Gene Cheek is a “blue collar son of the South” who has written angrily and passionately of his childhood with an alcoholic white father, a mother who dared to love a black man, and all the stops along the way on the bus ride to the hell of interracial madness.
Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the city where this reviewer works, in the South, where this reviewer grew up, Gene was as much an heir to the American dream as any working-class kid. His mother, Sallie, loved him and spent much of his young life trying to protect him from the abuses of a violent drunken father. But when she crossed the color line and developed a deep relationship with a kind, thoughtful black man named Tuck, she had to give up her oldest son.
The book begins with stark descriptions of a little boy’s confusion about his father’s behavior, his fears of his own family, and the comfort he got from his mother and grandmother. The latter was a tolerant, open person who inadvertently introduced his mother to a black man. When Sallie’s husband found her sitting on a couch with Tuck, engaged in totally innocent conversation, he flew into one of many rages. Subsequently, after he himself had abandoned his wife and was in arrears on his child support payments, he began to stalk Sallie until he caught her and his son in an African American neighborhood. Police appeared at Tuck’s door. Later, the Klan burned a cross on the family’s front lawn, after Sallie committed the worst sin a Southern white woman could – she had Tuck’s baby.
The backdrop to this dramatic story is the Civil Rights movement, and the role of Winston-Salem black activists. The thorn of radicalism in the flesh of a tight-knit white community, traditional and riddled with racial hatreds, exacerbated the struggle that Sallie faced in trying to keep her family together. It was a crime for her to marry Tuck or even to admit to having a relationship with him. In court, vying for the custody of twelve-year-old Gene, mother and son listened in tears as everyone they knew including close relatives avowed that Sallie was a bad mother and that Gene would be better off away from her. There was no mercy, strained or otherwise, in the courts. Sallie’s lawyer never showed up and subsequent appeals were denied. Sallie had to deny that she knew Tuck and was, unbelievably, given the choice of putting her older son in foster care for his own good or giving up the baby she had had with her loving partner. Gene chose foster care rather than force his mother to give up her baby, his half-brother.
Gene was sent to a foster home and then a boy’s home. His anger and emotional detachment followed him through adolescence into adulthood. Later he chose to isolate himself in a mountain retreat where he fought with his demons and wrote this compelling book.
The bad old days before Martin and John are well depicted in this plain chronicle. Winston-Salem is still struggling with its racially scarred past and amends have been made. For younger readers this book may seem like a grim fairytale, but the events were real, and we would do well to remember the past as we look to the future.