Cover image for How I shed my skin : unlearning the racist lessons of a Southern childhood
How I shed my skin : unlearning the racist lessons of a Southern childhood
First edition.
Physical Description:
xii, 275 pages ; 22 cm
Freedom of choice/black bitch -- An awkward fight -- Tiger beat, Teen, Ebony, and Jet -- Black and proud -- The sign on the wheelchair -- The kiss -- The hierarchy of place -- The learning -- The fight in the yard -- White nigger -- Divinely white -- Good old boy -- Johnny Shiloh -- The shoe man -- The uncomfortable dark -- The maid in the weeds -- Integration -- The J.W. Willie School/bag lunch -- The drowning -- Robert -- No longer separate, not really equal -- Cheap -- The mighty Trojans -- Some of us dancing -- The human relations committee -- Protests -- God gave me a song -- The smoking patio -- Horizons -- Mercy -- Commencement -- Reunion.
"In August of 1966, Jim Grimsley entered the sixth grade in the same public school he had attended for the five previous years in his small eastern North Carolina hometown. But he knew that the first day of this school year was going to be different: for the first time he'd be in a classroom with black children ... Now, over forty years later, Grimsley ... revisits that school and those times, remembering his personal reaction to his first real exposure to black children and to their culture, and his growing awareness of his own mostly unrecognized racist attitudes"--


Material Type
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Book 379.263 GRI 1 1
Book 379.263 GRI 1 1
Book 379.263 GRI 1 1
Book 379.263 GRI 1 1

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"White people declared that the South would rise again. Black people raised one fist and chanted for black power. Somehow we negotiated a space between those poles and learned to sit in classrooms together . . . Lawyers, judges, adults declared that the days of separate schools were over, but we were the ones who took the next step. History gave us a piece of itself. We made of it what we could." --Jim Grimsley

More than sixty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that America''s schools could no longer be segregated by race.

Critically acclaimed novelist Jim Grimsley was eleven years old in 1966 when federally mandated integration of schools went into effect in the state and the school in his small eastern North Carolina town was first integrated. Until then, blacks and whites didn''t sit next to one another in a public space or eat in the same restaurants, and they certainly didn''t go to school together.

Going to one of the private schools that almost immediately sprang up was not an option for Jim: his family was too poor to pay tuition, and while they shared the community''s dismay over the mixing of the races, they had no choice but to be on the front lines of his school''s desegregation.

What he did not realize until he began to meet these new students was just how deeply ingrained his own prejudices were and how those prejudices had developed in him despite the fact that prior to starting sixth grade, he had actually never known any black people.

Now, more than forty years later, Grimsley looks back at that school and those times--remembering his own first real encounters with black children and their culture. The result is a narrative both true and deeply moving. Jim takes readers into those classrooms and onto the playing fields as, ever so tentatively, alliances were forged and friendships established. And looking back from today''s perspective, he examines how far we have really come.

"Does more to explain the South than anything I''ve read in a long, long time . . . Simply put, a brilliant book. While I was reading, I kept thinking two things. One, this is totally shocking. Two, it''s not at all shocking but a familiar part of my life and memory. Grimsley''s narrative is straightforward and plain spoken while at the same time achingly moving and intimately honest." --Josephine Humphreys, author of No Where Else on Earth

"I not only believed this account but was grateful to see it on the record . . . The boy in this narrative is becoming a man in a time of enormous change, and his point of view is like a razor cutting through a callus. Painful and healing. Forthright and enormously engaging. This is a book to collect and share and treasure." --Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina

"Jim Grimsley''s unflinching self-examination of his own boyhood racial prejudices during the era of school desegregation is one of the most compelling memoirs of recent years. Vivid, precise, and utterly honest, ?How I Shed My Skin is a time machine of sorts, a reminder that our past is every bit as complex as our present, and that broad cultural changes are often intimate, personal, and idiosyncratic." --Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire

"In all his beautiful works, Jim Grimsley has told hard, hidden truths in luminous, subtle prose . . . Here, he renders history not on the grand, sociological scale where it is usually written, but on very personal terms, where it is lived. This is an exquisite, careful story of a white boy of simple background and great innocence." --Moira Crone, author of The Not Yet

"Grimsley probes the past to discover what and how he learned about race, equality, and democracy . . . in this revelatory memoir." -- Kirkus Reviews

"Acclaimed writer Grimsley offers a beautifully written coming-of-age recollection from the era of racial desegregation." -- Booklist, starred review

Author Notes

Jim Grimsley's first novel, Winter Birds (1994), has been called a harrowing portrayal of family violence. It garnered the North Carolina native the 1995 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Grimsley, who admits he writes autobiographical fiction, has also written Dream Boy (1995), and My Drowning (1997). He is also a playwright and has contributed short stories to anthologies such as Men on Men 6: Best New Gay Fiction (1996).

Grimsley's plays have been produced nationwide, including at Atlanta's 7 Stages Theatre, where he has been a writer-in-residence for ten years. Jim Grimsley has been awarded the Bryan Prize for Drama by the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the George Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Playwright of 1988.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Kirkus Review

After a court decision, children struggled to enact integration.In 1966, Grimsley (Creative Writing/Emory Univ.; Jesus Is Sending You This Message: Stories, 2008, etc.) was an elementary school student in rural North Carolina when three black girls joined his formerly white classroom. He did not know then what caused the change from the Freedom of Choice system that had maintained racially separated schools, and he did not know how to behave or what to think, except to mimic adults' racism. "I was raised," he writes, "to keep black people in their place and to see to it that they stayed there." His new classmates, however, convinced of their civil rights, had no intention of being subjugated. In this sensitive memoir, Grimsley probes the past to discover what and how he learned about race, equality and democracy "from the good white people" in his family and community. Interacting with black children for the first time, he felt he was at a crossroads: "I would either learn to be a better bigot, or I would learn to stop being a bigot at all." Evoking in vivid detail his school and social environments as he moved through the grades, he recalls that by high school, many white families were sending their children to a private institution, and the author was outnumbered by black classmates. Being part of a minority, though, was not new for him; throughout childhood, he felt different from others because he was a hemophiliac who could not participate in sports or roughhouse with other boys; he also began to realize that he was gay. The author, returning for his 40th high school reunion, saw little change in the South, where people "still teach racism to their children without a second thought." Although proud that he and his classmates made history, the culture of hatred he recounts in this revelatory memoir still, he notes sadly, persists. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In 1966, when North Carolina began its first efforts at desegregation, Grimsley was 11 and steeped in the culture of white superiority. All the hardworking, ­churchgoing white people he knew thought race mixing was a sin. He'd grown up around black folks, but they were mostly an undifferentiated mass of people with no individuality. But as an adolescent listening to white kids looking forward to George Wallace setting things straight between the races and black kids looking forward to the revolution, he found himself wondering if the revolution would free him, as well. He'd already seen that poverty had distinguished the whites who could dodge desegregation and those who couldn't, his hemophilia had long set him apart from the rough society of other boys, and his sexual inclination was threatening to be even more distinguishing. The hubbub of race and desegregation gave cover to his own struggle with sexuality, freedom to discover his own identity, and, to his personal credit, space to truly examine the assumptions built into his youth. Looking back some 40 years later, acclaimed writer Grimsley offers a beautifully written coming-of-age recollection from the era of racial desegregation.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2015 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, the actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek," recounted the story of meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She told King that she planned to leave "Star Trek," and he persuaded her to stay. "Stop! You cannot!" she recalled him saying. "You are the first nonstereotypical role in television.... For the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don't look like us... from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be." As a white boy growing up in Jones County, N.C., in the 1960s, Jim Grimsley watched Uhura "with fascination": "Uhura occupied a role that had no parallel in my world, and since I had no prejudice as to what a starship lieutenant should look like in 500 years or so, she was fine with me." Grimsley is the author of 11 books of fiction, including the earthy and disturbing novels "Winter Birds" and "Dream Boy"; his new memoir, "How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood," is written from the point of view of a white Southerner in the time of desegregation. Under North Carolina's Freedom of Choice program, black students could choose to attend white schools. There were three black girls in his sixth-grade class. Grimsley impersonates his younger self with great skill and delicacy. His voice is finely calibrated to recreate a certain innocence and wonder at the grown-up world and its curious ways. He also shows a courageous willingness to reveal a degree of meanspirited naïveté, as when he reports saying to one of his new African-American classmates, "You black bitch." (To which she responded, "You white cracker bitch," much to his dismay.) The first time he saw Ebony magazine, he was astounded: "I had never seen black people depicted in this way before, as if they were just like white people." A self-described "sissy" who suffered from hemophilia, Grimsley realized that he was gay at around the same time he developed an understanding that black people were in fact no different from white people. But he doesn't pretend that simply sitting next to black classmates suddenly changed his way of looking at the world; he acknowledges that the process occurred over many years and much searching. Perhaps the most incisive parts of this memoir are the sections wherein Grimsley examines how a white Southern boy might learn to be a racist. One of the most extraordinary passages in the book is a catalog of all the casual ways the N-word was easily deployed around him from early childhood, even by his parents: from racist nursery rhymes to racist similes - smelling like, dressing like, dancing like, with hair like ... and on and on. This Southern world really did change in 1968, with the court-mandated desegregation of all the schools in rural Jones County. And largely because of white flight to private academies by the families who could afford it, blacks would eventually outnumber whites in the county's public schools, nearly two to one. Grimsley navigates this turn of events with sensitivity, telling of a walkout after a white teacher said, in class, that black people were "the scum of the earth." "The school itself, and the community behind it, made no effort to teach us how to see past our differences," Grimsley writes. He's also attuned to irony and surprise. In civics class he debated political issues with one of his black teachers, who also happened to be a Nixon supporter, while Grimsley felt an allegiance to Hubert Humphrey and the Great Society, already recognizing himself as an outsider and as Other, having more in common with black folk than with white folk. Back in the present, Grimsley goes to a high school reunion, and is left with the puzzlement of why only one other white classmate showed up. An elegiac reminder that 40 years later, those tensions have not been entirely laid to rest. RANDALL KENAN, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of a novel, "A Visitation of Spirits," and the book-length essay "The Fire This Time."