Growing up racist — then growing out of it.
From the protests in Ferguson to the movie about Selma, race has been at the forefront of the national conversation recently. On the news and at our dinner tables, the country is discussing how far we still have to go. “How I Shed My Skin,” by Jim Grimsley, is a white writer’s story of that journey — where we’ve come from and how we move forward.
It is told through the eyes of a young boy growing up in North Carolina and begins as the local schools are about to integrate in the fall of 1966, when Grimsley is 11 years old. Eleven is old enough to have learned racism from the community around him but not old enough to understand the history behind it. Eleven is old enough to mimic that racism but not old enough for it to be deeply ingrained. In sharing his childhood, Grimsley sheds light on how integration affected children differently than adults. While adults of different races could choose not to interact with one another, children in the same classroom had to exist and work together; in some cases, they became friends. Each time Grimsley interacts with the black students in his class, he inches closer to viewing them as his equals. “Quietly, one day at a time, I was losing my sense that black people were different from me in the ways I had been taught,” he writes.
The book also shows the writer figuring out who he is. As he slowly recognizes and accepts his same-sex attractions, he realizes that his outsider status helps him feel a connection to the black students in his class.
In the most compelling sections of “How I Shed My Skin,” Grimsley acknowledges the racism around him. There were many good people in his life— good people who were also blatant racists. When he explores if and how those characteristics can coexist, he brings together his present and his past.
President Obama walks hand-in-hand with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Amelia Boynton Robinson, a leader of the march in Selma, Ala., to commemorate its 50th anniversary.
HOW I SHED MY SKIN Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood By Jim Grimsley Algonquin. 275 pp. $23.95