Reviewed by Walter Bennett
Terry Barr’s Don’t Date Baptists is foremost a book of stories—an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative—about a boy’s coming to manhood and moral awareness in the deep South of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, a propitious time and place indeed to be the son of a Jewish father and Methodist mother. And that religious amalgam astir in his conscience and gene pool is one of the ingredients in these stories that makes them unique among an endless flow of books, fiction and nonfiction, that examine this era in the South.
Barr is by virtue of ancestry, innate sensitivity, and an early tendency toward open-mindedness, not quite in the social—much less political—mainstream of Bessemer, Alabama. Which is a good thing because that always-tenuous position on the fringe of the magic circle gives him insight others do not have and teaches him empathy they are unable to achieve.
And the setting in Bessemer is another such ingredient. Bessemer in that era was not a city like Memphis or Birmingham nor “just another sleepy southern town” like Harper’s Lee’s Maycomb: not a lot of debutante balls, cotton picking, catfish farming, or mint julep evenings. It was an iron and steel town spread on the southwest edge of Birmingham and full of hard-working, shirtsleeve-rolled people who, when the wind wasn’t right, which was most of the time, lived in a red haze of iron dust you could see from twenty miles away on old Highway 11 from Tuscaloosa. I know because I drove that highway many times in the 60s on the courtship road to Birmingham, and every time I passed through Bessemer, it was like driving through a smeltered world where the air, buildings, and land itself seemed temper-forged and coated in some residue from “up north”—Pittsburgh, say, or Gary, Indiana. It didn’t feel southern in any version of the South I knew, and I wondered what sort of people lived there.
Terry Barr tells us. His guided tour through the time-warp and tilted landscape of mid-20th Century Bessemer is a hit-and-run affair in which we meet the town’s inhabitants in scenes and circumstances that are vividly emotional and then leave them and return later as the social soup grows thicker and richer—and sometimes more grotesque—around us. The link that connects these characters, scenes, and stories is Barr’s sincere and earnest voice as it reflects and narrates in a fashion that sometimes resembles a prize fighter taking a round, returning to his corner, and getting up to go back in. But he and his protagonist—that is to say, his younger self—learn from each uppercut they take (some self-delivered) and the elder Barr, the writer/reflector, sticks with it until somewhere along the way, we see and feel the sincere dedication in their intergenerational struggle and start to cheer them on.
Central to this struggle is Barr’s self-confrontation in regard to his relationship to the African Americans in his life, particularly those close to him as a child. Closest of them all was the family maid, Dissie, whom he clearly loved and who loved him and toward whom he confesses an almost nostalgic guilt for the inevitable pain visited upon her by white society (some of which was caused by his parents who, in spite of their hatred of George Wallace, fired Dissie when her daughter demanded they pay Dissie a “minimum” wage and provide health care) and some of which, he speculates, may have resulted from a slight by him that appears as a crucial moment in his life.
Such was the often brutal and cruel, sometimes careless and whimsical, and always absurd system of southern American apartheid, and as a young man, Barr confronts it many times lurking in Bessemer’s segregated neighborhoods, schools, and sports events and frequently taking him, and a white reader like me, by surprise, which is itself surprising because deep down we know it is there. For a sensitive boy like Barr, there is a sadness in all of this, and for the mature Barr, a true sense of loss, and he lays it carefully before us upon the page. The reader can almost see him pulling himself up by the bootstraps to rise above the meanness around him. We feel admiration and pride, but the mire and muck of Bessemer’s racist past will not wash away from its streets or the souls of some of its citizens, as we see when, after Barr’s marriage to an Iranian woman, an old friend from Bessemer asks him what it’s like being married to “one of those ‘sand niggers.’”
Barr’s stories and reflections are about more than race. They cover the entire spectrum of Bessemer society and range from humorous to deeply touching. There is the neighbor, an avowed witch, who, if the rumors are true, burned down her own house; little Terry Wendt, who got run over by a train while trying to outrun it on his bicycle; Hank and Jo Ellen, the young couple who directed the church youth group and whose “water-brained” baby died within days of its birth; and missed girlfriends: Dissie’s granddaughter, Nita, whom he smiled at across the racial divide in their high school corridors and at football games; Karen, the girl who was “not quite in my economic class” and who he overlooked as a possible sweetheart. There are many more such stories—all insightful and moving—and with each, we hear not only the story as Barr tells it, but what other characters have to say. The actors speak. It is like watching a richly developed play or movie (American Graffiti comes to mind). And through it all, we follow Barr’s own journey through Bessemer and its people as, through story-telling and reflection, he comes into his own moral awareness in a society that forced you to do that or remain stuck in the dismal past.
Such a journey cannot be a straight line, and there are times when a reader might yearn for a bit more sequence in the telling. That said, this is a remarkable book about the deep South at a crucial time in its racial and cultural history that is still unfolding, and one boy’s (and man’s) coming to terms with it and with himself.
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