Ten Favorite Moments from Southern Autobiographies (Part 1) by Dr. John Inscoe

Introduction: Guest Blog—Dr. John Inscoe

There are quite a number of momentous questions floating around the department these days: Who’s going to replace Mark Richt as head ball coach next season? What sounds like it might be alive in the grad lounge refrigerator? Will the soda machine—the dispenser of caffeinated lifeblood for so many in LeConte Hall—ever be refilled? Should I have gone to Law School? Why does one of my students think Eugene V. Debs was a case argued before the Supreme Court in which Eugene sued Debs? More than anything, though, people are wondering why Dr. Inscoe sees fit to work with, let alone to be seen in the company of, his two most “special” graduate students? Even RCP and I wonder sometimes. But, despite an untold quantity of sleepless nights induced by the mere thought of editing our manuscripts, Dr. Inscoe has gathered the energy to compose an excellent addendum to his most recent book, Writing the South through the Self (for which you can also find a review on B&F)—and simply put, we couldn’t be more thrilled to host it in a two part series. Please enjoy.


Ten Favorite Moments from Southern Autobiographies (Part 1)

I have just written a book, Writing the South through the Self, that’s largely drawn from twenty years or so of teaching a course on southern autobiography as southern history. One of my central premises is that the autobiographical work of southerners is so teachable in part because so much of it is built on storytelling – on cathartic moments of insight, trauma, conversion, or revelation that gets at both basic and more subtle truths about race, class, family, or community dynamics at various points in the region’s troubled past. For the best of these writers, the emotional impact of particular incidents in their lives – most often as young people – make for especially memorable and meaningful passages in that they expose, more than does any other historical genre, what Richard Wright once called his “crossed-up feeling, his psychic pain.” Or to quote Lillian Smith (which I do ad nauseam in my book):“Real history has never been written and won’t be until historians are willing to deal seriously with men’s feelings as well as with events.”

What follow are ten of what I find especially poignant or compelling moments, incidents, or mere passages found in the life narratives by southerners that didn’t make it into my book for one reason or another. I suppose this amounts to a postscript of sorts, or a second chance, and I appreciate the invitation from blog meisters Matt Hulbert and Robby Poister to take that on here. Each of these vignettes, in some little way, tells us something about southern mores, relationships, identity or tensions. Most are what I think of as “wow” moments – a term I scribble in the margins of these books, probably far too frequently, but which, at least for me, genuinely apply to these particular passages, either for the punch they pack, the insights they convey, or merely the beauty and/or power of their prose.

NOTE: The order in which these are listed below is fairly random.  And I’ve never been good with numbers. As will quickly become obvious below, I play a little fast and loose with the numerology by squeezing in a couple of “twofers,” incidents paired for reasons I hope will be apparent.

1. Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (1986)

This essay collection, one of two Ellison produced in addition to his fictional masterpiece, the novel Invisible Man (1952), includes what I find to be one of the most probing accounts of a southern African American negotiating the very different racial mores he discovers in moving to New York City in the summer of 1936, while still a college student at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. And it all centers on a cathartic moment he experienced in a Broadway theater where he was exposed to an all too vital, yet disturbing, part of the southern society from which he had just extricated himself.

Settled for the summer in what he called the “briar patch of Harlem,” Ellison was taken under wing by the poet Langston Hughes, who invited him to attend a play with him. Only when they arrived at the theater did Ellison learn that they were to see the long-running stage version of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road; his anticipation of seeing this highly touted production kept him from noting “the irony of circumstance that would have as my introduction to New York theater a play with a Southern setting and characters that were based upon a type and class of whites whom I had spent the last three years trying to avoid.”  In an essay entitled “The Extravagance of Laughter” that he wrote on the occasion of Caldwell’s 80th birthday in 1983, the elderly Ellison used this incident from nearly a half century earlier to serve up a razor-sharp analysis of class, race, identity, and humor in those tension-filled years of the Depression-era South.  “Caldwell’s comedy,” he states up front, “plunged me quite unexpectedly into the deepest levels of a most American realm of the absurd while providing me with the magical wings with which to ascend back to a world which, for all his having knocked it quite out of kilter, I then found more rational.” He spends the next fifty pages – the book’s lengthiest entry – explaining just what he means by all that.

Tobacco Road was, of course, the Georgia writer’s none too flattering depiction of “poor white trash,” and yet manages to make sympathetic characters out of the depravity, debauchery, and degeneracy of the dirt-farmer Jeeter Lester and his extended family and neighbors. Ellison calls the Lesters “as seedy as the house in which they live,” and declares that they “have plunged through the fragile floor of civilized humanity.”  He astutely notes that much of the humor in both the book and play comes from the fact that Caldwell bestowed on his poor white subjects the stereotypical attributes most often associated with southern blacks. It was those assumed characteristics and character flaws that have long been the source of much of the derision and debasement heaped upon blacks by whites, especially by those poor whites who found themselves, thanks to Jim Crow, a rung or two higher on the socio-economic ladder than those to which African Americans were consigned.

Humor proves key here. “Jeeter Lester, the poor white as fool,” Ellison notes, “was made to act the fool in order to save his audience’s sanity,” as opposed to the disgust and hopelessness such wretched conditions and behavior might otherwise have evoked in them.  Here, he states, “it is instructive to use the Southern Negroes’ handling of stress for comparison,” and he launches into an extended treatise on southern mores regarding laughter – when and why blacks laugh, at whom or at what they are permitted to laugh, and the dangers in allowing whites to see them laugh, given their own susceptibilities, sensitivities, and insecurities when it comes to the deference they so need, indeed demand, from those one rung down. . . and the final all too vexing truth: that “despite the fact that whites had done everything they could think of to control the blackness of Negro laughter, Negroes continued to laugh.”

All of this comes to a head when a particularly raunchy bit of sex play on stage between Lester’s hare-lipped daughter Ellie May and her reluctant suitor Lov strikes Ellison as especially funny and he lets out an uncontrollable burst of laughter from the theater balcony that quickly attracts the attention not only of those around him, but even brings the play to a halt as the actors stare up at him from the stage. In that “terrible moment,” as he calls it, he was violating one of the strictest of taboos in the South – a black man laughing at poor whites, and in public. How Ellison deconstructs that moment and explains its cathartic effect on him, (“I laughed and I trembled and I gained thereby a certain wisdom”) makes up the final few pages of his essay, and what a pay-off it is to the meandering and perhaps over-indulgent musings that precede it.  I can hardly do justice to it all (I’ve merely skimmed its surface here), or even give its brilliantly rendered culmination its due. Only in reading it in full can one fully appreciate how Ellison comes to his simply stated conclusion: that in the absurdity of the Lesters’ antics, “Caldwell had highlighted the warp and woof of my own ragtag American pattern,” and in so doing, had “told me something important about who I was. And by easing the conflict I was having with my Southern experience, he helped initiate me into becoming, if not a ‘New Yorker,’ at least a more tolerant American.” I only discovered this piece last fall, thanks to John Mayfield, who does great things with it in his own work on southern humor, and I can’t wait to assign it to a class later this year.

2. John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (1961)

I find that descriptions of poverty, particularly those involving children, whether black or white, can be among the most emotionally charged topics one can encounter in southern autobiography. I devoted a chapter to poverty in my book, but couldn’t quite find a way to work in this passage, which, sentimental sap that I must be, I find especially poignant and hard-hitting.  It comes from John Howard Griffin, a white journalist in Dallas who undertook what he called “a scientific research study of the Negro in the South,” but which became much more than sociological data and analysis, and instead “traces the changes that occur to heart and body and intelligence when a so-called first-class citizen is cast on the junk heap of second-class citizenship.” Griffin disguised himself as a black man, and traveled through the Deep South for several months in the late 1950s in in an attempt to experience first-hand what it felt like to be African American. His book chronicling that experience, Black Like Me, created a publishing sensation when it appeared in 1961.

For me, the most powerful moment in the book comes as Griffin made that transition from head to heart that he notes in his preface. Stranded at dusk along a remote highway in south Alabama, he is picked up by a black millworker heading home. Knowing there’s no other option for his faux black passenger, his benefactor offers to let him sleep on the floor of his two-room shack, situated in the midst of an alligator-infested swamp several miles down the road.  Thus begins Griffin’s most intimate – and intense – encounter with rural black poverty.  He finds himself in a house with the millworker’s wife and six small children – none older than nine, all of whom welcome him with great glee. “They were overjoyed to have company. It must be a party. We decided it was.”  After a pittance of a meal consisting of yellow beans boiled in water, Griffin was struck by the upbeat mood of the family, which became outright celebratory when he pulled out a candy bar and sliced it thin enough for everyone to have a bite. “In a framework of nothing,” he wrote, “slices of Milky Way become a great gift. With almost rabid delight, the children consumed them. One of the smaller children salivated so heavily the chocolate dribbled syrup-like from the corner of her mouth. Her mother wiped it off with her fingertip and unconsciously (from what yearning?) put it in her own mouth.”

Griffin happened to mention that his own daughter turned five that day and that she had had a party back in Texas. This excited the children, and inspired a host of questions. “The magic remained for them, almost unbearable for me,” he wrote, “the magic of children thrilled to know my daughter had a party.” When they bedded down for the night, and as the children all hugged and kissed him goodnight, Griffin “fought back glimpses of my daughter’s birthday party in its cruel contrasts to our party here tonight.” Unable to sleep, he continued:

I thought of my daughter, Susie, and of her party, the candles, the cake, and party dress; and of my sons in their best suits. They slept now in clean beds in a warm house while their father, a bald-headed black man, sat in the swamps, and wept, holding it in so he would not awaken the Negro children. I felt again their lips soft against mine, so like the feel of my own children’s good-night kisses. I saw again their large eyes, guileless, not yet aware that doors into wonderlands of security, opportunity, and hope were closed to them. It was thrown in my face. I saw it not as a white man, and not as a Negro, but as a human parent.

This revelation devolves into an extraordinary diatribe against the inequities, indeed, inhumanity of a society that condemned southern black parents to live with the realization that their children were doomed to restricted lives, smaller worlds, minimized educational opportunities, and mutilated futures. “It is the least obvious but most heinous of all race crimes, for it kills the spirit and the will to live,” he concluded.  Strong stuff, and again, the sort of truth that comes through only when Griffin became less a journalist or sociologist, and fully embraced his role as autobiographer. It also demonstrates just how effectively and seamlessly this genre allows the personal to morph into the political, and the particular into the universal.

3. Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard (2006)

Trethewey is a UGA alumna (Class of ’89) and a professor of English at Emory, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this remarkable collection of poetry that is as much a treatise on race, on region, on history, and on self as anything else listed here. The title poem itself is a ten-sonnet set of imaginary journal entries by a black soldier who, as part of the Louisiana Native Guard, the Civil War’s first all-black regiment, who were first stationed at a prison for Confederate captives off the Mississippi coast near her hometown of Gulfport, yet a piece of local history she only heard about as an adult.

I wish I felt more comfortable discussing poetry, if only because Trethewey wrestles in such intriguing ways with themes so relevant to much of the autobiographical work I deal with in my course and in my book – most notably in how the offspring of mixed race unions come to terms with themselves, their parents, and their place in southern society.

Trethewey, whose mother (deceased) was African American and father (still living) is white, writes as profoundly about that reality as anyone I know. In a poem entitled “Miscegenation,” for instance, she embraces all of these issues: her parents’ marriage in 1965, which “broke two laws of Mississippi,” their trip to Ohio to get married and subsequent return to Mississippi. The whole is a consummate piece of wordplay, as she notes that Cincinnati, begins with the sound sin, and Mississippi with mis – “the sound of wrong”; that her given name derives from her father reading War and Peace when she was born at Easter the following year; that she’s not named Christmas, like one of Faulkner’s great tortured mixed race characters, Joe Christmas in Light in August; and then finally circling back around to the fact that her name also means “Christmas child” in Russian. . . even in Mississippi. And there’s more, all of it contained in a mere fourteen lines!

Fully half of the Native Guard’s three dozen poems deal with her mother, her father, or her childhood innocence and loss of innocence through a range of fleeting memories and striking imagery, which combined, form as sensitive and as haunting a treatment of coming to terms with one’s racial heritage as anything laid out in prose form. In a poem called “Southern Gothic,” she expresses her early confusion (“Dreaming, I am again the child with too many questions – the endless why and why and why my mother can’t answer”), a frustration conveyed by dozens of other mixed race children in memoirs and autobiographies.  I devoted a chapter to just this topic in my book, and wish I’d had the nerve to incorporate Trethewey’s poetry among the more conventional accounts on which I do focus.

By the way, Threthewey is as eloquent in autobiographical prose as she is in poetry, as demonstrated by her most recent book, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010), an insightful and empathetic account of the hurricane’s impact on family and friends in Gulfport, and the tragic consequences the devastation held for her younger brother. She’s also written alecture, “Why I Write: On Poetry, History, and Social Justice,” a remarkably frank self-portrait of her evolution as a writer, which is well worth seeking out in one of its various guises on the internet.

4. Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945) and Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’ (1997)

I give plenty of attention to Richard Wright and Bill Bragg in my book; both Black Boy and All Over But the Shoutin’ are among the memoirs I most enjoy discussing with students, and I think they find them among the most powerful and revelatory works we deal with in that course. Their descriptions of the devastation of southern poverty are as visceral and heart-wrenching as any I know of, and the extent to which it crossed racial lines (Wright is black of course; Bragg white.)  In both cases, their fathers had much to do with plunging their families into cringe-worthy hand-to-mouth existences through the simple act of abandoning them. Coincidentally, each did so when their sons were a mere six years old. Years later, both Wright and Bragg had the opportunity to confront their estranged fathers, and their descriptions of those encounters are among the most searing, painful, yet curiously satisfying in their narratives. They also demonstrate what extraordinary writers both of these men are, and of how much meaning and feeling they pack into these fleeting incidents about childhoods deprived and manhoods lost.

Wright says little about the circumstances under which he encountered his father in a Mississippi cotton field a quarter of a century after he’d last seen him in Natchez. Then, he had accompanied his mother who had gone to beg her estranged husband for money.  They found him sitting with a strange woman, who told him to give the boy a nickel, which his mother told him to refuse, despite the fact that “the problem of food had become an acute, daily agony.”  He noted simply that that the man he encountered all those years later was, “a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands” and that Wright immediately grasped the fact that, “though ties of blood made us kin, though I could see a shadow of my face in his face . . . we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality.” His “fearsome aspect” that his son remembered so vividly was long gone, and Wright found himself “overwhelmed to realize that he could never understand me or the scalding experiences that had swept me beyond his life and into an area of living that he could never know.”

His father was, as he now saw him, a poor farmer, living an existence devoid of feeling or self-worth or hope. In a brilliant burst of insight and expression, Wright sums up all he saw in front of him: “From the white landowners above him there had not been handed to him a chance to learn the meaning of loyalty, of sentiment, of tradition. Joy was as unknown to him as despair. As a creature of the earth, he endured, hearty, whole, seemingly indestructible, with no regrets and no hope.”  He asked “easy, drawling questions” about Richard and the family, “and I forgave him and pitied him.” And then the kicker, as he offers a sociological explanation of southern black poverty and of this man’s failure and his own success:

My father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city – that same city that had me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.

Rick Bragg writes in a very different mode, and offers a far more meticulous and palpable description of his final encounter with his equally deflated and estranged father.  What Wright did in two paragraphs, Bragg does in a full chapter. Rick was only fifteen years old when his dad sent a message through his mother that he wanted to see him, and only him, and that he had a present for him. “Even now, over twenty years later,” he wrote, “I wonder if the reason I saw my father that one last time . . . is because I responded to a dying man’s cry for attention or just wanted the present, the bribe.”  He went to the little house where his father lived in Jacksonville, Alabama, “determined to stare him down, man to man, to let him know exactly what I thought of him for what he did to us, to my momma.” Like Wright, he felt the need to state: “I was not afraid of him anymore.”

His father greeted him with “It’s all over but the shoutin’ now, ain’t it, boy.” Bragg was shocked to see how much he had wasted away, “how the bones seemed to poke out of his clothes, and how it killed him to look this way, unclean, and he looked away from me for a moment, ashamed.” He fell into a violent coughing fit, “coughing up his life, his lungs,” and had a dark streak in his beard, which Rick later realized was blood. When his father asked why Rick’s momma and brothers never came to see him, Rick remembered thinking, “You fool, why do you think?” but then choked back those words. “In so doing,” he wrote, “I gave up the only chance I would ever have to accuse him, to attack him with the facts of his own sorry nature and the price it had cost us all. . . I could no more have challenged him, berated him, hurt him than I could have kicked some three-legged dog. Life had kicked his ass pretty good.”

Bragg spent several hours with his dad, who “talked and talked and never said a word, at least not the words I wanted.” In short, he never apologized, never said he wished things had been different, or acted like he’d done anything wrong.  “Part of it, I know, was culture. Men did not talk about their feelings in his hard world.”  Finally, he took Rick to a back room to give him his present, after which Rick said he planned to take it and run. It was a new.22 rifle that his father said he’d bought long ago and then kept forgetting to give him. As Rick thanked him and headed for the door, his father told to wait, he had something else for him as well, pointing to three big cardboard boxes. “Inside,” Bragg declared, “was the only treasure I truly have ever known.”  The boxes were full of books. For a boy who’d grown up in a house with only two of them – the King James Bible and the spring seed catalog – this was indeed a treasure: dozens of hardback books, bought in bulk at a yard sale, and some at a flea market. Some were classics; some pulp fiction or worse. Bragg spends nearly a page describing the books and what they meant to him in the moment and ever since. And all from a callous, sometimes cruel father who said simply, “Your momma said you still liked to read.”

“I guess my heart should have broken then, and maybe it did, a little. I should have done something, anything, besides mumble “Thank you, Daddy”.  . . But I just stood there, trapped somewhere between my long-standing, comfortable hatred, and what might have been forgiveness. I am trapped there still.”  He concludes, “He could not buy my friendship, not with a library, but with those books he bought my company for as long as he wanted it that day.” As a result, he staid long enough to hear his father open up for the first time about his Korean War experience, and an incident so harrowing that it sent him back home to Alabama an already broken man, whose demons ruined not only himself but doomed his wife and three boys to a bleak existence both with, and largely without, him.

5. Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (1999)

I could have devoted a full chapter to the impact of teachers – for good or for ill – on southern pupils. Autobiographers never shy from relating how individual instructors shaped their identities, their awareness of the worlds in which they lived, and of the opportunities and/or limitations and inhibitions imposed by those worlds.  Many a southerner was first introduced to his or her racial, class or gender inadequacies through the pronouncements or insensitivities of a prejudiced classroom instructor, just as others were inspired – sometimes in transformative ways – by a teacher’s sensitivities, kindnesses, or merely individualized attention or support.  One of the most original of such encounters is of the latter type, and has nothing, at least nothing explicit, to do with race, class, or gender.

Janisse Ray’s much-acclaimed foray into memoir and nature writing is full of lyrical passages about growing up in and around her father’s junkyard in the piney woods of south Georgia. Little in her education, she writes from hindsight, proved relevant to the natural world around her, which only much later in life, she would come to embrace so passionately. She left home not knowing how to swim, not knowing the name of a single wild bird (except maybe a crow), a wildflower, or a tree. And yet, she says, “I knew the Dewey decimal system inside out, could calculate the gravity on a ten-pound block sliding down an incline, had read Dumas and Chekhov and Bronte.”

As a relatively poor child and as a tom-boy shunned by the boys with whom she tried to play football during recess, Janisse found solace in a fifth grade teacher, Lucia Godfrey, who took an interest in her and first nurtured her interest in nature. She devotes a chapter to that relationship, and titles it “Light,” which Mrs. Godfrey told her was the meaning of her first name. Seeing Janisse’s frustration with her classmates, Mrs. Godfrey offered her diversion by pointing out that the pine trees were flowering. That in itself was a revelation to Ray, and even more so the explanation that there were male trees with yellow “candles” that served to pollinate the female flowers. She was enthralled both with her teacher – “She did not care that I was different. She never once asked about my home life, knowing nothing more than that I was a child hungry to learn” – and with this discovery of how nature worked. “Out of all her science lessons,” Ray wrote, “that one on the playground not only did I never forget but remember as vibrantly as if it happened last week. I learned that nature wouldn’t ridicule you, would let you play. Oblivious, it went about its business without you, but it was there when you needed some gift, a bit of beauty: it would be waiting for you. All you had to do was notice.”

This incident served as a launching pad of sorts, through which Ray came to terms with herself and with the love of nature that would define her adult life. She has much to say about poor farmers and their relationship with the natural world. Crackers, she insisted, “although fiercely rooted in the land and willing to defend it to death, hadn’t had the means, the education, or the ease to care particularly about its natural communities. She, thanks in part to Lucia Godfrey, would see nature differently from her grandparents, and her parents (she muses at one point, how different her father’s life might have been if he’d ever had such lessons as a boy). She’s at her most eloquent in describing the ecosystem that characterizes the longleaf piney woods of south Georgia, and never more so than when she compares it to that amazing junkyard in which she grew and her siblings grew up. In the book’s final chapter, she comes to see it as an ecosystem of its own: both a junkyard and the wilderness, she notes, are devotees of decay, and both are ordered randomly, backed by a semblance of method.” “Walk through a junkyard,” she tells us, “and you’ll see some of the schemes a wilderness takes – Fords in one section, Dodges in another, or older models farther from the house – so a brief logic of ecology can be found.”

The power of place is, of course, a strong component of southern writing; indeed, it’s one of the features that most distinguishes the autobiographies of southerners from those of many other Americans.  No one I know of creates a stronger sense of place than does Ray, or one that focuses so intently on the sheer physicality of locale – both of the natural world and of the man-made environment in which she was raised. As one of the book’s critics notes: “It is her capacity for wonder that wins us to her fervent environmentalism – a capacity born and bred, ironically, not in the college biology lab or the naturalist’s notebook but in the briar patch of a junkyard adrift with car guts, old lawn mowers, and broken glass.” It’s utterly unlike any other nature writing or any other memoir I know, and easily among the books I most enjoy teaching, even if I do have a tendency to drool over much of it when I do.

Dr. John Inscoe is the University and Albert W. Saye Professor of History at the University of Georgia. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (1989), Race, War, and Remembrance in the Appalachian South (2008), and most recently, Writing the South through the Self: Exploration in Southern Autobiography (2011).

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2 Responses to Ten Favorite Moments from Southern Autobiographies (Part 1) by Dr. John Inscoe

  1. RCP says:

    More books to add to my reading list! Thanks so much for the insight, Dr. Inscoe, I’m looking forward to part 2.

  2. JHW says:

    Fascinating! Can’t wait to purchase Dr. Inscoe’s latest masterpiece. I especially liked the Ellison piece and his discussions of Tobacco Road. And Janisse Ray’s book has been a favorite of mine for years now; glad to see it make an appearance. Thank you Dr. Inscoe. I too look forward to Round 2!

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