“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious; and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.”
― John C. Calhoun, 1848
The current incumbent, Barack Obama, has belatedly become emboldened and retrieved his mojo in the twilight of his Presidency, particularly on matters of race. Where once he cautiously deployed the bully pulpit to speak about encouraging personal responsibility, he has now, in columnist Maureen Dowd’s words, “discovered a more gingerly voice.” Consider the following checklist: a searing speech on race relations and his moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the Charleston eulogy for the pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney. For the first time in American history Obama made a presidential visit to a federal prison to showcase the problem with sentencing policies that have filled the nation’s prisons with nonviolent offenders who are disproportionately African American. There he spoke with felons to say, “There but for the grace of God.” He also told the NAACP that African Americans were “more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained,” and more likely to be arrested. “They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.” But his boldest comments occurred when he chose a podcast with comedian Marc Maron to address race relations. Although he said that they have clearly improved in our lifetime, he made it clear that “we are not cured” of racism “and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” Slavery and Jim Crow discrimination cast “a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.” Obama’s impassionate remarks suggest that he is either in tune with the zeitgeist or he has been reading Jim Grimsley's courageous memoir How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood (Algonquin Books, 2015) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ unflinching treatise Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Although they are strikingly different in tone and style, they complement each other and offer insightful contributions to the conversation about race in America.
Notwithstanding the differences between these two timely books, both authors agree that any discussion of race must include the body, the power of history to impact the present, and the belief that regardless of their socioeconomic status, some whites believe and act as though they are superior to blacks. Without “skin colour and difference,” the belief in white supremacy, Grimsley contends, would have never taken hold among “good white people” who believed that they were the most advanced of all the races and “were responsible for changing the world from a savage landscape into a civilization.” White supremacy is the foundation of racism and in the South and elsewhere; it was inculcated into every child, including him, a habit that he believes continues. Coates explores the destructive consequences of that myth. The power to break fragile black bodies has been a visceral fear for him all his life since he learned as a child how to survive the danger on the streets of West Baltimore. There a little boy once pointed a gun at him and later he had to face the terror from “young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage” allowing them the only power that they could exercise in their lives. Coates scoffs at those who dismiss the corrosive conditions in ghettoes as “black on black crime” given that these realities stem from policy decisions, namely discrimination in housing and redlining, the practice of denying services and funding to neighbourhoods based on their ethnic makeup, issues he fully explored as a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly in a celebrated 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations.” Majoritarian democratic will and policy directives are also behind police institutional racism (even with the presence of African-American officers) “who have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body” and they will “rarely be held accountable.” Reading Coates’ ability to navigate the Baltimore streets and its schools recalls the outstanding television series, The Wire.
|Author Jim Grimsley (Photo: Kay Hinton)|
With disarming honesty, Grimsley acknowledges that from an early age in the mid-1960s he was “a racist by training,” who was raised “to keep black people in their place and to see to it that they stayed there.” By the time he was in high school he understood that he would “either learn to be a better bigot, or [he] would learn to stop being a bigot at all.” His memoir explores how the culture in which he grew up shaped his worldview and the circumstances whereby he began to question it. He learned early that his elders rarely spoke explicitly about white superiority. Indeed, his mother taught him to avoid using the ugly word nigger but he gradually came to understood that her proscription was merely a veneer of politeness to conceal the manifold racial inequalities, the same point made by Obama. Racist messages were embedded in nursery rhymes the children sang on playgrounds and outside churches, in the nigger jokes told by his father and his friends, the purpose always to demean blacks as stupid, lazy, ugly and smelly, and in the churches. There, all religious denominations consciously preached that God did not intend the races to mix; politeness was acceptable but friendliness implied racial equality, a fantasy that must be repudiated. Unconsciously, whites imbibed the worldview that black was associated with sin, fear and chaos while white was equated with purity, goodness and cleanliness. None of this is new, but it powerfully resonates when placed in the context of a young boy trying to make sense of the world around him, particularly since “adults rarely explained” but spoke in “coded, guarded” language.
|Jim Grimsley as a young boy.|
Some of these assumptions were tested in 1966 after a court ruling mandated desegregation in the schools and three black girls are integrated into Grimsley’s sixth grade class. Mimicking the kind of racism he has often heard, he hurls a racist slur at one of them. She responds in kind and adds that blacks would not be held in subjugation with such confidence that he is taken aback. Blacks are supposed to be cowed. That is the beginning of an odyssey of “losing my sense that black people were different from me in the ways I had been taught.” That process accelerates when he inches toward friendship with the three girls and is shown pictures from Ebony where he looks at glossy photos of black people depicted in a way that he has never seen before in which they are “smoothly urbane.” From the discussion that he hears taking place among these girls after reading articles from Jet, and from the ones in which he participates with them, he realizes they are much more informed about race issues than he is. Given his membership in the supposedly superior white race, the perception is unsettling. His parents do not subscribe to magazines or listen to the news. Initially, he appears surprised that his alcoholic father, a wife beater and on the cusp of madness, receives respect from the community as “Captain Jack,” but then understands that this esteem only occurs because his father is cossetted in his white skin. These insights multiply as Grimsley chronicles his life from middle to high school until his graduation. Because his family is poor, he and his siblings are part of a small white minority in a public secondary school, as the more affluent send their children to a private academy in order to protect them from being contaminated by black children.
Grimsley’s school experience provides something far for valuable in terms of the kind of man that he becomes. It offers a microcosm for how integration operated on the football field, post-game dances and in the smoking areas. His receptivity to changing mores and his willingness to make a connection with black students are assisted by the recognition that he is different. His hemophilia forecloses his participation in sports and roughhousing with other boys. Described by himself and others as a “sissy,” he gradually accepts his same-sex attractions, reinforcing his outsider status. In a moving coda, he describes returning to home for his 40th high school reunion – he was one of only two former white students – where he saw little evidence of change in the South. People steeped in false nostalgia and hardwired for racism “still teach [it] to their children without a second thought.” That moment of despair contributes to a shift in his emotional register a page later when he muses, “We reserve our special ideological fury for blackness.”
Part Two of this piece will appear here on Critics at Large next Sunday, August 23.
|(photo by Keith Penner)|