Adventures in voting in North Georgia

I hauled Cabbage and Donnell to vote.

Extracting them from the nursing home proved quite an unwieldy production, involving two walkers and a wheelchair. The alarmed nurses tried to halt Cabbage because they thought she had “escaped,” but I had signed them both out. Off we went, two elderly, infirm African-Americans and me, their freckle-faced aide de camp, to save the republic from certain doom.

In July 2017, more than half a million people were purged from Georgia’s voter rolls, and 70 percent of them were African-American. Secretary of State Brian Kemp was locked in a tight race with Stacey Abrams, who seemed on course to become the country’s first Black, female governor if the redneck chicanery didn’t block her path. Cabbage and Donnell had never taken their franchise for granted, and they were determined to play a role in history, despite – or because of – all of the reports of faulty ballot boxes and long lines.

Donnell, to my surprise, sailed through. He could not balance with his walker, though, so I helped him mark his selections, assistance that is legal for elderly and disabled people, but it raised some eyebrows among the prim, matronly, well-coiffed poll monitors with their flag brooches. They were, of course, all white and likely Trump voters.

Cabbage was next, but there was a glitch. One of the women told her that she had already voted by absentee ballot. Cabbage looked confused and glanced at me. I felt rage welling up. I said, “She been living in a nursing home since she broke her hip, so she isn’t receiving any mail there.” The woman replied, “Not according to our records.”

I said, “She hasn’t voted yet, but she is voting today. We are here to vote.” I fixed the woman with I hoped was my steeliest badass stare. She hustled to the back, where she conferred in whispers with the other monitors. I took Cabbage aside and said, “I knew there would be some bullshit.” She just nodded and looked solemn.

While we waited, I pondered my friendship with this pair. Ill at ease among camo and Carhartt, I had long ago learned not to talk politics or religion with white people in north Georgia. I went to an African-American church and liked the vibe, which makes me just another neurotic white chick with soul-envy, seeking the solace of Black spirituality. It is difficult to find in this part of Appalachia, where most of the melanin is in the freckles, but there is a small African-American neighborhood just up the road from me. Progressive people refer to it simply as “the community.” Less progressive people have another, uglier name for it. It is literally at the intersection of Hood Street and Ebony Lane – in White County. I could not and would not make that up. Cabbage and Donnell had shared a modest house there, where everyone felt free to drop in at any hour of the night.

Donnell is a six-foot string-bean with large, opalescent blue eyes that stand out in his pecan-colored face. He is garrulous as a magpie and speaks in a high falsetto voice, which lends a sense of urgency to everything he says and also grates on Cabbage’s nerves. She occasionally raises her fist as if to wallop him.

Since she was a little girl, everyone has called her Cabbage, and if you ask her why, she will say, “On account of my head is so hard.” She is quick at math and used to run numbers when she had more money to play with. Born into another place and time, she likely would’ve been an engineer or C.E.O. Cabbage is also something of a hedonist, enjoying a snort of straight moonshine and maybe a joint while she watches “Gunsmoke.” Her voice is husky, and her big laugh and incredulous manner reminds me of Wanda Sykes. She likes to flirt with young white guys, and many of them flirt back.

She has, as she puts it, “been through some shit.” Her only child, born the year I was, died of sickle-cell. And when she tried to move into my pale community in 1970, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her yard, so she retreated back to Hood Street. I thought of these events when she seemed so cowed by the poll monitor; it was a generational reflex. I’ve seen her bow up at Black men who she thinks are acting a fool, or at skanky redneck women who try to steal her pills. In her element, on her turf, she is tough as a pine knot. But around white people in positions of power, she goes mute. And it hurts my heart to reckon why.

Cabbage and I enjoy going to the movies. She relished the special effects and beefcake in “Black Panther.” I also took her to see “Selma.” We left the theater silent and somewhat shell-shocked by that powerful film with its depiction of racist violence. I turned to her and said, “If you want to punch me just for having a white face, I wouldn’t blame you. Go ahead.” She laughed and opened her arms and hugged me instead.

At the polling station, I was tapping my foot and growing more impatient. I caught the eye of an older worker and tried to appeal to her sympathy. “Please,” I said, “we’ve been through a lot just to get here. She’s having trouble standing.”

She said, “Bless your heart.”

The monitors finally, grudgingly decided to let Cabbage vote, even though it was clear that they didn’t believe she had not already done so. I helped her as I had assisted Donnell, and the women in the room shot me daggers with their eyes.

Stacey Abrams lost, of course, but she still is fighting the rigged outcome. As beleaguered Democrats in Trump Country, my friends and I were not surprised. Cabbage shook her head, harrumphed and said, “Kemp is triflin’.” He may be the governor, but he had better stay away from Hood Street.






Charleston’s complicated racial past

Denmark Vesey was born into slavery in 1767, but he was literate, ambitious, and enterprising – and destined to leave an enduring legacy.

He won a lottery and purchased his freedom, and, a natural leader, he helped found an African Methodist Episcopal Church, which quickly grew into the South’s most important hub for the Black community. Vesey was unable, though, to purchase freedom for his wife and children. So he devised a plot for a wide-ranging slave revolt, with the goal of transporting his people to freedom in Haiti. Before a single blow was struck, however, plantation owners rounded up and tortured 131 slaves; hanged Vesey and his 34 co-conspirators; and destroyed his church. They also established a Municipal Guard of 150 men, which eventually became The Citadel, to keep the remaining Black population in check.

This martyr’s story might have ended there as another historical footnote, but it unfolded in Charleston, where the past remains preserved in sun-gilded amber, for better or worse, and still strobe-lights events today. Even in our more enlightened era, a sight-seeing survey of the many antebellum markers and memorials– and the Confederate flags in the city’s gift shops — can feel a little like waterboarding by sweet tea. As the capital of American slavery, where nearly half of the enslaved people brought to this country first stepped ashore and the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, this nexus of the Lowcountry offers the ideal setting to mull over our bloody, complicated record on race.

*Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy* (The New Press) is the first major work to analyze competing histories of the Civil War from emancipation to recent events in the news. In this thoroughly researched, heavily annotated volume, its writers, the married duo of Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, deftly examine the dialectically entwined narratives that divide not only Charlestonians but the rest of the country.

They share only one personal anecdote, a mundane, but telling, exchange that piqued their interest. New to town, they were looking for an apartment to rent and exploring part of a historic home that the owner described as the one-time “servants’ quarters.” The historians reflexively corrected her by saying “slaves’ quarters,” which provoked a defensive argument from the landlord. Kytle and Roberts could not resist checking into documents on the house, and sure enough, their instincts were validated. They opted to look elsewhere for a home, but they had found their next project. 

Most of Charleston’s plantation owners originally hailed from Barbados, where slavery fueled the sugar industry. By the 1850s, African Americans, toiling in the rice fields, constituted the majority of the city’s residents. A Scandinavian visitor marveled with horror, “Negroes swarm the streets.” This bonded labor made the local planters among the wealthiest men in the nation, and buyers came from 100 miles away to bid on human chattel six days a week, splitting up families and selling some “down the river.” Coining the phrase “the peculiar institution,” Sen. John C. Calhoun wrote in the 1830s that slavery not only “secured the peace and happiness” of master and slave, but that it also proved “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.” Charleston’s Southern hospitality emphatically did not extend to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Cue the salvos on Fort Sumter thirty years later. Throughout the brutal years that followed, Charleston’s planter class, unchastened, went about its malignant business. On January 19, 1865, in what might have been the last time slaves were sold in Charleston, a master named T.A. Whitney advertised thirty “Prime Negroes,” including field hands, two “house girls,” and a one-year-old toddler.

Union forces reduced the city to rubble, but the streets sprang to life when liberators, in the form of the 21st United States Colored Troops, marched into town. One minister observed: “Shawls, aprons, hats, everything was waved. Old men wept. The young women danced and jumped and cried and laughed.” The so-called “Year of Jubilee,” with its many “festivals of freedom” for Black Americans, was at hand. It was quite a party, impudent and meaningful in its symbolism for any white observer delusional enough to believe in the beneficence of slavery and inherent subservience of Black folk. With irony they no doubt relished, the revelers thronged The Citadel and made it their staging ground for lively parades. Young boys marched under the banner “We know no masters but ourselves.” Fifteen young Black women, representing the 15 slave states, and clad all in white to represent the purity and virtue once reserved solely for their mistresses, swanned through the proceedings in a statement of dignity. They gleefully held mock slave auctions, and a hearse carrying a coffin marked “Slavery” threaded through the jeering, catcalling crowds.

Black people constructed a cemetery for Union soldiers and reverently turned out on May 1, 1965 to lay flowers on the graves, calling their gesture “Decoration Day,” which eventually became Memorial Day. They also rebuilt Denmark Vesey’s church, with the revolutionary’s son designing the sanctuary. They named it Emanuel A.M.E., fondly nicknamed “Mother Emanuel.”

Reconstruction was a giddy time for Black Charlestonians, but it did not last. The word “uppity” had entered the lexicon. Jim Crow ground their social and political progress to a miserable halt, and the public-relations whitewashing of the “Lost Cause” began. The city had (white) tourists to attract, and its burghers did not want any dark stains on their seersucker. Kytle and Roberts write:

“…the segregation policies that undermined the city’s freedom festivals, the memory work that white Charlestonians began pursuing in the early twentieth century ensured that the black past remained hidden behind the Jim Crow veil. As local whites increasingly became invested in both historical preservation and tourism, they facilitated an important change. They recast the repositories of historical memory by turning to the vernacular cityscape rather than to symbolic statuary and public spaces. This made it more difficult for blacks to write their history, or any honest accounting of the enslaved past, into the commemorative landscape. It was one thing to protest a statue that honored a proslavery politician or that praised the virtues of old-time ‘darkeys.’ It was quite another to dislodge a historical memory that was made manifest everywhere the eye turned, especially in a place that claimed to be America’s Most Historic City.”

*Denmark Vesey’s Garden” especially shines in its elucidation of media spin with a drawl – there is enough forget-hell revisionism and cultural appropriation here to get any reader’s hoop skirt in a twist. Turn-of-the-century memoirists, politicians, and journalists immediately went to work enshrining “states’ rights” as the true cause of the “War Between the States,” and they were so effective that polls show a majority of Americans believe this canard today. Another persistent myth: provident masters were kind to grateful, loyal “darkeys,” who were “rescued” from their continent’s savagery. These propagandists grew misty-eyed over purported bonds of affection between slave and master. An especially galling phenomenon of moonlight-and-magnolias was the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, a popular all-white singing ensemble descended from the planter class, that, well into the 20th century, performed the sacred music of their families’ slaves while shouting, stomping, and clapping. Their costumes? Expensive skirts with crinolines and the waistcoats of the gentry. At least they did not use blackface, as other, similar groups did.

The authors write, “One curious feature of Lost Cause rhetoric is its conflicted position on slavery. … Lost Causers deployed two distinct arguments. Some attempted to absolve the South of responsibility for slavery. Others mounted a full-throated defense of the institution as a civilizing influence. A few made both points simultaneously, despite the seeming incompatibility of these positions – why, after all, would one bother to deny the South’s culpability for slavery if one believed it had been a good thing? In every case, however, the project was the same, even if the contradictions remained: reinforcing the moral sanctity of the Lost Cause.”

Despite this dominant storyline, Black residents of Charleston and the surrounding Sea Islands nurtured their heritage, discreetly at first but more boldly and insistently over the years. Their parables of resilience, and their spirituals extolling hope for a better day, became a source of power during the civil rights movement. The anthem “We Shall Overcome” is based on the Gullah slave spiritual known as both “Many Thousand Gone” and “No More Auction Block.” Finally, in the 1980s, African-American guides began diversifying Charleston’s tourism industry, and eventually many of the plantations that were open to the public restored their slave quarters and incorporated them as a central feature of the tours. The Citadel and Mother Emmanuel joined forces for certain ceremonies. Denmark Vesey – historically regarded as a terrorist by whites and a freedom fighter by Blacks – got his own statue in 2014; in a shady spot in Marion Square, he looks tall and defiant, holding a Bible and a carpenter’s bag.

Sadly, not everyone embraces this spirit of reconciliation. Fierce debates about Confederate monuments and symbols roil the country. A rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, surrounding a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee turned violent and cost one protestor her life. In 2015, a warped young white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into Bible study at Mother Emanuel – the church Vesey founded — and shot nine worshippers to death. He prepared by touring slavery-related sites, and he told the F.B.I. that he targeted Charleston because “it’s a historic city, and at one time, it had the highest ratio of black people to white people in the whole country, when we had slavery,” which had been subject to “historical lies, exaggerations, and myths” about the poor treatment of Africans.

As Kytle and Roberts write: “The persistence of racial inequality in America … reflects, to some degree, the persistence of our divided historical memory. Was slavery really all that bad? Was it really all that important to our nation? The answers to these questions matter. As Charleston proves better than any American city, the memory of slavery has always been fraught and contested ground. If a national consensus about our original sin finally seems within our reach, grasping it will not be easy. And the fact that it took the murder of nine people to inch us closer is a national disgrace.”


Atlanta author Jim Grimsley confronts his own racism (and maybe yours) in “How I Shed My Skin”

Author Jim Grimsley (Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory University)
Author Jim Grimsley (Photo ay Hinton, Emory University)

With disarming gentleness, Jim Grimsley’s new memoir conveys a harsh message sure to unsettle the well-mannered, well-meaning, white Southerner: You likely are a racist in spite of yourself.

In How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood (Algonquin Books), Grimsley explores with unflinching, plainspoken honesty the formative conventions of his upbringing that made him a “good, little racist.”

He was 11 years old in 1966 when he encountered African-American peers up close for the first time, in the tobacco country of tiny Pollocksville, North Carolina. The county had grudgingly adopted a “Freedom of Choice” desegregation plan, which allowed a few courageous black students to enroll in his formerly whites-only school; shortly thereafter, the federal courts mandated full desegregation. So Grimsley and his classmates became unwitting players on the stage of social change, where they were often clumsy but occasionally graceful in their movements.

White people declared that the South would rise again. Black people raised one fist and chanted for black power,” he writes. “Somehow we negotiated a space between those poles and learned to sit in classrooms together. … Lawyers, judges, adults declared that the days of separate schools were over, but we were the ones who took the next step. History gave us a piece of itself. We made of it what we could.”

That process, of course, had its wrenching moments. The opening chapter of the book is titled “Freedom of Choice/Black Bitch,” invoking the insult Grimsley hurled at one of his new classmates on the first day of school.

“I knew that calling Violet a name would make the boys in the back of the room laugh,” he writes. “That moment inside my head rings down through the years so clearly. I was 11 years old, filled with a vague sense of purpose, and ready to do my part, though for what, I could not have said.” Without blinking, she shot back, “You white cracker bitch,” and, to his blushing consternation, raised an eyebrow and added, “Black is beautiful.”

So began a chastened boy’s mission of questioning everything he had ever been taught.

“I was this smart-ass kid, and she quickly put me in my place,” Grimsley says. “Those (African-American) kids were so heroic and self-possessed. They were remarkably strong for kids of that age. It was a revelation.”

Grimsley, an Emory University professor, has penned one book of short stories, one book of plays, and nine novels, including the acclaimed Winter Birds, published in 1994. He initially tried to render his experiences during the civil rights era as a novel, but decided fiction was the wrong medium. So he began to mine his memory in granular detail.

“This was the hardest book I’ve written,” he says of Shedding My Skin. “It took me years to articulate these feelings, and I reasoned that if I’ve had that struggle, others have, too.

“The most painful chapter was the one that dealt with the word ‘nigger’ and the litany of its uses, including jokes and, particularly, nursery rhymes, in which 4- and 5-year-old kids could casually dehumanize people. The really hard part was viewing myself as a racist, but it was true and necessary. The confession was liberating.”

His meditations on that wounding, blood-soaked epithet make for some of the most nuanced passages. He parses how the word “nigger” was classified not so much as vile hate-speak but as a signal of something infinitely more benign but still relatively taboo in the genteel South: coarse manners, akin to cussing or “acting ugly.” He recalls a conversation with his mother:
“It’s not a nice word,” my mother answered. “Nice people don’t say it.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s not polite.”

Instead, his mother urged him to use “niggra.” “It was kind of a compromise,” he notes wryly.

In an echo of Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” line, Grimsley shows the prosaic, workaday dynamics of racism on an intimate scale, recalling the messages he received from magazines, music and television shows, along with the universal rites of adolescence such as his first kiss — a startling but pleasing peck from an African-American girl.

“When we talk about racism, we tend to emphasize the brutality of it,” he says. “If you haven’t participated in a beating, rape or a lynching, you may think you’re okay, but that’s not necessarily the case. Good, white people practice racism and teach it, handing it down, often without meaning to. Racism is so stubbornly embedded, even in good, white people, that it comes out in ways you don’t expect.”

In fact, the original working title for this memoir was Good White People. As a result of this tack, the book is distinguished by a refreshing subtlety, devoid of certain tropes typically found in literature about the South. Grimsley’s family was too poor to afford servants, so his epiphanies did not derive from a sassy, harrumphing black maid, nor did he tangle with easy-to-identify villains such as adder-eyed Klansmen. Instead, racism worked, in his circumscribed world, by way of an insidious osmosis; there was presumed white solidarity everywhere, in the hastily established private schools for white children; the hushed conversations and knowing looks exchanged by adults; and, sadly, in the sermons expounded from the pulpit and elaborated upon by salt-of-the-earth neighbors.

“I was taught to believe in white superiority in small ways, by gentle people, who believed themselves to be sharing God’s own truth,” he writes.

How-I-Shed-My-SkinGrimsley, though, was forging tentative alliances with the new kids, who helped him, gradually, bit by bit, challenge those assumptions and recognize their humanity. It probably helped that he was finding himself secretly in a minority role of his own; he was realizing that he was gay. He reasons that he probably would have experienced more bullying as a “sissy” if the other white students had not been so distracted by integration. At the 40-year reunion of the class of 1973, he was one of only a couple of white alumni who showed up.

Can he go home again?

“Reaction to the book so far has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the black students from that era,” he says, noting that he participated in an NPR interview with one of his African-American schoolmates. “Nobody has told me that I got anything wrong, though I haven’t really sought out the older, white folks in Jones County for their opinions.”

Has he completely shed his troublesome skin? Again, Grimsley opens up matter-of-factly: “I think the programming is still there in my software, in the underground of my thinking, and I’ll tell you why,” he says. “I always mark interracial couples, in the sense that I notice them, and I wonder about them — how they got together, what issues they face, how well they get along. I think if I had completely exorcised the demon of racism, if I had made my peace entirely, I wouldn’t notice them.”

In any case, he is not alone. He believes the Obama years have acted as a sort of pus-drawing salve, exposing racism on both the right and the left.

“Even progressives have turned on the president, and I think there’s some subtle racism at work there,” he says. “The past couple of years have been especially scary, ever since the death of Trayvon Martin. There’s a new coded language. The word ‘thug’ is interchangeable with ‘nigger,’ I think.”

To counteract these forces, Grimsley prescribes rigorous self-evaluation for his readers. “All people have a certain amount of bias when dealing with people who are different from them, but racism requires a majority, backed up by a power system,” he says. “It takes real work to uproot it. You really have to look hard in the mirror and question yourself. And if you’re white, you probably have something there to work on.”

Paul Hemphill, bard of the backwoods, to enter Georgia Writers Hall of Fame posthumously

The late Paul Hemphill in 1998, Photo by Susan Percy)
The late Paul Hemphill in 1998. ( Photo by Susan Percy)

Let others chart the swifter shoals of Los Angeles and New York.

Long before anyone coined the expression “flyover country,” Paul Hemphill was scrounging around its margins to find poetry in the trailer park, the honky-tonk, the Minor-League locker room and other slow-eddying, weed-choked spots in the swampier backwaters. He jokingly referred to his body of work as a sort of “Bubba Trilogy — books about country music, baseball and stock car racing.”

Hemphill, who died in 2009 at the age of 73, will be inducted posthumously in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, along with Janisse Ray, Vereen Bell and Taylor Branch, in a ceremony on Nov. 9 at the University of Georgia. This laurel for a prolific career that spans 16 books and hundreds of richly textured essays is long overdue for a writer whom Newsweek declared “bears comparison to Faulkner in his lighter moods.”

Like that other Southern author, Hemphill wrote in lengthy sentences as rococo as a New Orleans balcony (don’t even think about diagramming them), but the similarity does not end there. Hemphill grew up the son of a long-haul truck driver in Birmingham, Alabama, and played semi-pro baseball before turning to journalism. He bounced around several newspapers, eventually ending up at The Atlanta Journal in 1965, during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement.

This was also the era of New Journalism, and Hemphill began cranking out a daily page-two column of 1,000 or 2,000 words that developed his warm, woodsmoke voice and got him labeled the “Jimmy Breslin of the South.” These pieces still hold up beautifully; you can sense their music, as keening as a pedal steel guitar, in the collections The Good Old Boys and — my personal favorite — Too Old to Cry. He was not yet 30 when he penned some of these; how could someone so young wax on so knowingly about so much hard-earned woe?

“Most of my best writing is ultimately sad,” he wrote. “It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing and general unhappiness: a boy who died in my arms, in a bomb crater, while I wrote in Vietnam; an old lady who simply died of loneliness; a young couple with a child, stranded in a bus station; a pathetic kid from Tennessee who messed up a bank robbery in San Francisco.”

Don’t despair, though. There is high comedy in his first novel, Long Gone (1979), a raunchy picaresque about the Graceville (Florida) Oilers, the Class D League baseball team Hemphill actually played for in a career move that lasted all of five days. Throughout his work, most of his characters sweat out some sort of redemption, or at least enjoy a moment or two of flinty dignity, if only on the page.

51Q8GQV6XFL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_“Hell, I don’t know much about politics,” says Stud Cantrell, the raffish hero of Long Gone, “but I sure know about baseball. It’s just plain goddamn democratic when the best man wins. It ain’t supposed to matter who the pitcher’s daddy is or how much money the batter’s got in the bank. You get out there on that grass and it comes down to two people — a pitcher and a man with a bat in his hands, and there don’t nothing else matter.”

While Hemphill wrote frankly about race and extolled characters who were indelibly Southern and therefore “colorful” by default, his work avoids the freak-show tropes of Flannery O’Connor as well as the idealized, one-dimensional renderings of African-American characters who harrumph their way through the work of other white Dixie specialists. He did not grow up with a “mammy” who taught him how to love, but with a bigoted, blue-collar father who demonstrated the corrosive power of hate.

“This good man who once had been my hero, my ‘king of the road,’ now was eaten up by racism as though it was a cancer,” Hemphill lamented in Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son (1993).

Although he was consistently progressive — “there’s no one more liberal than a liberated redneck,” he liked to say — Hemphill’s working-class subjects, with dirt under their fingernails and grime on their Carhartts, were not always appreciated by the more genteel readers he dubbed the “parlor liberals.”

His long-form debut, started during his Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, was The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, the first book of its kind in 1970 and still widely regarded as the most authoritative on the subject. Originally published by Simon & Schuster, it since has been reissued twice — in 2005 by everthemore books and earlier this year by the University of Georgia Press — ­and rediscovered by a new generation of readers. This strumming, twanging, toe-tapping history proved an entertaining way for Hemphill to tweak the snobs and the Babbitts. In it, he writes:

‘Because of its many buildings of classic design, its interest in the arts and in education,’ explains a Chamber of Commerce flyer, ‘Nashville is known as the Athens of the South.’ Well, all right. No argument. But a funny thing happened on the way to the symphony. Ever since 1925 Nashville had hosted WSM radio’s Grand Ole Opry: the oldest continuing radio show in America, a five-hour procession of fiddlers and country comedians and yodelers and cloggers that every Saturday night drew a few thousand visitors to a hulking old downtown tabernacle called Ryman Auditorium and was broadcast all the way to Canada.

Another title of Hemphill’s that should enjoy renewed interest, especially as the country roils with racial violence and the South experiences another wave of arson attacks on its African-American churches, is The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural South (Simon &  Schuster, 2000), reputedly one of Harper Lee’s favorite books about a community in her backyard. For this “biography of a place,” he immersed himself in the flyspeck town of Little River, Alabama, where some white teenagers set fire to a black church in the wake of a Ku Klux Klan rally.

“It was a lusty band of tatterdemalions, the free-spirited sons and daughters of log-truck drivers and woodsmen and farmers and sharecroppers, not to be messed with,” he writes, as he meditates on the sociological toll of bigotry, cultural isolation and outright boredom.

This book alone would establish Hemphill as the bard of the backwoods if he had not already earned the title decades earlier. Of one of the large, obstreperous clans that dominate the region, he writes, “Throw a rock, you’ll hit a Boone, goes the saying, which can be taken either as wry commentary or a suggestion.”

51cd5jG2+AL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_In his later years, Hemphill returned to his roots with a project that bookends nicely with The Nashville Sound: a biography of an icon he could identify with — another jug-eared, hard-living boy from Alabama. In the well-received Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams (Viking, 2005), Hemphill traces, with fresh insights, how Hiram Williams was inspired by both the Grand Ole Opry and an African-American singer and guitar player named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne.

“[Hank’s] death while at the top of his game was, as the saying goes, a good career move,” concludes Hemphill in the final, high-lonesome pages. Because he blacked out for the last time at age 29, country music’s founding father, who “sang like a hurt animal,” never had to dicker with the Pygmalions of Music Row; peer through the cornstalks of Hee Haw; rehash his numerous rehabs (which consisted of getting bolted into a shack at the end of every tour) on Behind the Music; or, worst of all, square off with Elvis. So Williams’ legend stands, as enduring as the need to cry in one’s beer.

Hank Williams had come to us from out of nowhere, sprouting like a wild dandelion in the dank forests of south Alabama, some primordial beast who had been let loose on the land, a specimen heretofore undiscovered and by this summer of 1949, nobody seemed to know exactly what to make of him.

That description could just as easily be applied to Hemphill. Finally, though, with this upcoming accolade, the literary establishment is learning what to make of him.

The truest grit: A reflection on Harry Crews

“Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews”

Blood Bone and Marrow Book

Harry Crews fretted at times that his persona as a “wild man” overshadowed the reputation of his painstaking work, but that did not stop the obstreperous author, even in old age and declining health, from accelerating his behavior.

“I showed up to interview him once, and he had a black eye,” says Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, just released by the University of Georgia Press. The title derives from the elements Crews vehemently argued were essential for successful writing. (Crime novelist Michael Connelly wrote the foreword.) “People from his wild days would show up, and something weird was always happening with Harry.”

That observation is an understatement. This thoroughly detailed and bracingly frank biography has entire sections devoted to Crews’ brawling and his prodigious drinking and drug use, making for a compelling read. Crews’ life story, in fact, comes across like one of his novels: gothic, lusty, battered, excessive and gloriously lurid. “Even his countenance could lead to violence,” Geltner writes. “He had a face that when viewed by bank security guards, he said, caused them to immediately unholster their weapons.”

His arresting mug possessed an undeniable charisma, too, though, and that quality shines through this personal history and makes Crews compelling, even when he is misbehaving (maybe even especially when he is misbehaving). That, and his steely, unflinching discipline as a writer. No matter how dissipated Crews became, he managed to write some 20 novels, including: A Feast of Snakes; The Hawk is Dying; Body; Scar Lover; The Knockout Artist; and All We Need of Hell. Perhaps the most lauded of his books, though, is his sensitive and affecting memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. He also produced an impressive body of essays, screenplays, and memorable journalism for Esquire and Playboy. (An inside look at cockfighting, anyone? Look no further than “Cockfighting: An Unfashionable View.”) He wrote every day he was able, right up until his death in 2012.

Born in 1935 in an impoverished and isolated Bacon County, Crews grew up just a few miles from the Okefenokee Swamp on a tenant farm. “The world smelled deeply of shit,” Crews wrote in Leaving Home for Home. “Always had. Always would. At only 10 years old, I’d known that fact for a long time. I cannot remember a time when I did not know it.”  His father died, and his mother married a man who became the abusive, alcoholic stepfather of nightmares.

“It was, very often, childhood as a house of horrors,” writes Geltner, “and survival would simultaneously warp him and imbue him with an incredible strength and resilience. And the nadir of Harry’s life was to occur just five years in, when he would find himself looking up into the faces of a dozen shrieking children while floating in a pot of scalding water, next to the simmering corpse of a freshly killed hog.” While roughhousing with some other kids at his community’s annual butchering of the pigs, Crews fell into the large vat of near-boiling water, a mishap that left him scarred and traumatized, but not as much as his bout with polio, which caused his legs to draw up to the point where his heels were touching the backs of his thighs – a sight that made his neighbors gawk. “Right there, as a child, I got to the bottom of what it meant to be lost,” Crews wrote, “What it means to be rejected by everybody . . . and everything you ever thought would save you. And there were long days when I wondered why I did not die, how I could go on mindlessly living like a mule or a cow when God had obviously forsaken me.”

Eventually his legs loosened up, and he relearned how to walk by pulling himself alongside a pasture fence – down-home rehab — “but the shame of his disease remained firmly in his conscience,” Geltner writes.

The only books in the Crews household during this time were the Bible and the Sears-Roebuck “wish book,” which inspired the young boy to make up twisted tales about all the pretty models in it. He wrote his first story when he was 14, about a child detective armed, fittingly enough, with firecrackers. By then he knew he wanted to become a writer, and he embarked on the path of the autodidact, reading whatever he could get his hands on.

Crews served in the Marines and then attended the University of Florida briefly on the G.I. Bill, but, inspired by Jack Kerouac, dropped out to travel the country, where he worked in bars and restaurants as he roved around on his motorcycle. He eventually finished his studies, became a teacher, and embarked, for a time, on a domesticated lifestyle with a wife and two kids. One of his sons drowned in a neighbor’s pool, and his marriage dissolved afterward. Then Crews became, among other things, a legendary philanderer; he never remarried, but remained friends with his wife, Sally.

His first novel, The Gospel Singer – the story of a debauched troubadour, a midget with a giant foot, and a chicken-eating geek, ending in a conflagration of harrowing violence — was published in 1968, and from then on, the publishing world in New York took heed of this brash new writer from the South who seemed to be the cockeyed, swaggering heir to Flannery O’Connor. Geltner writes:

“One evening in the spring of 1969, Harry was at the typewriter, and Sally (his wife) picked up a chapter, sat down, and began reading. After a few sentences she looked up. ‘Harry,’ she asked, ‘you don’t intend to make a career out of midgets, do you?’ Indeed, though Harry claimed he hadn’t realized it at the time, she had a point. Third novel; third midget. . . . A question about ‘freaks’ was now an essential part of any discussion of Harry’s work. He eschewed the psychological analysis that said that freaks appeared because Harry saw a freak in himself. No, he said, it wasn’t just him. It was everybody, every last one of us. Those of us without deformities are just able to hide our inner freakishness.”

Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews.
Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews.

From this rich material, Geltner has wrought a seamless, briskly paced book that is panoramic in its scope on its outsize subject, putting him in the proper context of the tumultuous times – drugs were plentiful in ’70s-era Gainesville, Florida, where Crews was a long-time professor of creative writing — and his hard-won, well-earned place in the canon. Geltner is a professor of journalism at Valdosta State University, but he was a reporter for The Gainesville Sun when he first profiled Crews. He approached the author in 2010 about writing this biography, and Crews reportedly told him, “Ask me anything you want, bud, but you’d better do it quick.” The years of alcoholism had taken their toll, and Crews was having trouble even walking across his living room.

Geltner’s previous book was a biography of Jim Murray, one of the most influential sportswriters of the past century. “That was an easy book to write because he was such a beloved guy, and people wanted to say wonderful things about him,” Geltner says. “There were obstacles in writing about Harry, though, because he had ended badly with so many people, and the people who had not fallen out with him didn’t necessarily want to talk about the behavior they engaged in with Harry. They didn’t want that stuff on the record. I had never run into that before – so many people unwilling to be interviewed.”

Even the salt-of-the-earth folks in Bacon County mostly wanted to stay mum about their native son. Tom Davis, a local preacher, tells Geltner, “What I see from talking to people is that there has been attached to Harry’s name a sort of negativity. What they will tell you is ‘We really don’t want Harry to stand for Bacon County or we don’t want to hold Harry up as an emblem of what we want to be.’ It’s almost as if Harry was a whispered and unpleasant rumor that passed through these parts, rather than a real person.”

More’s the pity. Based on A Childhood alone, the county should erect a statue to the rowdy scribbler who gave voice to the “grits,” as he affectionately called the downtrodden, damaged and dispossessed Southerners from his pineywoods provenance. Here is hoping that Geltner’s biography will solidify Crews’ reputation not only as a peckerwood swashbuckler but also as a serious, prolific literary force who deserves a wider and more appreciative audience.

Would Crews, who died just as the research was getting underway, be pleased with this clear-eyed account of his life, which includes some less-than-flattering moments, or would he start swinging his fists?

“I hope he would appreciate it,” Geltner says. “He was all about not hiding anything. About ‘getting naked,’ as he put it, and staying ‘close to the bone’ in writing and in living. He had a fierce commitment to telling the truth.”

An appreciation of Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy’s lyrical, textured
prose was a true echo of the South



Pat Conroy, a writer whose lyrical, richly textured prose evoked the South against a backdrop of traumatic family dysfunction, has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

Conroy drew from the people, landscapes and abuses of his childhood for his thinly fictionalized novels and a series of memoirs, including The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, which mesmerized readers with their confessional, cathartic tone and vivid descriptions of larger-than-life characters who inhabit the marshlands around Beaufort, South Carolina.

“More than anyone else, he showed how beautiful the broken can be,” says memoirist Lauretta Hannon. “He burned bright in his pain and brought so much light, so much generosity and encouragement, to all of us.”

Conroy’s troubled relationship with his tyrannical father, especially, provided much of the dramatic tension for his books. “People say my characters are over-the-top,” Conroy said in one interview, “but, if anything, I tone them down!”

Donald Patrick Conroy was born on Oct. 26, 1945, in Atlanta. His father, a career Marine, moved the family around the South. Conroy and his siblings attended 11 schools in 12 years before ending up in Beaufort, which Conroy adopted as his hometown, though he settled for a few years in Atlanta as an adult.

Conroy accepted a scholarship to The Citadel, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1967 and gathered the material for three books, most notably The Lords of Discipline, a look at the school’s harrowing hazing policies which sparked a long-running feud with the author, finally resolved in 2001.

Prince-of-TidesConroy’s first memoir, The Water is Wide, published in 1972, offers an affecting account of his stint as a schoolteacher for isolated Gullah children on Daufuskie Island. Made into the 1974 film Conrack, with Jon Voight, it was the first of four Conroy novels to be adapted into movies. It was The Prince of Tides, though, that established Conroy in the front ranks of best-selling authors. His magisterial story of Tom Wingo, an unemployed high school teacher who confronts his past when he travels to New York to help his suicidal sister, sold more than 350,000 copies in and spent nearly a year cresting the best-seller lists, attracting Barbra Streisand to produce a movie of the same name. Readers suddenly could not get enough of Conroy’s lush storytelling:

“To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

After The Prince of Tides, Mr. Conroy labored for nearly a decade on his next novel, the epic Beach Music, which touched on themes of suicide and the Holocaust.

“When Beach Music came out, I was working in a bookstore, and we were fortunate enough to have Pat Conroy for a signing,” recalls South Carolinian Jim Watkins. “We were one of the last stops on the tour, and he had signed so many autographs during the tour that we had to have a hand therapist on site to help him through. By the time the signing started, the line was out the door, around the parking lot and down the street. Despite having to take breaks to have his hand worked on by the therapist, for over three hours, he signed every single autograph and sincerely expressed his thanks to each and every person as he signed. Simply put, he was a true gentleman.”

Beach-Music-9780553574579In fact, the suicide of Conroy’s brother forced him to change the fate of a similar character in Beach Music, about a travel writer in Rome who returns home to South Carolina to visit his mother on her deathbed. His last novel, South of Broad (2009), told the gossipy tale of high school friends in Charleston who reunite 20 years after their graduation.

Mr. Conroy also produced several works of nonfiction, including The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life (1999), My Reading Life (2010) and The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son (2013). Through it all, Conroy remained a proud and stalwart Southerner. “He forced me to eat grits,” recalls Atlanta novelist Jessica Handler, “and I liked them just fine.”

At the time of his death, Conroy was at work on both a novel and a memoir about living in Atlanta in the 1970s.

Mr. Conroy is survived by his wife, the writer Cassandra King; four daughters: Jessica Conroy, Melissa Conroy, Megan Conroy and Susannah Ansley Conroy; five stepchildren: Emily Conroy; Jake, James and Jason Ray; and Gregory Fleischer; two sisters, Kathy and Carol Ann; three brothers, Jim, Tim and Mike; and seven grandchildren.

Why, Atticus, why?

Jem has dropped dead. Scout – now Jean Louise, thank you — is all grown up and (gulp) contemplating an affair, but, worst of all, straight-backed Atticus is now an old, infirm, cranky arch-segregationist.

No word yet on whether Dill is off gossiping at fabulous parties, but are readers truly ready for these troubling revelations about the beloved characters of To Kill a Mockingbird? Or for the possibility of a somehow lesser, anticlimactic work? In the countdown to July 14, when Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second book, Go Set a Watchman, finally hits the stands, the nervous tension has risen like the mercury in an Alabama thermometer. How could any other novel measure up to the touchstone of social conscience that still occasionally, 55 years later, outsells the Bible, particularly when it gives our hero feet of Cotton Belt clay?

This second novel functions as a sequel, cast 20 years into the future from the original’s Depression-era setting, but it was written earlier. In fact, it was the first manuscript Lee submitted as an untested young scribbler in New York. Her editor saw potential in it but suggested a rewrite, an expansion of certain flashbacks with a change in voice and perspective, resulting in Mockingbird, the ultimate debut novel which became a primer of the civil rights movement while its author ascended to the status of secular saint. The sphinx-like Lee, overwhelmed by the attention, went into semi-reclusion. In one of her rare-as-hens’-teeth interviews, Lee explained, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” With Watchman, we are essentially getting the rough draft, the dress rehearsal, the raw juvenilia. Because the art often lies in the revision, most mature artists wince at the prospect of trotting out their unpolished work, and Lee always has maintained that she did not plan to publish another book.

The discovery of this manuscript in some papers stored in a bank, and the timing of its release, have raised uncomfortable questions and contradictory explanations. A Sotheby’s expert reportedly was the first to find it in 2011. Lee’s sensible sister, a lawyer described as “Atticus in a skirt,” was alive then and overseeing the Mockingbird legacy, and no one pushed for publication. Now that this guardian has died, Lee’s lawyer is credited with unearthing Watchman and presenting it to a publishing community that always has hungered for more from Lee. The author, 89 and reportedly impaired in her vision and hearing, receives care in a nursing home. So allegations of elder abuse and manipulation have swirled around this event, without slowing its momentum. HarperCollins has ordered a first printing of two million copies for the book, which makes it the most preordered book in the house’s history, and on amazon, Watchman ranks as the most preordered book since Harry Potter in 2007. The publisher did not release the customary advance copies for reviewers but teasingly proffered the first chapter.

That Atticus has morphed into Archie Bunker at his most dyspeptic has sent Southern progressives reeling. The enduring power of Mockingbird lies in its empathy and idealism, its clear delineation of good and evil in that sun-struck atmosphere of mule-pulled “Hoover carts” and ladies “who were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” Readers who are animated by social justice root for Atticus and yearn to believe themselves brave enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him as he fends off a lynch mob, just as they want to believe that a child’s sweet voice could be the force that ultimately halts that bloodthirsty group. In Watchman, though, Atticus fumes: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Oh, the heartbreak and nausea inflicted by those words. And there is more, of course. He condemns the NAACP as “troublemakers” and says African-Americans are too “backward to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” If Jean Louise has not completely lost her innocence by the end of Mockingbird, she certainly will now, as have we who live in a world where African-American men still perish in police custody, and where bigoted relatives can ruin a Sunday supper with rants about President Obama. “What this news does is put Atticus in the same category for me as my grandfather: He was a racist, but he was also a great man who did good for many people, black and white,” says Bryan Sorohan, a social activist and a professor at Brenau University. “He’s a part of me, flaws and all, and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. But, in that respect, as well as probably others, he was wrong and his wrongness undoubtedly did harm. There are no pure heroes, and this book may be a catalyst for confronting that fact. It will be instructive to see who is smug or happy about this turn of events.

Watchman no doubt will prove instructive in other ways, as well, especially on the craft of writing, of transforming an ambitious but apparently flawed novel into a masterpiece. Here is a chance to glimpse Harper Lee’s formidable, acrobatic mind at work – and an opportunity for all writers to regard their editors with renewed respect. However, we also run the risk of inserting the author into her own metaphor. Dragging shy Boo Radley into the spotlight, even as a hero who saved two motherless children, would have been like the “sin” of killing a mockingbird, she wrote. It might have been best to leave Lee to sing the tune of her choice, in the privacy of her own garden.