Professional storyteller La’Ron Williams grew up in an area of Flint, MI called “Elm Park.” It was an area that—from the 1940s to the 1960s—was transformed by a confluence of race, politics, and economics, from an all-White neighborhood into one that was all-Black. In his poignant and engaging story, “From Flint, Michigan to Your Front Door: Tracing the Roots of Racism in Working Class America,” Williams describes some of his earliest experiences with a growing awareness that he was receiving contradictory messages about himself as a Black person: although there was the nurturing support he got from his immediate community, there was also the shame he absorbed from the larger society’s portrayal of African-Americans in the mass market and the media.

Williams tells stories from the heart, and his stories tug at his listeners’ hearts too. With his engaging manner, Williams addresses an emotionally laden topic—racism—by combining an adult’s analysis and wisdom with the fully believable wonderment and confusion he felt as a child. Listeners of every color and background are drawn into his story precisely because it is suffused with a child’s sincerity and genuine bafflement that the reality he lived didn’t match the stories he was taught about himself on TV and at school.

Williams’s story begins in Chappy’s Barbershop in Flint at the end of the summer of 1955, when the author was only four years old. It was in Chappy’s that Williams first saw the cover of Jet magazine featuring a photograph of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago who was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a White woman. It was a grotesque photo, taken after Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. Two bullet wounds were visible on Till’s swollen head.

Although he was a young child, Williams describes the jarring impact of that photograph upon his life. With an adult’s vision, he gives language to his childhood feelings of confusion as he struggled to understand why the images of White people portrayed on TV didn’t match the treatment of which he knew them to be capable. Following Till’s death, his grandmother explained it by saying, “White folks hate Colored folks!”  But almost all of the characters Williams saw on TV were “White folks,” and while they were sometimes funny, wise, courageous or clever, they were never cruel.

Williams uses this feeling of disconnection to provide insight into the dynamics of “blockbusting” and his own “transitioning” neighborhood. He uses the insight provided by his “outsider” status to offer enlightening explanations about his personal experiences with racial hierarchy: From the time his well-meaning but racially unaware third-grade teacher forced him to use “flesh” colored paint, to the incident when he was slapped in the face and called a “Nigger” by an older boy who was a member of the school safety patrol.

In the final part of the story Williams recalls a time when he was the only Black student in his seventh-grade English class. His class was asked to write about something called “the Beatles.” Williams didn’t know who they were, and his classmates and teacher shared a laugh at his expense. Later, when he wrote about Emmett Till, he discovered that neither his teacher nor his classmates had ever heard of him. In this case though, no one felt deprived for not knowing. No one was deemed “stupid” and no one was laughed at.

Williams’s story is both entertaining and enlightening. As he reflects upon his youth, his listeners are given an opportunity to reflect upon their own upbringings, and everyone thinks a little harder about the continuing entrenchment of racism in American society.


“At the end of the summer, in 1955, I was four years old, sittin’ there in Chappy’s Barbershop on a hot, hot, hot Saturday afternoon – (the kind of hot that’s so hot it makes grownups sleepy) – and I was lookin’ over at the table where Chappy kept the newspapers, and the magazines, and the candy – like I always did – when I saw this picture on the front cover of “Jet” magazine. It was the sort of thing that, if you’re only four years old, you don’t know what it is you’re lookin’ at . . . But I must have kept on lookin’, because the grownups started talkin’ about it. They said that it was a photograph . . . A photograph of a dead boy’s body . . . The body of a boy named Emmett Till.

I was four years old. It was the year before I even started Kindergarten, and I saw him lying there. He had one eye gouged out, his skull had been bashed in, he had two bullet holes in his head, and his face was swollen up like some kind of giant sponge from hanging for days upside down in waters of the Tallahachie River.

Do you all know about Emmett Till? Emmett Till was a fourteen year old Black boy who went down from Chicago to a place called Money Mississippi to visit his Uncle, and he was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and brutally beaten and killed by two White men, because he supposedly whistled at, or winked at, or said something flirtatious to a White female store clerk.

In my mind, when I was lookin’ at that picture, it might just as well have been goin’ on right then. ‘Cause in the same second that I was lookin’ at the picture and hearin’ those barbershop men talkin’ about what had happened to Emmet Till, I saw myself dead and beat up like he was. I saw myself lookin’ at myself dead. I saw that Emmett Till’s skin was Brown like my skin was – I mean brown like everybody’s in Chappy’s Barbershop – and I knew in a split minute why this horrible thing had happened to him. Remember, I was only four years old, but I had already heard this kind of thing talked about a thousand times, and I could hear a voice inside my head. It was my grandmother’s voice, speakin’ almost in slow motion, as she gave the answer that she always gave whenever she was mad or frustrated with the shape of the world in which she was livin’. I could hear her say it: “White Folks Hate Colored Folks!”

… In the seventh grade … I was the only Black student in my English class. The teacher had given us an assignment to write a paper about something she called “the Beatles.” Everybody else in class was laughing and having a good time, and seemed to know what the teacher was talking about. I thought it was a joke and wondered why she wanted us to do a paper about insects. Everybody was in a good mood. But when I raised my hand and I asked, “What kind of beetles?” everybody had an even bigger laugh – at my expense. So the teacher told me, in a very condescending tone, that it was alright for me to write on any subject I chose, as long as I did a good job.

. . . So I wrote about Emmett Till. My teacher and classmates had never heard of him.”

La’Ron Williams, Storyteller:

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