Ashe County Public Library held a virtual book discussion on Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m. The event was the final program of ACPL’s Talking about Race in Life and Literature series.
The discussion was facilitated by Adult Services Librarian Laura McPherson with American author and playwright Jim Grimsley reading excerpts from his memoir “How I Shed my Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.”
He was born in Eastern North Carolina in September 1955 and described himself, by his own admission, as a “good little racist” as a child.
The memoir begins when Grimsley was in sixth grade and his school was going through the slow process of desegregation under the Freedom of Choice Plan. Grimsley’s memoir presents an account of his own bigotry and how his beliefs were challenged as well as how he came to terms with the beliefs he held prior to his experiences with people of color.
“What I’m trying to do in this book is discuss my own journey from being headed toward becoming another standard-practicing racist bigot in Jones County, NC to having it short-circuited and getting set onto a pathway to becoming something else,” Grimsley said.
During the discussion, participants were invited to ask questions or share their own experiences. Several participants who attended school during desegregation.
One participant said she found his book very relatable as she grew up in Elizabeth City. She said they had their first integration when she was in fifth grade and reading the book “brought back memories”.
Another participant moved to Spartanburg, S.C., from Durham in 1968. She said she did not remember the Freedom of Choice Plan in Durham, but she experienced desegregated busing in Spartanburg while she was seventh grade.
She said she was struck by the relationships Grimsley described in his memoir because she did not remember having relationships with people of color as a student.
Grimsley was in eighth grade when schools finally consolidated, and he said that was the year church schools formed in Eastern North Carolina. He said between seventh and eighth grade, about half of the white students in his class were attending private schools that were set up during the summer. This was as a result of people realizing that desegregation was certain and it was coming.
“Those first days in that school were very difficult, because none of us really knew how to behave,” Grimsley said about the dual-school system.
He added that white people fought integration as hard as they possibly could, even when they figured out it was inevitable.
“It is true that some of us had grown up in homes where we were not openly taught racism, but what I feel was that I had absorbed so much of it from the community that in the end it became the same problem,” Grimsley said.
Ashe County Librarian Suzanne Moore thanked Grimsley and told him that his book has been discussed a great deal in the county.
“When we celebrated our centennial year, in the year 2015, we read a book for every decade and when we got to the last of the year, we read your book,” Moore said.
McPherson asked Grimsley if he continues to “shed his skin” at the same rate when dealing with any racial tendencies.
“Waking up in the morning and realizing I’ve still got this stuff in me and because I have been dealing with it for so long, it is not a matter of soul-searching anymore, it is a matter of checking myself out,” Grimsley said.
He said that he continues to remain vigilant and guard any inherent racist thoughts they may experience.
Grimley’s book is available at the library and in an e-book format at www.nclive.org/homegrown.