SEPARATE PASTS Growing Up White in the Segregated South By Melton A. McLaurin University of Georgia Press. 164 pp. $13.95
The literature of race relations in the South is vast, but it tends to concentrate on the deprivations and struggles of blacks on the one hand and the repression and discrimination by whites on the other; this is understandable, since these are, of course, the two dominant strains that run through the region's social and political history. But there is another story, an important one, that is told less frequently: the story of those whites, raised in unquestioning acceptance of a racist system, who for whatever reason came to challenge that system and eventually to make their private rebellions against it.
Melton McLaurin's is such a story, so it is good that he has chosen to tell it in this slender but affecting autobiography. McLaurin, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, grew up in a central Carolina hamlet called Wade, a place where three decades ago the old system lived on as stubbornly as in any Deep South backwater. Though his family was relatively tolerant by prevailing standards, he was reared in the belief that whites were superior to blacks and that segregation was the proper order of things.
That is what he was told, but what he saw and what he experienced taught him otherwise. He had the good fortune not merely to grow up in daily contact with blacks but to be friends with blacks whose dignity and intelligence belied all the stereotypes which he had reflexively accepted. He was a teen-ager when these relationships were formed, so he was at a time of life when peer pressure to toe the line on social customs is especially intense, yet what he learned from his black friends left him little choice except to resist it; understandably that resistance was more private than overt, but it laid the foundation for the independence he asserted as an adult.
Of all McLaurin's black friends, the one who made the most lasting impression on him was Clarence Eugene Street, known to all as Street. Several decades McLaurin's senior, he was an iconoclastic fellow who gave little more than lip service to the etiquette of segregation and none at all to the notion that because he was black he could not aspire to an intellectual life. He read everything he could find and retained an astonishing amount of useful information, all of which he gladly imparted to the young white boy who became, in effect, his prote'ge':
"I suspected that Street was the most intelligent person in the village, except perhaps for a young Presbyterian minister who served our church during my last three years of high school, and the best read as well. My conversations with Street were the high points of my days, yet I knew that segregationist philosophy held that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Street challenged all the stereotypes about blacks that the society demanded I hold. It was his intelligence ... that caused me to understand how Street, and other blacks like him, challenged the entire system."
Though McLaurin learned much from Street and others, he is at pains to point out that his weaning from segregationist leanings was slow, painful and uncertain; he offers himself up as anything but a saint. He describes, for example, his reaction when he put into his mouth a football needle that a black friend had just moistened with his own saliva. "A split second after placing the needle in my mouth," he writes, "I was jolted by one of the most shattering emotional experiences of my young life." He was hit by "waves of prejudice that I could literally feel." The urge to vomit "was almost unbearable."
But the experience instructed him more than it hurt him. He came to understand "that Bobo and I belonged to two fundamentally different worlds, and that society demanded that we each stay in the world designated for us." But over the years McLaurin realized that he could not live in so divided a world, and he left it. He went away to college, and then to a career in a larger place less bound by prejudice. He retained his affection for his old home town, though, and he writes about it without condescension.
Recalling a conversation with an old black man who was fixed in the old ways, McLaurin writes, "Mine was the last generation to come of age in the segregated South, his the last to have grown old in it." He is right, and for that reason his memoir is all the more valuable: It is a dispatch from a time that mercifully is no more. That such a statement can be made is tribute not merely to the blacks who fought against the old ways but to the whites such as McLaurin who learned from them.