In the summer of 1962, I was sitting in Riley’s Poolroom on East 105th Street, in Cleveland, Ohio, listening to the elders talk about their lives growing up in the south. They discussed how black men and women were brutalized during their time and how each one of them knew at least one person–usually a family member–who had to leave the south under the cover of night to escape the wrath of someone they might have offended.
One elder that day, though, a Mr. Johnson, told a different story. After everyone had finished, he said softly, “We didn’t all lose, and they didn’t all win.” Everyone nodded, but no one said anything further. Mr. Johnson, a quiet and dignified man, was probably in his sixties at the time. For some reason, what he said that day stuck with me over the years and occasionally I would hear similarly veiled references to “they didn’t all win,” from my elders, including my parents.
The 1960s were fast and turbulent years for me and my friends. The freedom movement witnessed, among others, the emergence of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., John F. Kennedy, John H. Glenn,Jr., and John W. Coltrane. I graduated from Glenville High School during that period, went on to Ohio University and then Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where about fourteen of us were almost involved in a shoot out with Klansmen who were coming from a rally in Rising Sun, Maryland.
I was drafted into the Army and graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School in 1967. I missed the Glenville riots in 1968 because I was in Viet Nam. But Viet Nam had its own racial conflicts, and as a first lieutenant, I was made commander of a supply company that had been involved in an uprising in 1969.
For the young black men who served in Viet Nam, especially those I met from the south, it was the first time some had served on equal terms with their white counterparts. Sometimes the experience was good and sometimes it created friction. There was usually one outcome from almost all of those encounters, though. If those young black men thought that whites were in some way superior to them before the war, they didn’t think so afterwards.
After the army, I began to write about my experiences, but I didn’t follow through and put the idea of writing on hold. It stayed on hold for almost thirty years until I decided to take a creative writing course at Cleveland State University. I learned a lot in that course and in subsequent writing workshops that encouraged me to pick up the pen again.
There were so many stories to tell, but I most wanted to write about the strong black families, and black men and women I had known. Somewhere along the way, as I tried writing a number of short stories and toyed with writing a book, I remembered Mr. Johnson’s words again, “We didn’t all lose, and they didn’t all win,” and I began to write in earnest.
In 2001, my cousin and I videotaped my aunt, uncle and my father as they related their history growing up in Arkansas. Their stories gave me even more impetus and a lot of the subject matter for my book, thus the story Snake Walkers was developed. Snake Walkers is fiction, but what happened to the characters in this book did happen to someone, somewhere. The beauty of fiction is having the freedom to blend several stories into one.
This book deals with confrontation, but it also deals with growth and transformation. We are all products of our environment and based on the sum total of our experiences, we approach situations differently. As those experiences change, our approaches are subject to change. We look at circumstances in a new light, and hopefully, we grow.
Snake Walkers is a story about a young black man who was traumatized in his youth, and is later faced with a series of situations that at one point become life threatening. Although he isn’t prepared for them, with the help of those he meets along the way, he adapts and becomes a different person in the end.
This is a story that has been told a thousand different times in a thousand different ways, but although I enjoyed reading a wide variety of books when I was growing up, my heroes were always people that looked like my mother and father. So from that perspective, at least, my story is one I rarely read.
They say that you should write about stories you would want to read. I did, and this is my story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
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