Hugh Merrill’s Story of his Upbringing Holds Lessons for Us All
“My family arose from a line that defines white privilege and power, in a place of authority that has twisted the lives of many. Over generations, my family helped shape the Jim Crow laws in Alabama, convict the innocent and protect the guilty. They profited from slavery, racial terror, the labor of hired convicts, the prison leasing system and took full advantage of all the other perks that go with wealth and easy access to the powerful.”
This frank admission forms the introduction to “Whiteout,” a new book by veteran Kansas City artist Hugh Merrill. Merrill, a longtime professor of art at the Kansas City Art Institute, has worked with the Homeless Liaison, Kansas City Kansas Public Schools and other community organizations and exhibited his work internationally.
To me, Merrill’s candid and fearless combination of blunt honesty, intimate exploration and a willingness to be personally vulnerable in exposing how deep the tentacles of racism extend into American society and thinking is what makes “Whiteout” ever so timely and required reading for anyone seeking a true grasp on the issue of race in modern-day America.
Following a childhood in Alabama and Virginia, Merrill began his artistic career in 1969 at the Maryland Institute College of Art and earned an MFA from Yale in 1975. He grew up in two communities: one of open Southern racism and the other of Northern progressivism, experiencing firsthand the deep racism of both populations. He shares his story bluntly, demonstrating how deeply the feelings of white superiority were (and in many cases still are) deeply rooted in the psyches of Deep Southern white Americans, as well as Northern white Americans who considered themselves non-racist, progressive, sympathetic and activist.
Merrill’s description of his upbringing includes many reminiscences of his hard-drinking father, James W. Merrill, who, despite many serious missteps, managed to stay employed in well-paying positions ranging from training Negro soldiers in the wartime Army to being in positions of authority for the federal government. “He was good at whatever he put his mind to,” Merrill writes, “but success was short-term and disrupted by his base nature, his love of sex, drinks, recognition and gambling.”
Like many white Southerners of the “separate but equal” mindset, James Merrill respected and was hospitable to Blacks on an individual and professional level. The author recalls, “My father had trained Black troops during World War II and often spoke with great pride of the men he trained and how they ended up fighting in the front line in Italy and were real heroes.”
But James Merrill was also very protective of the superior status in society afforded to whites, bringing to mind the quote by President Abraham Lincoln: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”
As Merrill explains his father’s divided stance, protecting white superiority while practicing a humanitarian view toward Blacks on an individual level, “My father did not hate a person because of the color of their skin, in fact he was more than willing to get in bed with colored girls, but he was not about to allow them their place as his equal.”
Coming of Age with Racism
Merrill also writes of other men in his family, including his grandfather, Hugh D. Merrill. The elder Merrill was a state judge and former lieutenant governor of Alabama. In a riveting passage of the book, Merrill explains how his grandfather presided over a corrupt murder trial that ended in the execution of Edgar Caldwell, an innocent black soldier. Merrill explores this all-too-common travesty of justice with a clinical frankness.
But his father remains a primary focus. In the chapter “Becoming Presbyterian,” Merrill recounts the time his father interrupted mid-sermon a Northern Baptist preacher who was using the Bible to justify American racism, stating, “Those with the mark of Cain, the mark of dark skin, are not worthy of our schools. Do not have the aptitude or knowledge to vote, their votes can be bought with a drink of whiskey.”
To which Merrill’s father “stood up and in a loud and powerful voice, said ‘Enough of this nonsense, I have never heard such foolishness from the pulpit and let me be clear on this . . . with God as my witness, let me say that I will never set foot in this Baptist church again or any Baptist church.’”
Elsewhere, Merrill describes a stunning but somewhat humorous incident. It began when a neighborhood gathering became a virulent argument on race, in which James Merrill defended the Southern status quo against more progressive neighbors and the use of the federal government to force integration. “You people in the North do not really understand Negroes and have no knowledge how to live next to them,” Merrill’s father said. “The South is changing, but it must come from the local level . . . Sending troops is an invasion of America by the Federal Government.”
After storming out of the gathering, James Merrill exposed the latent racism of his “progressive Northern white” neighbors by giving them the impression that he was moving his family and selling the home to a Black couple. These same neighbors, who considered themselves anti-segregation and not racist, were clearly disturbed, distraught and panicked at the idea of a Black family living in their neighborhood, even suggesting legal action to block the sale.
While “Whiteout” is rich in social commentary, it is also a coming-of-age book. As with many other teenagers and young adults, Merrill’s growing up was accompanied by life-shaping relationships, poignant memories of family dysfunction, sexual experimentation and a widening gulf between his parents and him that culminated in separation.
There is much, much more. The author frankly describes a botched abortion that results in death, a sexual liaison in the back of car that was interrupted by a police officer, and other situations, some sensitive and even somewhat endearing.
The ending of the book is quite poignant. In the final chapter, “Dying,” the author, now an adult who has very little contact with his parents, describes how, as the result of a lifetime of alcoholism, his father came close to death many times in his later years.
Merrill got a phone call in the middle of the night, informing him that his father was dead.
“At the funeral home, I refused to go in and view the body; that was for my brother and sister. Most of the memories I had of the man were ugly or distressing. I felt I did not need to see him dead in his coffin and hear some minister who knew nothing about him say what a great man he had been, a vet, and read his resume, all a pack of distortions and lies.”
“Dying” provides a powerful closure for the book and also serves as an opening for further meditation. It reminds us that racism, sexism, homophobia and other social ills are actually human ills. Behind the words and actions of intolerance and hatred are human beings, living human lives and barreling toward the end of life that we all must face.
Through intimately descriptive and courageous writing, “Whiteout” reminds us that regardless of where we land on the spectrum of tolerance, we might as well be honest about where we come from, who we come from and what we come from … because it shapes who we are and the imprint we will leave on our world.