Everyone is a product of where they grow up. For Barry Moser and his older brother, Tommy, hailing from the pre-Civil Rights South, this rang especially true. Tolerance and softness were qualities not bestowed upon the Moser boys, who were educated in an all-boys military school and whose grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Born in 1940 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Moser writes, “Without opportunity to be otherwise, Tommy and I were racists, born into the byzantine machinations of the Jim Crow South.”
We Were Brothers, Moser’s taut new memoir, unravels the affects of those indoctrinated ideologies in focused, critical vignettes. Renowned for his visual art, including an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that netted him a National Book Award for design and illustration, Moser’s powerful and carefully curated chapters reveal he is also a master in narrative control—sparse but expansive, idiosyncratic but always pushing forward. Most anecdotes focus on specific moments between Moser and Tommy, and the (physically and mentally) brutal experiences of brotherhood. Others spotlight his family’s extensive racial history and the lingering affects it had on the Moser boys.
Strangely for Moser, it was not leaving the South that allowed him to back away from these ideas, but being confronted by a fellow, respected Southerner about them. While studying at the University of Chattanooga, the director of the Methodist Youth Center challenged Moser’s racist creed. “He was the first person who actually showed me that people of color—” Moser pauses, choking up a bit—“he showed me, not told me, that people of color were people just like me, and that if I were blind I wouldn’t know any difference. It was a journey and an awakening just to have someone say to me, ‘Why do you think this way?’ ”
From afar, it may seem simple. But when everyone in a person’s life reinforces bigoted thinking, even the smallest disruption to this mindset can resonate like an earthquake. Despite the many years that have passed since he left the South, the memories Moser writes about are still raw and affecting. For most of his life, the same couldn’t be said for Tommy. Awakened by his college experience, Moser moved north after school, while Tommy stayed in the South. Moser eschewed—and was haunted by—his racist past. Tommy further tethered himself to it. As a result, a great chasm formed between the brothers, and for the better part of their adult lives they rarely spoke. At one point, Moser even penned the following line in a letter to Tommy: “It saddens me beyond anything you can imagine that you, my brother, are the purebred and banal embodiment of all the things I hate.”
From confrontation, though, stemmed reconciliation. After a brief string of letters, all included in the book, a line of communication reopened. When Moser began the project that became We Were Brothers more than 15 years ago, Tommy enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed for it. During this time, Moser discovered something unexpected. “After I went to Nashville and spent some time with Tommy, everything changed. He’d taken under his wing, almost as a big brother, a young African-American kid in Nashville. It was such a shock to see my brother, a historic racist who beat the shit out of me because I would sit at the back of the bus with black people, in this new light.”
Tommy’s unexpected reformation signals the subtle but powerful undercurrent of the book: a sense of hope. If the Moser brothers—inundated with bigoted ideas since birth—can change, then Moser believes racism can be ameliorated. After Tommy died in 2005, Moser was the only one left to tell his family’s story, “to bring the drama to conclusion.” What he’s crafted in that wake is not an apology for Tommy’s actions or Moser’s previous beliefs. Rather, it is an honest, wrenching examination about the complications of overcoming one’s past, and the travails of brotherhood, one that Moser believes Tommy “would have no qualms with” were he still alive. Despite the fully formed narrative, Moser still feels he’s trying to reconcile his past, still striving to be better going forward. “I think it brings my story to point where I need to explore it more,” he confides. “I don’t think this is the end of it.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas.