Jimmy Carter's autobiography, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood is quiet and moving, particularly in its clear-eyed description of life in the American South in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Poverty and hard work are central to the picture that Carter paints. So is racism — but in an extraordinarily intimate form.

In Chapter 4, "My Life as a Young Pup", Carter recounts:

From the first day we moved to the farm in Archery, my primary playmate was Alonzo Davis, always known as A.D., who lived on our farm with his uncle and aunt. During my first four years in Plains I had known only white children, and it must have been quite a change for me to meet this very timid little black boy with kinky hair, big eyes, and a tendency to mumble when he talked. I soon learned that A.D.'s bashfulness evaporated as soon as we were out of the presence of adults and on our own together, and it took me about an hour to forget, once and for all, about any racial differences between us. Since our other playmates on the farm were also black, it was only natural for me to consider myself the outsider and to strive to emulate their habits and language. It never seemed to me that A.D. tried to change, except when one of my parents was present. Then he just became much quieter, watched what was going on with vigilance, and waited until we were alone again to resume his more carefree and exuberant ways.

I was soon spending most of my waking hours on the farm with him, except when I was alongside Daddy or Jack Clark. Although his surrogate parents didn't know exactly when he was born, A.D. was close to my age, and it was not long after we met that he and his aunt adopted my birthday as his own, so we could share whatever celebrations there might be. A.D. was slightly larger and stronger than I, but not quite as fast or agile, so we were almost equal in our constant wrestling, running, and other contests. I was perfectly at ease in his house, and minded his uncle and aunt as though they were my own parents. At least during our younger years, I believe that he felt equally comfortable in our house; he and I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary in our eating together in the kitchen, rather than at the table where my family assembled for meals.

and later in that same chapter:

On a few occasions when fieldwork was slack, Daddy let A.D. and me go to Americus to see a movie by ourselves. We had to walk up the railroad to Archery, find the little red leather flag left for the purpose, and stick it upright in a hole in the end of a crosstie. The engineer would see the signal and stop so we could board in front of the section foreman's house. It cost fifteen cents each, and we parted company during the ride to sit in the seats marked "white" and "colored." When we arrived in Americus, we walked together to the Rylander Theater and separated again, A.D. paying his dime at a back entrance and sitting in the high third level while I went in to sit either downstairs or in the first balcony. Afterward, we would go back home, united in friendship though physically divided on the segregated train. Our only strong feeling was one of gratitude for our wonderful excursion; I don't remember ever questioning the mandatory racial separation, which we accepted like breathing or waking up in Archery every morning.

In the concluding pages of his book, Jimmy Carter looks back over the past eight decades and writes:

But in the dramatic changes we have witnessed, something has been lost as well as gained. My own life was shaped by a degree of personal intimacy between black and white people that is now almost completely unknown and largely forgotten. Except for my own parents, the people who most deeply affected my early life were Bishop Johnson, Rachel Clark, my Uncle Buddy, Julia Coleman, and Willis Wright. Two of them were white.

(see also On the Subjection of (21 Aug 1999), Human Nature (5 Dec 1999), Learning to See (28 Feb 2000), Interracial Intimacies (24 Feb 2003), ... )

TopicLiterature - TopicSociety - 2004-05-25

(correlates: SecondLargestInvestment, LoveAndMarriage, Comments on Steely Eyed Missile Man, ...)