The color line that defines the history of the United States, from the antebellum period to the years of the Civil Rights movement, is evident in Melissa Fay Greene’s work. Dubbed Praying for Sheetrock, the text revolves around the changes in the cultural norms that guided the society of McIntosh County, Georgia, in the last half of the twentieth century. For that reason, the book allows readers to witness an extension of the Civil Rights Movement that historians tend to overlook, one that is away from the streets of Alabama and Atlanta. Thus said, the protagonist and the antagonist of the text serve a particular purpose as they act according to their distinct racial groups. On one hand, there is the white man Tom Poppell whose ability to follow the rules of the land ensures his prosperity to the end. On the other, there is Thurnell Alston, the exact opposite of Poppell as he has no desire to be the inferior human being because of his skin color. To that end, Poppell’s apparent success was subject to his exploitation of an already existing social order while Alston’s attempts to destroy it warranted his inevitable failure.
Foremost, according to the author, McIntosh County claimed the title of the “living legend” as the only territory in the United States “without race problems.” Still, as Greene observes, an investigation of the era was quick to reveal the deception in such claims. Apparently, the County of McIntosh did not uphold equality or seek to ensure the principle of egalitarianism in the public and private sectors of the community. In other words, the traditions of slave ownership were impossible to erase and as was the case with the other regions, McIntosh was still in the process of change. Otherwise, Alston’s efforts to bring change would have created enough grounds on which he would have gained prominence and Poppell would have gone to federal jail for the wrong use of power.
For one to understand Tom Poppell’s respect for the traditions of the United States there is a need to analyze his post as Sheriff and how he viewed black people. According to Greene, Poppell was the “neighborhood headman” who not only knew every person in the area but also boasted multiple connections with businesses and other profitable establishments. At the same time, his position bestowed him with the powers to pardon any law offender as he saw fit and indictments that came his way could disappear without anybody asking questions. Now, through it all, Sherriff Poppell would receive bribery and other tokens of appreciation from those who owed him for either making their cases disappear or setting them free when arrested for a crime. Additionally, he had black spies whom he would call his “little deputies” as they gave him information on what was going on in their neighborhoods. For the African Americans, Poppell allowed little bouts of kindness that he would later collect. For example, when a truck of shoes overturned and the local blacks pick a pair or two, he does not stop them but merely “raises one hand at a slant” to return greetings. Any person who has not read the novel would immediately applaud the white man who helped a minority group gain some shoes for the harsh winter. However, after learning of the spies, there is little left to admire in the incident.
In that sense, Poppell’s antics reflect those that thrived throughout the United States in the years of slavery and those after the American Civil War where everything the Caucasians did was for their persons. Initially, the decision to hold black people in bondage gained the whites multiple profits through cheap labor and the sale of their human chattels. In the case of Poppell, the goals are the same, but the tactics are different. After all, since there is no evidence that he paid them any form of wages, Poppell’s arrangement with his spies bears a close resemblance to that of masters and slaves. He thrived for respecting the unspoken law and leaving the color line undisturbed.
Next is Thurnell Alston, the colored man whose displeasure with segregation is evident from the opening section of the book and is responsible for his desire to change the society. As a company boilermaker in 1963 rural Georgia, he refused to drink water from a “black water fountain” because the water was of lower quality when compared to what was available for whites. In the man’s words, the difference in water made African Americans similar to horses that required no special treatment, and one could give “[water] from a bucket.” Hence, no matter how thirsty he was, Alston just refused to drink from the fountain. Notably, it is obvious that Alston was dissatisfied with his condition and that of other African-Americans. The inferiority forced on black people and the whites’ need to protect a social order in which they were the dominating entity became apparent to Alston because of water. After all, it was illogical to deem whites as the only ones worthy of cold water.
Subsequently, Alston’s decision to run for county commissioner of McIntosh in 1978 served two purposes: it was to show his defiance to the whites’ rule and was a chance for him to rise above what society dictated for his person. One understands Alston’s need for change when he or she considers the recorded cases of racial violence in the book. In one scene, Greene records a resident stating that whenever a black man disappeared after challenging the whites, he simply “took a swim across the river wearing too much chain.” In other words, every defiant black person was liable to die, and the community would barely flinch in reaction. Alston represented what every freedom loving person of African descent desired: equality with the other race from matters of politics to those of drinking water.
The problem the people did not need a black leader as much as they required someone to stand between them and the white man, Poppell. Alston represents a tragic figure in the text because of his misfortunes. His electorate had no need for him once the white man was out of the picture and while he desired a complete revolution in the lives of all African Americans, the black people of Charleston were content with proper housing. The death of his most beloved child paved the way for his depression and after a few bad decisions later; he was a drug felon after a setup.
With the given facts in mind, Praying for Sheetrock is a representation of the white and black communities of McIntosh County as of the last half of the nineteenth century. By focusing on Alston and Poppell, Greene turns her book into an exhibit of the personal struggles endured by black people and the liberties that were only available to the Caucasians. One can even argue that each one plays an opposite role in the other’s ethnic group. In other words, whereas Poppell upheld the authority of white people and their immunity before the local and federal government, he did so at the expense of the blacks. At the same time, as Alston sought to elevate his status and that of his people as the small-class citizens of the United States, he threatened the prestige that came with white skin. Hence, any distortions to the cultural norm meant the displacement of one racial group. That is why when “row upon row” of the huge black men, seasoned by “the labor of felling trees” and other hard work, demanded justice after the shooting of a black man it warranted the demotion of a white police chief and investigations. Alston was successful in elevating his people but it was at the expense of his person. When one hears of the Civil Rights Movement Atlanta Georgia comes to mind but never McIntosh. However, Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock shows that others were fighting for the rights of black people far from the limelight that shone upon Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil activists. In that sense, the book gives a different perspective on the lives of black people residing in the United States at a time of intense racial prejudice. The fact that a black man took office and went on to defeat a white populace for the rights of his people is another eye-opening factor. In fact, it goes on to show that Civil Disobedience was useful.
Greene, Melissa Fay. Praying for Sheetrock: A Work of Nonfiction . Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2006. Print.