An African-American’s revealing recollections of growing up in the small South Carolina town of Orangeburg before and during the Great Depression.
Miller, a poet and teacher, opens with an account of the episode that ended his stay in the South, when at age 19 he composed the note that became his ticket to exile. Accompanying each chapter is a poem, usually brief, straightforward and drawn from personal experience. The first one, “Illumination,” is about the time he passed a note to a white girl that read, “I would like to get to know you better.” For this disregard for the niceties of Jim Crow laws, Miller was charged with attempted rape. The final chapter, in which he is smuggled out of town and banished to New York, ends with a poem reflecting on what didn’t happen and what might have been. Between are 11 chapters and 11 poems, all of which show in unsparing detail what life was like for a poor black boy growing up in the rural, segregated South. When a neighbor saw him walking to school barefoot in winter and bought him a pair of second-hand shoes for 75 cents, the incident becomes a poem, as do his memories of helping his mother wash other people’s clothes by hand and his encounter with Shorty the Iceman, who hired but didn’t pay the author for delivering ice one summer. Miller’s wretched poverty was worsened by racism. Barred from the town’s public library, he found books at a local state-college library; barred from the town swimming pool, he swam in the river. Another of many humiliations he was forced endure in the name of segregation was the division of the bathrooms in the local movie theater: one for white men, one for white “ladies” and one for “Coloreds.”
Its matter-of-factness and homely detail make Miller’s memoir a powerful reminder of what “separate but equal” really meant in the days before the Civil Rights Act.