Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Stories from the Real Mayberry

McLaurin, Melton. Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South. 2nd edition. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

This memoir recounts what life was like for a white kid growing up during the 1950s in Wade, North Carolina, a racially-mixed small town. Melton McLaurin, the son of a respected family in the community, learned his lessons about racism and segregation like anyone else would--through day-to-day norms and specific incidents when boundaries were reinforced and tested. The historical value of the book centers on McLaurin's claim that things were essentially the same in most every other small town in the South during that time. He prefers to reveal the world he grew up in through some unforgettable characters and the stories he remembers about them. His chapters have titles like "Betty Jo," and "Sam."

When he wrote this book, McLaurin was a professor and chair of the department of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. So it's no surprise that he often wants to provide a bit of historical context for the stories he relates. But he never overdoes it, never turns his memoir into something like a history lecture. From beginning to end, the book remains his story of struggling to make sense of what was happening in the cloudy world of his adolescence in the pre-Civil Rights South. He neither accuses nor absolves members of his own family. Instead, he describes them and everyone else in his hometown as people of their time. Fewer and fewer Americans today have a personal past that reaches back as far as the 1950s. It was a separate past, one we should remember and learn from.

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