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Interview with Jim Grimsley, May 9, 2016

Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia
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00:00:43 - Writing and the process memory

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Partial Transcript: Let me start by saying, as a fiction writer--novels, short stories, plays. I'm wondering what it was that drove you or actually drew you back into--or maybe for the first time--into a work of nonfiction.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley talks about the writing process behind his 2015 memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood. He describes his transition from writing fiction to writing nonfiction, mentioning how the book was originally semi-autobiographical fiction before he rewrote the manuscript as a memoir. He talks about the difficulty of writing nonfiction since he had to stick to the truth and confront his past actions. Grimsley describes the high degree of memory required to write a memoir because he did not use interviews. Grimsley demonstrates his accurate memory with an anecdote about his mother not remembering grating tobacco with a Black woman until he mentioned it.

Keywords: Southern Gothic; author; bigot; publisher; publishing; racism; school desegregation; white savior; writer

00:10:06 - Integration in eastern North Carolina

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Partial Transcript: Well we probably should situate your story where and when we're talking about.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley talks about the setting of his memoir in Jones County, North Carolina between 1966 and 1973 when he was in junior high school and high school. He describes how the county had two separate school systems before integration, and mentions how the county closed and then reopened the schools rather than just integrating the white schools. Grimsley describes how desegregation was done county by county which caused some areas to integrate later than others. He talks about many white people's fierce opposition to integration which led them to use delaying tactics such as Freedom of Choice--a system by which students selected whether to go to black or white schools.

Keywords: Highway 17; Judge Larkins; education; federal judge; freedom of choice system; massive resistance; rural; segregation; white citizen's counsels

GPS: Jones County, North Carolina
Map Coordinates: 35.01, -77.37
00:16:59 - First interaction with Black children

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Partial Transcript: Well can you talk a little bit about the specifics there. We are talking sixth grade, 1966 you're eleven years old.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes the impact of the freedom of choice policy that enabled children to choose what schools they attended regardless of race. As a result, three African American girls entered his sixth grade classroom which Grimsley credits as his first real interaction with Black children. He talks about how segregation penetrated all aspects of his life, mentioning how African Americans would use separate entrances and shop in the back of stores. Grimsley discusses how his perception of race after he called one of them a vulgar term and she responded with her own insult which shocked him.

Keywords: consumer culture; integration; racism; school desegregation; segregation academy; shopping; slurs

00:22:05 - Interracial friendships

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Partial Transcript: I became good friends with the other girls who were sisters.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes how he became friends with two African American sisters in the class after he initially called the other Black girl an inflammatory name. He talks about how the sisters had moved from Washington where they attended integrated schools, so their father chose to send them to the formerly white school under freedom of choice. He also talks about how the sisters shared popular African American magazines with him which made him further question his views on race. In the magazines he saw depictions of elite African Americans, and they exposed him to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power. Grimsley credits his friendship with the Black girls to his isolation from the other boys in the class. He talks about how his hemophilia prevented him from being socialized with the other boys as a child, and he describes how being gay made him feel like an outsider which made him more empathetic to the Black girls.

Keywords: Ebony magazine; George Wallace; Jet magazine; LGBTQ; Stokely Carmichael; gender; interracial friendship; interracial relationship; media; sexuality

00:30:37 - Radicalized language

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Partial Transcript: Well one of the most valuable parts of the book is--you move from that section of those two years '66 through '68--sixth grade and seventh grade, and then pull back to going into what your subtitle is unlearning the racist lessons of a southern childhood.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes his memoir as a conversion narrative where he examines the childhood sources of his racism and how he overcame them. He specifically talks about the prevalence of the N-word and the myth of the "good white person." Grimsley discusses how almost every white person in the community used the racial slur, while acknowledging the influence of gender and class in policing impolite language. He talks about personally using the racial slur in nursery rhymes on the playground. He describes how he was solely indoctrinated into racism as a way of life until he met the three Black girls in his sixth grade class who gave him a new prospective on race.

Keywords: African American; class mobility; gender roles; inflammatory language; racial conversion narrative; racial slurs; segregation; slavery; socialization; socioeconomic class

00:40:30 - "Black" and "White"

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Partial Transcript: So you write--so well devote a chapter to the very terms "black" and "white"

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes the symbolic use of the terms "black" and "white," mentioning how "white" typically represents something good and pure while "black" represents something bad and evil. He states that racism against African Americans was worse than racism against other people of color as he describes how Asian and Latino children were sometimes allowed to attend white schools. He also describes the socially constructed nature and fluidity of whiteness which has changed over time. Grimsley further discredits the idea of "good white people" by talking about the quiet racism of his childhood where there were no large acts of racial terror or violence, yet racism was still prevalent.

Keywords: identity; immigrants; immigration; literature; race; religion; school segregation; segregation; slavery; symbolism

00:47:22 - Enforcing racism: his father and brother

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Partial Transcript: Speaking of that, I was thinking of that one incident that you mentioned already when you were six years old on the bus seeing your brother in this fight with the Black boy.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes witnessing his younger brother fighting with a Black boy, mentioning how he couldn't tell if his brother was mad at the other boy or if they were only fighting based on instinct. He discusses the connection of socioeconomic class and gender to expressions of racism. Grimsley talks about his father's violent temper, and he speculates about the racial dimension of his father's frequent fights. He describes how men like his father acted as enforcers of racism as they worked to maintain a system of terror.

Keywords: Jim Crow; domestic abuse; family; hemophilia; masculinity; racial terror; siblings; slavery; white gangs

00:55:26 - Learning about the Civil War in the South

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Partial Transcript: And that sense of history is slow and coming isn't it, as it would be for all children certainly at that age.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes first learning about the Civil War through a Disney movie about a Union drummer boy called Johnny Shiloh. He mentions about how his mother cautioned him not to talk about liking Lincoln or the Union because they lived in the former Confederacy. Grimsley describes how the Civil War was not taught in high school because it would have been a divisive topic in the recently integrated school. He talks about how before high school, he was taught a sanitized and sympathetic version of the Civil War and slavery.

Keywords: Abraham Lincoln; American Civil War; American history; John Clem; Lost Cause; The Wonderful World of Disney; education

01:00:31 - Full Integration in schools

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Partial Transcript: This brings us back to the chronology of your schooling.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes how his school became fully integrated in 1968 when he was in eighth grade which caused white children to become a minority in the school. Grimsley describes how he became distanced from his Black friends and hung out mostly with other white children. He talks about the beginnings of internal segregation in high school when the white children were mostly on the college track while the Black children were not. Grimsley mentions how the white children began bringing lunch from home to avoid going through the lunch line with Black students and eating the food prepared by Black women in the cafeteria.

Keywords: 1968 presidential election; Democrat; Republican; Voting Rights Act of 1965; busing; education; high school; private school; public school; school buses; segregation; segregation academy

01:08:58 - Student decision making and protest

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Partial Transcript: You were part of a committee--a student committee; a human relations committee--which is interesting that the administration would turn over at least in an advisory capacity so many of these big decisions.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley describes being a representative on the student human relations committee at the high school that made decisions related to integration including the selection process for the homecoming queen, the election of the student body president, and the valedictorian's duties at graduation. He talks about two walk-outs by the Black students which happened after a white teacher made derogatory remarks about Black students and when a Black teacher was fired. Grimsley describes how many Black teachers lost their jobs to white teachers since they were considered less qualified. He talks about how the students were bitter about integration because the African American students lost the support of the Black schools and many of the white children left for private school.

Keywords: administration; community; demonstrations; interracial dating; interracial relationships; privatized segregation; protests; race relations; racism; riots; segregation academy; student government

01:17:08 - Career and 40th reunion

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Partial Transcript: Well I wonder if we could maybe finish up by talking a little about your own post-high school career.

Segment Synopsis: Grimsley talks about attending college at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he majored in English. He talks about coming out as gay and traveling to New Orleans to try to discover gay culture. He describes going to Atlanta where he worked as a playwright at the 7 Stages Theater for twenty years. He talks about writing a semi-autobiographical novel named Winter Birds and trying to get it published. After it was first published in German, Algonquin Books published it in English. Grimsley describes publishing several other semi-autobiographical novels before he wrote his recent memoir. He also talks about becoming a creative writing professor at Emory University. Grimsley concludes by describing his 40th high school reunion which he described in the conclusion of his memoir How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood . He talks about being the only white person at the reunion banquet which he credits to the continuing social divide between races.

Keywords: LGBTQ; Louis Rubin; author; autobiographical fiction; education; fiction; memorial; sexuality; writer