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In 'Brothers,' A Pair Of Divergent Paths Split By Race


Here's that other story I promised you. People often say when they're called upon to defend certain ideas and beliefs, well, that's just the way I was raised. What about people who were raised the exact same way and, for whatever reason, change? Barry Moser has written a book about that. He is an acclaimed artist and illustrator. And now he's written a new memoir about growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the different paths he and his late brother Thomas took on the subject of race. Their differences led to such a rift that the brothers barely spoke for nearly four decades. Moser's book is called "We Were Brothers." In the prologue, he writes that "without opportunity to be otherwise, Tommy and I were racist," so I asked him about that.

BARRY MOSER: Well, we come from a family where, you know, the grandfather is a Ku Klux Klansman, and his son is a Klansman. And people in that circle - the family circle - never challenged that in any way. There's hardly any other way to grow up.

MARTIN: You know, you talk about some things that I think a lot of people who didn't grow up that way have wondered about. And one is that your mother's best friend was a lady named Verneta. And, I mean, really - they really seem to be - I mean, I know it's - just to speak clear, some people will challenge that, but they seem to really be friends. They seem to have a really warm relationship. They shared a lot of things. And yet, you were still sort of taught not to give her the respect of a title. She was never called Mrs.

MOSER: Verneta was black. Verneta would never, ever have been referred to as a lady. That would've been completely off the table. My mother and Verneta grew up playing together. Of course, they didn't go to school together. They didn't go to church together. They couldn't eat at any public place with each other, but they did play. And they grew to be lifelong friends.

MARTIN: So how, then, did your mother switch gears? In fact, you tell this really chilling scene where the Klan parades down the middle of the street, you know, in all their regalia.

MOSER: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I think this is important scene. It talks about, you know, there was - one of the trucks had a loudspeaker mounted on top.

MOSER: Yeah.

MARTIN: And he kept saying - the person - the man's voice kept saying over and over - I'm not going to say it because I'm not going to say it - but - the N-word - don't you never forget your place. Don't you never forget your place.

MOSER: Never forget your place.

MARTIN: And this was scary to your mom's friend, and she came over to the house looking for - what? - comfort. And then what happened?

MOSER: Michel, her skin had washed out to the color of ashes in a fireplace, and her face was drawn. Her mouth was drawn down like she had had a stroke, and it was all distorted by nothing but raw, unmitigated fear. And my mother took her. Verneta was about a foot taller than my momma. And she took her in her arms - my mother did - and patted her on her back and said, you know, it's going to be OK. It's going to be OK. And then one of my - my uncle, the Klansmen, said something that I can't say on the air back to her - essentially just said, OK, go on home now, Verneta. Go on home.

MARTIN: Well, let's just be clear. What he said is, as recounted in your book - is them old boys there aren't got no problem with good N-words like you and your mammy. Now, that brother of yours - Leonard - he got a might uppity sometimes, so you might want to talk to that boy. And then he shoos her on out.

MOSER: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: He is actually probably thrilled that she's terrified.

MOSER: Yes, and so that moment changed my life because up until that point, there was no other word in my vocabulary for black people except the N-word. And I started realizing then that Verneta has the same emotions that I do. She was scared to death. I know what it is to be scared. We share the same emotions. So it was, for me, an epiphany, and I believed that it was that moment that turned me toward a course of what I refer to now as becoming a recovering racist.

MARTIN: But it didn't have that - well, your brother Tommy wasn't home that night...

MOSER: That's right.

MARTIN: ...As you recount in the book. He had very different reactions to situations throughout your lives together. He's - what? - three years older.


MARTIN: He comes off as quite of a bit of a bully.

MOSER: Oh, he was a bully. At least, he bullied me.

MARTIN: 'Cause your brother does come across, at least, at a certain part of his life, as just really unthinkingly bigoted about just everything - women, black people, you.

MOSER: Let's not leave out Jews and Catholics.

MARTIN: Jews and Catholics, of course. Everybody that's not him. It is a bit of a spoiler alert, so I don't know if you want me to go into this, but years later, when you were both well into adulthood, you wound up exchanging letters.

MOSER: Yeah.

MARTIN: And did that shed some light on your differences?

MOSER: Oh, absolutely. It was the (foreign language spoken) where it comes together. I think that on the one hand, my brother was a diehard, deep-seeded racist, and I'm not sure that he went to his grave otherwise. But there's another part of me that looks back on the history of our troubled brotherhood and realizes that he did a lot of things to me just to egg me on, just to get - as my momma would say, just to get my goat. So I don't know, Michel. I don't know whether he was really a racist or whether he wanted to appear to be that way just to aggravate me.

MARTIN: We live in a time, as you know, when the whole question of race is still in front of us.

MOSER: Yes, it is.

MARTIN: Is there something that we could glean from your personal story that might help us understand this a little better, given that you grew up with a person with these very different views in your very same house?

MOSER: Yes. Well, I think that it has to do with reconciliation. If two brothers as broadly different as my brother and I were - if at - toward the end of one of our lives, if we could reconcile each other, then our relationship has been redeemed. And I think that if you take that into a broader stroke, a broader brush - you might say that if we could only admit to each other, black and white, that we've closed our minds off to reconciliation - and if we could admit that, we could come to a point where we could all be redeemed from that cauldron of hatred and bigotry and prejudice.

MARTIN: That's Barry Moser. He's the author of the new memoir "We Were Brothers," and we spoke to him from the studios of New England Public Radio. Barry Moser, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MOSER: Thank you, Michel. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.