Ten Favorite Moments from Southern Autobiographies (cont.)
6. Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name (2004)
For southern white children, the relationships formed with African American adults often make for particularly telling moments or lessons painfully learned. I draw on countless examples in my book – some of the most striking come from Lillian Smith, Melton McLaurin, William Styron, Ralph McGill, and Katherine Lumpkin. Blood Done Sign My Name is Timothy Tyson’s riveting account of a racial murder in 1970 in his hometown of Oxford, North Carolina, and the central role his father, the local Methodist minister, played in the town’s reactions. Ten years old at the time and now a historian at Duke, Timothy Tyson uses his own coming of age to provide a remarkably profound meditation on race in post-civil rights America.
Among the most striking incidents he relates and then ponders involved an exchange he had with the family maid, Roseanna Allen, on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s assassination in March 1968. Then only eight years old, Tyson was deeply troubled on coming upon her sobbing at the news. His first response was to comfort her, and he did so by saying: “Maybe it will be all right, Roseanna, maybe somehow it will work out for the best.” At that, he writes, “She lifted her head and almost roared at the obscenity of the thought. ‘Work out for the best? How could it possibly work out for the best?’ She stared at Tim with “a stunned expression of rage,” and launched into a diatribe at the irrationality of what he’d just said:
How could it work out for the best that the man that God lifted up to save my people has been shot down like a dog in the streets? Did out work out best that Hitler killed six million Jews? Would it work out for the best if somebody burned your house down to the ground? Did it work out for the best that they took King Jesus out and nailed him to the cross?
To the latter, this well-versed preacher’s kid managed to whisper, “We think it did, don’t we?” “What?” she said, still sobbing. “We think it worked out for the best that they hung Jesus on the cross, don’t we, Roseanna? Jesus died on the cross to save us all from sin, didn’t he?” “Oh, child,” she cried. “Oh baby.” She dropped to her knees and embraced him, “squeezing me tight, rocking me back and forth in a muttered mixture of tears and prayers . . . for what seemed a long, long time.”
In thinking of that story since (he retold it to himself regularly on the anniversary of Dr. King’s death), Tyson writes that he long thought of it as a story of how “even at one of the worst moments in our nation’s racial history, the color line could dissolve in redemptive love.” And yet, older and wiser when he included it in his 2004 memoir, he admits that that version of the incident neglected some of the “important truths” about what that moment actually meant to Mrs. Allen. She understood her world clearly enough, he wrote, and she hardly needed any lesson about “the power of redemptive suffering from me.” What she knew, that he didn’t for many years to come, was that “what happened on that bloody balcony in Memphis threatened to destroy any path that could ever connect us.” Looking back at the story now, Tyson writes, “I still feel the enveloping love that she gave me. But what strikes me most is the soothing and self-congratulatory way that I interpreted the moment in my memory, and how much greater was the distance between us than I could possibility comprehend.” Such a small moment, but out of such moments are powerful memories and sources of self-revelation often made.
7. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, In My Place (1992)
The pedagogical merits of teaching this memoir in UGA classrooms goes without saying, or should. Not only is it a dramatic and heart-felt account of the university’s desegregation in 1961 by one of the two students at the center of that storm; it also chronicles a comfortable, middle-class African American upbringing – relatively rare among black autobiographers – from the late 1940s through the 1950s, as Hunter-Gault describes her coming of age in Covington, Georgia and then Atlanta. As with many African American life stories, her first foray outside of the South proves to be a significant turning point in coming to terms with both her racial and regional identity. What makes this especially intriguing in Hunter-Gault’s case is that that experience came in Alaska. She devotes a full chapter to the year in which she, her mother, and her brothers joined her father, an Army chaplain, when he was assigned to Anchorage.
Thirteen years old when the family moved to the still new state in 1954, Charlayne quickly found that they were among the very few African Americans in Alaska, and that she was the only black student not only in her eighth grade class, but in the whole school. While a premonition of sorts of what she would face at the University of Georgia seven years later, this didn’t seem to bother her at the time. (Nor, she notes, did she or anyone else in her family think about the irony that she was attending an all-white school in the year of the Brown decision.) But she found that the color line was very much in evidence, though in less blatant and sometimes unexpected ways than that under which she had earned to live in Georgia. Some of her most interesting insights have to do with this region in racial transition – a transition shaped by the American military, only desegregated by executive order six years earlier, and the “sometimes subtle, sometimes overt dynamics that existed in an army not yet fully desegregated or comfortable with the idea.” A very different dynamic arose from the small black community in Anchorage that felt the effects of white prejudice in part because so much of the recent influx into the new state consisted of white southerners.
Most of all, Charlayne came to know and appreciate her dad during that year in Alaska. It was there that she and her younger brothers “entered his world, and we would learn more about him and his life than we had ever before known. And that, along with my other experiences in and out of school, would go a long way in preparing me for what lay ahead. . . back home in Georgia.” As the base’s only black chaplain serving a heavy majority of white troops, Captain Hunter, a Korean War veteran, knew how to negotiate this bi-racial clientele without ever sublimating his racial pride in himself and his position, and his special sense of obligation to the black soldiers and their needs. An army colleague later told Charlayne: “People went to your father’s services because they were different. Everything had a black focus to it . . . The blacks went to his services because it was like being home. You got a minister who gave you what you needed spiritually, but you also got the soul of a black service.” At the same time, she wrote, he “was able to transcend race, because he related on a human level to everybody. My father’s services were easily the most popular on the post, attended by all races and religions. He was as open and accessible to the needs of white soldiers as to those of blacks, and yet he also gave a great deal of time and attention to the impoverished and beleaguered civilian black enclave that huddled in a remote corner of Anchorage.
This would be the last time Charlayne had regular contact with her father (her parents separated soon thereafter) or saw him in this role that he had so masterfully carved for himself in this somewhat rarefied racial environment. She moved with her mother and brothers back to Atlanta nine months after they’d arrived, but she wrote that those had been “nine months that would affect my life profoundly.” A big part of that came because she came to know her father and see him in successful career mode at a time in her life where she could appreciate just what that meant. What a far cry from the experiences of Richard Wright or Rick Bragg, who were impacted in very different ways by the brevity of their fathers’ presence in their lives.
8.Dean Faulkner Wells, Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi (2011)
Often among the most revelatory moments in southern autobiography – perhaps American autobiography as well – are what an author has to say about his or her college years. College campuses could be, and often were, crucibles for young people searching for causes, for identity, for some sense of self. I devote a chapter in my book to southern whites who found their college years to be transformative and wrote about the drama and/or trauma of those transformations. I wish I’d had this memoir by William Faulkner’s niece in hand then, but it was just published this year.
Dean, the sole child of William’s youngest brother, also named Dean, who died in a plane crash four months before her birth, was raised in Oxford, and writes vividly about life there in the 1940s and 50s, and of her close relationship with her Uncle Bill, who she called “Pappy.” In a chapter called simply “The Faulkners and Race,” she describes her years at Ole Miss in the mid-1950s, when she and a few friends formed a radical underground. They held secret meetings, and printed a subversive broadside that satirized local and campus white supremacists that they then distributed in the middle of the night to fraternities and dorm rooms for their students to find in the morning and vent about. “We thought we were hot stuff, real heroes,” Wells wrote. “We were proud as punch when a carload of students yelled through open windows at us: ‘N—–r-loving queers!’” They sat at their own table in the cafeteria with “unabashed smugness,” taking pride in the fact that no one else would dare sit down or be seen with them. (She only found out years later, and much to her delight, that their silent partner in all this, the benefactor who paid for the paper, the repair of their mimeograph machine, and other expenses had been none other than William Faulkner himself, “Pappy.”)
Wells wrote that at one level they knew their efforts were minimal, that that what they were doing hardly compared to those who put their lives on the line by becoming Freedom Riders or sitting at a lunch counter in Greensboro, or crossing a bridge in Selma. But she knew where those urges came from – the only two members of the extended Faulkner family who could claim the label of “moderate” during those tense times – “Pappy” and her own mother. Otherwise, she wrote, we were “a family of ardent segregationists and racists.” The real kicker in Wells’ narrative came in the fall of 1962, just two months after William’s death, when James Meredith sought to become the first student to bring down this last bastion of segregation. She was still in Oxford, as were her cousins, Chookie and Jimmy, both sons of John Faulkner, yet another of William’s brothers. The showdown between them – revealed here for the first time in print — puts a new twist on the much documented Ole Miss riot.
In a remarkably matter-of-fact tone, Wells notes that Chookie was a captain in the Mississippi National Guard, and in charge of mobilizing the Oxford company to bring order to the violence erupting on campus on September 30. His older brother Jimmy,on the other hand, was – in her words – “leading a lynching party. . . intent on assassinating James Meredith while the mob ruled the campus.”Thirty-nine years old at the time, Jimmy commandeered a bulldozer from a nearby construction site and led a group of Klansmen with shotguns and dynamite, “like infantry behind a tank” to lay siege on the Lyceum building, where it was assumed that Meredith was ensconced. Blocking them there was Chooky, standing firm with his guardsmen. Jimmy, she writes, couldn’t bring himself to run over his younger brother, and ran the bulldozer into a massive oak tree instead, hoping to knock it over and allow his riflemen to use it for cover. It stalled out when it hit the tree, and as FBI swarmed around it, Jimmy made a fast getaway and was never arrested.
And that’s it! Other than her comment that this riot was said to be the last battle of the Civil War, dividing families who fought on both sides, Wells has nothing more to say about this extraordinary encounter between these Faulkner brothers – of their future relationship with each other or with other members of the family, or of her own feelings about her cousins putting themselves on the front lines of history. Equally extraordinary, though, is that this seems to be the first time this story’s been told. There’s nothing about Jimmy Faulkner’s actions in any of the major scholarly or journalistic accounts of the riot – those by Charles Eagles, William Doyle, Nadine Cohodas, Frank Lambert, etc. – nor do any accounts of the Faulkner family, including two by Jimmy Franklin himself, make any mention of his role in the riot. So Wells is, in a sense, doing what autobiographers often do, revealing a family secret; and yet, she misses a real opportunity to do something else good autobiographers do, which is to provide some personal, intimate, or emotional context for what this incident meant to her and her family. It may well have been a painful truth for her to reveal, and thus led her to put it out there in this far more succinct, understated way, without wallowing in reactions, recriminations, or regrets. But it makes for a very strange revelation just because it’s laid out in such a minimalized fashion. What isn’t said by autobiographers can sometimes be as revealing as what is, as tantalizing – indeed frustrating – as such silences can be.
9.Anne Braden, The Wall Between (1958)
Anne and Carl Braden were journalists and civil rights activists in Louisville, Kentucky, who created a firestorm when they purchased a house for an African American couple in an all-white neighborhood there in 1954. That action led to violence and to a trial in which Carl was convicted of sedition as a Communist sympathizer, and sentenced to fifteen years in jail (of which he only served nine months). Anne’s memoir four years later focuses on those recent events, but she devotes her opening chapters to her coming of age as a child in Anniston, Alabama. Some of her most arresting anecdotes deal with youthful encounters there with an entrenched racism that she found hard to accept or understand.
One of the revelations Braden claimed to have come to as a teen was that racial barriers not only restricted blacks; they also “built a wall around white people as well, cramping their spirits and causing them to grow in distorted shapes.” She cited a memorable conversation she had with a white gentleman, “one of the kindest men I had ever known. He would do anything for a friend. . . was a leader in his church and the community, and no man in need, friend or stranger, black or white, who ever went to him for help was turned away.” Once she was discussing with him the pros and cons of a federal anti-lynching law and expressed her hope that such a law would pass. “My elder friend was infuriated that I, a Southern girl, supposedly ‘well-bred,’ could express such treason.” He was quick to respond: “We have to have a good lynching every once in a while to keep the nigger in his place.”
“I was speechless,” Braden wrote. “I could not believe what I had heard. To the day I die, I will hear those words ringing in my ears. Words of murder from one of the gentlest people I ever knew.” While he apologized later, Braden knew that “in a very profound sense he meant exactly what he had said. His words had sprung out of the unconscious places of his soul, provoked to the surface by his fury” at the views she had expressed. Despite his goodness and generosity, she couldn’t get over the fact that there was a different reality “buried in his being.”
Lillian Smith, who obviously much influenced Braden’s thinking on race, made the same observation about this schizophrenia in far more succinct form in Killers of the Dream. At once more hypothetical yet chillingly specific, she wrote: “One day, sometime in your childhood or adolescence, a Negro was lynched in your county or the one next to yours . . .And afterward, maybe weeks or months or years afterward, you sat casually in the drugstore with one of those murderers and drank the Coke he casually paid for. A ‘nice white girl’ could do that but she would have been run out of town or perhaps killed had she drunk a Coke with the young Negro doctor who was devoting his life in service to his people.” In her own endearing way, Eudora Welty made a similar point. “People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs,” she once wrote, “and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths,” or she might have added, hybrids of both.
10.William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee (1941)and Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977)
Another topic to which I could have devoted a full chapter but didn’t is the Ku Klux Klan. Its presence is ubiquitous in 20th century memoir, both white and black, through which a full spectrum of encounters are related, often in highly dramatic and deeply emotional ways. (I did devote some attention in my book to narratives by those who lived with Klansmen and the tolls taken – or not – by their sons, daughters, nieces, or nephews.) Two of the most unusual confrontations with Klan members involved white Mississippi men named Will, each of whom describe unexpected show-downs that belie the conservatism of the first, who had nothing but contempt for them, and the liberalism of the second, who was oddly empathetic with them.
Will Percy’s 1941 memoir is subtitled Reflections of a Planter’s Son, which suggests one of several reasons it’s so unique: for much of his narrative, Percy portrays himself as a deferential, self-effacing only child who futilely struggled to gain the respect of a formidable father. Only on one or two occasions did Will manage to show much in the way of forceful local leadership during his father’s lifetime (and with whom he lived in Greenville throughout the latter’s lifetime); the most compelling of those was confrontation with the Klan, which reared its ugly head there just after the First World War.
Percy was an unabashed and unrepentant white supremacist, but he was also a genteel racist, a benign paternalist, who clung to the inherited sense of noblesse oblige toward the African Americans he and his family had so long worked first as slaves, and then as sharecroppers. Yet he finds himself – and more particularly his father – the victim of Klan threats and harassment in 1919 – a fact my students find hard to fathom. He denounced the Klan in a letter published in The New Republic – referring to it as “the lawlessness and hoodlumism of our uneducated whites,” and distinguished the racial views of the planter elite with whom he identified and these ruffians as “the difference between those Southerners who through poverty, lack of inheritance, and ignorance misunderstand and dislike the Negro, and those [such as the Percys] who by training and opportunity feel themselves his friend and protector.”
Yet curiously, it was not these differences that made the Percys such a significant target of the local Klan. It was, instead, their “papist affiliations,” or more specifically, the strong Catholic streak that ran through the family’s maternal line. “The Klan did not stand for, but against,” Percy wrote. “It stood against Catholics, Jews, Negroes, foreigners, and sin. In our town it chose Catholics as the object of its chief persecution,” noting that he had learned to his astonishment that “of all things hated in the South, more hated than the Jew or the Negro or sin itself, is Rome.”
Most of the Klan’s wrath was aimed at Percy’s very distinguished father, Leroy Percy, a former U.S. senator, who put himself on the line by heading up anti-Klan forces in Greenville, and Will claims, far beyond, which led to ominous threats and even a kidnapping plot against him. All of this led Will to take matters into his own. He wrote that he went to the office of the local Cyclops, “an inoffensive little man, a great Mason, and partial to anti-Catholic tirades.” He said to this Klan leader: “If anything happens to my Father or to any of our friends, you will be killed. We won’t hunt the guilty party. So far as we’re concerned, the guilty party will be you.” As a result, he implies, there were “no atrocities, no whippings, no threatening letters, no masked parades in our town.”
Though the Klan did mount a serious challenge in the next sheriff’s election, the established (elite-backed) candidate prevailed and that, along with his own confrontation with the Cyclops, allowed young Percy to gloat, at the end of much longer chapter focused on demonizing this second KKK: “It had been a great fight. It was also a ruthless searchlight on character, of one kind or another.” From the hindsight of two decades later, Percy wrote that one old Klansman (who was educated and thus had no excuse for having been in the KKK), asked him long afterward why he’d never forgiven him. “I had to answer: ‘Forgiveness is easy. I really like you. The trouble is I’ve got your number and people’s numbers don’t change.’”
Will Campbell was born into a poor farm family in southern Mississippi in 1924, and recounts both his own escape from that world via World War II and a calling to the Baptist ministry. His book, Brother to a Dragonfly, is both a chronicling of his life through the turbulent days of the civil rights movement, in which he was caught up as the southern representative of the National Council of Churches, and the heart-breaking deterioration and ultimate demise of his beloved older brother Joe, who he had so idolized and from whom he had learned so many life lessons as a child and adolescent.
For a civil rights activist, Campbell’s approach to the Ku Klux Klan was a far cry from that of Percy. Decidedly unorthodox, his perspective on the Klan as it reemerged in full force in the 1960s still raise eye-brows among my students who aren’t quite sure what to make of what Campbell said and did. Insisting that “Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well,” he wrote that that was the message he sought to convey when he rose to speak at a 1964 conference of college students, most of them SDS and other New Left radicals. He stood and stated simply: “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being. Now, that’s my speech.” The response was “sheer pandemonium” as most of the outraged students, black and white, stormed out of the auditorium. It was, he wrote, one of the few times he’d ever been afraid for his life.
There’s a bit more to that story, but Campbell soon moves on to what he saw as an even bigger challenge – the chance a couple of years later to confront and to interview a leader of the Maoist wing of the KKK in North Carolina, a man the FBI considered the most dangerous in the state. In an extended Socratic exchange with this extremely bright young leader (though Campbell makes clear that he grew up in a household abandoned by his father, was raised by a mother who supported the family by working in a “textile sweatshop” for thirty-seven years, and was a high school drop-out), Campbell asked him what the Klan stood for. The Klansman’s response – that it stood for “peace, harmony, and freedom” – took Will aback. After further bickering over semantics, Will finally asked him: “What means are you willing to use to accomplish those glorious ends?” To which the Klansman replied: “Oh, I see what you’re getting at. The means we are willing to use are as follows: murder, torture, threats, blackmail, intimidation, burning, guerrilla warfare. Whatever it takes.” Then he said” Now, preacher. Let me as you a question. You tell me what we stand for in Vietnam.”
Stunned, Campbell realized his adversary had him, that he’d been caught in his own trap. “Suddenly I knew we were a nation of Klansmen. I knew that as a nation we stood for peace, harmony, and freedom in that war . . . and that the means we were employing to accomplish those ends were identical with the ones he had listed.” There’s much more to both episodes, but Campbell is so fascinating to read because of such unorthodox thinking and action on his part. His racial liberalism never negated a strong sense of class-based empathy that defined his sense of self and his politics and thus made him such an enigma to so many of his peers. And how tantalizing it is to play his assessment off that of the earlier Will, whose class consciousness was equally strong, but whose own encounter with the Mississippi Klan some forty years earlier, played out so differently.
Dr. John Inscoe is the University and Albert W. Saye Professor of History at the University of Georgia.