Book Review - How Jim Grimsley unlearned racist lessons

Emory professor’s new book revisits how 1960s school integration blew apart his own prejudices

Six years ago, Jim Grimsley tried to figure out how he became a racist. Specifically, the white Emory University professor wanted to see why in the fall of 1966, growing up in Pollocksville, N.C., he felt compelled to turn to one of three black girls who began attending his school and say, “You black bitch.”

Grimsley calls himself “a good little racist” in his new memoir, How I Shed My Skin. He talks about growing up during the national push to desegregate schools, while examining the roots of his prejudices. “It’s easy for this thinking to perpetuate itself from one generation to the next,” he says. “That’s why it’s important for people to look at themselves in the mirror and really own up to this idea that they might have this stuff in them and need to do something about them. I’m talking particularly about white people.”

How I Shed My Skin’s second section, “Origins,” is Grimsley realizing how he may have had racist attitudes instilled in him since birth. Growing up in a small farmer’s town in the South, his mother taught him not to say the word “nigger” because it was ugly and impolite, not because it was derogatory. Church sermons emphasized how black was the color of sin and white was the color of purity. The book’s working title was Good White People because Grimsley’s family and white neighbors accepted racism as the status quo.

“Not every racist is a person who dons a KKK logo,” he says. “There is a whole middle ground of people who have racist ideas, though if you examine the rest of their lives, you would think they were virtuous, decent, ordinary people.”

The rest of Grimsley’s memoir recounts how his first day of sixth grade would eventually change his life. That girl named Violet Strahan was supposed to feel ashamed when he said, “You black bitch.” But she wasn’t: “Black is beautiful. I love my black skin,” she responded. “What do you think about that?” This was the beginning of Grimsley reevaluating himself and all he knew. He writes, “If I was superior to her, as I had always been told I was, why didn’t she feel it, too?”

Originally, Grimsley wrote How I Shed My Skin as a novel based on his experiences. (He has written several award-winning ones, including Winter Birds and Dream Boy.) When publishers read his 400-page manuscript, though, they kept pushing for, in his words, “a Dances with the Wolves approach, where the white person immerses himself in the black community and becomes blacker than anyone else.” Grimsley didn’t want that, not when his own life experiences showed how little white people had to do with the Civil Rights Movement.

How I Shed My Skin’s narrative isn’t a tidy one. A young Grimsley certainly isn’t the hero figure of his own story; more often than not, he talks of how, while his attitudes had changed, he still kept to the white side of the school cafeteria. He also strings together memories of how his classmates adjusted to the mass integration, like how there were interracial couples that dated in secret, though he refuses to indulge in a novelistic dramatic arc. Grimsley says that he has done all of this intentionally, in part so that he doesn’t become a cliché.

“One of the truisms about Southerners is that we’re good storytellers, when a good storyteller is often right on the edge of being a good liar,” he says.

But Grimsley also writes carefully so that, to the best of his ability, he tells the truth. Perhaps the most important grievance he airs out in his memoir is about how the students were left on their own to reckon with desegregation. In retrospect, he would have liked to see the adults in his town admit that their behavior, like his, was wrong.

“The main problem was that we were taught to think that these kids were inferior to us in every way, and that wasn’t at all true,” Grimsley says. “If somebody had said just that much, if one of the adults had just said that or even repeated what the federal government was saying to us, that would have helped a great deal.”

How I Shed My Skin by Jim Grimsley. Algonquin Books. $23.95. 272 pp.