A former lawyer and judge in Charlotte and law professor at the UNC School of Law, Bennett sets his debut novel in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. It is the 1960s, and the established segregated social order is about to be ripped apart.
The two main characters are teenage boys who had played together when they were younger. As they grew older, they went to segregated schools and lost contact, even as they walked the same streets in their hometown. In the opening scene, the white boy, oddly named Richeboux, drives into the black section of town with a group of his schoolmates and throws an egg into the head of a pastor and community leader. The pastor is the mentor and substitute father of the main black character, Acee Waites.
The pastor’s panic and anger at this humiliating attack leads to a fatal heart attack that sets off 36 hours of turmoil in the community, in the lives of the main characters, and in their families as the plot drives the two boys cascading towards a tragic reconnection.
Years from now, careful historians and literary critics will note how often southern writers of today look back on the late 1950s and 1960s for stories grounded in the complicated relationships between white and black young people.
Several books by North Carolina authors come to mind.
Clyde Edgerton’s recent “Night Train,” set in small-town North Carolina during these times, also featured two teenage boys, one black and one white. Their struggle for friendship confronted the norms of a community determined to hold on to its traditional segregated customs.
The late Doug Marlette’s second novel, “Magic Time,” looked at Mississippi during the 1960s when a young white man and the son of his family’s maid responded to the developing civil rights struggle. Fast forwarding to the 1990s, the story finds the white character still struggling while his black friend is in the U.S. Congress.
UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Minrose Gwin’s “The Queen of Palmyra,” takes us back to 1963. In a small southern town, an 11-year-old white girl spends most of her days in the company of and in the care of her grandmother’s African American maid. The major characters face the challenges of the segregated and oppressive social system at every turn.
Hillsborough’s Anna Jean Mayhew’s “The Dry Grass of August” takes us back to racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and a poignant story of a young girl whose relationships with her family’s maid and a young black boy add to her family’s stress and shine a bright light on the cruelty of the social norms.
The late Joe Martin’s first and only novel, “Fire in the Rock,” dealt with the extra complications of an interracial triangle of teenagers in late 1950s South Carolina, a white boy, a black boy, and a white girl.
“Leaving Tuscaloosa” fits in this tradition of coming-of-age novels by white authors who grew up in the late 50s and 60s.
It also tells a gripping story that novelist Lee Smith says is “deeply moving, disturbing, haunting, and important.”
So, even if it were not a part of the record of how our writers deal with our region’s history of race relations, “Leaving Tuscaloosa” would be an important book, well worth reading.
Is he just writing about himself?
The many fans of Wilmington-based author Clyde Edgerton often ask this question when they are reading his books a they come to parts that are just too real to be made up.
As Edgerton explains on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m., his latest book, “Night Train,” is full of autobiographical connections.
Here are some examples:
Th two main characters of “Night Train” are teenaged boys living in Starke, a fictional Eastern North Carolina town, in the early 1960s. They work together in a furniture shop. Both are interested in music. One, Larry Lime Nolan, is black. He wants to play jazz like Thelonious Monk. The other, Dwayne Hallston, is white. He wants to be another James Brown. They have much in common, but rules of the segregated South make it hard for them to be best friends.
Edgerton acknowledges that the fictional Larry Lime Nolan is based on Larry Lime Hollman, a real black friend of Edgerton when the two were growing up near Durham.
Edgerton has lost touch with the real Larry Lime and hoped the book might get the two back together for a reunion. So far, no luck.
In the book, Dwayne forms a band that wins a chance to play on live television. Everybody in Starke finds a way to watch the evening they perform. In real life, in about 1959, Edgerton’s Dixieland band was chosen to perform on Jim Thornton’s “Saturday Night Country Style” on WTVD. Edgerton explains, “A lot of people remember. He would eat dog food. His sponsor was a dog food company and he would eat a little bit during the show.”
“The show came on at 11:30,” Edgerton remembers. “At 6:30, you got to the parking lot and Jim Thornton would audition the acts in a tent.”
Thornton asked Edgerton what his band wanted to play. “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In,” said Edgerton.
“We don’t do Dixieland, just country,” Thornton told the boys. But he relented and let them try out.
Then he said, “Do you have any more songs?”
Edgerton remembers that the band had only one other song, “Little Liza Jane,” which they played for Thornton and then on live TV, as the first non-country act ever to perform on Thornton’s program.
Later, in the early 1960s, Edgerton was part of a rock band. Like the fictional Dwayne, Edgerton’s band’s leader, Dennis Hobby, wanted to be just like James Brown, cape and all.
Even the book’s villain, the racist Flash Acres, has experiences based on Edgerton’s. Edgerton remembers how the illnesses and deaths of his parents touched him. So when Flash’s mother is seriously ill, Edgerton has Flash struggle, showing some genuine human love, to arrange for her care. “I wanted to examine the humanity of this man. If he is only a racist without redeeming qualities, then it comes across flat.”
Edgerton does not apologize for the connections to his real life. He says that “Night Train” is autobiographical in the ways that “I think most of my books are… I sort of see myself as a translator. I have my own life and experiences … and, if and when I do write about my own experiences, they tend to be flat. But if I fictionalize them, by using my own experience, my own observations, and my imagination together, then I can come up with something that’s readable and perhaps a bit more exciting than my own life. So that’s the challenge—to translate.”
If this kind of translating is one of the ways Edgerton develops his magical stories and characters, I have just two words for him:
The best thing about the new movie and best-selling book, “The Help,” may be something other than the compelling story and the view into the relationships between white women and their black servants.
These basketball stories were tiny cracks in the wall of segregation. But it was the accumulation of many tiny cracks that helped bring down that wall. So, every one of those little cracks in is worth remembering and celebrating today.http://chapelboro.com/columns/one-on-one/basketball-and-the-small-cracks-in-the-wall-of-segregation/
“You-all afraid if we take over we might treat y’all like you treated us. And you might be right.”
It sounds like something Minny, one of the characters in “The Help” (either the book or the new movie), might say to one of the white women who treated their African American servants with such little respect.
But the quote comes, not from “The Help,” but from another book set in 1963 that also explores the changing dynamics of relations between whites and blacks in a southern town. I will give you that book’s title in a minute.
“The Help” and its story of black maids and how they had to kowtow to their white employers has been a best-selling book for more than two years.
What explains its popularity? A good story, sympathetic main characters, and evil villains who get put in their places are part of the answer.
Another reason, I think, is that it has given whites a pathway to understand, confess, and be exorcised from guilt for their part in an exploitive system in which black women lovingly raised white children while their own children and families were left to their own devices.
The book and the movie have not been so popular in the black community.
Last year, I tried to persuade a black pastor to organize some older women in his congregation to discuss “The Help” with whites. He made inquiries and reported to me that he could find no interest in his congregation in such a project.
Recently, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts helped white me understand the mixed feelings that blacks have about “The Help.”
“As Americans,” he wrote, “we lie about race. We lie profligately, obstinately and repeatedly. The first lie is of its existence as an immutable reality delivered unto us from the very hand of God.
“That lie undergirds all the other lies, lies of Negro criminality, mendacity, ineducability. Lies of sexless mammies and oversexed wenches. Lies of docile child-men and brutal bucks. Lies that exonerate conscience and cover sin with sanctimony. Lies that pinched off avenues of aspiration till “the help” was all a Negro woman was left to be.
“I think of those lies sometimes when aging white southerners contact me to share sepia-toned reminiscences about some beloved old nanny who raised them, taught them, loved them, and who was almost a member of the family.
“Reading their emails, I wonder if those folks understand even now, a lifetime later, that that woman did not exist simply as a walk-on character in a white person’s life drama, that she was a fully formed human being with a life, and dreams and dreads of her own.”
Nevertheless, Pitts concedes that “The Help” is a triumph, an “imperfect triumph to have understood this and seek to make others understand it, too.”
Two recent books by North Carolinians set in 1963 can also help us understand Pitts’s “this” as they explore the relationships between blacks and their white employers. One of them, Clyde Edgerton’s “Night Train,” is a compelling read.
It is the source of this column’s opening quote.
The other recent book set in 1963 is UNC-Chapel Hill professor Minrose Gwin’s “The Queen Of Palmyra,” about a young white girl and the trials of the African-American woman who is her family’s servant. It is even deeper, richer, and better than the “The Help.”
Another new book, “The Dry Grass of August” by Anna Jean Mayhew, takes us all the way back to the racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and the poignant story of a young girl who loves her family’s African American servant and does not understand the brutal racism that ultimately destroys the person who was the center of her family.http://chapelboro.com/columns/one-on-one/dealing-with-the-help/