published in the Chapel Hill Herald, June 27th, 2015
Henry Leyva reads Jim Grimsley’s How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood (Algonquin Books, Highbridge Audio, 6 CDs, 7 hours). Leyva’s narration is only slightly tinged with a southern accent. This flavors his storytelling as it moves fluidly through difficult material, intricate detailing, and dialogue studded with dialect.
The reading and the tale transport listeners to Grimsley’s 11-year-old youth, in August of 1966, as he entered sixth grade in Pollocksville. That year, the federally mandated integration of the schools went into effect and Jim Grimsley’s world was “rearranging” when he’d hardly had a chance to experience it.
Forty years after this event, revisiting his home for a high school reunion, the author journeys into his past, reviewing how, in his most innocent and receptive years, he was “raised to keep black people in their place and to see to it that they stayed there.” His purpose for the book is “to examine how good people perpetuated this” and more personally “to examine how, as a child, I learned bias against black people from the good white people around me.”
By the time Grimsley reached adolescence, white flight dominated his small community. But his family was too poor for that option. His mother worked steadily in a store to support the family while keeping his alcoholic father’s behavior in check. And so, Grimsley found himself in the front lines of desegregation, his relationships with black students challenging the beliefs he’d grown up with.
Still, he saw, “I was a functioning young bigot, a sneaky one that might act only occasionally from this side of myself, but who never the less had the impulse. “Early on Grimsley saw he had two paths and could “either learn to be a better bigot or I would learn to stop being a bigot at all.”
He was no stranger to being in a minority. His family’s economics and his hemophilia set him apart as did the homosexuality he acknowledged in his adolescence. This set him wondering how much his gayness shared “with that other quiet set of rules, the ones that had taught me I was white and must separate myself from darkness. … My own life of hiding, of masking my sexuality, and damping it down to nothing would have been far harder in a white junior high school … integration had done me a service. “
Grimsley explores his past with a lyricism that counters the ugliness he sometimes encountered. He describes vividly, for example, growing up in “a tiny village in an old county in the Eastern part of NC … a green country soft with ferns, blackberry tangles, moss.”
His detailing of events are equally evocative. Their imagery and flow engage listeners as he blends the personal and societal into a gripping flow so that listeners, captured in this intertwining, understand and remember. At other times Grimsley’s courageous, honest contemplations invite listeners to question themselves and re-examine their beliefs.