Larry Palmer: Author of Scholarship Boy: Meditations on Race and Family
We reached out to Larry Palmer, noted American legal scholar, Professor of Law Emeritus at Cornell University, and author of the new memoir, Scholarship Boy: Meditations on Race and Family (2020).
In 1958, at the age of 14, Larry Palmer left his parents and nine siblings at home in St. Louis and boarded a train heading east to attend Phillips Exeter Academy. In Scholarship Boy, Palmer reflects on his experiences as a young black boy growing up far from home, learning to fit into a white world without becoming estranged from his closely-knit family.
Writing in advance praise, novelist Carrie Brown said, "It is impossible to read this boy’s story (‘ninth child of ten, and the sixth of seven sons’) without feeling the loneliness of that first passage away from home—a black boy crossing into a bastion of white privilege—and the scale of the transformation that awaited him.”
Novelist and childhood friend John Irving said, “My friendship with Larry has been among the most enduring of my Exeter friendships, but — before I read his memoir of social and racial dislocation — I never knew the story that unfolded in the home Larry left when he came to Exeter. Larry’s remarkable family story gives me a deeper appreciation of someone I met as a teenager and have known all my life.”
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What are you most looking forward to in your personal life in the coming year?
I look forward to enjoying one of the unexpected fruits of pandemic restrictions, which is to experience more deeply the distinction between loneliness and solitude. The latter, for instance, allowed me to experience compassion for characters in good literature as I started to read and reread novels once we were confined at home, with occasional walks around the neighborhood.
My hope is that my literary empathy will transform itself into deeper empathy for actual humans who are currently suffering and to social actions to alleviate the suffering. The former -- loneliness -- leads to isolation, fear, anger, and false notions of freedom.
What is your biggest hope for America this year?
I hope our cultural, religious, and educational institutions will develop new ways of acknowledging our long history of systemic racism and propose new means of ameliorating the adverse effects of institutionalized racism on current and future citizens. Without serious cultural transformation, dialogue about the government’s role in “repair,” “reconciliation,” or even “reparations” is likely to be reduced to slogans drawn from our current culture wars.
What's the most important thing we can learn from the pandemic?
I hope we recognize the need to increase our capacity for thinking socially and civically. Americans have difficulty queuing up to get on the bus as well as waiting for one’s “turn.” We need to learn that “balancing” of the benefits of economic activities against the risks of disease, and death doesn’t build social solidarity. The lack of transparent debate about social goals leaves us in the somewhat awkward position that opening of bars seems more important than getting elementary-age students back in school. Most important, we must acknowledge that anti-intellectualism is rampant in our culture, requiring more scientists to become public educators. Scientists might learn something from humanists who write and speak at the deepest level about human fear and hope.
What activity are you most looking forward to enjoying after pandemic restrictions are lifted?
A chance to see my three adult sons, and their children.
Is there anything on Earth that you find unexpectedly beautiful?
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon that I saw in 1975.
All the photographs that I had seen of the Grand Canyon were taken of the South Rim, which is several thousand feet lower than the North Rim.
The only way to reach the North Rim is through Utah. I had driven past Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon-- both spectacular sites. But I was not prepared for the deep forest giving way to the array of changing colors of the Canyon at sunset when I drove into the parking lot of the only lodge in this remote site. I got out of my car and walked to a bench on the Canyon’s edge and waited until darkness erased all the colors.
What new social or technological development excites you the most?
I await whether the 2020 census will reveal whether younger adults in America have different attitudes about the role of automobiles in their lives than their parents’ generation. A few years ago, I was a little surprised that young professionals joined anti-property groups to lobby our local governments in Richmond [Va.] to add a rapid bus line to the transportation system. I was surprised by young professionals articulating a vision of a lifestyle dependent on buses that emphasized decreasing their carbon footprint.
There are perhaps broader social implication of walkability, the ability to bike safely, and access to public transportation becoming more significant parts of our urban/suburban infrastructure. For instance, the next census might reveal that some cities with large black populations, such as Washington, D.C. and Richmond, may become “whiter” as gentrification and the willingness to live-in mixed-use neighborhoods reflect changing housing choices. At the same time, there is discussion led by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, that the nuclear family is a failure in sustaining meaningful kinship relationships. At least in terms of voting patterns, the suburbs around many cities such as Richmond, Denver, and Atlanta are starting to vote in multiracial and multiethnic coalitions in state and national elections. Having grown-up in a large, multigenerational family, I am excited by the emergence of alternative visions of “kin.”
What did you most enjoy about writing Scholarship Boy?
Overall, in writing and rewriting, I realize how much I loved all of my siblings, and how much each of them, in their own way, loved me.
After I abandoned two thirds of what I thought was a first draft, I came up with a new structure that required me to focus on my individual relationships with each of my nine siblings. I discovered that determining the “truth” of my coming-of-age story was a careful archeological exploration of my memory rather than an excavation of the “facts.” I enjoyed being able to feel the variety of relationships I had with my siblings, especially my three older sisters. With six brothers, four years at an all-male boarding school, and male teachers from 6th grade until I finished law school, it was easy for me to think my educationally ambitious mother was the woman who shaped my character. For instance, if you look at Scholarship Boy as an education journey, my second oldest brother, a public-school teacher, is the hero of the story.
On the other hand, if you view Scholarship Boy as a tale of a boy reimagining his relationship to his father, my oldest brother, becomes one of the heroes of that narrative since he convinced my father to drop his opposition to my accepting a scholarship to prep school. Yet, my second oldest sister is also a heroine of the story because she was able to help me get in touch with the grief of losing my father before I had finished my education.
What idea, subject or field are you most looking forward to exploring in 2021?
I would like to write some pieces dealing with my family history that go deeper into the past -- before Scholarship Boy -- and the aftermath of Scholarship Boy. For instance, I am partially named for my father’s younger brother, Isaac. (Larry Isaac Palmer). But I have some family papers indicating there was another Isaac Palmer in the 19th century. Furthermore, my middle son is named Isaac. What is it about this biblical Hebrew name, meaning loosely, “child of laughter,” that resonates over the generations in my family?
More about Larry Palmer
Larry taught as Professor of Law at Cornell University for 27 years, also serving as Vice Provost and Vice President. He subsequently taught at Georgetown Law Center, Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary Law School. He is the author of two scholarly works, Law, Medicine, and Social Justice and Endings and Beginnings, and his writings have been cited as "Notable Essays" in Best American Essays 2015 and 2017. Scholarship Boy is his first book for a general audience.
"Larry Palmer Finds Himself," published in SoulVision magazine, May 31, 2020