Don't Date Baptists: And Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother
Terry Barr, author
Following in the tradition of Alabama memoirist Rick Bragg, Don’t Date Baptists explores the world of Bessemer, Alabama, circa 1960’s–70’s from the eyes of a boy who grew up there, struggling to understand the divide of race, class, religion, and neighborhood anxiety. Essayist Terry Barr learns from his parents that not all love is the same; that certain neighbors are not to be trusted; that crosses and stars and popular music can with seamless metamorphosis signal danger, desire, hate, and deep abiding love. While public pools might be filled with clay to prevent integrated swimming, or so- called friends might slur those darker than themselves, this southern boy learns to appreciate how these incidents and relationships have challenged and molded him into the teacher, writer and unapologetic Bessemer man that he is. With humor and poignant authenticity, Barr captures what it means to come of age as the New South cuts its teeth, with much trial and terrible error, in territory that is rich and explosive, devastating and beautiful.
The essays in Barr’s debut collection engage both nostalgia and social critique as he chronicles his upbringing in Bessemer, Ala., under George Wallace’s divisive governorship in the 1960s. Born to a Jewish father and Methodist mother, Barr lovingly details neighborhood barbeques (“Over the Hot Coals”); his filial love for Dissie, his family’s African-American maid (“Searching for Higher Ground”); and his experience of revisiting the town in adulthood (“Racial Divide”). In highlighting Bessemer’s widespread intolerance, Barr reveals the town’s ugliest cobwebs, but he often fails to sweep them away; instead he defers to rhetorical questions or passes the work onto others. In “The Mayor,” for instance, Barr suggests, “Some things need to stay the same so that we’ll remember, and maybe so that other people, younger than ourselves, will ask uncomfortable questions about echoing things they don’t quite, but feel they should, understand.” The material is steeped in Southern charm. Some overlaps in the material become repetitive; four separate works mention the city pool being cemented over rather than integrated. In standout pieces concerning Barr’s adult life, he marries an Iranian woman and then hides the marriage from his parents, and he seeks to understand his daughter’s love of new country music. Barr’s portrayal of his mother sustains the book, as she is funny, endearing, and frank. Whenever she spins a new yarn, the reader can’t help but listen. (BookLife)