Submitted by Sam Williams
Do you mind if I ask you a personal question regarding recent events as George Floyd’s funeral blares from the TV in the next room? Ah, thank you. Please. Don’t use the time I’m writing to think up your answer. Hold on! I want you to really understand what I’m asking before you respond.
Let me confess right here at the beginning I have absolutely no idea how it feels to be black in America today. Not a clue. One day when my daughter Lauren was a toddler, I asked her where her mother was. She wrinkled her brow, paused for a confused eye-twisting moment and said with a flourish, “I can’t know that.”
That’s kind of how I feel — I can empathize, I can speculate, I can try to put myself in another’s shoes. I can guess, but I can’t really know.
Now I grew up in the city of Fresno — mile upon mile of one-story urban sprawl in every direction with shopping centers and gas stations conveniently located at every corner, all of it laid out grid like right on top of what was once some of the world’s best farmland, a metropolitan area approaching a million residents with, I suspect, a large and mostly indigenous Hispanic population.
While I lived in Fresno, I encountered people who hated me simply because of the color of my skin. You know, facing such hatred is a curious, perplexing and frightening revelation because it exists purely in some confused nether realm unchecked by the slightest hint of intellect or logic or understanding. There are no words. There is no reasoning. Just a hard slap in the face that finds you suddenly and unexpectedly dumbstruck.
I experienced the racial divide in the seventh grade during my first year at Washington Junior High School, a former middle school (now the site of the Ted C. Wills Community Center), located in the barrio just north of central Fresno.
Seems like the first day of school or just after, kids I’d happily laughed and played with for hours without end at Homan Elementary School were now calling me “Paddy” or sometimes “white paddy” if they were really irked. (The epithet “cracker” hadn’t come into vogue yet.) With a name like Williams, how could they recognize my Mexican roots?
When I asked them why all this all of a sudden, they didn’t offer an explanation, but I suspect some of them were either wannabes or actual recruits into the Mexican Mafia because so many adopted the then uniform of the day — spit-shined black leather shoes, baggy khaki pants, dangly webbed belts and white, wife-beater T-shirts.
Well, hot damn, sure ’nuff, we white boys in our brogues, our 501s and our Pendletons quickly returned the favor. We were suddenly surrounded by “vatos” or, begging your pardon, “pinche vatos” if we were really irked instead of our former friends.
For three years on the last day of school hundreds of white and Mexican kids of both genders gleefully converged on the alley behind the Foster’s Freeze on Belmont Avenue to finally have it out once and for all in some giant, glorious gang fight. We all were ready to go. Both sides. Apparently it was a school tradition, but nothing ever happened because of the large police presence.
The situation mellowed considerably at Fresno High School with its majority white population. I let it go and left it behind me. Good riddance to worthless baggage.
Over the next few years as I got older and experienced more of the ways of the world, things gradually got worse. Just a block from my house, gang bangers gunned down a drummer friend of mine in his front yard in front of his wife about 3 a.m. one Sunday morning as he unloaded his kit after a gig. His wife told the cops a group of kids in a white 1965 Chevy pickup were driving the wrong way down the one-way street, and he yelled, “Hey, you’re going the wrong way!” They turned around and stopped like they were going to say thank you, and one of the kids shot him in the chest at close range. The cops told her the shooting was an initiation — the gangsters do something illegal, and the Good Samaritan who corrects them becomes their victim.
A few years after that, I parked in front of Mayfair Market, a grocery store I’d frequented since I was 10. On my way in, I encountered a group of four or five junior high school aged kids who started the same old profanity-laden “white paddy” shtick and tried their best to provoke me to fight them. But things had really changed since junior high. I had no idea if they were armed with knives or guns or if they just thought there were enough of them to take me on hand-to-hand. I walked on by without a word or a second look, but frankly I was scared to death of what they might do in the very next moment.
But hey, these were just kids, and I was a white man who could remain silent, walk swiftly past and thank my lucky stars — safe as soon as Mayfair’s electric doors flew open for me.
But wait a minute — what if instead I were a black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota encountering a white police officer with such an off-the-rails, devil-may-care attitude brewing, supported by three alleged enablers? There would be no escape. No doors would fly open to save me. They could fearlessly squeeze the life out of me right there on the street with everyone watching.
Lord have mercy. May you rest in peace, George Floyd.
OK. I’m done. Are you ready?
Please, tell me why is it so impossible for us to realize we are all God’s children, created in His image, living in this beautiful paradise He created for us, exploring and experiencing this wondrous life in every imaginable way exactly as we will?