and how he unlearnt them later in life. It is no secret that I have a fascination with the South. This curiosity encompasses its extremely complex history, its culture, its wealth of literature and music and, of course, its food. In a way, reading Grimsley’s book, or any book about the South, reminds me of ‘home’, even though I have never lived there, merely visited and read about it at any opportunity. This recognition of the South as some kind of home is somewhat comforting, because it reminds me of my childhood and holiday memories, but it is also becoming increasing uncomfortable as I read more and more about its past and, sadly, current racial discrimination. Do I really want to regard this place as a sort of home?
My own difficult relationship with the South is nothing compared to Grimsley’s however. Born and raised in small town North Carolina, he was taught and surrounded by racism from the beginning of his childhood and was part of one of the first integrated school systems in America. I imagine that writing this book was not an easy task, but wholly satisfying once complete.
Grimsley is by no means at the extreme end of the racist spectrum. He is saved from this by his homosexuality and haemophilia, both of which give him some experience of being ‘different’. He also saved by that strange, ironic dictate of esteemed Southern society that you must be polite and not rock the boat no matter what. His mother taught him to be respectable and to rise above his poor, rural roots and so he was not the overtly racist redneck that he could have been. He and his family were perhaps a more ‘genteel’ form of racist, although that does not mean that they were not actively prejudiced, nor that they did not fight to maintain the racist status quo of the 60s South.
What I admire most about Grimsley’s book is his honesty. He does not shy away from any racist acts or thoughts that he may have done or had. Instead, he wrestles with them head on, dissects their roots and challenges them, in order to prevent them from happening again. I think that this is an admirable and appropriate way to deal with America’s racist problems, at a personal and national scale. If Grimsely had not taken up this challenge and instead ignored any racism that he found within himself, he never would have eradicated it. It could have festered and grown with each discriminatory thought or small prejudiced action. It would be far from easy, but I like to think that if America as a whole stood up to and acknowledged its past and present racial problems, explored and challenged them, there might be a way forward.