Lessons Unlearned

Memoir takes a hard look at a childhood marked by racism

Mining Memory: Jim Grimsley turns his writer's eye inward in his latest book.
Kay Hinton

If there is something that feels halting in Jim Grimsley’s memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of a Racist Childhood—each chapter like the sound of a car’s motor straining to catch and roar, finally, to life—it’s understandable, given the book’s knotty subject: growing up white in North Carolina in the 1960s. In fact, by its conclusion, the reader is inclined to interpret Grimsley’s tendency to lay off the gas mid-chapter, and then gun it at the beginning of the next, as a literary device, deployed in service of a topic that brooks no definitive declarations nor easy conclusions. 

Grimsley, Emory professor of creative writing, was raised in Jones County, North Carolina, growing up hemophiliac and, he realized at an early age, gay, in a poor family. His medical condition precluded the kind of roughhousing typical of preadolescent and teenage boys, so he was able to watch the relationships in his classrooms and his community from a certain remove. That distance and his own sense of aloneness endowed him with a greater degree of empathy for the black children who were integrated into his school in 1966, but it hardly made the social upheaval easier to navigate.

Though he felt curious about and compassionate toward the integrating students, Grimsley realizes now—and had an admirable degree of recognition as a child, too—that his own upbringing was steeped in racist ideologies that compelled him to view African American children differently. For the most part, those ideologies were subtle, transferred to him, as he writes, “by gentle people, believing themselves to be sharing God’s own truth.” In church, he learned that white was the symbol of purity and goodness, while black was the symbol of evil and death. The same color binary played out across pop culture, where cowboys wearing white hats were the good guys (the guys in black hats were inevitably the ne’er do well villains) and a bride in a white dress represented purity and a new life (versus a widow in a black dress mourning death). So tidy and complete was this ordering of the world by color that Grimsley found the schema hard to abandon even when he realized its dangers; “it was too useful in the making of metaphor,” he writes. 

The specters of more overt, violent racism hovered around the edges of Grimsley’s life as well. Jones County fostered the Ku Klux Klan, and in one chapter, he wonders whether his own father might have been a Klansman as he watches his mother doctor her husband’s face when he comes home, drunk and cut up. Because his father was “in every case a violent man,” Grimsley never asked what happened. Instead, he “presume[s] this moment of violence had some connection to black people,” though he admits to “forcing the connection beyond my memory.” 

The issue of forcing memory’s connections is a crucial one in any memoir, of course, and in How I Shed My Skin it is particularly central, raising—but not necessarily answering—important questions about the genre. Each chapter of Grimsley’s book is organized around an anecdote from the author’s childhood; these are presented in a linear way, but not as an unbroken, chronological narrative of his early years. Details are often fuzzy, blurred, as memories inevitably are, by both the passage of time and the adult writer’s desire to impose meaning upon events that happened decades ago. Time and again Grimsley asserts that the “moments are true, even if the conversations . . . are not quite literal,” and signals to the reader that he cannot recall what preceded or provoked a certain event. He also admits that his interpretations may be informed more by imagination than actual fact, as in the chapter “The Drowning,” when he recalls a group of African Americans walking together through the town after the drowning death of a young black boy. “I never knew exactly what group this was,” he writes, “but I expect a minister led them to the river to pray. . . . ” 

Such moments are problematic because of the natural constraints of the memoir as genre, but even more so, because of the very subject about which Grimsley writes. The lacunae underscore the divides between blacks and whites in the civil rights–era South, a gap Grimsley has spent most of his life trying to bridge. How I Shed My Skin recalls those efforts and serves to remind us that, decades later, there is still much more work to do. That work is complicated, full of fits and starts, involving all of the same challenges the reader sees in Grimsley’s memoir. 

It begins, however, with sharing our stories, as he has, with painful honesty and self-awareness and the intention of arriving at a greater understanding—not only of others and one’s moment in history, but of one’s own self. — Julie Schwietert Collazo  97OX 99C 

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