Thursday, February 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: How I Shed My Skin by Jim Grimsley

This is a book review for How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the lessons of a racist childhood by Jim Grimsley. I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. The scheduled publication date for this book is April 14 of this year. 

In August of 1966, Jim Grimsley entered the sixth grade in his small eastern North Carolina hometown. But this year marked a significant shift in the way the people there--especially the white people--lived their lives. It was the year federally mandated integration of the schools went into effect, at first allowing students to change schools through “freedom of choice,” replaced two years later by forced integration. Now, more than forty years later, Grimsley, a critically acclaimed novelist, revisits that school and those times, remembering his personal reaction to his first real exposure to black children and to their culture, and his growing awareness of his own mostly unrecognized racist attitudes. 

I wasn't sure just how honest a look at racism a book written by a white man could be. When it came to his own racist attitudes. Jim Grimsley was way more honest than I expected. There are not a lot of people who would admit to such attitudes regarding black people and white people. I am sure some of the people in this book would claim not to be a racist, despite their behavior. Jim never realized such attitudes were present (or even that there was anything wrong with that) until the forced integration of the schools. When black children started going to his school, he realized just how pervasive his beliefs were that black people were inferior. These beliefs were not conscious though. As the author states, no one specifically told him that white people were superior. But when he saw that black people were forced to sit at the back of the bus and that some restaurants refused to serve them and that black people had to use different water fountains and bathrooms, it was hard for him not to adapt to those beliefs.

It was interesting to hear the author talk about the subtle ways in which the people of the town exhibited their feelings about the integration of the schools. Private schools were opened and most of the white children left public school rather than go to school with black children. Since Jim's family was too poor for this option, he was forced to deal with the integration. Even at school though, the white children played with the white children and the black children played with the black children. The students didn't respect the few black teachers they had. There were countless subtle ways that white people in that small town exhibited their racism.

The author tried to make the connection that he could somewhat relate to the black children's feelings because he was struggling with his own homosexual feelings that he tried to repress. In my opinion, this connection is a flimsy one. While the black children could not do anything to hide their race, Jim was able to hide his sexuality. I'm not saying that it was right that he had to, but he was able to "throw off" suspicion that others had about his sexuality by dating girls. He still fit in with the other white kids for no other reason than the fact that he was white. Granted, the attitudes towards a person's sexuality was very similar to how people thought towards race (still is in a lot of places), but you still can't compare a person's sexuality with race.

Here is my issue with this book: I don't feel there were any real insights by the author. Yes, he was honest enough to realize the racism shown by his classmates and even himself. But he did not show any insights about how or why he rose above it. I am not even convinced that he did rise above it, despite what the title says. He makes one comment in the book that whenever a white person says they are not racist, he automatically doesn't believe them because it is so hard to overcome attitudes that were taught from such an early age. But he also says that he had two choices as a child: submit to  the community's beliefs that black people were inferior or rise above it. First of all, those two statements contradict each other. Second of all, while I do think you can rise about racist attitudes that were taught to you from infancy, I think it's way more involved than just deciding not to be racist. The author is way too simplistic because he suggests that really is the only thing to it.

Buy/Borrow/Skip: Borrow. It was interesting to hear some of the history from a white person's point of view. But the emotional depth suggested by the title is just not there. 


  1. This sounds like a weighty read! But a good one at that ;)

    With a title like that though, you would naturally assume that it would be a book that would pose great questions, as well as insight. Such a bummer that it didn't meet those expectations.

    Hope you're having a most wonderful week Cynthia :)

    1. Thanks so much Claudia! It was a very heavy topic. I am just disappointed by the lack of insight.