"No southerner speaks about their region without mentioning family."—William R. Ferris1
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The family saga as a literary form is common in much southern literature. Families are viewed as arenas where deep conflicts and mixed emotions play out, often across generations; where people's identities and values are linked to a tragic past; where ties to the land are strong and a sense of providential order and destiny prevails; and where black and white, the poor and the privileged are inextricably bound.
My own family story revolves around a succession of names on my three birth certificates. The first lists me as Wayne Clark Roof, given to me at birth in Columbia, South Carolina. Presumably, my mother wanted me to have my father's name, Wade, along with her family name, Clark; but either she misunderstood his middle name or the nurse failed to record it correctly, I'll never know. A second certificate, which my father secured as a correction seven years later, identifies me as Clarkie Wade Roof. Divorced from my mother and with the help of a Navy lawyer while serving during World War II, he correctly substituted Wade for Wayne but reversed the order of names and replaced Clark with the little boyish nickname people called me then. Why he did this is not clear, except that it gave my name a rhyming sound like his—Colie Wade—and he liked rhymes; or perhaps it was out of the anger toward my mother and the other Clarks.
If all that wasn't confusing enough, when I was two years old, my mother decided it was best if she gave me to her parents and they raised me. Though I saw my mother fairly often, my grandmother was a strong, demanding woman who made clear to both of us early on that she was the mother. And she enrolled me in the first grade as Clarkie Clark. My report cards carried this name through the seventh grade, despite occasional notes from teachers with queries about the name. Upon entrance into a new, consolidated school in the eighth grade, my grandmother reluctantly had my school records changed to Clarkie Roof. Not wanting me to have much connection with my father, she had held out on this as long as possible. But with a new school, new classmates, and new teachers once again likely to be inquiring about my name, it seemed like the right time to come clean on the name. And some years later when I was of legal age, I initiated and obtained a third birth certificate that properly identified me as I think was my mother's original intention.
Remarkably, little of this name confusion struck me as all that odd during my early years. It seemed natural having the same name as my grandparents; plus, my biological mother was now a Clark. I also liked being called Clarkie: it was cute, and I felt right at home with others at my rural elementary school, with classmates like Jimmy, Bobby, Lizzie, Fanny, and Susie. To be sure, my name was a bit unusual, but in the poor Sandhills region of South Carolina where we lived, there [End Page 62] were kids with all sorts of family situations. Some had foster parents and occasionally had to move from one household to another; others had parents who were the poorest of sharecroppers and had to miss school harvesting the fields in early fall; and still others had fathers (in one instance a mother) who were bootleggers, and now and then were caught and sent to the county jail for a month. I felt pretty well-in comparison. Unlike some kids and their families, we...