Memoir Traces Spiral into Racial Violence Amid Baton Rouge Desegregation Fight
Tim Parrish says his memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, is not a book he wanted to write. He dreaded reckoning with the racial violence of his adolescence in Baton Rouge in the 1960s and 1970s.
An explosion rattled his kitchen windows when a city pool nearby was blown up after it was integrated. As a teenager, Parrish took part in street fights and race riots at his school – Istrouma High.
Parrish traces the roots of his own bigotry to his family and their Baptist congregation.
Tim Parrish will read from and discuss Fear and What Follows and his new fiction work, The Jumper, at Baton Rouge Gallery Sunday, Oct. 13, at 4 p.m.
WRKF NEWS DIRECTOR AMY JEFFRIES: You had to make a judgement call about race at a very young age. At 8 years old, your Baptist church here in Baton Rouge took a vote about whether or not to let black people join the church. And you voted to let them in.
AUTHOR TIM PARRISH: Right.
JEFFRIES: But that's not really how the rest of your family voted and that's not how the majority of the congregation voted either.
So how did you at 8 make that decision?
PARRISH: It seemed clear to me, because we were a Christian church and the message I was getting already was that you should love other people and be tolerant. And one of the remarkable things looking back was that the little Sunday school primer that we had had children of all races on the cover. I don't know how that made it through the censors at our church, but it did. So to me -- I mean, I already knew I was running up against my family and my culture at larger, but it just seemed like a no-brainer to me. If Jesus was sitting there taking that vote, he'd vote to let everybody in.
JEFFRIES: But it seems that your teenaged self would have voted very differently.
JEFFRIES: What changed? How did you get from this kid you fundamentally had this instinct of inclusion to being the kid who in high school was helping to incite a race riot?
PARRISH: Well, I got scared.
There was a horrible fight when I was around 13 and there was the risk of death. And then I got stalked by a sociopath. And it really put the fear in my bones. And then by horrible, I guess, coincidence, when I was 15 this almost superhero-like -- or superhuman, not superhero-like -- charismatic racist moved onto my street. And I thought if I allied myself with that guy I would be safe.
JEFFRIES: Kurt Dyer was that guy who led you down the path of acting out this bigotry when you were a teenager. You revisited a lot of things in this book, in your memoir, what do you think is the worst thing that you did?
PARRISH: The worst thing I did was raise a chain to hit a little boy. And I was young, I was 15, and I would imagine he was 12 or 13, and I didn't hit him, but I'm still really haunted by that moment.
I'll never get over it and I don't want to get over it. … I was being a bully and picking on a kid who was probably around the age I'd been when I was terrorized.
JEFFRIES: So how did you get to that position, where you were there with the chain and there's a kid and you're standing over him with this weapon.
PARRISH: We were out looking for trouble.
David Duke, after one of our riots, had come to our school to recruit. And that night there was a David Duke meeting in our neighborhood. But Kurt Dyer didn't want anything to do with David Duke, because he saw politicians as fake and exploitative. But he was determined that night a group of us were going to go out and send a message to just some random black people we saw. So we went looking for trouble and we found it on Winbourne Avenue.
JEFFRIES: In the epilogue of your memoir, you say that you've imagined Kurt Dyer being at reading of your book in Baton Rouge. So here you are. You're in Baton Rouge. You've got a reading at Baton Rouge Gallery on Sunday. Are you scared that he'll actually show up?
PARRISH: I'm not scared that he'll show up. It presents me with a dilemma.
If he shows up, he won't be there to do me harm, because strangely enough I think he and I still love each other. I know I have some love for him.
But, if he comes, he'll be smiling, he'll be acting like nothing ever happened. And then for me it's, how do I react to that? If I act like nothing ever happened, is that a betrayal of myself after I've stepped out? But to confront him wouldn't really do any good either. So I'm nervous about being in Baton Rouge.