Reviewed by Cecily McMillan
Vol. 14, No. 3, 1992, pp. 29-32
Praying for Sheetrock , Melissa Fay Greene (Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1991, 416 pages).
There have been, over the years, more young white liberals than can ever be counted who ventured to small Southern towns hoping to improve the lives and political opportunities of the black people who lived there. Stirred by outrage at what seemed such obviously unjust economic and living conditions, these idealists set to their work—as VISTA volunteers, Legal Aid lawyers, tutors, community organizers.
Some stayed; a trickle keep coming; most, in the end, leave. Their stories of what might be called an internship with the poor get told around the table in Atlanta or Chapel Hill, to grantgivers in New York, to thesis advisors in Cambridge or Ann Arbor.
Yet as their lives continued, with considerably more buyancy than the lives of their old neighbors, the subtleties of their experience can fly like chaff when the hard kernels of accomplishment are gathered for examination. What, at the time, seemed a crucial, telling thing—an unlikely someone’s willingness to act, another’s slight gesture of hesitation, the way the day felt—ends up as a detail, and maybe an exotic one at that.
Melissa Fay Greene was one of these idealists, but in her non-fiction book “Praying For Sheetrock” the chaff stays with the wheat. In the way of a writer of fiction, she tells a dramatic story of what happened when a group of black people demanded change, by paying closest attention to circumstances that produced those who acted, to the forces of history and family and community that informed their acts. If Ms. Greene did not herself stay, the dramatic events of the 1970s in McIntosh County, Georgia (population 7,500), stayed with her, and she remained loyal to its subtleties. She has managed by observing closely and listening well to convey how what came to pass indeed occurred.
The story at the center of “Praying For Sheetrock” involves the awakening of a small, dispersed black com-
munity which found itself all at once caught up in a dramatic struggle to secure its civil rights, job opportunities and fair representation on elected boards and committees. The process by which this occurs—the incident that triggered it, the meetings in the backwoods churches, confrontations with the mayor and councilmen, the lawsuits filed in Federal Court—is the inherent drama.
But Ms. Greene’s persistent interest is valuing what takes place in the shadows, where life is full of doubt and uncertainty. Underlying questions of how change occurs, if it can last, what toll is taken on those who do the hardest work and how we are to judge them, become embedded as the book’s themes.
The way in which she’s organized her story leads the reader to appreciate the poignancy of her character’s condition—the title refers to one person’s hope for an improvement in life’s basics—and to realize the weight of their expectations. As the story proceeds, she allows it its momentum, and then follows a little behind it, in its wake, as if to make sense of the choppy waters it has stirred up. Instead of taking her lead from her conclusion, and judging her subjects in light of the final outcome, she allows them to reveal themselves.
The sections of oral history that are threaded through the book serve this end especially well. She has the insight to notice herself as an outsider: she lets people talk. Nor is she romantic. She never pretends to be more of an insider than she was. She gives her subjects fair hearing. She lets us see that they, black and white, voted or acted as they did for reasons-maybe ones not always the wisest or most just—, rationales that were part of larger patterns of behavior and rooted in their history and character.
She navigates a difficult moral course here, for in questions of race one person’s weakness or indifference, if it can be called that, can often lead rather directly to another’s sorry state. It is only at the very end of the book, and perhaps because of the story having run out, that she misses a chance to extend the balanced moral understanding that otherwise characterizes the work.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has lived in a small Southern town that hours and decades have been spent to insure that things stay as they are. The activities of common life, and in particular the centers of power, change little over the years. In McIntosh County, as in many rural counties, it was understood that a few people and a few phone calls settled everything, and it was up to everyone else to maintain the setting where those assumptions could safely operate.
This, then, was Darien, the county seat. For despite national progress in voting and educational opportunities, despite riots in
Watts, the assasinaton of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., SNCC, and Black Power, the habits of race relations in Darien remained unchanged as a way to manage social movement, as reliable and effective and as natural a feature of the landscape as a series of synchronized stoplights on a long, long avenue. It was a place where there were no racial problems. In the words of a county clerk, “nobody really did think about it because nobody was thinking racially one way or the other.”
The main broker of power was Tom Poppell, the High Sheriff who inherited the post from his father and who, over the years, had pocketed his share of whatever slim pickings were to be had from local businesses, be they sleazy or straight. His legendary charm seduced, practically implicated, those he encountered, of whatever race. “If you weren’t careful, he’d your best friend,” a man tells Ms. Greene.
If history and the legacy of slavery had created a community of black people who were dependent on his good graces, and whites who allowed him his power in exchange for their peace, then the physical fact of a highway running through Darien gave Tom Poppell a treasure chest for his kingdom.
Gaudy signs lured Yankee tourists and truckers; prostitution and rigged gambling emptied their wallets. Their fleecing became his fortune. He oversaw the corruption that favored the white operators, but also made sure that if, say, a truck overturned, its spilled cargo would mean Christmas in July for the poor blacks who were welcome to take what they could carry.
It was, then, somewhat startling to everyone who was conscious of the way the game was played that, one day, someone, in this case the chief of police, felt compelled to act out of character, to step outside his role. It can be said that on that March day in 1972, the very idea of civil rights floated into McIntosh County—the day when the Chief Hutchinson impulsively and brutally shot a black man who had been making ruckus while flirting with a girlfriend, the day a stammering, disabled boiler maker named Thurnell Alston stepped forward from the shadows and articulated the black community’s grievances.
Alston did it, kept doing it, in meeting after meeting, in running three times in an at-large district and losing. Finally, with two friends and help from lawyers in the Georgia Legal Services office, suits were brought, districts were multiplied, changes were made and Alston was confirmed at the ballot box.
Until this climax, Ms. Greene is careful to remind the reader, in numerous passages that loop gracefully back into history and description, that even though political life was improving for black people, and at a pace, the culture in which they lived was slower in catching up. Even the sultry setting connives, threatens, almost as a character itself, to doom progress.
In the end, Thurnell Alston comes to tragedy. His community, thinking the work is over, or simply satisfied they had elected someone to broker their interests with the white powers, begin to ignore him. He wished to expand their narrow interests, to, in fact, give them something to vote for. They fail him by turning from his vision. His son is killed in a horrible accident; he becomes vulnerable to bribery; depression overcomes him. When he is implicated in a nasty drug sting, even his lawyers shake their heads at his foolishness and denials.
Ms. Greene is less forgiving of Alston than a reader might have expected. Given the portrait of the community she has drawn, one dominated by Tom Poppell’s justice and make-do morality, her disappointment in Alston seems harsh. It’s true, the facts do him in, and it’s true she echos the general perception of him. And yet in his case, unique in her chronicle, she somehow fails to extend herself as a writer, to give him an understanding context in which his dismal, sad, unravelling can be humanely understood.
Perhaps, in the end, when her intense drama runs its course, she is limited by the very form of non-fiction she close for her story. If she seems hamstrung, maybe it is because within the world of fact, the price Alston paid for stepping out of his given role was not given enough value. People wanted more from him than he was able to give: his constituents wanted him to be a better person, to be able to ask the questions no black person in their midst had asked before and to trust white people, while at the same time manage his private rage. They expected him to enter the closed world of white power, to be nicked and ignored by the majority, and, somehow, to remain unchanged by the experience.
A Legal Services worker (maybe Ms. Greene herself, maybe many idealists like her) expected more, too.
He says: “We idealized the black civil rights people. They represented something we were looking for, but they were regular human beings. They were real people and real people are imperfect. They just happened to be on the side of a political struggle we happened to believe in, but in a lot of ways it was just politics as usual. It was a
mistake to put them all on a pedestal.”
“What were they really like? Who the hell knows?”
It is this burden of expectation that seems at the heart of race relations today. It doesn’t seem enough, in Darien or nationally, to call it a day, to be contented with knowing what we know, to say by way of summing up that the hopes that once united us have failed us, and that racial inequality will continue. “Praying For Sheetrock” goes a great distance toward understanding what it was that poor black people wanted and to what point they were willing to go to see that change occurred. The question is, then, what is it that Ms. Greene and other idealists expected to see happen or expect for the future?
The fact that racial injustices were remedied through political means in Darien should not be put aside in light of Alston’s fall; nor should national progress be discounted because deeper, vexing work for social changes lies ahead. To travel from disappointment to hope will take time. Coming to know Thurnell Alston is a start. Finding a way to understand his limits, and the limits within each of us is perhaps our next step. That may be the most important lesson to come from a story Ms. Greene calls “large and important things happening in a very little place.”
Cecily McMillan is a writer who divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Frogmore, South Carolina, where she has been active in local public affairs.