Friday, May 24, 2019

Tom Graves’ White Boy

Posted By on Fri, May 24, 2019 at 12:47 PM

click to enlarge whiteboy_front_cover_1_.jpg

Memphis-based writer and publisher Tom Graves is set to publish his sixth book on Saturday, June 1st, with a booksigning to follow at Novel bookstore on Tuesday, June 4th.

The author of Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson and of Pullers, a novel about the weird world of competitive arm wrestling, has now set his sights on the art of memoir. The book will be released under the imprint of the Devault-Graves Agency (Graves’ Memphis-based publishing house, co-founded by Darrin Devault).

“Like every book I’ve ever done, this one came at me sideways,” Graves says of his new book, White Boy: A Memoir. The author had been working on a different book, when an autobiographical section expanded, seemingly of its own volition, blossoming far beyond the confines of its chapter.

“I’d been working on a cookbook,” Graves says. He is interested in soul food, specifically in learning to cook it. The only problem: “I wasn’t very good at it.”

So Graves set about trying to find a teacher willing to give him some one-on-one lessons in the great Southern art of soul food.

“I wanted somebody who was a good kitchen cook,” Graves explains. “I put this question to a reverend I know, Reverend Roger Brown, and he put me in touch with an 80-year-old lady, [Larthy Washington], who has been the church cook for him for 40-plus years. Every two weeks, we would meet at the church, and she would give me lessons.”

Graves still plans on finishing and releasing the cookbook he’s co-writing with Larthy Washington, but he decided he would first have to explore the autobiographical idea.

“Because I was working with an African-American lady and working on soul food, it had me thinking about all the different changes in my life regarding race in Memphis,” Graves explains. “I’m a lifelong Memphian; I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

As a witness to landmark events from his elementary school’s initial integration in the ’60s to the removal of the Confederate statues from city parks in 2017, Graves feels his perspective offers something valuable and relatable. So he set about expanding and editing that autobiographical chapter into a full-fledged memoir focusing on race in Memphis.

Graves lists banner moments in his memoir, times when he was forced to confront the injustices of society, and then, afterward, view the world in a different light. One such moment was a time he and his family were entertaining old family friends visiting from out of town.

“We were all picnicking at Overton Park,” Graves explains. They wanted to make a trip to the Memphis Zoo on a later day — a Thursday, which was, at the time, one of the only days that African Americans were allowed to visit the zoo. A young Graves pointed that detail out to his father, who explained that though their black neighbors were prohibited from visiting the zoo on “whites only” days, Tom and his family were not required to abide by the same rules. They could go to the zoo any day they wished. Graves was stunned: “I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Something’s wrong here. That’s not fair.’”

In the memoir, Graves focuses on the multiple moments in his life when he was forced to acknowledge the injustices of racism. “[In White Boy], I talk about the day that my school was integrated,” Graves explains. “It would have been the ’64/’65 school year, and Bethel Grove integrated one black student. And what pressure must have been on that little girl … ” The author trails off for a moment before imagining the unfairness of shouldering so much pressure as a child.

Still, not all of White Boy is devoted to Graves’ childhood, and as the author ages and becomes more aware, he’s forced to confront still grimmer tableaus. And in his memoir, Graves hews close to the bone, not letting himself or his city off, nor shying away from acknowledging the gritty details when necessary. When asked how Memphis has changed, Graves is quick to answer. “It’s changed enormously,” he says of his hometown. “If you saw a fish fry or a barbecue, it was either all-black or all-white.” But, the author admits, “I think we have work to do.”

The author doesn’t intend the book to be a scholarly examination of racism in the South. White Boy is a memoir, and is intended to be read as such, which is why it ends on a personal note. “I ended [the book] with my tragic love story,” Graves says. He met his first wife in Senegal, but the marriage didn’t last long. Of course, like the rest of White Boy, that’s Graves’ story, and it’s best to let the author tell it himself.

Tom Graves will discuss and sign his new book,
White Boy: A Memoir, at Novel bookstore, Tuesday, June 4th, at 6 p.m.

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