Likely Stories: All over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

Feb 22, 2018

Compelling memoir of poverty among whites and African-Americans in 1950s Alabama

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Rick Bragg’s memoir, All over but the Shoutin’, is a detailed look into the poverty of Alabama in the 50s.  Bragg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1996.  He is a national correspondent for The New York Times.  He lives in Atlanta Georgia.  As the jacket accurately points out, this story is a “haunting, harrowing, gloriously moving recollection of a life on the American margin.”  Lots of times I ignore these blurbs before I read a book, but this one completely and concisely sums up the sad story of poverty in America.

This memoir is heart-wrenching to say the least.  The poverty of people in Alabama—as bad as it was—was still not as bad as the African-Americans in the same time and place.  Rick Bragg’s story is of his long-suffering mother, Margaret, and his brothers Sam and Mark.  Charles, the father, was an alcoholic, who appeared in and out of the lives of his family.  He never offered any help to the wife and children, and only occasionally saw his sons.  Bragg writes, “Anyone could tell it who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes, who picked cotton in other people’s fields and ironed other people’s clothes and cleaned the mess in other people’s houses, so that her children didn’t have to live on welfare alone so that one of them could climb up her backbone and escape the poverty and hopelessness that ringed them, free and clean” (xii).  Bragg claims, “This is no sob story.  While you will read words laced with bitterness and killing anger and vicious envy, words of violence and sadness and, hopefully, dark humor, you will not read much whining.  Not on her part, certainly, because she does not know how” (xiii).  This is a portrait of one of the strongest women I have ever read about much less encountered.

Bragg also mentions the plight of African-Americans as well.  He writes, “White people had it hard, and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps to nothing?  This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather.  No one I knew ever had a mammy.  This was two separate states, both wanting and desperate, kept separate by hard men who hid their faces under hoods and their deeds under some twisted interpretation of the Bible, and kicked the living shit out of anyone who thought it should be different.  Even into my own youth, the orange fires of shacks and crosses lit up the evening sky.  It seems a cliché now, to see it on movie screens.  At the time. It burned my eyes” (4-5).  As I read this passage, I recalled the all too recent image of white supremacists marching with torches, shouting racial epithets. 

Rick Bragg’s bitter portrayal of poverty in the deep south is heart-wrenching and difficult to turn away.  It proves the axiom that when some people are oppressed, many others are likewise.  Racism is a cancer we must eradicate.  All over but the Shoutin’ is a story only the most hard-hearted can ignore.  We will never have justice or peace, until everyone knows justice and peace.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!