Jim Grimsley, author of notable works such as “Winter Birds” and “Dream Boy,” brings forth a memoir about real people and real lessons he learned during his childhood. In his newest book “How I Shed my Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood,” Grimsley writes about his experience growing up as a white child during integration in North Carolina. From learning traditional nursery rhymes like “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” that replaced the word tiger with n*****, to going to church and learning white was the color of salvation while black represented sin, Grimsley discusses the makings of a racist and how he had to unlearn this ideology.
Racism is a disease passed down through generations like a family heirloom. Grimsley uses his skilled ability to produce cinematic language to pack his memories of first class racism into more than 200 pages. His depiction of events, accompanied with his in-depth details of unlearning a racist mindset, provides a memoir that is not only shocking but entertaining as well.
His memoir opens up with acknowledgments, serving as a sort of disclaimer to the people he referenced throughout the book. He mentions how names have been changed but the details of certain stories remain the same. The rest of the book is divided into sections appropriately titled “Bias,” “Origins” and “Change,” which further break down the prejudice misconceptions conditioned in him.
For example, Grimsley learned black people were the worst kind of people. When white children misbehaved, they were told they were acting like a “n**** baby.” When white adults were lazy, they were acting like a “sorry n****.” This way of thinking embedded itself in Grimsley’s young mind until he reached middle school and started noticing black people were not much different than him.
While most literary works of the post-civil war era focus on the struggles of African-Americans, Grimsley offers a different perspective. What is particularly riveting about this book is that Grimsley does not blame his relatives for teaching him hatred.
“I was taught to believe in white superiority in small ways, by gentle people who believed themselves to be sharing God’s own truth,”Grimsley said.
However, Grimsley does not make excuses for his community.
“Even though it was a community that was extraordinary for its closeness and caring, it was full of the pettiness and imperfections that plague all human places,” Grimsley said.
“How I Shed My Skin” is a great read that embodies bravery in every line. It walks the reader through decades of Grimsley’s life and how his opinions of black people evolved as he matured. From being “a slightly effeminate child” and using the ridicule of black classmates as a means to fit in to being a high school senior who accepted his homosexuality with supportive black friends, Grimsley makes it clear this revelation did not happen overnight. This memoir is a page-turner that engages the reader in the fascinating and peculiar life of Grimsley and his journey to racial equilibrium.