by Tim Parrish
263 Pages ~ University Press of Mississippi, 2013
Reviewed by Robert Clark Young
This is a book about a man named Tim Parrish. It is a book about violent racism. It is an ugly book, because it needs to be. And it is a redemptive book, because it needs to be that too.
It is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. It is also one of the most honest, compassionate, and revelatory books I’ve ever read. All of this combines to make it one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It is the story of a boy who was raised in the violent racist culture of the American South in the 1960s and ’70s. It is the story of a boy who allowed others around him—his family, his friends, his church—to indoctrinate him with hatred and fear. And it is the story, ultimately, of a man who found the courage to renounce these features of his background, and to remake himself as a growing, empathetic, and tolerant human being.
For many readers, the book’s introduction to twentieth-century Southern life will be abrupt and shocking. Detail after detail assails any civilized notion of community:
We see white Southerners roaming with impunity up and down the cars of U.S. troop trains, looking for black soldiers to beat up. We see white Southerners reacting with joy when assassins shoot Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. We see white Southerners plotting to welcome a black family to the neighborhood by filling a milk jug with gasoline, arming it with a cigarette fuse, and rolling it beneath the family’s house. We see white Southerners who are so impoverished that they think it is normal to find floodwaters inside their homes.
Parrish’s father is a living set of contradictions, a Christian so devout that he attends church three times a week, yet a man so racist that he leaves that church when a vote is taken to admit blacks, and a father so cruel and violent that he’s capable of assaulting his own son, Parrish’s older brother:
“We heard the whack of the belt, Alan’s yelp, and footsteps as Daddy chased him. They careened into our room from the short hallway, then into the kitchen, back into the living room, down the hall, and into our room again.”
One might think that the other children would be terrified. But that’s not the kind of world we’re entering here. The very next sentence reads, “Olan and I were both propped up, laughing.”
Thus, violence is not only normalized, but it is something to be celebrated and laughed about. From the earliest days of the child’s consciousness, violence is ingrained as manly entertainment. There is no room for compassion, not even for a suffering brother.
This raises an important question: Is Parrish’s father a lone psychopath, or does he represent a Southern culture that is so off-the-hook angry that one might deem it mentally and emotionally ill?
Parrish gives us the answer when David Duke comes to town. Parrish’s racist friends look down on Duke—not because of his neo-Nazi and KKK associations, but because he seems too mainstream to them, wearing suits and ties and aspiring to politics. When one of Parrish’s friends calls Duke’s followers idiots, another friend replies, “Them idiots are just about everybody we know.”
And so yes, Parrish’s book is indicting an entire community.
Parrish and his friends skip the David Duke rally in order to find blacks to terrorize on their own. Here Parrish describes his bloodlust to use a metal chain to kill a black child:
“A couple of the kids ran, but the others turned to fight. Dyer knocked one down with two punches. I chased one of the runners, screaming I was going to kill him. He stumbled and went down on the sidewalk. I drew back with the chain and he turned to face me. He was younger than I was, twelve or so, although big for his age. ‘Nigger!’ I screamed, and grabbed his collar, my hand still raised. He covered his face with his arms, his eyes peering through the gap. Around me, I heard curses and punches. I shook him, notching myself up. He was a kid, but a kid who would grow up to come take what was ours.”
Parrish never killed anybody. But he might have. The only reason he didn’t use that chain on that twelve-year-old boy was because the other racists stopped him. Murdering a child was too much even for them.
Later that night, Parrish confronts what he has done, and he cannot believe that he almost killed a child. So he does have a conscience, of sorts.
But he has grown up terrified that there is a black conspiracy to destroy him, his white family, and his white friends. He is convinced that blacks are going to take over every street in his Baton Rouge neighborhood, that they must be stopped. Some unfortunate experiences in high school sports have left him doubting his masculinity, and he has developed the belief that in order to prove himself a man, he must use violence to beat blacks into submission.
Obviously, Parrish grew up in a world of hellish dysfunction. The theme of his story is the classic male fear of being absorbed by “The Other.” Growing up, he feels that his only chance of achieving a stable identity is to fight off and—if necessary—kill those people who are outwardly different from him.
The fact that Parrish has not only survived that world, but escaped it and renounced racism altogether, has to be considered not only a commendable wonder, but a miracle. Think of all of his former friends and neighbors who are still living in that sick consciousness.
What we have here is a narrative that is so emotionally powerful that it’s almost off the dial. The effect is like looking at one of those postcards of lynchings that Southerners used to produce, with grinning men, women and children standing around their burned or hanging victim. You cannot look at it, and yet you must look at it, in order to try to understand the reality of an evil that is this large, an evil that is allowed to recruit children and teenagers and warp them for life.
The saving difference between those postcards and this book is Parrish’s purpose, which is both humane and constructive. He wants to examine, confess, explain, and find redemption. He succeeds admirably in all of this, and by the end of his memoir, he is a man who has done a tremendous amount of soul-searching.
One can imagine readers all over the world standing and applauding when Parrish, on page 248, finally steps into a therapist’s office to get the help he has so desperately needed. He describes the ensuing personal and political evolution like this:
“I wrestled with self-loathing, perceived weakness, and vulnerability, wrestled with mistrust and paranoia. I was aware that my younger feelings and reactions were similar to those of post-9/11 Americans who believed terrorists were lurking in every mall and that the only way to be safe was to attack, and my knowing filled me with self-disgust.”
Also: “And now as I finish this [book], we have something I couldn’t imagine when I began: an African-American president. Even as I worked hard to get him elected, I scoffed at the idea that he could. On election night, I hooted from the porch with my girlfriend and her daughter. Later I cried for the promise of an evolving America.”
Although Parrish is no longer a racist or a violent man, he has not forgotten how insecurity leads to bigotry and how bigotry leads to violence. Throughout his story, he makes little distinction between insecurity and bigotry and violence, as though they are all the same thing. Parrish has hit on something here: Even when racism is not outwardly violent, it is still a form of violence.
This is one of the many truths that emerge from his story, and it’s one reason why his book represents such a significant intellectual contribution to the study of racism.
Even so, readers must be warned that this is not the polite, antiseptic book that a cultural anthropologist might produce. Neither is it the effete and predictable kind of memoir that most of the literary establishment is used to, the kind of safe bet that might lead a daytime talk show host to turn to the author and say, “We all know that racism is bad. Take a few moments now to tell us how to get over it.”
This is a rough and visceral book. This book hits you hard, because its subject matter requires that it hit you hard.
Perhaps this is why the book comes to us from the University Press of Mississippi, rather than a conventional and timid New York publisher. It’s certainly an act of courage for a press in Mississippi to publish this book. One cannot expect that Southerners of Parrish’s generation will be too happy with the truths it tells.
And yet, it’s the kind of book that speaks to all of us, including those who do not share Parrish’s frightening background. It is essential that any comfortable person without first-hand experience of violent racism should read this book. Written from the inside-out, this document is one of the most important ever produced on the subject of intolerance, and given its unrelenting factual immediacy, it has more value and earned truth than the work of a dozen Harvard sociologists.
There are those who would seek to confront and deny this book by arguing that there is racism everywhere, not just in Parrish’s South. To be sure, I have a white friend who grew up in a community abutting Oakland, California, and he recounts hunting down and beating black kids throughout his childhood and adolescence. Like Parrish, he sought therapy, and he went through a revolution in consciousness and became a liberal in adulthood. No thinking person can deny that racism is ingrained culturally throughout America, and that it recruits children and adolescents everywhere.
But Parrish’s book is not about Bensonhurst, South Boston, or Los Angeles. Parrish’s book is about a unique culture: white, Christian, Southern culture.
Parrish tells us that his heart and mind have changed, and we believe him. But what about the heart and mind of the South at large? In the age of Paula Deen’s obscene Carolina fantasies about hosting a plantation wedding where blacks must wear the humiliating costumes of slavery, it’s hard to believe that racial views in the South have changed at all. White Mississippians, for example, are a demographic group that in 2012 gave only 10% of their votes to a sitting black president, and who were determined to give the other 90% to a white guy—any white guy—even a Mormon ex-liberal who shares none of the South’s traditional Christian heritage.
As long as these people exist, this book about them will be definitive. And as long as their history exists, this book about them will be revelatory.
I encourage every reader to find the bravery to enter the world of this illuminating and necessary story.
Robert Clark Young is Creative Nonfiction Editor for Connotation Press.