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ESSAY Rituals ofInitiation and Rebellion Adolescent Responses to Segregation in Southern Autobiography by Melton McLaurin ? Lillian Smith's Our Faces, Our Words, a young northern-born and -educated African American come south to join the civil rights movement reflects upon his experiences in the field with southern youths, black and white. Young southerners of both races, he realizes, have so much in common that at times he feels segregated from them. The foundation for this relationship between young southerners ofboth races, he concludes, is their shared memories. "These southerners are tied and tangled in a web of common memories they can't escape and don't want to escape," he writes. They are bound by memories ofcommon foods, hot southern summers, and shared activities. A more insightful observation follows this eloquently expressed, ifnot original, concept: The South's residents, the young man notes, are also bound by "common hurts; each [race] hurt in a differentway by that old barbed wire of segregation but both hurt. And they know it."1 The virtual wellspring ofsouthern autobiography published since the outbreak of the Second World War strikingly supports the validity of this young northern black's observation. Practically all these autobiographies explore to some extent the seemingly intractable problem of race, an exploration that the national social and intellectual climate of the time supported, especially when it was limited to the South.2 This outpouring of southern autobiography includes some excellent accounts of childhood and adolescence, and some of the best of these can be found in works devoted solely to the author's preadult life. These "childhoods" constitute a specialization within autobiographical literature, one already explored in considerable detail by literary scholars.3 In addition, any number of southern autobiographies devoted primarily to the author's adult years nevertheless contain excellent material on his or her childhood. These sources provide invaluable insight into the manner in which young southerners, black and white, responded to issues of race in the era of segregation. Their responses in turn reveal the pervasive power of race in southern society. They explore the forces that made, and continue to make, meaningful change in the area of race relations so 5 difficult and acknowledge that such change was, and remains, both desirable and possible.4 Although race is a theme encountered in practically every account ofgrowing up southern in the era of segregation, a few white autobiographers almost manage to avoid the issue. Sometimes the author briefly mentions the topic before brushing it aside to get on with what he or she considers to be more important issues. Politicians, for example, do this rather frequently, sometimes totally ignoring personal relationships with blacks.' More often, however, race is either the dominant theme, or among the dominant themes, of southern autobiographical accounts of childhood, white and black. In these narratives, the authors tend to record two specific reactions to the problem ofrace relations within their society. The first is their initial awareness ofrace and its social significance. The second is their acceptance oftheir racial community's attitudes toward segregation and the racial views upon which it rested; white youths signaled their acceptance of segregation , black youths denounced it. ACQUIRING AN AWARENESS OF RACE . . . UNDERSTANDING ITS SIGNIFICANCE In southern autobiography the remembrance of acquiring an awareness of race differs somewhat from the remembrance of acquiring an understanding of the significance ofrace in the life of the autobiographer. Black and white authors alike recall the moment of first understanding that the skin color of the people with whom they came in contact differed. This initial awareness of race took place at an early age, usually between four and six. African American autobiographers record an almost immediate understanding that this perceived difference in skin color carried a pointed significance for them: the ability of race to affect their lives directly and adversely. White authors, however, usually fail to see racial differences as something personally significant until much later, often during early adolescence.6 In Richard Wright's Black Boy, which has influenced practically all subsequent African American autobiography, Richard is aware of color before he is six. But he is not aware merely of differences in skin color. In a vague, almost...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 5-24
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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