“This is not a typical book or story with the typical message that most readers perceive when a Black Author trys to get across a message to Black people about Black people. However, this book does represent a basic philosophy that the author feels is important to all people.” - Yvonne Telphy Smith
On July 23rd, I was lucky enough to be a part of a forum held by the Black Studies department in the Main Classroom. The forum focused on a book written by Willie T. Clay called “The Big Walk.” The book talks about the adventure and enormous self-struggle of Mr. Clay as he voyaged from Cincinnati to Los Angeles to observer and interact with Black people during a 3 month period in 1960. Starting on September 6, 1960 and finishing on The motivation behind the walk was to survey Blacks people in the hopes of finding a solution to many of the same topics that we still grapple with today. Poverty, high crime rates, education disparities and the lack of real job opportunities plaguing the Black community.
The attendees that filled the forum were made up a very diverse mix of individuals. From Mali Yetu students who represent the future of tomorrow to working professionals, professors and college students. White, black and brown faces all ranging in age and backgrounds filled the small room to it’s capacity. Unfortunately for me, this was my first experience with Mr. Clay and/or his book but I quickly understood the importance of this individual and his work.
The 1960’s represented the height of what we now read about as the civil rights movement, with organization like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference ) then headed by Martin Luther King jr. , CORE (Congress on Racial Equality ) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). The previous decade had seen such social changes and achievement such as Brown v. Board, which opened the door for public school desegregation and Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her sit on a public that sent out shock waves not only through the south but also through rest of the nation. This was a time, that black people as well as other minority group collectively said “We want are voice heard and our personal rights respected.”
Ironically, at this same time Willie T. Clay was a resident of Cincinnati and a owner of a advertising and public relations firm that specialized in helping mainstream companies market products to black people in his community. He had models and singers under contact and statics that showed what black people bought and didn’t buy. But with all this information, he felt he and society knew very little about black people. He also felt that the voices of the Black community were being manipulated by many in the media for personal gain and control of them. “I was confused, I couldn’t see what was really going on. I couldn’t understand why one newspaper would say one thing and another newspaper would take that same issue and make a different quote.”
From the beginning, the true meaning of the walk, the time leading up to it and during it, wasn’t fully recognized by Mr. Clay himself, but he felt it was something that had to be done. He spoke to those closest to him, his brother, his partner at his business and his wife. They all tried to convinces him not to go except for his wife. She understood that his heart was telling him this had to be done and she did everything she could to support him in his endeavor.
From wild dogs to angry mobs and even tornados, Clay faced many dangers on this walk but none of those dangers could compare with the loneliness he felt. In the book, he says nights where he was so tried from the day’s walk but his mind kept going. Trying to find a answer to why he was doing this walk. “Give me a reason, give me any reason why I’m out here suffering and having this miserable feeling. I waited as though a voice would ring out of the dark and answer me, but it never came.”
In his book, he describes going from town to town and the simple thrill he got from seeing the city limits sign. 10 miles until you reach, 5 miles until you reach, you are now at the city limits. He knew the twists and turns on each road he travelled. But with his return to each city’s population brought the stereotypes and prejudices with it. “I had to be a black man, I had to revert to things from the ghetto, I had to revert back to that mental state”
Judging someone by their skin color was something he was forced to deal with in his youth . At the age of 10, he and his brother lived with a half-white uncle who hated dark skin blacks. “That was my first taste of prejudice, of discrimination, of knowing that my own family had this discriminatory process.”
The solution is never a easy thing to find. It’s very easy for many of us to sit around and tell you what the problems in the black community are. “we’ll the kids don’t care about life” or “Rap music is the reason why are kids have no high standards”, and “ If you give back to the hood the people in it will do much better and lift themselves out of poverty” or “If you could speak correct english you could probably get a job” or “ this pseudo gangster mentality is what’s killing off the young”. For example the series that was aired on the last week of July, “Black in America” by CNN was rich with problems and the same old, same old that happens in the black community but little as far as solutions. Many believe that the program was not intended for black audience.
Along with discussing the walk, mr. Clay talked about a document he had written to black gangs entitled “Dear American Black Gangs, America Owes You An Apology”. In this document he talks about how the generations of blacks prior have helped to lead to the current state of selflessness and disdain held by the youth for society.
“We, yours and mine mothers, fathers, grand parents and great grand parents should take the responsibility…because we had nothing to give them, we gave them nothing. We didn’t have business, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have scholarships…our kids have been on their own for the last three generations.”
These are words may seem harsh but so is the embarrassing static that only 1 in 4 ohio high school students will graduate. Or that Cleveland is in the top five of poorest city in the nation (including Hawaii). The time for action is now and no amount of hand holding is going to help the situation. No two hour program on a major news network, shown over a two nights is going to stop the fact that many of black youths value style or substance. We need to bring about change, education is something that should be looked upon as a positive and not as something uncool.
He gained a lot of attention from the media, doing a radio show and television appearance on the day he was to begin the walk. The attention was well deserved, he was the first man to walk across america and not to mention for such a noble cause. That in it’s self makes him a living legend and a very important of history that we can’t afford to lose.
Edited by absinthe76 on 9 Mar 2010, 01:10
Willie T. Clay
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