A complex web of irony and contradiction
Reviewed by Gene L. Davenport
Vol. 14, No. 2, 1992, pp. 24-25
Shades of Gray: Dispatches from the Modern South by John Egerton. (Louisiana State University Press, 1991, 268 pages).
John Egerton has been chronicling the changes of the South for a quarter of a century in the pages of publications as diverse as the New York Times, the Progressive,American Heritage, and Southern Exposure and in his own books, the most notable, perhaps, being The Americanization of Dixie. (Actually, Generations and Southern Food, each in its own way, also contribute important perspectives on the changing South.) The subjects of his essays have likewise been diverse.
In Shades of Gray Egerton has collected over a dozen of his best essays of the last twenty-five years, provided an update on the people and events reported in each, and pulled together elements of several essays into a closing reflection.
As noted in the comments on the dust jacket of the book, the thread that ties the essays together is the complexity that lies beneath the surface of each. In essays on the integration of Ole Miss Law School, the history of once-segregated Hammond Academy, and the struggle of the Prince Edward County, Virginia, public schools, Egerton portrays the conflicts in term of the natural resistance to change on the part of institutions, the inevitable surrender of institutions to change when survival is at stake, and the fact that changes in racial opportunities do not necessarily mean the elimination of racism.
“Alex Haley’s Tennessee Roots” and “The Heritage of a Heavyweight” (the latter an essay on Muhammad Ali’s ancestors) depict, respectively, the continuing ambivalence of whites in the “modern South” toward African-American Southerners who have achieved international status and the complexities and ironies of sexual relationships and their consequences in the South.
In an especially perceptive essay on “West Virginia’s Battle of the Books,” Egerton analyzes the 1970s struggle over textbooks in Charleston and Kanawha County, as at heart a cultural struggle between economic classes, between urbanites and country people. Because the churches in the United States have become so thoroughly identified with their various subcultures, however, the struggle manifested itself as an essentially religious one. Ironically, says Egerton, the anti-book forces were fighting for a return to a narrow kind of instruction that had contributed to their own subordinate status in the community in the first place.
The subjects of the other essays range from what happens when the intolerance of frightened people is joined with the duplicity of government officials (“The Trial of Highlander Folk School” and “Maurice Mays and the Knoxville Race Riot): to the failure of liberal programs and conservative policies, alike, in their efforts to deal
with the victims of change (“The King Coal Good Time Blues”). They extend further from the tenacity of a public servant forcing the nation to confront its responsibility for its older citizens (“Claude Pepper’s Last Crusade”) to the ambiguities of a zeal for justice when that zeal is coupled with human ambition and power (“Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center”). The Claude Pepper essay was based on Egerton’s exhaustive research for what became an aborted biography of the congressman from Florida, and when it was published in the New York Times Magazine was heavily edited, apparently for reasons of space. Printed here in full (as are all the essays), the essay reveals how unfortunate we are that the biography was never completed.
I sometimes think that John Egerton doesn’t know how to write a bad sentence. He combines the insight and honesty of a first-rate journalist with a compelling use of words and, especially important, a genuine empathy for the people about whom he writes. Although he is technically an essayist, he has an eye for detail that is far more penetrating than is found among most news reporters. He can write dispassionately of the harsh views held by some toward Morris Dees, but be hesitant to invade the privacy of a major figure in the Maurice Mays story. Whereas the media look for heroes and villains, someone to hype and someone to ridicule, Egerton sees the history of the South as a complex web of irony and contradiction in which there are few villains, fewer still to ridicule. Even when he writes of men or women who seem to have no redeeming qualities, he seems to see them as actors in a drama that transcends mere human calculation and judgment.
In the closing essay Egerton expresses his own hope for the future of the South in words that reflect the title of his earlier book, The Americanization of Dixie-The Southernization of America:
What we are witnessing now is the integration of the South with the rest of the nation. In the literal meaning of word “integration”-“to make whole”-lies our hope for the future. If we do it right, we will make the United States truly one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In that best of all worlds, the South would spread its strengths throughout the land, and the best qualities of the rest of the nation would permeate the South, and we could retain and perpetuate our regional identity and our Southern heritage within the larger context of the united country. In the same manner, the real integration of black and white cultures in this society would bring about not the erasing of one for the sake of the other, but a fusion of the two in such a way that we could each be both singular and plural, multicultural brothers and sisters.
Surely, that is a dream worth nourishing, a goal worth seeking. To borrow the words of a familiar liturgy: “Let the people say ‘Amen.'”
Gene Davenport lives in Jackson, Tennessee, where he is Professor of Religion at Lambeth University.