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.
HERE ARE SOME EXCERPTS FROM WILLIAMS’ STORY ‘FROM FLINT, MI TO YOUR FRONT DOOR: TRACING THE ROOTS OF RACISM IN AMERICA”
La’Ron Williams, Storyteller: LaRontalk@aol.com