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.