Editor’s Note: This article features a frank discussion of racism. Trigger Warning: Racial Discrimination
Honesty is one of the most underappreciated aspects found in art. In an abstract concept like artistic expression, it’s often striking to find something so real, so brutally honest, in which the artist makes themselves vulnerable to their viewers.
This vulnerability is precisely what Emory Professor of Practice in Creative Writing and author of novels, plays and short stories Jim Grimsley utilizes in his memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood. This past Tuesday, Grimsley hosted a reading from the memoir, which will be published in April.
Grimsley read aloud two chapters from his piece, which describes the story of integration in his small North Carolina hometown in 1966. He recalls his own experiences as a sixth-grader raised during the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the chapters he presented, he tells the story of three black girls enrolled in his class. Up until that point, his class had been entirely comprised of white students.
The first chapter details the first day of class with the new students.
When the teacher leaves the classroom for a moment, a young Grimsley turns to the black girl sitting behind him and says in front of the entire class: “You black bitch.”
I was taken aback when I heard Grimsley read that line.
Of everything I anticipated, I never expected the white point-of-view character of this story, Grimsley himself, to so openly insult the girl.
I was expecting him to say something passive or even kind — perhaps he would be the lone open-minded person in a sea of racists.
Instead, Grimsley — this child depicted as someone who never swore, who always listened — turned to this girl and arbitrarily insulted her.
But as Grimsley mentioned in the discussion that followed the reading, white writers have a tendency to paint themselves as heroes.
As many academics in this area have sardonically said, the white savior trope is just too appealing.
After the reading, a friend turned to me and wryly commented how 50 or 60 years must pass before the apologies come up for these national and international atrocities, and that it’s nice to finally admit that yes, our people were the bad guys — not just as an entire system of oppression but as individual actors who furthered this oppression.
Grimsley, as a child on his first day of sixth grade, had already internalized the racist views of his neighborhood and parroted them without thinking.
Most, if not all, of the white students in his class reflected these views. Their actions, words and thoughts reflected their racist societies. The thought that children could be so sullied is frightening,
And he’s not afraid to admit that. Fifty years later, he is still trying to unlearn those internalized beliefs.
During the discussion, an audience member asked Grimsley to whom exactly he was trying to send a message with the story.
His answer was simple and succinct: white people.
He noted the lack of stories about racism told from a white perspective in which the white person actually admits that they did or said something racist.
When white people tell these tales, they often separate themselves from the issue by claiming that while other white people were racists, they, of course, were not.
We very rarely see white-narrated stories in which whiteness does not automatically equate to heroism.
It would have been easy to repaint the story. It would have been a simple task for Grimsley to make another student insult the girl, to have a young Grimsley jump in and defend her.
But he didn’t. He was honest.
And I think that’s what I really appreciate about this memoir: the unashamed honesty.
Grimsley isn’t afraid to reveal and denounce his faults, an act so many people fear. We are often so afraid of being criticized that we won’t admit to our flaws — we won’t admit that there’s anything wrong.
Grimsley is breaking all of that down.
His honesty is exactly what we need.
Nothing is going to change if we as white people are too afraid to admit that there’s a problem — or that we are contributing to it.
– By Kelsey Klosterman, Staff Writer