By Diane Y. Welch
In her debut book, “White Gloves and Collards” (HPK Publishing, December 2013), Helen Pruden Kaufmann, a Del Mar resident, shares a story of growing up privileged in Edenton, North Carolina, a small southern town that cherishes its customs and history — as symbolized by the confederate monument in the center of town — against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.
“I tried to write about the younger me experiencing events as they unfolded. I didn’t want this to be a judging book, I wanted to outlay what happened and how I perceived it as a child,” said Kaufmann about her approach to the plot line which was framed with her older self after she returned to Edenton as an adult to help remember the past.
The memoir chronicles Kaufmann’s life from 1956 to 2012, including tragic personal events that coincided with community civil unrest. She writes of her father’s death from cancer when she was just 6 and her mother’s death from breast cancer, when Kaufmann was 16.
“As I wrote I tried to imagine what it would be like for my own children to lose me at that age. This was very painful for me,” said Kaufmann who, as a child, found love and comfort in growing up in the “bosom of a large extended family” with her older brother and hero, Norfleet, a sage African-American maid, and the support from the caring community of Edenton.
What she disliked, though, was the lack of diversity in her community which was equally divided racially. “When I was growing up I knew many African-Americans but it was in a two-tier system. Whites had an insular existence where nearly all of us were Protestants with strong southern roots.”
Kaufmann said she wants to get across that this is a story of real people dealing with change at an important time in this nation’s history. “The further we get away from the civil rights movement, the Jim Crow era and all the terrible things that happened then, the more we tend to look at things very starkly,” she said. “It almost seems like a morality play, with good versus evil.”
From Kaufmann’s point of view, the movement wasn’t a “cataclysmic experience” when suddenly there was a civil rights movement. It was, in fact, a very slow process that’s still going on. “It’s very much ingrained in the culture and the history, it was a quiet type of racism that I experienced as a child,” she explained.
The book has been well received, said Kaufmann, who had an official launch last month. “It’s interesting because a lot people that I haven’t been in contact with for many years responded very favorably to it. They were grateful that I’d written about this experience because so many of them who lived in this area could relate to the book.”
Kaufmann graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in American history. She was the community liaison for a voluntary desegregation program in the Boston area before relocating with her family in 1994 to California, where she worked in communications for the Santa Clara County Office of Education and for the Papers Project at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford.
“The issue of race and equality has been such an important part of the adult me,” said Kaufmann.
The family moved to the San Diego area in 2006 when Kaufmann began taking memoir writing classes through UC San Diego Extension. She formed a writing group, which kept her active and writing her stories, she said. “Over the last six years I put it all together. It has been a wonderful experience.”
For more information on Helen Pruden Kaufmann or to purchase her memoir visit www.helenkaufmann.com