“Children of the Changing South”

After about four or five years of work, Children of the Changing South: Accounts of Growing Up During and After Integration was released on November 3, 2011. An edited collection of memoirs that I had originally titled Aftermath, the book contains eighteen memoirs by a diverse cross-section of writers from all over the South who recall what it was like growing when Southern society was being shaken to its foundations.

My introduction frames the collection in the context of modern “hybrid multiculturalism” and a notion that differing narratives do not have to compete, but should instead be viewed holistically and as equals to gain a more vivid and picaresque total understanding. An “Afterword” by David Molina also gives the reader some final thoughts about storytelling and the importance of communication in moving forward from the South’s racialized past.

The idea for Children of the Changing South arose out my experiences with Civil Rights commemoration projects and tolerance-related writing initiatives, which sparked a desire in me to explore not only the turbulent period of the 1950s and 1960s, all of which occurred before I was born in 1974, but also the ensuing decades during which Southerners (and really all Americans) were struggling to contend with what the new order meant. I began calling for and inviting submissions in 2007, and after a brief period in late 2008 when it looked like one of two Southern university presses might pick up the book, it was contracted by McFarland in in 2010. That original manuscript that almost was a book was a shorter work that focused solely on the post-movement era; though back then I was quite upset at its eventual rejection by both presses after strong showings of initial interest, I am thankful now, since the editors at McFarland contracted the book under the stipulation that I would make some fundamental changes: expand the manuscript significantly, add some movement-era memoirs, and expand the introduction to give the reader a more thorough idea of the over-arching concepts — all suggestions that improved it significantly, I think. Perhaps the most marked improvement in the introduction came with a stronger and more detailed explanation of how changes in the South were not only in the area of race, but also of women’s roles and rights, urbanization, modernization, and shifts from Democratic dominance to Republican control. To understand the South of the late 20th century only in the context of race seems to me like an incredibly dim of view of that time.

The diversity of experiences in Children of Changing South is pretty remarkably, considering its not a voluminous tome, but more of a streamlined collection with nothing wasted. The first memoir by retired educator Jacqueline Wheelock begins in Mississippi in 1958, telling of an African-American girlhood in the Jim Crow South, but then carries the reader into the narrator’s adulthood, teaching integrated classrooms in Atlanta in the 1970s. The subsequent memoir by Lean’tin Bracks, who is currently the head of the English Department at Fisk University, recalls her high school years in the 1960s, in particular an episode when a bomb threat was called in and everyone had to be evacuated out of the real fear that what had happened at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church would also happen to them. The next three memoirs — by Jim Grimsley, head of the creative writing department at Emory University; Becky McLaughlin, an English professor at the University of South Alabama; and Lillie Anne Brown, an English professor at Florida A&M University — tell three very different stories of school integration in the late 1960s, in North Carolina, Arkansas and Florida, respectively.

The remaining thirteen memoirs carry the discussion into the post-movement era. The story told by Georgene Bess Montgomery puts the reader in 1970s rural Georgia, then Glenis Redmond and Stephanie Powell provide their narratives, which set in the Carolinas during that same decade. Camika Spencer’s recollections of Dallas, Texas in the 1980s brings the manuscript forward in time and is followed by Anne Estepp discussing her life in rural Kentucky. My home state of Alabama provides the setting for the next six narratives, holding the heart of the book in the Heart of Dixie, with Ashley Day, Dawne Shand, Kyes Stevens, Vallie Lynn Watson, Ravi Howard and Ray Morton, moving in time from the 1980s into the 1990s. Finally, Kathleen Rooney’s young life in Louisiana offers a nice chronological stopping point.

Finally, David Molina’s “Afterword” describes wraps everything up with a summation based on his experiences with being outsider who has come to South and as a program coordinator for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss.

The importance of a book like Children of the Changing South lies in its movement of the dialogue forward. You wouldn’t have to look very far into the kinds of work I have done to know that I find discussions of the Civil Rights movement to be very important and essential to the education of today’s children, so they are aware of the realities of the South’s past. However, we can’t stop there. People who find the message of the movement to be important — and I count myself among them — must not believe nor propagate, even inadvertently, the idea that the whole situation was solved by the late 1960s. The deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy make for a neat and tidy stopping point for historians to close the “Civil Rights movement” chapter, especially in histories written for general readers, but the problems that the movement addressed were not solved by then. The issues that consisted the main focus were still very real, and new issues had cropped up, including equality issues that went beyond race and into gender equality, family structure, divorce rates, suburban sprawl, white academies, school re-segregation, the political shifts that turned Southern states into (generally) “red states.” This multifaceted and multicultural view of the recent Southern history, I believe, is the most viable approach to understanding it, rather a fragmented or biased perspective that attempts to validate some narratives while expunging others.

Children of the Changing South retails for $35 in paperback. It is available at Amazon.com and a variety of other retailers.

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