Grimsley takes unvarnished look at racism in 'How I Shed My Skin'

By Elaine Justice | April 13, 2015

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Jim Grimsley's sixth grade school photo, the first year of desegregation of the public schools in Jones County, North Carolina.

Emory novelist and playwright Jim Grimsley wants to add his voice to the ongoing conversation about race. His new book, a memoir provocatively titled "How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood," is his first step toward that goal. It is Grimsley's own story of being a white kid growing up surrounded by racism, and his journey to move beyond it.

"This book is important to me because it's about desegregation," says Grimsley, professor of practice in English/creative writing at Emory. His narrative opens in 1966, the year integration came to the public schools in his native Jones County, North Carolina. An 11-year-old Grimsley entered sixth grade and encountered African American students as classmates for the first time.

"What I'm trying to do is write about racism," says Grimsley, but the story he is telling is about his own racism, which to him is the crux of the matter.

"I had grown up thinking black people were meant to be in an entirely separate world from mine," says Grimsley. "It wasn't as if there was a 'white people' class in school, or that anyone sat you down and said, 'These are rules for white people and black people.' You were just supposed to pick up messages."

Those messages were built on a worldview shaped by racism, he says. A note from Grimsley to readers of the book elaborates:

"In my early life, from otherwise good people, I learned harsh prejudice against African Americans, supported by a carefully constructed system of racist laws. The ideas that supported segregation began to collapse inside me once I met black people and began to understand their conception of justice and injustice."

Producing the memoir that became "How I Shed My Skin" took six years, says Grimsley, even longer if he counts the 300-page fictional work based on his early life that he originally wrote. When the fictional version ultimately didn't work, he set out to write a nonfiction account.

Grimsley writes of his first encounters with African American classmates, Violet, Ursula and Rhonda (not their real names), with whom he began attending sixth grade. His narrative includes his impressions and memories — some painful, such as calling Violet a bad name on that first day of school — along with a growing awareness of his own prejudice.

"I think a lot of white writers write about race in a way that puts us on the good side of the issue," he says. "I want people to understand that it's not going to kill you to say that you've got racism in you. All of us know it's there. Black people aren't fooled by white people. It's really that simple."

Grimsley has reconnected with former classmate "Rhonda," who has read the book, and plans to join Grimsley for a forthcoming radio interview about "How I Shed My Skin" and the turbulent times they both lived through.

Grimsley stresses that his book is not an attempt to tell Rhonda's story, or that of other African Americans, but his own.

"I would like to start to change the way whites talk about their own racism, to help them find a way to tell the truth about it," Grimsley says. "I've heard mostly white people pointing the finger at someone else and saying, 'He's a racist, but not I'm a racist.'"

"My goal is to help white people learn to talk about their own racism. That's a pretty big thing to take on," he admits. "But it strikes me how little progress we've made on this issue in 50 years; this is something I really want to work at."