Memoir of a Race Traitor.
I WANTED TO LIKE this book. It held all the promise of Melissa Faye Greene's Praying for Sheetrock, which depicts the struggle for racial justice in a small Southern town. This time it would be North Carolina instead of coastal Georgia, but the plot would be similar. And the perspective was intriguing: a white gay woman battling racism and homophobia. She would relate her own experience facing bigotry. But I was disappointed: portions of the narrative are beautifully written, but on the whole I found Mab Segrest's Memoir of a Race Traitor a difficult read.
Segrest alternates chapters about her political activism with depictions of her personal relationships. She explains in the Foreword that she has tried to blend the "subjective" with the "documentary" in order to regain perspective on the violent events she has experienced. But this strategy, while therapeutic for Segrest, is confusing for the reader, and results in a disjointed narrative.
In the first few chapters, I was turned off by the graphic but predictable stories about Segrest's work for North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV). I felt like I was reading the evening news. Segrest's personal history is more engaging and, in my opinion, the most successful part of the memoir. The portraits of her mother and father are particularly revealing of her alienation from and final acceptance of her upbringing in Tuskegee, Alabama.
In the first image Segrest presents of her mother, she is suffering from an incurable skin disease. Her illness becomes a metaphor for Segrest's preoccupation with race:
We could tell when she began to get bad, tearing at her arms and face with a constant and nervous and sometimes savage movement that left her bleeding and raw...this sensitivity to environment...left our mother tearing at her own flesh like she was allergic to life itself. When racist violence erupted in Alabama like the lesions on my mother's arms, I was not surprised when it all came down to skin. (pp.2-3)
It is the agonizing, ambivalent relationship with her mother that Segrest evokes most effectively. In a moving chapter titled "Mama," she explores her grief and pain at her mother's death. She remembers scenes from childhood when her mother would leave periodically for skin cures:
Out the kitchen window pecan pollen would fall. "It's raining death," Mama would say, as she started itching. Then I would hear conversations with my father behind the door. "I can't take it any more." "You're not really sick." Through the door I would see her sobbing, then the blue suitcase would appear on the stairs. (p.81)
As a child, Segrest is a silent witness to her mother's pain. No one ever talks about her mother's growing dependence on medication.
Another taboo topic is Segrest's lesbianism. When she is in her twenties, her mother comes into the room where she and her lover are making love; the panties near Segrest's feet give away the secret. Her mother says nothing, and Segrest imagines she couldn't see because of her cataracts. Years later when Segrest finally does come out, her mother says she has known about her lesbianism since she watched her, aged five, striding across the floor with a pistol on her hip. The conversation abruptly turns to another subject.
At one point, Segrest tries to communicate with her mother by sharing her book of essays, My Mama's Dead Squirrel. Later, on her deathbed, her mother tells her she humiliated her and divided her from her friends with the stories she told in that book. Segrest never speaks to her mother again. Looking through a calendar her mother kept to chart her ever more frequent doses of cortisone, she comes across a sentence scribbled in the margins--"Forgiveness is total acceptance"--which offers some compensation for their broken conversations. This chapter, like much of the memoir devoted to her parents and sister, seems to be an attempt to forgive her family and reconcile her divided feelings.
Segrest's portrait of her father is equally ambivalent. In the first chapters she reveals that she has "made a profession of being better than him." An Eisenhower Republican, he was appointed local postmaster during the fifties. During the Kennedy administration he began organizing private schools across the state of Alabama in reaction to desegregation. This put his job in jeopardy; he received threatening letters from Washington. When a visiting preacher is moved to tears after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, her father declares that the preacher's tears are inappropriate. Segrest is shocked and angry. Again she withdraws into silence, and as the years pass she feels further and further isolated from her family's worldview.
At her mother's death, however, Segrest begins to heal the severed relationship with her father. He tells her conservative Christian sister that she must "treat [her] sister right at your mother's burying." And when friends at the funeral ask about Segrest's job, he teases, "She's a rabble rouser." Segrest realizes that her father has been more tolerant of her than she of him, and recognizes that her skills as an organizer come, paradoxically, from his role as an activist. She gives him a draft of the memoir to read, and, unlike her mother, he responds generously. "We do think differently on many things," he tells her. "But there are many ways in which you are a better person." Segrest reflects:
When had my "racist daddy" contracted to himself--to one aging man--from the balloon into which I had inflated him: a caricature of everything in the culture that I hated...whom I could never convert because I could never accept, the him of me? No Black friend had ever asked me not to love my daddy. (p.152)
Learning to forgive her father allows Segrest to reconcile the "racist" part of herself. For years he had been a target of her anger and she had determined to "out-organize him." Now she is able to understand her relationship with him on a different level. He may be part of the culture that she fights against, but no longer is he its main representative.
UNFORTUNATELY, Segrest's descriptions of her experiences as a lesbian and of her anti-racism work--the "documentary" parts of her memoir--are not as probing and poignant as the part that concerns her family. In these chapters, which constitute about half the book, she breaks an important storytelling rule--Show, don't tell. She tells about her first lover, Pat, whom she meets one summer at a camp where they are counselors. Mab is twenty-four, and Pat is nineteen. At the end of the summer they begin a daily, passionate correspondence.
Pat's mother disapproves of their friendship and asks her daughter to end it. Two weeks later Pat moves in with Segrest, and they begin a five-year relationship: "Pat and I got married one night on the picnic tables outside our apartment between washing and drying a load of clothes...it made me nervous when she forgot the part about 'as long as we both shall live.'" When Pat leaves her for a man, Segrest sums up: "however pissed I was when she left me--she was the first woman brave enough to love me openly."
In the next paragraph, barely pausing to reflect on her feelings of betrayal or grief, Segrest describes how she discovers the lesbian community of Durham, North Carolina, in the early seventies. She joins a collective that edits the journal Feminary, and becomes an activist. "Lesbian-feminism was my door in to the possibility of belonging and self-acceptance," she explains. "Once there, it was not long before the other issue basic to my identity--race--began to surface." She then tells how she starts to work for NCARRV, but doesn't explore the motives and feelings behind this decision.
She does examine, briefly, the effects her anti-Klan activity has on her racial identity:
I had begun to feel pretty irregularly white. Klan folks had a word for it: race traitor. Driving in and out of counties with heavy Klan activity, I kept my eye on the rear-view mirror, and anytime a truck with a Confederate flag license plate passed me, the hair on the back of my neck would rise.... I often found myself hating all white people, including myself. I identified more easily with people of color than with other whites, even those doing similar work. (pp.72-73)
But here, I think, she might have also begun to probe the connection between race and her lesbian identity. For most of the memoir these two stories, which seem to me to be integrally related, parallel one another instead of intertwining. One chapter, "Bookstore Murders," covers the homophobic slaying of five gay white men. Segrest describes a pattern of violence similar to racist attacks, but her comments about her own response to the threat are minimal: "As a lesbian, I had a lot personally invested in this case," she quips. Wouldn't she have been terrified?
Segrest also makes sudden, disconcerting shifts from the subjective to the documentary within chapters. Too often her transitions between paragraphs are muddled. She interrupts her narrative with an editorial or explanatory paragraph. Describing a wave of Klan attacks in Statesville, she pauses to explain the changes in her coworker Christina's life. Telling about the death of her friend Carl from AIDS, she reflects momentarily on the birth of her stepdaughter Annie to her partner Barb. While these pieces of information are not unrelated to the story, they are nonetheless distracting, and the effect is an unbalanced narrative. Her chronology is sometimes unclear and repetitive. I found the metaphors she uses, perhaps in an attempt to unify her themes, confusing. How does Osceola's Head, the image she evokes in the first chapter, connect to her mother's itching skin? How does "bad blood" from AIDS or the syphilis experiment at Tuskegee relate to racist violence? These images resonate but remain undeveloped.
Finishing the book, I found myself wishing that more of the memoir had been about Segrest and her family. Perhaps it is easier to analyze and write about overt racism and homophobia than to confront the complex and ambivalent views of ordinary people. I wanted to know more about why--not just how--she got involved in anti-Klan activism, and I expected more reflection about her sexual orientation and racial identity. Fifty years ago, Lillian Smith, herself a closeted lesbian, incisively analyzed what she called the "race, sex, sin" spiral in the South. Smith recognized that the South's repression of sexual desire and its denial of racial tension contributed to its violent culture. Segrest's story might have been a powerful exploration of this relationship.
What works in Memoir of a Race Traitor are the moments of pain and forgiveness its author illuminates. Curiously, like her mother, Segrest describes herself as a victim of disease. She explains she is looking "for an antidote to family pain" and has become "an aficionada of cures." Before she began writing the memoir, she went to counselors and read books about dysfunctional families. Clearly, her stories about her family are an attempt to understand and move beyond her past. The book serves as a kind of catharsis for Segrest and an at least partially revealing picture of a woman struggling with the contradictions between her culture and her identity.
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|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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