In 1966, as federally mandated integration rattled Grimsley’s sleepy little hometown of Pollocksville, N.C., three black girls showed up in his 6th-grade class, and his carefully crafted inner world changed forever.
As the Atlanta author describes in the pivotal episode of his new memoir, "How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood" (Algonquin, $23.95), he decided to rebel by calling one of the girls a name, using language that to this day is not permissible in a family newspaper.
“You black (expletive),” said the 11-year-old.
To his great surprise, the fearless young lady did not flinch.
“You white cracker (expletive),” she snapped back. She then proceeded to lecture him on the beauty of her black skin and whip him at his own game of words.
“That’s when I came to understand I had these ideas about black people in my head that weren’t right,” said the playwright and novelist, who turns 60 in September. “I thought I could bully this black girl, and I must have presumed that she wouldn’t talk back to me, that she would let me call her a name. …
“Of course, I could not have been more wrong, because I picked exactly the wrong person to do that to. Violet (the fictitious name he uses in the book to protect the woman’s privacy) was just this enormous force of a person. She let me know in no uncertain terms that there was no difference between her and me in terms of equality, that she was up to anything that I had to give her.”
Grimsley, who moved to Atlanta in 1981, has never shied away from revealing his secrets.
He grew up with a brutal, bullying father who lost an arm in an accident. He suffers from hemophilia and contracted AIDS while being treated for the condition. (This was in the early ’80s, before HIV precautions were part of medical protocol.) You can feel the contours of his deeply complicated past in nearly everything he’s written, including his novels “Winter Birds,” “Dream Boy,” “Comfort & Joy” and “Boulevard.”
For his first memoir, he decided to delve into the heavy-freighted topic of race. So at a time when many Americans staunchly deny any sort of racial prejudice, Grimsley, who is a professor of creative writing at Emory University, has made the risky choice of owning up.
"It's brave because he's willing to contend with his own history of racist ideas, to literally shed that kind of skin that he once wore as a white male Southerner," said Natasha Trethewey, who runs the creative writing program at Emory University. "I think the fact that he's willing to expose that part of himself allows for other people to see in his work a mirror of themselves, things that they perhaps were not ready to confront. He makes it possible for others to enter into their own personal history."
Trethewey believes the topic is timely.
“We are in a particular historical moment where a lot of people want to believe that we are in a post-racist or post-racial society,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet said. “And yet we are not, and we need voices like Jim’s even more to remind us of the work yet to be done — as a society and on ourselves as individuals.”
Grimsley holds that the culture still operates from a white supremacist point of view, and Trethewey concurs.
“I think one of the problems you have with the current generation is that they presume they don’t have a problem with racism, especially the white kids, and they haven’t really examined themselves,” Grimsley said. “So one of the things I wanted to do with this book is hammer home that point that everybody, even today, needs to examine themselves in terms of how much of this prejudice they have built into them, because it most likely is there.”
Grimsley has published nine novels and seen 18 full-length plays produced onstage. But he says this memoir was one of his most challenging projects to date. It wasn’t the confessional nature of the material, either. It was learning a new form.
“Writing nonfiction is much harder than writing fiction,” he says, “because you have got to be scrupulous about telling the truth. You are talking about real people. You are talking about real events. You have got to give that the integrity it deserves. Writing this book in a lot of ways was like pulling teeth, because I had to worry about telling the truth. It was very important to me to get the truth down on the page.”
He first tried telling the story as a novel but didn’t care much for the results.
“I realized I hadn’t quite hit the mark, so I started writing the nonfiction version of it and liked that much better. I finally came to realize that to tell the story the way I wanted to, which was basically to confront my own racism and to talk about how I evolved away from it, that I needed to tell it as a true story, that I needed to tell it as my story.”
He researched the book by reading old newsaper account of the times, but he didn’t do much interviewing. Mostly, he relied on memory, which can be elusive and tricky.
“What I was trying to recreate was the way that child felt at that time,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to talk to nobody, or I’ve got to talk to everybody. And if it talk to everybody, that is going to turn the book in a journalistic direction.’ And not only was that not what I wanted to do but that kind of book has already been done.”
Donnie Copeland Meadows, a retired educator and psychiatric social worker who lives in Washington, D.C., says she believes Grimsley did a remarkable job reconstructing his North Carolina classroom.
She ought to know. She was one of the three African-American youths who integrated his school in 1966. (He calls her Rhonda in the book.)
Though she witnessed his confrontation with the classmate he refers to as Violet, she forgot about the incident until she read the book. But after that shameful interlude, she remembers her friend being a changed person. “I never heard those words again from him. I never heard him say any racist remarks.”