Sunday, June 05, 2011

Literary Wow on a personal level

I'll be writing about this novel over on the book blog, and may even cannibalize a few paragraphs from this entry, but the personal side of my reaction to it goes here.

If you've ever felt that the segregationist South of the 1950's was a place beyond your comprehension, you might find yourself feeling a little less so after reading this novel. It takes you there. Then again, you have every reason not to want to go there. It is not a nice place.

The title, as much as the cover, attracted me in the bookstore and I discovered right away that it took place within walking distance of the house in which I grew up, and only a handful of years earlier. The family in the book lives a few streets away from the street I lived on. The daughter bikes to Freedom Park, which I did too. It's like, the stage sets of my life: the towering shade trees of the avenues, Ivey's and Montaldo's stores, the Manor Theater. Having a house next to Sugar Creek, and knowing that the springtime creek rising will soak the back of your lot. My (later) high school's marching band plays at local events.

The author is a decade+ older than I am and knew a more rigid version of the segregated world, but not by a huge degree. And only in its laws, not in its social divisions, which had changed very little by my childhood of the 1960s.

Jim Crow laws were banished by the time I had a semi-thoughtful awareness, but, predictably, attitudes changed a LOT more slowly, which kept racial divisions alive and well for years and years. The same old system dies hard and isn't gone yet. Separate neighborhoods, little shared experience that wasn't engineered by school desegregation laws, a distinct us-and-them feeling.

By my era, school integration was beginning, and it was perfectly legal for all races to sit down in any restaurant, or go to any movie theater. We knew the old laws, but we were so young that anything a few years back was "the olden days." Often, a few African Americans were at another table at the restaurant, or at the drug or department store, and we found it normal. They were such a small minority of our daily experience that it reinforced our feeling that they had their own world.

In fact, the author has her teenage character go to a movie at the Manor Theater and walk home, and doesn't mention the unspoken rule there, even in my time - blacks sit in the balcony, whites sit downstairs. That gradually deteriorated and by my teen years, I could sit there, which I'd always craved doing. The theater still operates -- along with the neighborhood, it kind of morphed into an indie film place, now a Regal cinema but still given to "films" more than to movies. The balcony doors are locked, or were every time I visited in the 1990s or early 2000s.

At about age 10 -- and I have no idea what the occasion was -- I was dumbfounded to see a pleasant middle class black neighborhood in Charlotte. It might have been on a multi-den Girl Scout activity of some sort (?), held in various Scout meeting places around town. I have no memory of the occasion other than the discovery that there were African American neighborhoods that looked basically like our white neighborhoods. Someone's pretty, classily dressed mother, obviously on car-pool duty, was ushering her little girl charges into her station wagon, and it was all I could do not to stare.

I knew some desperately poor whites, especially in the farm country my grandparents lived in. I honestly thought that "we," the whites, lived a spectrum of poor-to-rich, based not on race but on various unrelated factors. And that "they," the blacks, were uniformly poor and did low-pay domestic work or manual labor.

That's the society I grew up in, one in which black professionals and middle-class families had an entire other universe that ours rarely saw. It was no leap at all to the realization that this part of town not only existed, but that it must have been existing all along. Well, duh. But it shows you how completely dis-integrated, in every way, southern society was then.

The Dry Grass of August takes a white girl of 13 who lives in a nice house in the Myers Park section of Charlotte, through the racially violent and ugly South of late summer 1954. The racism is a spectrum of its own, semi-literate, violent and deadly in the deep south towns the family drives through on a road trip, but neat and cordial and evil in a different way, in the "decent folks" society of the 50's suburbs.

(Publisher's promo video):

When I write a book-blog entry about it, I think (!) I can be objective about its literary merits, but it's entirely possible that what would have seemed like just a really good book to me otherwise, will take on superpowers of literary importance to me because of the sheer "me me me!" thing that's going on. Not the plot, in which 13-year-old Jubie encountered horrors I never knew existed till I was much older, and not the family dynamics, which have no resemblance to mine, but the outside world that Jubie is reaching into and absorbing. This is where I'm from.


Christy said...

I have such a hard time believing this happened where I came from. The plant Sean first worked in north of Atlanta still had bathrooms for whites and non-whites. Totally unbelievable.

southernyankee said...

In the town where I grew up, the black community was centered around a road called Christian Avenue and the AME Baptist Church. I do not recall seeing any white families there, but remember thinking how strange, and later, ironic that the people who were most "disliked" or didn't fit in lived in that community.

If you are wondering, the town was Setauket in the state of New York, sixty miles due east of NYC. It was still mostly a farming community back then, and segregation an unspoken rule.

Black families did not attend our Episcopal church, and I do not recall seeing them shopping in the stores we frequented in Setauket and the neighboring town of Port Jefferson until well into the 1970s.

My point being, that race issues were no better in the north than the south. In fact, I think in the end, the south turned it around sooner and in a better way than those people "Up North" did.