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How Jim Grimsley Shed His 'Racist' Skin


Jim Grimsley was an 11-year-old boy growing up in Jones County, N.C., when the first black children enrolled in his all-white school. It was August of 1966, the year federally mandated integration went into effect. In Grimsley's new book, "How I Shed My Skin," he describes the racist environment he was raised in and how he began to rethink his assumptions. Grimsley is the author of several award-winning novels including "Winter Birds." But this book is a memoir, one that carefully examines an uncomfortable truth. He was, as he puts it in the book, a good little racist. We are joined now by Jim Grimsley, who is at WABE in Atlanta. Hello.


KEITH: And Donnie Copeland Meadows, who is here in the studio. Donnie is one of the three girls who first integrated Jim's sixth-grade class. Thank you both for joining us.


GRIMSLEY: Thank you for having us.

KEITH: And we should mention that in the book, Donnie, you're identified as Rhonda.


KEITH: So I'm hoping you could both share your memories of that first day.

GRIMSLEY: Sure. The way I described it in the book is what sticks with me. There was no preparation whatsoever. As I recall it, the principal walked the girls into our classroom and simply acted as if they had moved into town. Of course, nobody ever moved into Pollocksville. So all of this was sort of a pretense. We were acting as if nothing big was going on, when in fact, you know, the world was changing right before our eyes.

MEADOWS: I agree. What I remember is she walked us in the classroom and introduced the three of us. And, you're right, as if it was just an ordinary day.


MEADOWS: That morning was important to us. My sister and I were told by my parents that I want you to go and do your best.


MEADOWS: And I just remember walking in the classroom scared to death, just looking at the building itself was spooky.

KEITH: And you had previously lived in Washington, D.C.


KEITH: You'd gone to integrated schools.


KEITH: So this must have just been a huge culture shock.

MEADOWS: Oh, yes. I did not believe that black and whites weren't together. I didn't understand that they had two separate schools. And so the first day of school was a shocker to see just one other girl - one other person besides my color in that classroom.

GRIMSLEY: In the - I begin the book with a story of that first day where I felt the urge to call the girl named Violet in the book, who's actually named Rose, I called her name. I called her - I didn't use the N-word, I called her - well, I don't want to say that on the radio.

KEITH: the B-word.

GRIMSLEY: The B-word, right. And I thought she would crumble. I thought she would realize that she was, you know, not as good as I was, frankly. And I - as soon as she spat back at me, well, you, you're a white one, that just changed my world almost in the instant. I realized something was wrong with what I had been told. >>KEITH: And Donnie, did you feel a weight that you were going to school and you were making history, or were you just a regular old sixth-grader?

MEADOWS: When I walked in I was a regular old sixth-grader, not knowing what I was about to face, not realizing there would be no other African-American children in that classroom. That was an eye-opener. We would come to North Carolina during the summer, and we would cry because we didn't want to come back to D.C. It was just the opposite after that day. The first day of school...

GRIMSLEY: (Laughter). You cried to go back to D.C.

MEADOWS: I wanted to come back to D.C. running. I could've walked back here.

KEITH: Jim, there's a section I'd like you to read. This is in ninth grade, you have a teacher named Mrs. Murphy. And maybe you can set up what happened.

GRIMSLEY: For some reason I had learned what her first name was. Again, this was akin to the impulse I had when I called Rose by the name the first day of school. You know, occasionally these impulses would come to me. And I wouldn't understand what they were, but I wanted to call her by her first name. I thought it was cute. And so I went up and I called her. I said, hey, I'm going to call her Lila. Hey, Lila. She let me know that I was never to call her anything but her last name again. I was to call her Mrs. Murphy and nothing else.

KEITH: And she was African-American.

GRIMSLEY: Oh, yes. Yes. She was not angry. She was just simply firm.

KEITH: And that gets us to the section I want you to read.

GRIMSLEY: I was a functioning young bigot, a sneaky one, who might act only occasionally from this side of myself, but who nevertheless had the impulse. Before, black people had simply been irrelevant in my world. Now that I was learning to see them as people, the prejudice I had learned moved to another place, acting with different tactics. The child sees difference, marks it - the adult acts on it. I would either learn to be a better bigot, or I would learn to stop being a bigot at all. Two paths. I had a choice to make.

KEITH: Donnie, what was it like for you reading all these words in this book?

MEADOWS: It brought back memories. I cried because I had hidden memories. I had really blocked that part of my childhood out completely because it was a - very painful. Every day to go to school for two years and to hear the N-word.

KEITH: Was there anything in Jim's perspective that he shared in this book that surprised you?

MEADOWS: Well, first I didn't know he and my sister - my sister kissed him. I didn't know that.


MEADOWS: I went what? When did that happen? And how did I miss that? And then when he shared the moment about actually realizing that he had a crush on a male, on a man, and I went what? I just, you know, I had no idea.

GRIMSLEY: Well, I was terrified to even - I wasn't going to let anybody know I was gay.

MEADOWS: You did a great job.

GRIMSLEY: It turns out we were all keeping secrets.

MEADOWS: We were keeping secrets. I mean, it was just completely - you went to school and showed another face.


KEITH: Jim Grimsley is the author of the new book "How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning The Lessons Of A Racist Childhood." Donnie Copeland Meadows is a retired psychiatric social worker. And thank you both so much for joining us.

MEADOWS: Thank you for having us.

GRIMSLEY: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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