We Were Brothers by Barry Moser
Published by Algonquin Books, 192 pages, $22
How often siblings seem to hail from separate planets, understanding their lives and values very differently. It’s an irony sadly expressed in the “were” of the title of this memoir written and illustrated by Barry Moser, an art professor at Smith College, who grew up in the Jim Crow South alongside his older brother, Tommy, in a family where racism was rampant.
One mingy exception to the family’s prejudice was their relationship with Verneta, their mother’s childhood friend, who helped care for the boys. A heart-breaking anecdote recalls how a young Verneta pressed flour on her face, hoping to feign whiteness and visit a movie theater. Nothing had improved by the time by the Moser boys were growing up. In one frightening moment, Ku Klux Klan members drive by, calling out, “N—-! Don’t you never fergit yore place.” The terrified Verneta knocks on the Mosers’ door; their mother comforts her, but their uncle Floyd doesn’t even look up from canasta, contemptuously declaring that Verneta’s brother “gets a mite uppity sometimes.”
Barry comes to bristle at such prejudice, but Tommy absorbs it, viciously criticizing Barry for sitting with black passengers on a bus. Eventually, Barry leaves Chattanooga for a liberal life as an artist in the North; Tommy stays and becomes a banker, and the divide between them deepens. But after 40 years of near estrangement, they finally reconnect, mostly through letters. Each takes some responsibility for his past actions, even discovering surprising brotherly bonds. Moser’s drawings throughout capture hidden tenderness, and his words tease out the pains and rewards of reconciliation.
From page 109: I was a seventeen-year-old fascist, having been well indoctrinated and initiated by five years of other young dilettante fascists. I barked and hollered and screamed and prodded and poked and slapped my troops upside their heads just like I had been barked at and hollered at and poked and prodded and slapped upside my head when I was their age.