Monday, May 09, 2016

Separate Pasts

 Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South  (Athens, GA:  University of Georgia Press, 1998), 176 pages including 2 photos and one map of the town of Wade.

This was a delightful memoir but a hard read.  McLaurin grew up in the 1950s in town of Wade, North Carolina.  This village was along Old Highway 301 and the Atlantic Coast Line, just northeast of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Things were changing in the South in the 50s and shortly after McLaurin left Wade, cars driving south on 301 bypassed Wade on Interstate 95.  And there were other changes under foot. Starting in the seventh grade, McLaurin began working at his grandfather’s store across from the “Black” elementary school.  McLaurin focuses on his work at the store and his encounters with the African-American community which provided insight into the segregated South on the eve of its demise.   This book opened my eyes as I was born in the next county to the west, a year before McLaurin left Wade for college.  Our experiences of growing up in the South were different, yet in many ways similar.     

                McLaurin’s grandfather was a man respected by many in “The Bottom,” where most of Wade’s African-Americans lived.  He was one who extended credit when needed, especially in the off seasons when there were little work for the men in that community.  He was also able to intervene on their behalf with government bureaucracy.  One story is about a hard working woman named Viny Love who lived alone with her son who had cerebral palsy.  When she was shunned by a county welfare agent, he took it upon himself to get action from the county.  In pondering the event, McLaurin realized that he was okay to risk social censure to help “deserving” blacks.  Yet, even with that he also understood that his grandfather thought of them as human, they were incapable of fending for themselves and ”Irrevocably flawed.” (132)  McLaurin’s family didn’t allow him to use the “N” word, and he realized this was primarily used by lower classed whites; however, he came to learn that just because one didn’t think it was appropriate to belittle those of another race didn’t mean that they were above racism.  As he pointed out, African-Americans didn’t come to his home (except to work and then it was through the back door).  Nor did he go inside one of their homes.  There was one exception to this, when an elderly couple invited him into their kitchen for some pumpkin pie after he’d made a delivery for his grandfather.  By the standards of the African-American community, this couple was well off, but McLaurin was shocked by how little they had.

                Most of this book is about the McLaurin’s memories of interacting with particular individuals from “The Bottom.”  He writes about teenage boys playing basketball together and the disgust he felt when he realized that he had wet a pump needle to inflate the ball after he’d been in the mouth of a black boy.  He tells about the talk of sex, about myths of the men and women of the Black community.  He tells about his talks with “Street,” an African-American man who was considered crazy by both races (he was a Jehovah Witness).  Although McLaurin later realized the shallowness and fallacies of some of Street’s arguments, he did credit Street with forcing him to more deeply question his Presbyterian upbringing.  And he tells about the one older black man, Jerome, who, like McLaurin, was a Yankee fan.  When he’d come into the store, the two of them would discuss baseball.  No one else in the community liked the Yankees, according to McLaurin.  The whites didn’t because their name and because they were just too good through the fifties.  But they weren’t liked by those in the Bottom, either.  They were mostly Dodger fans as they were the first team in the major leagues to integrate.  The Yankees was one of the last teams to integrate when they signed Elston Howard in 1955 (there were three other teams that integrated after the Yankees: Tigers, Phillies, and the Red Sox).

In what had to be one of the more painful stories to write, McLaurin confesses about an incident when he, with a group of other white boys, taunted Sam, an older black man.   In the lead up to the event, the reader realizes how of mob mentality can take over.  This is McLaurin’s confession: 

“There was, I knew, no excuse for my behavior, and with that knowledge came a growing sense of guilt.  It sprang partly from the realization that I had betrayed the family’s expectations, especially Mother’s, that I have violated the basic human dignity that my family acknowledged blacks possessed.  Yet there was another sense of betrayal, deeper and more personal.  I realized that I had hurt Sam, had hurt him deliberated, and worst of all, had hurt him for his race.”  (109)


This memoir was originally published in 1987.  It was reissued in 1998, with a new afterword.  At that time, McLaurin was the chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and he reflects back on his adolescent years through the lens of the 100th anniversary of a terrible racial tragedy in Wilmington.  These stories are easy to read, yet difficult because of the subject matter.  McLaurin is not writing as a historian but as a memoirist.  As one who grew up as segregation was waning, I would recommend this book as a glimpse into a world that thankfully has ended even though there is still remnants remaining.   I find it odd that McLaurin now lives (or at least when this book was published) where the old Uncle Henry Kirkum’s Oyster Roast stood at the mouth of Whiskey Creek.  I grew up not far from there and from the fourth to the sixth grade, I sat in Bus #6, an orange over-sized stub-nose bus, as it passed Kirkum’s on the run through Masonboro Loop Road and on to Bradley Creek School.  

26 comments:

  1. That sounds like a worthy read. I seem to recall reading another book that talked about 'The Bottoms' plural, referring to the black community of the town. I think in Baltimore? Interesting!

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  2. This does sound like a hard read. I don't think I could read this one. :\

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  3. Many of us could probably benefit from the lessons of this kind of world.

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  4. Sounds like a challenging but worthwhile story.

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  5. We are all caught in the crucible of our time and its social context. I love reading memoire that captures the past from an up close and personal perspective. That's so much more informative than history texts that are apt to skew the facts to suit the society creating it.

    I want to create a character for the name, Viny Love. I can almost see and hear now.

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  6. This sounds like a thought-provoking book. I imagine it provides keen insight into the culture and customs of those days.

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  7. Yet another one to add to my pile!

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  8. I am a big fan of memoirs--especially those that deal with tough times and humble sub-cultures that not a lot of people know about. Thank you for an intriguing review.

    @Kathleen01930
    Blog

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  9. Not sure if this book would be one for me ... but I appreciate your post here.

    All the best Jan

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  10. This seems like a very interesting and hard to read book. Memoirs are some of the most interesting books to read.

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  11. Omy some books are really, really sad.... Im not sure if I could read Sage, ...

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  12. I really respect his confession. It's very human.

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  13. Sounds like a fantastic read. Thanks for the review.

    Greetings from London.

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  14. I am not sure I could read it during the election season--THIS one particularly. But I have written it for another time. It must have been hard to WRITE this.

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  15. I would have a hard time reading this book. I find it disgusting that a person would treat another human being with such disrespect. There is absolutely no reason for that.

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    1. But the book is also affirming the change that was slowly coming in the 50s.

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  16. I grew up in Anderson, SC (a bit north of Atlanta and smack dab next to Clemson) in the 70s. The schools taught us not to judge people by their color and I don't remember anything negative happening to any student or teacher of color. But, my neighborhood was all white. When I went to a wedding reception (late 80s), it was held in a restored antebellum house, all the guests were white, and all the serving staff was black. Everyone (guests and staff) were perfectly polite, but it gave me pause.

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  17. I grew up in Anderson, SC (a bit north of Atlanta and smack dab next to Clemson) in the 70s. The schools taught us not to judge people by their color and I don't remember anything negative happening to any student or teacher of color. But, my neighborhood was all white. When I went to a wedding reception (late 80s), it was held in a restored antebellum house, all the guests were white, and all the serving staff was black. Everyone (guests and staff) were perfectly polite, but it gave me pause.

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  18. This looks like a difficult, but worthwhile read. I loathe mob mentalities.

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  19. Hey Sage! My computer goes dark in a few minutes. I look forward to reading more of your wonderful posts when it comes out of hibernation. Take care!

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  20. Sounds like a very interesting bio.

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  21. This is a poignant subject, as my (still present) Reel Page on my website contains a 5 minute interview with Neal Lester, Ph.D. on the subject of the 'N' word. He attracted national attention and was a guest on over 100 television and radio shows for his course at ASU: "The 'N' Word: An Anatomy of Language.

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  22. I was a young girl in a small town in the south in the 60s, very strange times for a northern girl. I will never forget Carmen, the lone black child chosen to integrate our 8th grade class. Living it was enough, I don't think I can read about it now.

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