Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Memoir of a Race Traitor
The New Press, 1994, rerelease 2019, pg. 319
Mab Segrest paved the way. It was (and still is) a rocky, stony way, but thanks to Segrest it’s now visible through the woods.
Born to a pro-segregationist white family in Alabama, Segrest came to North Carolina in the 1970s for grad school at Duke. Life in North Carolina allowed her more breathing space and freedom as a young lesbian and emerging civil rights worker (which should really say something about Alabama in the 1970s). It was in the maelstrom of life here that she found a voice and a venue to use it. “Memoir of a Race Traitor” is her memoir reflecting on that time.
Originally published in 1994, “Memoir of a Race Traitor” has been reissued with a new introduction by Segrest. It is an odd and remarkable book. Parts in which Segrest cites and quotes other source material read like a master’s thesis. Some parts are deeply personal, while others are written with an aesthetic distance that borders on surgically cold. Segrest devoted much of the ‘70s and ‘80s to investigating and organizing against the Klan and other white supremacy hate groups in North Carolina. Sometimes her work coincided with Morris Dees at Southern Poverty Law Center. As she recounts the work documenting Klan rallies, hate crimes and court cases, her writing reads more like a newspaper report. One has to extrapolate that the stress, fear and drive to keep going forced her to view the battle from a longer lens—one from necessity.
With the same reporter’s tone, Segrest describes her father’s work organizing private whites-only schools in response to the forced desegregation of Alabama schools. She explores family history that brought him to that crusade and also ignited her rebellion against it.
The personal, deeply real parts of the book—the ones that make you want to cry for her pain—are those concerning her mother. Segrest so desperately wants her mother to choose differently, act differently and have a courage. Though hinted at in private, that courage is never acted out in public. While Segrest leaves and finds a stage for her beliefs and activism, her mother lives out her life in the same town with the same neighbors, and frankly, the same social controls.
With the work against white supremacy at the forefront of her mind, Segrest tries to navigate coming out as a lesbian—all while Anita Bryant is crusading against gay people holding jobs as teachers or participating in society at all. Segrest leaves her closeted teaching job, and while she works tirelessly on civil rights, the AIDS epidemic erupts around her. The disease, which disproportionately affected, first, the gay community and then communities of color (both of which Segrest worked closely with at the time) is an unavoidable nightmare.
With candor she recounts a housemate contracting and dying from AIDS. It is a complicated human relationship without a good resolution. The housemate insists on dying on his own terms and refuses to mask his illness; his obituary actually lists his life partner as his “friend” rather than omitting their relationship altogether. For the time, Segrest notes, it was a win in the public relations war. Coming out is a complicated process still today, and in the 1970s it was no simpler.
Segrest continues to pursue a relationship with her family, scoring minor victories, while still feeling the pricks and pains of the wounds that continue throughout her life. It isn’t a simple story of cutting off from family, bur rather a far more complicated story of trying to maintain family ties amid deep schisms of belief about race, gender, sexuality, power and privilege. Frankly, those discussions and struggles have not gone away for many families in America; they have changed, perhaps, in the last 40 years but not disappeared.
“Are you enjoying the book?” Jock asked me. “Enjoy” is not really the word. It is tough reading about the Klan organizing and terrorizing in our home state. I lived in North Carolina in the 1980s, and I remember one of the rallies Segrest describes from my early childhood: the flyers advertising it, the local news coverage, the images of the men in white robes. I saw it all closer back then on a TV screen, but not as close as the 4-year-old she describes in the book, watching “white men in white” take her mother away from their house late at night.
As Segrest travels backroads around the eastern part of the state, what she describes and experiences isn’t just close to home, it is home. The necessity to make “home” a safe place for everyone becomes more and more real. It all makes for fascinating reading.
Many memoirs of activism happen far away or tackle large and almost intangible topics. This is a deeply personal exploration of hate in our home state and one person’s journey to find not just light, but justice and the building blocks of a new home and new safety. Finding widely published LBGTQIA memoirs from North Carolina authors is difficult but worth the work (we will be talking about Armistead Maupin again soon). Not only is it Pride month, but we are currently engaged in a deep community conversation that has been centuries in the making. Segrest’s book could not be more timely.