A Young Black Man Reached Out To This White Boy and Made A Lifelong Impact
Many years ago, before the notion of Black Lives Matter, a young black man named Willie made a gesture to a young and impressionable white boy. That boy would be me. Willie and I worked at a lumber yard in Shreveport, Louisiana. In a seemingly casual moment, Willie demonstrated a willingness to reach across the color barrier. As the years have gone on, the impact of what he did grows rather than fades. I finally decided I needed to share it.
Willie and I had nothing in common really, so I thought, and we didn’t have black lives matter back then. We saw each other at work and were friendly. For some reason I remember Willie in brown clothes. I don’t recall that we had specific uniforms, perhaps it was a brown cover-all, I just don’t remember exactly. What I do remember however is our heads. The lumber yard we worked at had a pretty strict hair policy, nothing over the ears. This meant that white boys like me had very short, almost military haircuts. We weren’t skinheads exactly, but it was close.
Skinhead vs Jheri Curl
Very popular in the early 80’s was the Jheri Curl (often spelled Jerry curl or Jeri Curl). Now, I confess that at the time, as a simple, white baby boomer, I did not know or realize this. I just knew that for some reason, a lot of black dudes were wearing shower caps to work.
I think it’s important to note here that this type of cultural difference can be the seeds that plant division between people of a different color, if we are not willing to try and understand those differences. It wasn’t about black lives matter, it was simply trying to understand why many of these guys were all running around with shower caps on…in the summer!
I didn’t understand that these weren’t ignorant men that didn’t know how to use a shower cap. I was the ignorant one, and later understood this. The lumber yard and the job site are dirty and dusty. In order to keep looking sharp after punching the clock, the shower cap protected the hard work that had been put in to get that Thriller look of the early 80’s.
Above & Beyond Black Lives Matter
One day, I can only guess the year but it was around Halloween, Willie invited me over to his apartment that evening to hang out. In those days, hanging out was simply a euphemism for having a beer and maybe a funny cigarette. I said “sure” and made plans to come by after dinner.
It’s important to note here that after a horrible verbal mistake I made as a young teenager, I felt I needed to make amends in some way to balance the universe. Of course I didn’t think of it in terms of “black lives matter” back then, I was just trying to do the right thing. In addition to Willie, I had a black coworker by the name of Roy, who was my superior. He was funny, fair, and smart. Years later, in retrospect, I would swear that he was really Reginald VelJohnson.
I knew that it was up to me to take a chance on building new relationships, especially those of different colors or races. Two other times over the years I accepted invitations to black neighborhoods to try and build bridges. I wasn’t a saint, and I’m not trying to toot my own horn. My point is, us white folks bear the responsibility to build our half of the bridge.
Willie’s Sacrifice for Black Lives Matter
Getting back to Willie, I did show up to his apartment. But instead of brown-clad, shower cap Willie, I got suave and sleek Willie and his girlfriend. They were cordial hosts. I remember we had a snack and a beer, and may have burned some rolled up leaves as well. We watched Halloween 2, which was the first time I had seen it…he had cable TV.
Afterwards we said our goodbyes. Willie said, “Don’t be a stranger”, which was a phrase I had never heard before, at that time (I said I was young!). It wasn’t long before I was transferred to another city. I never saw Willie again, but over the years, I have come to understand the true sacrifice, the olive branch if you will, that Willie extended to me.
Willie, and his girl, were willing to sacrifice a quiet and/or romantic evening together to hang out with a stupid white boy like me. I wasn’t particularly entertaining or engaging at that point in my life. They simply cared about building those bridges. They were black lives matter before it ever existed.
It’s been 40 years now, and Willie, if you are out there…you did make a difference, thank you. Willie set the tone for my relationships and attitudes for the rest of my life. Yes, I think black lives matter. NO…rioting and violence are NOT the answer, and I will rebuke it every time. Breaking the law is NOT the answer.
I get the fact that I didn’t have to teach my kids that they will be judged by the color of their skin…I really do. But men like Willie got their point across in a completely different way, without violence. He not only changed my life, but the attitudes and values I tried to pass on to my children as well.