Before I review the book, The Dry Grass of August, written by Anna Jean Mayhew, I would like to provide a quick historical overview of America’s institutional racism from the 1600s through the 1900s. Exactly 400 years ago, the first Africans were brought over to the American Colonies. From that point until the early 1970s, blacks were systematically oppressed and suppressed by those in power through deeds and laws.
The novel, The Dry Grass of August, opens in the summer of 1954. A few months earlier, the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled on the case, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, determining that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. Despite the Court’s unanimous decision, not everyone agreed with that finding, including some middle-class whites from Charlotte, North Carolina, Mr. and Mrs. Watts.
Growing up in the segregated South, their daughter, 13-year old Jubie Watts, has always lived her life behind the “separate but equal” screen, shielded from the realities of racism. But with age comes wisdom, and that summer, Jubie starts to see the world as it really is.
Jubie, along with her mother, her three siblings, and their black maid/caregiver Mary Luther, pile into the family’s Packard and head to Pensacola, Florida for a vacation. Jubie is thrilled to be riding next to Mary, the one person in the world who accepts her “as is” and provides her with stability in an unstable world.
However, as the Watts family and Mary pass through South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, Jubie notices strange signs in some towns, warning blacks not to let the sun go down on them. She also witnesses the everyday prejudice that African-Americans endure when Mary is barred from eating, drinking, swimming, peeing, bathing, or sleeping in most places where she and her family are welcomed. Even though Mary seems to tolerate this unequal treatment, Jubie does not and begins questioning “the way things are.” Then, when the horrific happens, Jubie’s eyes are pried wide open, and she must face the failings of her family and others, choose her own convictions, and walk her own path in her own way.
The Dry Grass of August starts out almost innocently as if we are really seeing the world through Jubie’s young eyes. However, with each new chapter, we begin to witness the world as it really was, warts and all. Although I have researched Jim Crow laws and have studied the history of sundown towns, I was fortunate enough not to live during those times. So, in a way, I felt just like Jubie, gradually growing my understanding—one word, one act of discrimination at a time.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses, those words and deeds quickly accumulate. In fact, it was so overwhelming that I was able to understand why it was easy for some people to become desensitized and to turn a blind eye to what was happening around them. This made me wonder: If I, a white woman, had grown up in the segregated South, would I have been like Mrs. Watts, secretly disdaining bigotry yet bending under its weight, or would I have been more like Jubie, pushing back at prejudice, consequences be damned?
And this is what I appreciated most about The Dry Grass of August. It forced me to ask myself the hard questions and prompted me to see with fresh eyes the pervasiveness of prejudice in American society, both in the past and (to be perfectly honest) the present. A sometimes sweet, often uncomfortable book, The Dry Grass of August is something everyone should read.