Reading: Helen Pruden Kaufmann on growing up in Edenton during the end of Jim Crow | Arts

Reading: Helen Pruden Kaufmann on growing up in Edenton during the end of Jim Crow

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Helen Pruden Kaufmann’s memoir WHITE GLOVES AND COLLARDS (HPK Press) has been out for half a year but may have slipped under your radar, being self-published (though very professionally done). If you’re interested in intimate, humble, sharp-edged reports on Southern life during the Civil Rights Movement, don’t let it.

The book mainly covers the author’s public school years (1956–1969) in Edenton, N.C., “The South’s Prettiest Small Town.” We also glimpse 2012, by which time Kaufmann has earned an American history degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and worked for a public school desegregation program in Massachusetts.

There are personal coming-of-age conflicts, particularly the early deaths of Kaufmann’s parents. But the book thrives on its acutely local yet broadly representative view of the effects of the end of Jim Crow in an Inner Banks town anchored by a Confederate monument, with news of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Power movement coming over the airwaves.

The cast includes a wised-up older brother, a reactionary extended family and a “sage African-American maid.” This stock characterization from the jacket summary sells the content short—Kaufmann does not caricature Edenton, which she is clearly fond of; instead, she draws the complex interface of nostalgia and progress in an honest, humane way. Her characters test and mix our sympathies.

In 1983, Kaufmann covers her baby’s ears against a casual racial slur dropped by her great-aunt—the same eccentric who, in 1956, embarrassed Kaufmann by bringing her “Wednesday” underwear to school, as she’d neglected to change out of Tuesday’s. This figure dramatizes both the darker and lighter sides of Southern traditionalism.

Supplemented with family photos and recipes, White Gloves’ short chapters frame key places and events, whisking us briskly from a family vacation in Nag’s Head to a civil rights sit-in at a local pharmacy. This is a critical yet affectionate and accessible family portrait that denies itself the self-flattery of sweeping moral indignation.

Kaufmann reads at Quail Ridge at 7:30 p.m. on June 6 and at McIntyre’s in Pittsboro at 11 a.m. on June 7.


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