Jim Grimsley isn’t one to shy away from the pained and difficult memories of his childhood. He’s called heavily upon personal experiences of abuse, of the struggles incurred growing up gay and hemophilic in North Carolina, when crafting semi-autobiographical novels such as Winter Birds and Dream Boy. A celebrated writer and playwright, Grimsley says that, after decades of taking creative liberties, “the impulse to make things up is overwhelming.” But when setting out to recount the ways in which the integration of his middle school launched him on a journey to dismantle his racist Southern conditioning, he realized that if he wanted the story to resonate, he needed to tell it as nonfiction. How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of a Racist Childhood is, therefore, an account devoid of fiction or exaggeration, a fact that makes it all the more haunting.
“It's the hardest writing project I've ever had to do,” Grimsley says simply. “The fact that it was a memoir, the fact that I wanted it all to be true, that made the writing difficult. I had to confront the fact that I knew that I had bigotry in me, and that by writing this book I was going public with that. It's still very frightening, frankly. It's been a tough process, but then I would think, ‘As tough as it is for me to do this, what does it tell me about how tough it is for black people to live with this?’ And that would put the whole thing in perspective.”
“It was important for me to pursue this book,” he explains, “because it was clear to me that racism had not gone away as an issue. In fact, I could see it returning to people's minds, in terms of the young people I deal with, my young relatives, the things that I've seen in my classroom, the discussions students have had with me. I could see that the country hadn't made nearly enough progress on racism as we would like to pretend we had. And that was true 15 or 20 years ago, let alone five or six years ago when the issue was coming to the foreground again in a very overt way.”
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the book has been released into a raw society, racially. The wounds of Ferguson, of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are still keenly felt, and the entrenched nature of racism is on vivid display. “When integration was happening, I think we all thought that it would solve a lot of the problems, that the fact that black kids and white kids were mingling would make some of these issues go away,” Grimsley says. “And as I remembered the process of integration, I began to understand why. And frankly, what I began to understand was that white people, at least where I lived, never really bought into the process as a whole. Some of us understood what was going on, some of us accepted the fact that black people were equal to white people, but a great number of white people never accepted that—still haven't accepted it. They have continued in subtle and overt ways to teach that fact to their children, and so here we are today.”
Yet despite the tragic reality now attracting national and international headlines, Grimsley says that it’s raised a hope, albeit one tempered by the events he’s lived through. “Nothing's going to move on this issue until people start talking about it—and I'm not talking about black people, I'm talking about white people. White people have to start talking about this issue to ourselves, among ourselves. We have to confront one another about it. We have to figure out where it comes from. We just have to, or we're only going to get worse.”
“That's one of the reasons,” he says, “I emphasize the fact that my inescapable conclusion was that I had learned racism not just from bad people, but from good people. From people who, in every other way, would have to be defined as virtuous people, Christian people, religious people, people who practiced kindness and good heartedness. Once the laws were removed, once the overt acts of violence no longer happened, the teaching still went on. What white people have to see is that we've incorporated [racism] into our worldview in ways we just don't understand, in ways we don't see.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.